I always say people teach you about themselves all the time if you only listen and believe them. A narcissist doesn’t think about people in the same way as you and I and it shows. Actually, it feels different. At first, the difficult person in your life may shower you with attention, compliments, and praise. Other people may fawn over him or her telling you how nice they are or what good deeds they’ve done. It may even be true. You only really get to know a narcissist once you’re part of their inner circle.
Everywhere. Work, family, friends, a parent, your spouse, your ex. Once you know what to look for, they get easier to spot. Though each person has a unique set of symptoms, the common thread is a compulsion to be special. Narcissists come in different ages, demographics, and characteristics. Depending on who you ask, there are a number of different types but are usually categorized by overt and covert, malignant and benign. Some are entitled, controlling, boastful and arrogant. Others crave attention and admiration, see themselves as excessively unique and believe the world owes them something.
A new type is gaining recognition – the communal narcissist – who sees him or herself as extremely prosocial even though their actions don’t line up. These folks may believe they are the bestest best friend, do the best deeds, sacrifice the most of all people, and tirelessly give make the world a better place. The problem is …they’re only there for you when they want to be (or when it would be exposing to others not to).
While you believe you’re entering a relationship with a narcissist, what’s really happening is you’re starting to play The Game. Sounds ominous, right? Sad to say, it is. Good people get stuck in The Game for years. The Game is made up of overlapping cycles of anxiety and abuse that you and the narcissist start looping round in. You get pulled into by ignoring red flags and thinking the best about people. You are being tricked and manipulated. By the time you realize it, you’re usually in deep.
Don’t feel bad about this process; it happens to the best of us – even psychologists. And for the record, it’s abuse. Flat out. They use your values against you to weave a sticky web. No matter what kind of narcissist and what kind of game you find yourself in, you end up feeling bad and wrong. That’s how you know you’re in it. Unhealthy people are dysfunctional and can get better but sick people draw others into The Game. It only gets better when you stop playing.
To get the most out of this post, be sure to download this free guide to the narcissist’s people matrix. I’ll be referencing it in the next few paragraphs.
A narcissist sees people as objects to move around the chess board of life. Generally, people don’t want to be seen this way but to the narcissist, this is merely inconvenient and people are a channel to let off steam or entertain them. To make it easier to move the pieces around, the narcissist classifies people into status (high to low) and usefulness (high to low). To some extent, we all do this. The average, non-disordered person who does it a lot feels icky. To the narcissist, it just makes sense. People are a source of supply.
Status is how you appear to others and the esteem they give you. It’s the level of respect, honor, power, assumed competence, influence and value you accumulate by society. A reputation of sorts. These assessments aren’t set in stone and aren’t even strictly factual – they are merely others’ opinions of you.
We automatically assign high status to people whether or not they deserve it from their actions. After I graduated and was first able to call myself a “doctor,” people immediately started treating me with respect. At first, I thought it was amusing and slightly ridiculous. I remember thinking that one day, I was a student under supervision and having to do everything my boss said and the next day, I was an expert? When I got my first job out of school, I realized the enormous responsibility I’d been preparing myself for as a clinical psychologist. One of my professors told us it brings comfort to others to consult an “expert” and that we must take this very seriously, even when we don’t feel like fully fill the shoes we’ve been given. Thus my life of being the broad shoulder to my clients began. I don’t need or chase a high status but society gives it to me. Because of the profession I’ve chosen, I have a responsibility to act appropriately.
Often, the assignment of low status starts with a stereotype. For narcissists, it’s all in how others perceive you but also in how you think of yourself. Qualities that go with low status include low self esteem and worth, avoiding conflict, codependency, peace keeping, and believing others’ view of reality over your own. As you might imagine, for people who put themselves in this category, there’s some room for growth and empowerment here.
Usefulness is the narcissist’s view of how they can specifically use you as a chess piece to get what they want. As you can see in the people matrix, it interacts with status to form four separate categories. Even though highly useful people can do a lot for the narcissist, it doesn’t necessarily mean they actually do stuff. This is more a sign of how the narcissist treats them on a daily basis. The narcissist is more likely to stay on good terms with this person in order to draw upon their resources. Low usefulness people usually don’t hit the narcissist’s radar unless they are sufficiently high status. People who fall into the low status, low usefulness category might as well not exist to the narcissist.
If you’re still in The Game, chances are the narcissist has slotted you into the low status, high usefulness box. He or she can still control you and get something from you. If you’ve gotten healthier, you may have entered The Dance phase. Sometimes, we have to stay in contact with the narcissist for a bit because of he or she is a co-parent, family member or boss. It’s not possible to cut off contact completely without significant consequences. In order to maintain health and the most effective coping, people in this position opt for low contact and grey rock strategies. It still means they must engage in the delicate dance with the narcissist but it’s the healthiest method of interacting with a sick person. When you enter this phase, all bets are off. It’s frustrating to the narcissist to play with a rogue chess piece. You’re still in it but at least you move yourself around the board now.