Published September 1, 2015. Updated November 2020.
“…the act of gaslighting does not simply affect women who are not quite sure of themselves. Even vocal, confident, assertive women are vulnerable to gaslighting. Why? Because women bear the brunt of our neurosis. It is much easier for us to place our emotional burdens on the shoulders of our wives, our female friends, our girlfriends, our female employees, our female colleagues, than for us to impose them on the shoulders of men.” ~Yashar Ali
So often, I hear survivors of toxic relationships say they thought they were too smart to be gaslighted and manipulated by narcissists. And listen – they’re not alone. I found myself feeling the same way. Why? Because, logically, this should be true – but as I’ll explain here, even highly intelligent people can be affected by gaslighting and manipulation at the hands of someone with malignant narcissism – even if and when you’re trying to go or stay no contact.
Can smart people be manipulated by narcissists? Can an intuitive, sharp-witted person be tricked into self-doubt and eventually believing they’re crazy and/or not good enough? Is it even possible that a narcissist could manipulate and control someone who is highly intelligent?
Narcissists Manipulate Even the Most Intelligent People
If you’ve ever been manipulated by a narcissist, you probably already know the answer to that question. Of course, it can happen. And it does – far too often. It all begins with psychological and emotional manipulation.
Narcissists, Emotional Manipulation and Psychological Abuse
To put it simply, toxic people will use both emotional and psychological manipulation to get inside your head. Emotional manipulation is how others try to change your behavior, thoughts, and feelings through misleading practices. These practices can be harmful to everyone involved. Emotional manipulation can easily become emotional abuse, especially when it’s used in a personal relationship.
Psychological abuse a form of abuse in which a narcissist or other toxic person subjects and/or exposes you to repeated behavior that often results in long-term psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, or a form of post-traumatic stress disorder called complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
Some of the difficult people in your life may try to use emotional manipulation to control you and may often incorporate gaslighting and other forms of psychological abuse into their tactics. There are various kinds of emotional manipulation, from a child who cries to get what she wants to an adult narcissist who causes everyone around her to be miserable when she doesn’t get what she wants.
But gaslighting is the most common form of psychological abuse used by narcissists, and it is scarily and incredibly effective. It is a slow and methodical form of manipulation that could be considered a form of brainwashing. In other words, gaslighting is a pervasive and highly-effective tactic meant to manipulate you by psychological means into questioning your own sanity. And sadly, gaslighting works incredibly well, even on intelligent people. Let’s dig into this a bit.
Do you feel like you’re being controlled by someone else?
You might be involved with a narcissist. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that no one wants to be controlled, especially when they’re an otherwise responsible and capable adult.
Sometimes, when someone you love is manipulating you, you might begin to wonder if you’re a little crazy. That’s called gaslighting – and it’s a real thing. (In fact, a few years ago, I got gaslighted by a semi-famous narcissist – check that story out here.) So, is this happening to you?
Tactics Narcissists Use to Manipulate Intelligent People
Are you tired of being manipulated by a narcissist yet? Let me ask you something. Do you really want to fight back? Or are you one of us who seriously hates confrontation so much that we are willing to give up our own happiness for the rest of our lives in order to avoid upsetting or angering the narcissist? Still not sure? Well, listen – gaslighting is such an effective way to manipulate people that it’s almost impossible to detect – especially if your narcissist has been at it awhile.
Did you know?
The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1944 movie in which a man systematically attempted to drive his wife crazy, in part with the gaslights in their home. Learn more about gaslighting. Try this foolproof trick to gain control over a narcissist
Narcissists Twist the Truth
One of the most common ways a narcissist will use emotional manipulation is to blatantly deny or gloss over the truth. This is a key sign. You might be shocked at the levels to which a narcissist will stoop in order to get their needs met.
For example, they might make a promise or a statement, but deny it later – sometimes even in the same breath. Typical narcissists will pretend that the truth isn’t what it is and conveniently blame “your need for drama” or your “bad memory” – or even claim that you’re just overreacting. Or, in some cases, they’ll refuse to make any acknowledgment of it at all.
At this point, many narcissists will tell you to “prove it,” and obviously you’ll have nothing but your word. Of course, the narcissist is well aware of this – and they use it against you.
So, the narcissist will tell you you’re lying or incorrect, and when you insist that your point is valid, the cycle continues. This goes on until you’re tired of it, and then you most likely give in and just agree with them. Or, at the very least, you’ll stop speaking your mind in order to get the narcissist to just stop.
- It’s difficult to prove the truth without a recording, email, or other physical evidence. You might find yourself saying or thinking, “I should start recording our conversations.”
- In some cases, the narcissist will try to fight the evidence by saying stuff like “you are crazy,” or “you are always making up stuff in your head!”
- As an experienced emotional manipulator, a narcissist can make you believe that it’s actually your fault because you’re not remembering the previous conversation the same way – and this is rarely the case.
- They can make you feel guilty and ashamed, so you don’t pursue the subject anymore – and it works more often than even I would like to admit it.
- As a person who is dealing with a narcissist, you might already be dealing with serious side effects such as PTSD or C-PTSD, among others – that might also be why you haven’t ended the relationship yet.
Laying on the Guilt
Narcissists love using guilt to manipulate their victims. It’s a go-to tactic that most do without even realizing it. It’s often very subtle and outsiders won’t see it – but a look or a statement can make you feel like you’re physically ill, because you know that it’s inevitably going to be cited in the next episode of narcissistic injury or rage.
Narcissists love to use passive-aggressive tactics to manipulate you, and this is one of their favorites. They have a knack for hitting you where it hurts – they WILL find and exploit your weak spots, so it’s easier to make you feel guilty.
Narcissistic Injury: The Poor Me Act
This is where the narcissistic injury part comes in. The narcissist will pretend to be the victim so you’ll feel sorry for them. And if you refuse to go along with the charade, you’re in for it. They will (literally in many cases) whine, cry, complain and wail to get what they want from you – and with zero shame and zero remorse.
The narcissist pulls the old victim card. This is not an actual card, obviously, but a hypothetical one used in the victimization of someone the narcissist is using for supply. It is when the narcissist “plays the victim” rather than admitting they are the predator. You’ll see the victim card used when the narcissist is engaging in smear campaigns, too.
The narcissist will stop at nothing, remember? They will act like they are so put-upon. They’ll really lean into that victim role when it’s convenient for them. They will even go so far as to accuse you of being insensitive and mean. This is, at least in part, due to their extreme lack of emotional maturity. See, narcissists tend to have the emotional maturity of a toddler – or at best, a middle schooler.
So essentially, just be aware that the narcissist just acting like a little toddler who needs attention and in this case, he’s seeking your sympathy. This is another important sign to recognize.
Remember: The narcissist is a user who will stop at nothing to get what they want. They will literally do anything they think will lead to that end, including (but not limited to) using your friends and other family members to hurt you.
Asking You to Kill the Messenger: Triangulation & Flying Monkeys
Narcissists will often use other people as messengers or mediators to control you or some aspect of your life. Without concern for anyone involved, these abusive manipulators will use various people to send you hurtful messages or to blame you for their issues. In recent years, we’ve named these people flying monkeys, or people who willingly or otherwise do the narcissist’s bidding and support their agenda. You might also, in many cases, call them enablers.
Sometimes this presents itself as someone pretending to be concerned about a “problem” you’re having – which of course offers them the right to “express their concern” to everyone in earshot, often leading to genuine attempts to help you out from well-intentioned outsiders who don’t realize they’re playing the narcissist’s well-practiced game of manipulation.
By involving another person, they’re able to blame someone else for the message being misinterpreted as well as further isolating and controlling you. So, essentially, they are asking you to “kill the messenger” for their own bad behavior. Not surprising, if you understand that the narcissist does not like to take responsibility for their own behavior.
Fear and Intimidation
The narcissist instinctively knows that you hate confrontation – and that’s why, when they feel threatened, insecure or in any way “under-served” by you, they may just resort to anger and threats to manipulate you. Using fear and intimidation is going to be a common tactic for a narcissist partner or parent, especially but even in other relationships, such as a boss/employee connection.
Important Points on Narcissists and Fear Tactics
The narcissist uses anger to frighten and coerce the people closest to them.
Threats and angry outbursts are used by the narcissist to make the other person feel uncomfortable and upset – and it’s not because they can’t control it – it is a willful behavior designed to make you conform to their will.
Narcissists often use what they claim is justified anger to interrupt or stop a conversation they don’t like. For example, a narcissist who is confronted about an affair they’re having may use an angry outburst and threats to end the conversation or storm out of the room.
In any case, the narcissist will definitely blame the person confronting them.
Beware: The narcissist’s anger can escalate to physical violence, so it’s important to pay close attention to the situation and seek help if necessary. Check out this page for help and resources if you are dealing with domestic violence.
Head-Stepping and Insecurity
Do you know how some people will intentionally gossip about and relentlessly pick on people they claim to love or care about? Maybe it’s done in the form of “I’m just trying to help,” or maybe it’s done in a more direct way, as in “you’re always so lazy/boring/stupid, etc.” In any case, it is mostly about feeling superior and better than you.
When it comes to narcissists, they are known to appear very confident, but to secretly be very insecure. So, in other words, a narcissist is very likely to try to belittle you in order to bring you down to their own level. This allows for much more effective manipulation. Plus, you’ve got to remember how a narcissist’s head works – they are very insecure, despite the fact that they would never admit that to anyone, least of all themselves.
Sure, the main goal of this tactic is to make you feel inferior, and that makes you much easier to control. But in reality, another big reason the narcissist loves to criticize you and point out your flaws so much is that it helps them to feel superior.
Playing Power Games
A narcissist doesn’t know how to deal with people who aren’t intimidated by their abusive behavior, so they spend most of the time focusing on vulnerable targets when they’re seeking their narcissistic supply.
These relentless manipulators seek out sensitive people (they are quite commonly drawn to empaths) because it’s easier to influence them. They deliberately look for people who are vulnerable and insecure. They can spot your insecurities and use them.
In the beginning, a narcissist may even seem kind and concerned as they gather information about you. However, this quickly changes to control.
Highly sensitive people and empaths are more likely to become a source of narcissistic supply for people who want to control them. They’re less likely to stand up for themselves or speak out against the manipulators. It’s important to spot these signs in a relationship.
KNOW THIS: You can recognize emotional manipulation and refuse to let yourself be controlled. You already know that these kinds of relationships are unhealthy and toxic. Seek professional help if you need to, but it’s important that you do whatever you need to do to make positive changes in your life.
Remember that you’re worth it and that you do deserve to be happy. This is YOUR life. How are you going to spend it?
More Helpful Resources for Overcoming a Narcissist’s Emotional and Psychological Manipulation
- READ THIS! BE POWERFUL: Stop people-pleasing and take back your life.
- Are you being gaslighted? Here are the top 10 warning signs that you’re being manipulated by a toxic narcissist.
- Stop letting people walk all over you. Click here, READ THIS and stand up and TAKE BACK YOUR LIFE, RIGHT NOW!
- Twisted Toxic Love: Inside the Distorted Mind of a Narcissist
Angela Atkinson is a certified trauma counselor and the author of more than 20 books on narcissism, narcissistic abuse recovery, and related topics. A recognized expert on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder who has studied and written extensively on narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships since 2006, she has a popular narcissistic abuse recovery YouTube channel. Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own.
Atkinson offers trauma-informed narcissistic abuse recovery coaching and has certifications in trauma counseling, life coaching, level 2 therapeutic model, CBT coaching, integrative wellness coaching, and NLP. She is a certified trauma support coach and certified family trauma professional. She also has a professional PTSD counseling certification. Her mission is to help those who have experienced the emotional and mental devastation that comes with narcissistic abuse in these incredibly toxic relationships to (re)discover their true selves, stop the gaslighting and manipulation, and move forward into their genuine desires – into a life that is exactly what they choose for themselves.
Along with her solution-focused life coaching experience, Atkinson’s previous career in journalism and research helps her to offer both accurate and understandable information for survivors of abuse in a simple-to-understand way that helps to increase awareness in the narcissistic abuse recovery community. Atkinson founded QueenBeeing.com Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support, the SPANily Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups and the Life Makeover Academy.
She offers individual and group coaching for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse at NarcissisticAbuseRecovery.Online.