The Curious Fact of the Flying Monkey

I recently learned the term flying monkey. It’s a new word to me, but I’ve known of the concept in theory for a while. Here’s the definition I got when I asked ChatGPT to define flying monkey:

In the context of narcissistic abuse, a “flying monkey” refers to a person who unknowingly or willingly becomes a tool for the narcissist’s manipulation tactics. Often, these individuals are manipulated or coerced into supporting the narcissist’s agenda, whether it’s spreading rumors, gaslighting the victim, or exerting pressure to maintain the narcissist’s control. Flying monkeys can be friends, family members, or colleagues of the narcissist who are persuaded to act on their behalf. They may not realize they’re being used, or may justify their actions under the guise of loyalty or friendship. However, understanding the dynamics of narcissistic abuse can help victims recognize when others are being recruited as flying monkeys and take steps to protect themselves from further manipulation and harm

I think it’s possible we’ve all been flying monkeys at one time or another. We’ve probably also been the target of flying monkeys at some point, too.

Recently, I had a falling out with a friend I loved very much. I had been loyal and devoted to her since the day I met her, having been my her side while she processed a very difficult breakup. The relationship became lopsided pretty quickly, and early on I mentioned to her that I needed her to try to be more reciprocal if our friendship was going to continue. She promised to change, and would sometimes show me the reciprocity I needed (when it suited her). But for the most part, the friendship remained a one-way street.

Just before our friendship ended, her cat was in decline and was probably going to pass away soon. At the same time, my entire family had been sick for over a month and I found out that my dad had been diagnosed with cancer for the third time. I had to take a day-and-a-half break from being there for this friend while I processed my own pain and concern for my father. When I checked in on her later to see how she was doing and tell her that I was holding space for her, she let me know that the time to hold space for her would have been when she was telling me that her cat was dying and how unfair it was that she was sick at the same time.

I apologized, telling her I didn’t mean to make her feel like I wasn’t there for her, but that my family was sick and that my father had just been diagnosed with cancer. I was angry, though, that I was being scolded for not being there enough for her at this moment, so I let her know I didn’t know where this energy was coming from, and that after all the times I have shown up for her when she needed me, I didn’t deserve this.

Without acknowledging my father’s cancer and my pain, she told me I needed to “sit with” what I had just done to her. ”Really sit with it”.

I told her maybe this was coming from her place of pain relating to her cat, and that we should have this discussion when she’s feeling better because I did not deserve the way she was behaving. She did not respond. Over the following days, I checked in on her twice, telling her I loved her and that I hoped we could table the stuff we needed to talk about while she navigated the death of her cat. She ignored me.

In the days that followed her cat’s death, I watched her begin a smear campaign of me on all her social media platforms. She called me a narcissist. An unsafe friend. An “abuser, just like her abusive ex-boyfriend.” She called me a pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-magnanimous, pseudo-enlightened fraud who didn’t understand basic human decency. She said I had lied about my father’s illness, or perhaps had just lied about my feelings about it, all in order to “win” the conversation against her. Everything I had ever done for her had been “in bad faith.”

At some point in the midst of all that, she sent me a video message that I refused to watch. Based on how I’d seen her behave online, it didn’t matter what that message said. I was not going to let someone like that back into my head. She’d shown what she was capable of, and that was enough.

A few days later, her friend (who was also one of my friends, or so I thought) sent me a text saying, “We are done. Do not ever reach out to me again. Go to therapy.”

And honestly? It was that message that hurt the most.

I had gone through a difficult ordeal with a friend I loved, but an ordeal I had believed we could have worked through before she started her smear campaign. I had watched her try to publicly shame me into giving her an apology and take accountability for “the way I treated her.” I had endured not only losing a friend but watching her do the unthinkable toward me.

And now, this friend who I did nothing to, was telling me to go to therapy while our mutual friend acted completely dysregulated and vengeful.

That hurt.

With time, I’ve realized I couldn’t be angry at her. She was being a flying monkey. She had been weaponized by someone who is very good at getting people to flying monkey for her. I know this first hand because I had so often been a flying monkey for her, too.

I had cut ties with people I liked, unfollowed mutuals on social media, and had even sent hate and abuse toward people she told me had done wrong to her. I hadn’t asked questions. I had believed blindly. She was that convincing.

It begs a question: why are some of us so prone to becoming flying monkeys for people like that? What do some of us get out of it?

For me, I’ve realized that I have a need to fix things. I am naturally drawn toward people who seem to need a lot of fixing—the people who seem to always be in crisis, who are always being victimized by someone. I believe I can help them feel better if I just apply enough of myself enough, if I just give enough. I get so immersed in being the fixer that I miss the patterns. I disregard the red flags. I am so desperate to earn love and prove my worth that I will do whatever flying monkey activities might endear me to this kind of person. And I do it at my own expense, and the expense of others.

I have a feeling that many of us who have been flying monkeys in the past may share that trait. It’s why I no longer feel anger at people who have been flying monkeys to me. They were trying to get a need met—a need I also share.

If we want to stop becoming flying monkeys, and prevent other flying monkeys from targeting us, we have to learn where our worth actually belongs. We do not need to earn our keep with the people who claim to love us. We do not have to prove our devotion or loyalty through taking down anyone the narcissistic person in our lives suggests we should. In fact, we need to gain enough self-worth to start knowing we deserve better than one-way-street relationships in the first place.

Once we know that our worth resides with us, we reclaim our humanity and release the inner flying monkey.


Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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