If there is anything I’ve learned to be an absolute certainty, it’s that narcissists, and people high in narcissistic traits, all follow the same playbook. When the mask slips and people start seeing them for who they truly are, they use the same scripts, enact the same tactics, and play the same games to try to claw their way out of it.
In a way, this consistency of behavior in all (or most) narcissists is a good thing. It makes them very predictable. And what you can predict, you can usually protect yourself from.
So, to help us all become better at recognizing narcissists, predicting their behaviors, and protecting ourselves from them, here is my list of what I think must be in the Narcissist Playbook. Specifically, this is how I’ve observed narcissists tend to act when their mask has slipped and the people in their orbit begin to call out their narcissistic ways. Narcissists are skilled at presenting a charming and charismatic facade to the world. But when their true nature is exposed, their behavior can take a dramatic turn. These are the seven common signs that I’ve observed when the mask slips and a narcissist’s true colors are revealed.
This is meant by no means a comprehensive list, nor is it the official list of narcissistic traits as described in the DSM-5 diagnostic manual. These are just my unofficial observations of how narcissists maneuver. Don’t ask me to cite my sources.
#1. Surprising outbursts of rage:
The thing about narcissists is that they usually seem so compassionate and understanding when you first meet them. They seem almost impossibly patient, handling your feelings with care and concern. So, when a narcissist’s mask slips, their suddenly explosive and short-fused anger can be shocking. Faced with criticism and the resultant feelings of shame (which every narcissist is desperate to avoid), they react with intense rage, often lashing out verbally or even physically. They cannot handle the realization that you’ve seen behind the mask, and they cannot restrain their fury.
#2. Blatant disregard for your feelings:
Narcissists are notorious for their lack of empathy. When their true nature is exposed, they no longer feel the need to maintain the appearance of caring for others. Suddenly, their patient and compassionate attention to your feelings is completely gone. In its place is gaslighting and devaluing. They will tell you that your feelings are irrational, hysterical, or nonsensical. They may do this by trying to depict you as the volatile one — suddenly pretending to be afraid of your emotional outbursts (which, as you know, are not outbursts at all). Or, they may do it by treating you like a fragile, wounded bird, too broken by your trauma for any of their feelings to be trusted.
#3. Shifting blame onto others:
One characteristic of a narcissist is their complete refusal to take responsibility for their actions. When their mask slips, they are quick to deflect blame onto others. They may twist events and manipulate facts to present themselves as the innocent party, refusing to acknowledge any wrongdoing on their part. If they do acknowledge their wrongdoing, they will only admit to parts of it, and never the worst parts. And, of course, whatever harm they did was really only in self-defense — a reaction to the real abuser in the relationship, which, naturally, is you.
#4. Gaslighting and manipulation tactics:
As the mask slips, narcissists often resort to gaslighting and other manipulation tactics to maintain control. They will distort the truth, create confusion, and question the sanity of those who dare to question them. Their goal is to knock you off balance and make you uncertain of you own memory and interpretation of events. This is often where you begin to see their poor reasoning skills show up, as they resort to logical fallacies and bad faith argumentation like ad hominem attacks, straw man arguments, red herrings, over-generalization, and sea-lioning. All of these tactics are meant to get you talking in circles and deflecting from the real issue at hand.
#5. Discarding or devaluing relationships:
When a narcissist is exposed, their true feelings towards those they once claimed to care about are revealed. They may abruptly discard or devalue people that no longer serve their self-interest. The narcissistic need for constant praise and validation makes it difficult for them to stay connected with people who see through their facade. But they can’t just walk away. They have to convince you that they are leaving because it’s all your fault. Or worse, they will try to make you believe that you completely overestimated the type of relationship you had. They will call you clingy, or needy, or annoying — all because you began to ask them for the barest of bare minimum of effort from them. For me personally, this is the one that hurts the most. But on the other hand, it also happens to be the one that usually helps people finally break free from the narcissist’s control.
#6. Engaging in smear campaigns and character assassination:
To protect their fragile self-image, exposed narcissists may launch smear campaigns against those who have revealed their true nature. They will go to great lengths to tarnish the reputation, character, and credibility of anyone who threatens their inflated sense of self-worth. This can involve spreading false rumors, distorting facts, or recruiting allies to join their cause. Social media has made this process all the easier for narcissists, as they weaponize whatever influence they may have to sway public opinion against the person or people who have realized their true nature.
#7. Playing the victim:
This is probably the one that many of us are the most familiar with. It’s kind of the trademark of a narcissist. They attempt to shift the focus away from their own wrongdoing by portraying themselves as the ones who have been wronged. This manipulation tactic allows them to regain control, garner sympathy, and further perpetuate their false image. And this is really where you see all the other 6 tactics listed above coming into play. They all serve in achieving the ultimate goal, which is to portray themselves as the sympathetic victim of an unfair world that just doesn’t understand them.
When the mask slips and narcissists are exposed, their true colors come out really bright, really fast. Thankfully, it seems like they all operate from the same playbook, making their moves very easy to predict.
If a narcissist is engaging in these tactics with you right now, just know it’s not about you. It’s never about you. A narcissist is not able to care about anyone but themselves, and anything but their own ego and need for praise and admiration. So, while that means that the narcissist will never love you (at least not the way you truly deserve to be loved), it also means they can never really hate you. They hate criticism, exposure, accountability, and shame. They hate two way-streets where they are expected to give as much as they take. And dear friend, absolutely none of that is about you. It is entirely human and completely reasonable for you to want to be loved, to insist on being treated well, to expect reciprocity, and to hold people accountable when they hurt you. And since you are only behaving humanly, it can’t be about you.
I need you to know that with your whole heart.
And then, I need you to walk away.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who writes about women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to receive exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss a post.