When describing a narcissist, most people think of that person’s enhanced sense of self. They describe an arrogant, conceited, braggart; a person who believes he is better than everyone else and lets the world know it. But not all narcissists are so overt. The defining characteristic of a narcissist is that he believes he is the only person of worth. Your sole value is in serving him. He is the Leading Actor and you are the Supporting Actor in the “movie” that is his life. And to manipulate you into willingly assuming that role, the narcissist understands he cannot always act “larger than life.” He must be craftier.
How does the narcissist convince you to relinquish your role as “Leading Actor” in your own life and be the “Sidekick” in his? One way is to exploit your compassion. The narcissist understands that most people believe in fairness. If the narcissist is a victim of unfairness, you are likely to come to his aid. You will help fight his battle, or perhaps fight it for him. One woman I know was always a “victim of sexism.” She was the only female engineer at the chemical company where she worked, and she would confide in her new daughter-in-law about how sexist her male bosses were and how poorly they treated her. The young woman was overjoyed that her mother-in-law confided in her. She was naturally sympathetic to the older woman’s plight and they bonded over the narrow-mindedness of men in the workplace. This young woman gave up hours of her time listening to her mother-in-law, offering support and advice, and even at times, helping her draft letters of protest. She once missed an entire day of work waiting at her mother-in-law’s house for a delivery, agreeing it was “fairer” for her to miss a day at her own job because her mother-in-law’s employers were “crueler” than hers. By being compassionate to her narcissist mother-in-law’s “plight,” the daughter-in-law subordinated her own needs for her mother-in-law’s.
Another way the narcissist snares you is by playing “dumb.” The narcissist will purposely do something he knows will anger you, but cover it up by acting as if he simply didn’t understand. Suppose, for example, you are divorced and have a court order requiring your ex-husband to provide you with an itinerary when he takes the children on vacation. Your narcissist ex-husband arrives at the door having “forgotten,” or “not understanding,” what he was supposed to do. “Sorry,” he says and looks bashful so that you feel silly demanding that he follow the rules. Or perhaps he gives you only partial information. Maybe the flight number or the name of the hotel is missing. Should you complain, he derides you. He might say that you have his cell phone number (even though he never answers your call) or that you could “look it up yourself.” He will not be angry, but will act as if he simply “made a mistake” and you are being intolerant. “That’s what’s wrong with you,” he might say. “You always have to be perfect.”
Even more calculating is the narcissist who asks you to explain. You willingly help him understand you, hoping he will become more considerate. But that is not his true motive. Instead, he is looking for a vulnerable place to attack. I know one man who tried scheduling a family event with his brother. This man had children involved in multiple activities, whereas the brother was single. Before they spoke, the man and his wife went through the family calendar to identify possible dates. When he presented the dates to his brother, the brother tentatively agreed to one despite its “inconvenience,” and then began asking about the unavailable dates. “Why won’t this one work?” and “Why won’t that one work?” he demanded. The man painstakingly explained each scheduling conflict as the brother’s questions became more focused and hostile. Eventually, the brother accused the man of “thinking only of himself,” repeating a lifelong grudge and reinforcing his view of the world that he was the “good brother” and the man was the “selfish brother.”
Whatever tactic the narcissist chooses, the goal is to keep you in servitude. You are constantly trying to prove that you are not selfish, not intolerant, or that you are helpful and supportive. You give up your time, perhaps your children’s soccer game, or even your concern about where your children might be traveling, to make your point, believing that you are building a relationship. But in reality you are being manipulated into once again into acting as the expendable side-kick in the movie staring the Narcissist.