Narcissistic abusers are great at charming people they want to impress, or those people they want to get on their side. When they have targeted an individual for abuse, they will stop at nothing to turn their friends, colleagues, even their families against them–and it’s not at all uncommon for them to claim that THEY are the ones being abused. The process of using malicious gossip and lies to turn people against the victim is called triangulation and is well known in the narcissistic abuse community. Most of us who have been targeted by narcissistic abusers know all too well about triangulation and its close cousin, gaslighting. Both will be used in conjunction with each other to turn the victim’s potential allies against them, effectively isolating them and ripping away any support systems they could use later.
Those who have been turned against the victim by the narcissist are called flying monkeys. They may or may not be narcissists themselves, but they are duped and misled by the narcissist’s convincing lies and charm into believing the narcissist is the real victim and that the victim is the abuser. You can’t really blame them for siding with the abuser, since the abuser can be so convincing and often has a glibness that the real victim lacks. Complicating the situation further is the likelihood that the real victim indeed acts “crazier” or more irrationally than the abuser, usually because they have been driven half-mad by the abuse, which can be so easily hidden, even from those who are witnesses to it.
The good news is, there is a way the real victim can be discerned in an abuse situation, even if the narcissist complains loudly about how THEY are being abused. This isn’t something I thought of myself; it’s been described already by other writers and bloggers. Still, I think it’s something that isn’t given a lot of attention, so I want to describe in detail how this works because it may be the only way you can extract the truth in the evil mental clusterf*ck set up by a narcissistic abuser.
Isolating the victim.
In any abuse situation, there is almost always more than just two people involved. At the core are the victim and the abuser, of course, but chances are good the abuser has convinced other people–including friends and family members of the victim–that the victim is the real abuser, and recruited others as flying monkeys that collectively condemn and mob the victim. The abuser may have even convinced a mental health professional or pastor (or anyone else who works closely with a family) that the real victim is the real abuser, effectively turning everyone against the victim, so only the narcissist appears to have allies and the victim has no one.
This happened to me, when I was still married to my sociopathic MN ex. My ex was always more socially adept than me. He was always better at making friends and giving a good first impression than I was. He was very glib and could spread the lies on as thick and convincingly as a trial lawyer. In fact, I used to joke that he should have been a lawyer (no offense to any lawyers who may be reading this!)
It wasn’t a joke anymore when he decided I was an easy target for abuse. We had several friends–mostly other couples–who suddenly seemed to want nothing to do with me, but still talked to him and seemed to like him. When I questioned my ex about why all our friends had cooled toward me, he said things like, “So-and-so doesn’t like you; I really don’t know why!” or “The Joneses told me they think you act kind of crazy and they don’t feel comfortable around you.” I was even told our friends were “afraid of me.” Even our children–who were middle schoolers at the time–had turned chilly toward me, as had several other family members. (It turned out later he was telling the kids I didn’t love them and wished they’d go away–of course, this was an utter lie). Meanwhile he had convinced our friends I was insane. If I questioned him about his treatment or if I seemed to be getting at the truth, suddenly I was called paranoid or too sensitive or even crazy. Or I’d get a non-answer like, “No wonder no one likes you. You’re so selfish. Everything is always about YOU.” He was projecting his own narcissism onto me, but I didn’t know it back then. I began to think there must be something very wrong with me that everyone else could see but I couldn’t.
The real abuser may act more sane.
It didn’t help any that my behavior around this time did in fact appear more insane than his did. I always seemed to be the one to act out or lose my cool, while he always appeared completely rational, cool and collected. Of course our kids were more likely to take his side–they looked at their dad and saw a calm, rational person who wasn’t raising his voice and who was telling them their mom was both insane and didn’t love them. They looked at me and saw a frazzled, half-mad, emotionally unstable woman who was always yelling, crying or locking herself in her room–and on two occasions had to be hospitalized. Why wouldn’t they believe him? What they–and everyone else–didn’t know was that his crazymaking behavior was driving me insane and I was already suffering PTSD due to the mental and emotional abuse. He always treated me well whenever anyone else was present, so no one would suspect what he was actually doing. If I tried to call him out on his abuse, I was gaslighted: “stop making things up,” or “that just proves how insane and self centered you are.” Everyone we knew believed him and I found myself all alone, with no one I could trust or confide in. He was able to use confirmation bias to his advantage–thereafter, anything I did became “proof” of my “craziness” or “unfitness” or “selfishness” and the more abused I was, the “crazier” I got.
At one point we began to see a marriage counselor at my insistence. My behavior in counseling was more volatile than his, and my ex also began to see the counselor in private. He was able to convince this therapist that I was the problem in the marriage and the less fit parent. Here was one more person who could have been a potential ally, but due to her ignorance of narcissistic abuse (and his attorney-like glibness and charm), became another flying monkey he could use in his smear campaign against me.
I have read and heard about many similar situations described by numerous narc-abuse survivors, whether the narcissist was a parent who turned all their siblings and other relatives against them, or a spouse who turned all their mutual friends against them. It happens in the work world too, and online, and in schools, and anywhere where bullying can take place. In any bullying or abuse situation, there is one ringleader (or main narcissist) who has successfully used triangulation, gaslighting and projection to turn others against the abused person. The real abuse victim, who may lack the charm and glibness and manipulativeness of the abuser, has usually been isolated by the narcissist from anyone who could have been of support.
Identifying the real victim.
It doesn’t matter if the real victim seems “crazier” or more emotionally unstable or even more “abusive” than the abuser; they have become that way due to the abuse. They may have a history of previous victimization which rendered them vulnerable to becoming an abuser’s prey and they may have pre-existing PTSD. The real clue here is which person seems to have no one on their side? Which one has no friends or allies? Who seems to be fighting a losing battle? Who seems to have more “mental problems?” That person is almost always going to be the actual victim, no matter how much “evidence” the alleged “victim” claims to have.
If you are currently being victimized by an abuser, this knowledge may be the only way to be able to tell that you are actually the abuse victim and not the perpetrator, since chances are, your abuser has convinced everyone (including you!) that you are the one at fault. Hold onto this knowledge and remind yourself of it as you begin to disengage. Hopefully, knowing that you are NOT at fault and the narcissist is just a convincing liar will give you the motivation you need to get away. Or, if you are a bystander witnessing abuse, you may be able to help the real victim by keeping in mind that the one who seems to have no one on their side is the one you should be helping. Don’t let the narcissist’s convincing lies sway you over to their side.