It’s a head-scratcher and perhaps you’ve been here before. You gain insight into who the narcissist really is, but because narcissists have enablers that work on their behalf, carrying out their dirty work for them and ensuring that no one sees that the emperor has no clothes, it’s a predicament for anyone who has tried to navigate the sinister workings of a world designed to serve these manipulators.
The chameleon-like narcissist shows multiple faces to the public, each one more duplicitous than the last. They blend in easily to any social groups they are a part of. But there is one catch: there is usually a target they like to zoom in on, usually because they possess the perceived qualities of empathy, compassion, integrity and coveted resources. Narcissists are pathologically envious of anyone who dares to outshine them or steal the spotlight: whoever presents a threat must be extinguished. Their light must be dimmed, in only the covert fashion the narcissist knows how to employ.
Unfortunately for that target, he or she will become privy to the true self behind the narcissist’s mask. This is a terrifying, yet revealing experience that both alienates and enlightens the victim. This form of covert abuse can take place in romantic relationships, familial relationships, the workplace, even within law enforcement. It can take place in any context where a narcissistic person is able to manipulate someone else.
So how and why does the narcissist get away with it? There are several reasons which I explore below:
The truth is that narcissists are very adept at impression management – in managing the ways others perceive them. They will appear to praise their victims in public, all while criticizing and demeaning them in private. They will provoke their victims into emotionally reacting – and they will use their reactions to the abuse to depict them as “unhinged.” This is the way they both simultaneously isolate and covertly abuse their loved ones behind closed doors – all while making their victims look like the abusers to law enforcement, to their social networks and to society as a whole.
Moreover, narcissists know how to build a stellar reputation. They will defer to those they know have more power than them (at least momentarily, in order to find out how to manipulate them), but they will also hunt the seemingly powerless on the down-low. They will appear to be conscientious about the feelings and ideas of others, when in reality, they are gathering intel as to who is vital for their agenda and who must be diminished so they can take the throne. They are collecting information to see which weak spots they can exploit, and even which strengths they can use against the victim to make their target feel most powerless.
Emotional predators are constantly reassessing who is useful to them and who is a threat. Those who present a threat to the narcissist (whether due to their talents, their education level, their competence, success, appearance or a number of different qualities) will at first be subjected to starry-eyed admiration and heaps of admiration before they are devalued.
A high and mighty pedestal will be built for their victims, just for the purpose of being destroyed. The narcissist needs to stage this cycle in order to derive their sense of power. Being able to keep their victims off-balance, never knowing their place in the narcissist’s life, is crucial for them to inflict the maximum amount of pain. So the chosen victims will go through a cycle of idealization and devaluation, pitted and triangulated with other members of their harem until they are discarded for calling out the narcissist’s crimes.
Those who are useful to the narcissist will be placed in a perpetual idealization phase until the time comes for them, too, to be kicked off the pedestal. In a narcissist’s labyrinth of lies and mind games, no one truly “wins” except for the victims who move forward.
The Halo Effect
Narcissists usually possess some quality that sets them up to be trusted. Whether it be their charm, their appearance, their intellect, their social acumen, there is usually one trait or a cluster of attributes that create a very mesmerizing hue to their presence. In psychology, we call this phenomenon “the halo effect” – the tendency for human beings to witness one trait (example: He is so handsome!) and generalize that this trait must also extend to the rest of their character and personality as a whole (He must be intelligent and kind too!)
Since these types spend their entire lives constructing a very alluring false image, they appear to be warm, caring and engaging in the beginning while ensnaring their prey. They build fan clubs and harems of empathic people (as well as toxic ones) who will attest to their character, their supposed trustworthiness, their nonexistent integrity. Usually these people are carefully chosen to ensure that these are the very people who have not witnessed their mask slip (or if they have, are willing to dismiss the red flags).
These enablers who focus on highlighting and propping up the narcissist’s halo exist on a spectrum – from the oblivious ‘friend’ to the toxic fellow con artist. Their willingness to ignore blatant evidence of the narcissist’s transgressions, their ability to rationalize, minimize and deny shady behavior make them valuable cronies to the narcissist, who will use them for testimonies on their behalf.
If the narcissist is ever in danger of being exposed, these cronies will inevitably speak up to defend their abusive leader at all costs, claiming the victims who speak out must be the problem, the “troublemaker” stirring chaos for no good reason. “Steven is such a good person! He’d never do anything like that!” They’ll claim. Or, “I don’t understand why you would attack Rebecca like this. She never did anything like that to me!” Never mind that the victims speaking out have likely experienced long-term psychological assault at the hands of the very “good” people who these enablers defend.
Our Inability To Confront the Conscienceless
In The Sociopath Next Door, Dr. Martha Stout astutely notes that “a part of a healthy conscience is being able to confront the conscienceless.” Unfortunately, our society is ill-equipped to deal with the danger of malignant narcissists in our midst. Why? Because when someone is rude to us, abuses us or mistreats us in any way, we fall into the trap of projecting our own sense of morality, conscience and empathy onto them.
We rationalize that it was probably a “misunderstanding.” We minimize the amount of damage done, believing our rights are not as important as the aggressor’s (after all, that is what the aggressor has trained and conditioned us to believe). We fall prey to wanting social validation and approval. We see social “proof” that this person is well-liked, so it must be because they are a good person.
“Why are conscience-bound human beings so blind? And why are they so hesitant to defend themselves, and the ideals and people they care about, from the minority of human beings who possess no conscience at all?
A large part of the answer has to do with the emotions and thought processes that occur in us when we are confronted with sociopathy. We are afraid, and our sense of reality suffers. We think we are imagining things, or exaggerating, or that we ourselves are somehow responsible for the sociopath’s behavior.” – Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door
Instead of facing the fearful truth that there are people with no empathy or remorse, we ignore our gut instincts and gaslight ourselves. We forget that our inner guidance is often on point, that we might be “seeing” something others are refusing to see. When the emperor has no clothes, we may be the only ones brave enough to call it out – but that doesn’t make us wrong just because we are in the minority. It makes us among the more discerning of our peers.
Rather than falling into the trap of silencing ourselves, it’s important to validate our voices – and continue speaking. Eventually, when we speak long enough, all those who see the truth of the toxicity too will hear each other in the distance. That is how revolutions begin. Survivors of these toxic types and advocates for the abused can collectively raise our voices to spread awareness – to confront the conscienceless, and to inevitably – expose those in our midst who continue to operate covertly under the radar.