10 Classic Mind Games Narcissists Play in a Relationship, According to Psychologists

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Woman upset while looking at a text from a narcissist who's playing mind games

Game night can be a stellar at-home date idea. Connect Four, checkers and poker can get competitive and even comedic juices flowing. Bonus points if you and yours make the competition "high stakes"—for instance, have the loser take out the trash...

Speaking of trash, narcissistic mind games are just that. These games mess with your head and are the opposite of fun, pitting you against someone who is supposed to be your partner.

"Narcissistic mind games are interactional patterns to fulfill needs for control, manipulation and asserting dominance over others," explains Dr. Joel Frank, Psy.D., a psychologist with Duality Psychological Services

Unlike games you can shop on Amazon and brick-and-mortar stores, narcissistic mind games are not clearly labeled. Knowing how to spot them can help you exit the game before becoming too emotionally involved. 

13 Perfect Responses to a Narcissist's Texts, According to Psychologists

What Is a Narcissist?

You've likely seen the term used repeatedly on TikTok and social media. "The the term narcissist in pop psychology and media, but we also use it as a psychological diagnosis, specifically narcissistic personality disorder," says Dr. Leslie Dobson, M.S., M.A., Psy.D, a clinical and forensic psychologist. 

A person with narcissistic personality disorder must meet the diagnostic criteria outlined in the DSM-5 manual. However, Dr. Dobson shared a general overview for laypeople. 

"Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, and a genuine lack of empathy for others," Dr. Dobson says.

You may hear about the "Four Ds of narcissism:" Denial, dismissal, devaluation and divorce.

"These behavior patterns are typically enacted when needed by individuals with narcissistic traits when their constructed self-image and beliefs are threatened," Dr. Frank explains. 

Related: 5 Reasons Why Some People Just Can't Apologize, According to a Therapist—Plus, What They Tend To Say Instead



10 Mind Games Narcissists Play in a Relationship, According to Psychologists

1. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is another buzzy (and sometimes misused) term, and narcissists are pros at it.

"A close cousin to lying, gaslighting in a manipulative technique to make you question your sanity and reality," says Dr. Nancy B. Irwin, PsyD, C.Ht, a clinical psychologist.

2. Belittling comments

How's this for a head game?

"Narcissistic people will make belittling comments, and when they see your surprised reaction, they will tell you that you are overreacting," Dr. Dobson says. 

She suggests calling the person out calmly. For example, you might say, "You made a belittling statement to me, which would make anyone feel XYZ, and then you stated I was overreacting."

Dr. Dobson says this phrase takes the energy out of the interaction.

Related: 12 Phrases To Use When Someone Is 'Talking Down' to You—and Why They Work, According to Psychologists

3. They roll in with some uninvited guests (who may not be real)

Dr. Dobson says narcissists may reference someone else—real or imagined—to back their play and lower a partner's self-confidence.

"Remind yourself of your worth...every single morning," Dr. Dobson says. "If you feel confident, it is easier to see the manipulation around you."

4. The blame game

The blame game is a top way narcissists play with a person's head. If they had a bad day at work, it's your fault. Is it literally chilly in your home? That's also on you, even if they turned down the heat.

"It is always someone else’s fault," Dr. Irwin says. "They live to appear perfect."

5. Vagueness

Dr. Frank says narcissists often use hard-to-follow language to mask their intentions and hold onto plausible deniability.

"By using vague or ambiguous language, the narcissistic individual can claim their motives and intentions were misunderstood or never said...so they will not feel the need to take accountability," Dr. Frank says. "This mind game is harmful because it leaves the other individual feeling confused and alone."

Related: 11 Phrases To Use if Someone Says You're 'Too Sensitive'

6. Leaping over boundaries

A narcissist would run through a brick wall if they thought it was someone else's boundary.

"Expect they will snoop or have someone snoop through your computer, phone and credit card bills," Dr. Irwin says.

7. Ghosting

One moment, a narcissist is once again stirring up drama in your life. The next several moments? They're gone without a trace, Dr. Dobson says.

"They'll ghost you because then you'll worry and feel anxious and chase after them," she explains.

8. Playing the victim

A person with a narcissistic personality disorder may have a favorite role: the victim.

"A primary tactic for avoiding accountability is claiming to be a victim when confronted by the results of their comments and actions," Dr. Frank says, adding that the person may use "victim status" to gain sympathy and justify their actions. This tactic is completely manipulative but helps them gain control.

9. Love bombing

Love bombing refers to an "explosion" of affection. Think grandiose gestures like expensive dinners on rooftops and expensive gifts showing up at your door weekly.

Although it can happen early in a relationship to "hook" someone, Dr. Dobson also sees it happen throughout a partnership, particularly after abuse. She says it's a narcissist's attempt to win you back and validate their behavior.

10. Financial manipulation

Dr. Frank says that a narcissist's desire to control can extend to a couple's bank account.

"By being in control over the family finances, individuals with narcissistic traits command control over their relationships with financial threats," Dr. Frank says. "This creates a dependency for the individuals with whom the narcissistic person holds financial power."

Related: 11 Phrases That Emotionally Immature People Often Say, According to Mental Health Experts

3 Tips for Dealing With a Narcissist's Mind Games

1. Model boundary setting

Just because narcissists often like to leap over boundaries doesn't mean you shouldn't bother setting them. "Consistently upholding boundaries is crucial for their establishment and maintenance," Dr. Frank says.

For example, Dr. Irwin suggests standing firm that you refuse to be put down. You might say to your partner, "Your partner does not deserve to be talked to this way." Dr. Irwin says this phrase makes it about the person with narcissistic personality disorder, not you.

"Calmly state that you will resume the disagreement when [the person] can speak to you with respect versus insults," Dr. Irwin says. "Then leave the room or tell them you are hanging up now."

2. Grey rocking

"Grey rocking" aims to reduce emotional engagement and portray yourself as unremarkable—boring, even. 

"Grey rocking...makes it less rewarding for narcissistic people to manipulate or provoke reactions," Dr. Frank says. "People can institute grey rocking methods by limiting emotional expressions, using neutral communications and minimizing shared details."

3. Get help

Playing games with a narcissist can be exhausting. You may need a teammate: a mental health professional.

"These relationships can foster struggles with self-esteem, self-worth and self-concept, along with developing conditions such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder," Dr. Frank says. "While talking with social support individuals is helpful, enlisting a trained professional's help can be a game-changer for recovery and distress management when circumstances become dire."

Next: 8 Phrases To Replace Saying 'It's OK' When It's Really Not OK, According to Psychologists