The Gamblers Game. Systematic Denigration and Love Bombing in Narcissistic Abuse

photo by Lionel Kennaugh

‘Every gambler knows that the secret to survival is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep’ The Gambler by Kenny Rogers

Systematic denigration is a high stakes poker game with your sanity. The deliberate acts of diminishing returns for the victim are traumatic and disastrous and, in many cases, lives entirely ruined by this cruel intended play, with your emotions, with your mind, with your physical safety and even with your finances. You are playing against a card shark and a cheater. When the stakes are high, and the chips fall down, your odds are not good. It’s not a fair game. Not because he’s a better player, but because you don’t know what the narcissist is doing under the table.

I call it the gamblers game because, just like a gambler who is convinced of that one-last-win, you are engaged with someone who will repeatedly denigrate, apologise and ‘reform’ back to the person you so loved, and then relapse again into abuse. We hold on for that one small win. The next ‘reform’. The loving compliments which inevitably are replaced with yet more abuse. This is called intermittent reinforcement, the gamblers game. It is what keeps us going back for more.

In the beginning.

There must be a catch, right? There’s always a catch. When it’s too good to be true, it is. You can bet that your interactions with a narcissist will have more tricks and locks than fort Knox.

Love bombing and systematic denigration when used together, are a powerful tool of overall narcissistic abuse, and it is essential to remember that like any other abuse, it cannot be excused. It is very deliberately done. Like a heat-seeking missile, it locks onto the target, and it is intended to cause maximum damage.

Whether it be a friendship, a new boss, a new lover or a new business arrangement, love bombing happens in the early stages of the narcissistic cycle. For most of us who have suffered at the hands of a narcissist find that this is much closer to home, a mother, father, sister or brother or a husband or boyfriend or girlfriend. However, it is essential to note that this type of abuse is perpetuated across many kinds of relationships.

Being the Chameleons that they are, narcissists will make this beginning stage feel like heaven. Think of it as the marketing department. Like any glossy brochure, the outward appearances are entirely enticing. Not only do they present as the most perfect partner, but they also behave in a way that makes you feel like you are the only living being on earth which is of interest to them. The devil is in the small print.

Like when you give your details over for a loan at the bank, or to open a new account, they gather as much personal information about you as possible. Seeking to ‘understand you’ want to know ‘everything about you’. All of this is future ammo gathering. Not necessarily in the case of the bank, but in the case of the narcissist.

We’ve all heard the expression, that someone will ‘kill you with kindness ‘. While a narcissist is doing this, will get into every aspect of your personal life so that this can later be used to control and manipulate you.

In the beginning, the sense that something is ‘off’ is intangible. You can’t put your finger on it. You lack the words to put your feelings of unease into a coherent sentence or phrase that describes the sense of something wrong.

On the face of it, if you spoke these words aloud to anyone else, you would sound crazy. So, you don’t, you keep going along with the narcissist because they are so wonderful, really? Really? That thought, that feeling nags at the back of your mind, but it’s so hard to express it, at first. You question why you are feeling this way. You review your own sanity, even right at the start. As your B/S Meter starts to twang, you ignore it. It’s only in your own head. He/she couldn’t really have meant that vicious comment, in front of everyone? It must just have been a joke, yet, yet you cannot shake the feeling that something is off.

For this reason, it is imperative to the narcissist that you are engaged tangibly as fast as possible. You need to be fully invested in the relationship in as short a time as possible. A concrete commitment is what they need from you to keep you bound to them, and for this reason, it is not uncommon at all that these relationships are fast-tracked by the narcissist right from the start to a quick marriage a binding financial arrangement or a pregnancy or any firm way they can take hold and take control. They take delight in thinking that they have you and you cannot escape.

Remember that the narcissist must live vicariously through other people. They don’t experience emotions and mental stimulation in the same way an average person does. Your feelings are what they need to feed their ever-hungry self. Without you to supply this, they will inevitably move on to a more abundant source to feed the void in themselves. Once you are sucked dry, and even if you are the one to leave, if you still feed them your thoughts, feelings, doubts, and fears, they will have a reason to continue the abuse.

The narcissist will make an outrageous effort, although usually done under the guise of ‘those people are no good for you’ to cut you off from friends and family. Your isolation is of paramount importance to keep control over you and the last thing the narcissist needs are the cares and concerns of those closest to you to ‘interfere’ with their agenda.

For a narcissist to control you, you have only to believe what you are told to think, not your own experiences, not your own thoughts, not your own actions or opinions, nothing. You only believe what they say happened or did not happen. This is often also achieved via gaslighting, another narcissistic tool. You are trained as a puppy to obey/fear and behave exactly as you are told to so that they can have control over you, for whatever their ultimate agenda is.

The denigration is a slow process at first, after all, an all-out attack will have you out of there in short order. The old analogy of the boiled frog fits in here. A frog introduced to boiling water will hop out immediately, so you put the frog in cold water and then cook it, as the water slowly heats up to a boil, the frog will boil to death. This is pretty much how systematic denigration goes. It is often commented on that seemingly intelligent person who otherwise would never fall for these manipulations do. It is the stealth factor at play here. An average healthy person with rational feelings and thoughts gets worn down slowly and steadily until they no longer even recognise themselves.

If the narcissist believes you are in a position you cannot leave, such as a hasty marriage or a pregnancy, the going can get very tough. It is only once you are fully invested in the relationship in some tangible way that they can then start the cycle of denigration and reformation, causing massive cognitive dissonance and emotional turmoil and trauma for you. Another way this is achieved is via financial control. Whether they have you believing you ‘owe’ them financially or whether they manage to get actual power of your finances you will be left feeling that somehow this is ‘right’ and that you are financially beholden to them in some way.

You are their project, they will take credit for your successes, you couldn’t have done it without them, and they will be the harshest critics of your failures, usually set up by them for you to fail. They need you to be indebted to them, and for them to be your only source of information, self-worth, etc. Their assessment of you is the only one that counts. Only with their help and intervention are you ‘okay’, it is by their favour that you live and breathe.

They need you to be eternally grateful for all that they do for you even when this is nothing at all, and in fact, without them, you will fare much better. You are only as good as the narcissists say you are and any abuse is your own fault, you made them do it.

They need for you to not be yourself, to not be self-reliant (although this will initially attract them to you) they need you to be needy of them, whether financially, emotionally, mentally or physically or all the above and even if you have self-reliance in these areas, they will claim it is because of them that you do. You must be dependent on them for any source of approval or disapproval, and validation, no other source is tolerated.

Nothing exists without their permission. When you find yourself continually asking for permission for something that you should never ask anyone for, you should already be seeing this as a red flag, a warning sign that something has become very wrong.

Nobody, out of the purple, suddenly becomes ‘insane’ or ‘crazy’ as the narcissist will claim to his flying monkey’s and others and nobody swiftly acts and does a whole lot of ‘sh#t’ for no good reason. There will be those who, unknowing to you, may even have commented that “it’s amazing he can handle her” and will reveal themselves when you finally reverse out of this situation. Isn’t it sad that people need handlers and not lovers, partners, and friends? If you are a handler for a narcissist and you handle their b/s may be, it’s time to leave?

When you suddenly become aware of yourself and make changes, you can also expect to come up against a great deal of resistance. You did not just suddenly lose the plot and have a personality change; you had a reason to act and finally remove yourself from the situation. The inevitable smear campaigns are something that you must be prepared for and to live through. There will be those who will never understand whether deliberately or not. But there will be those who do understand and will support your choice to have a better life for yourself.

How to recognise some of your own feelings and observe your own reactions when systematic denigration, intermingled with love bombing is happening or has happened to you.

Are you continually apologising, or do you need to frequently explain yourself or feel you owe and explanation to everyone about everything? Not only the narcissist but everyone else in your life too? Are you silently seeking approval for everything that you say and do? Is this kind of behaviour out of character for you? Would you under normal circumstances do this?

Do you feel unheard and unseen? As slowly, you lose your own sense of identity, and you start to believe only what you are told to think, remember, and how to act. Do you feel invisible? Do you feel like nothing you do is going to make a difference to anyone?

Do you feel shame all the time and at the same time ‘dependent’ on the same person who makes you feel shameful (for no good reason) for validation?

Do you look to only this one person for validation, not inwards to your own inner guidance and not towards genuinely loving family and friends? Only this person’s version of you and what you can/cannot say do think or belief is of any value. Is your whole sense of self-worth dependent on only this person? Have you reached that place where your self-confidence and sanity have been slowly chipped away, to leave you feeling empty and nothing at all?

Do you find yourself trying to conciliate this person all the time, just to have some peace and to avoid conflict and drama? Yet if you are too quiet, that is wrong. If you are too outspoken that also is wrong. If you do nothing wrong at all, something will be ‘found out’ to conflict with this person, and a drama will be made from nothing at all?  

Do you find yourself in a place where sly insinuations that there is something wrong with you are being fired at you, so you begin to worry and have anxiety about your every move, motivation or action and you continually being compared to or comparing yourself to others as you battle to find your own self-worth?

When the harsh statements and comments are made about you, you react and get the poker face from the narcissist. You suddenly doubt your own ability to discern whether this is really a joke or what it really is a cruel putdown, another denigration? Yet, the narcissist betrays nothing in their demeanour to clarify this for you. They know that they have put you down again. However, if challenged, it’s all in your own head.

You don’t know who to trust anymore as you are triangulated with others. So, you self-isolate. The use of flying monkeys is prolific. Real and made-up ones. Everyone agrees with me that ‘this thing is wrong’ about you. So, and So has also noted this worrying trait that you have. Even your own family accepts that you are ‘crazy or unstable’ and so it goes on. Whether these observations by other people are even accurate or not, does not matter. As you are told these things, you no longer trust yourself or anyone else, so you fall silent.

Hypervigilance is most often a symptom of prolonged abuse and can be present long after the damage has taken place, it is also present while you are still in an abusive situation. When you are never sure when the other shoe is going to drop so to speak, your guard is always up, and even when in seemingly safe situations, you may feel the need to check over your shoulder – often, wondering if who, or where the next threat is going to come from. If you are still stuck in a situation with a narcissist, you will be experiencing hypervigilance. Not only is your emotional and mental health at risk, but so is your physical health. I had a stroke as a result of extreme financial pressure, and the knock-on effects of that have been devastating.

Do you find yourself seeking comfort from the same person who has abused you? Do they first start the fire, then watch it burn, then swoop in to save you from a situation they have perpetrated?

Narcissistic abuse and more specifically denigration are often hidden in plain sight of others, under the guises of just joking or being helpful, while still insidiously and slyly bringing you down. Like everything the narcissist does it is deliberately calculated, not by chance, not just a mistake, but a deliberate putdown, and if it can be done with and audience in attendance all the better.

Disinformation given to you and to those about you, is confusing and deliberately evasive and ambiguous, only providing just enough information to skew how the actual picture looks. Only giving half-truths and some of the story to a variety of different people so that no one person least of all you know the whole truth, is another way disinformation is spread about you.

Unfortunately, we try to solve our feelings of isolation, cognitive dissonance, denigration and sense of worthlessness by employing several tactics ourselves, out of self-preservation, yet these also do not always serve us. They are what we do in survival mode, yet still, these same actions undermine us even more.

What we do and what works better.

One of the first things you do is to start making changes to yourself by trying too hard to accommodate the narcissist; in every way, from how you dress, what you say, who you speak to, but no matter what you do, it will never ever be good enough.

Understand that this only speaks to the narcissist in a way that tells them that they are ‘winning’. You are the ‘problem that needs to be solved’. The fact that there never was a problem to start with and you don’t need solving is beside the point. By way of accommodation, you are allowing and giving the narcissist permission to treat you the way he/she does.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that they think and feel the same way you do. Two different agendas two and two different goals are in play here. You are choosing to love and to try and understand. The narcissist is determining your destruction or at the least to keep you endlessly tethered to their need for you to continuously supply them with their ‘food’. Remember they live vicariously through you. At worst, your destruction will also suit them quite well.

When you find yourself putting your own real and valid needs aside to accommodate the narcissist is when you should start questioning why? They can act like an Oscar winner, cry on demand and suck you back in again and again, at some point, you must realise this is all an act

Narcissists look down on everyone, even their own friends and family. Nobody is good enough for them really, they are almost always smarter, more charming, better looking, know more etc. than everyone else.

When laying down a boundary, be sure that you are fully prepared to enforce it. There is a vast difference between a threat and a boundary. Empty threats are a source of cruel amusement to the narcissist because they know you are not really going to act on them. A firm boundary with a consequence which is enforced – especially if you are trapped in a situation with a narcissist you cannot just walk away from becomes very important to maintaining your own will and even survival. Complete no contact only works if you are prepared to reinforce this boundary. The old expression of give a finger and they’ll take your arm is always true of a narcissist. The more you give, the more they will demand as though it is rightfully theirs.

Mollifying the Narcissist, when all you want is for them to just go away or just to stop with their relentless campaigns whether they are denigrating, gaslighting, using their flying monkeys or outright sabotaging your life, friendships, work, and family relationships, placating never works, this just gives them even more reason to demean you for your softness and in trying to keep them pacified you are only giving yet more permission to them to abuse you.

The facts vs fiction merry go round, resulting in bouts and arguments never serve you well. There are two different agendas and two very different animals at work in this scenario. The narcissist wants to control and win at all costs, while you want to try and have your voice heard, and you want to be validated in the factual context. Facts mean nothing to the narcissist. Lies are what they rely on as tools, and they are not interested in the truth and theirs as far as they are concerned is the only truth. Another adage ‘never argue with an idiot they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience’.

For those of us attracted to an intellectual individual, a narcissist can be at their most dangerous. Well-read is not intelligent, and many narcissists can mimic intellect but in fact, are only using interests of yours to redirect their own agenda. Using your own intelligence against you. Very often it’s intelligent people that are caught up by a narcissist, they rely on you questioning yourself and everything about yourself to make them stronger and you weaker.

Why denigrate? To keep you under control, off-balance and not believing in your own mind, the facts at hand and to keep you reliant on them as the only source of love/approval or denigration and disapproval. Once they have you in a position, they think you can’t escape from – this escalates

Self-understanding is one thing, trying to understand the narcissist is an entirely different thing. Again, we have two different agendas here. Seeking to understand why they do what they do, it a complete dead end. In your efforts to make others understand, you can also come off as even more crazy and everything they are accusing you of being. Winning is their only agenda – at your cost

There’s the saying, do you want to be in a relationship, or do you want to be right? While again, the issue of boundaries and standing up for yourself is essential, arguing with a narcissist or trying to come to an understanding of what drives them – will drive you nuts. Literally

They do not need you to understand them, and more importantly, they do not want you to understand them. The deliberate ambiguity/duality, gaslighting and manipulations are all designed for you to not comprehend.

Trying to raise this awareness with narcissist and others (flying monkeys) will only lead to depleting your own energy. Have firm boundaries sure, don’t be a wilting Lilley, however, also don’t provoke aggressively and unnecessarily, this again, just feeds the machine, and the backlash can end up being horrendous.

Excusing or minimising the narcissists’ behaviour is also what they count on. It’s not really that bad. Is it? Abuse is never okay. It also does not just go away, you may experience brief respite, but that is only because they are regrouping for yet another attack. You will be continuously tested. Be prepared for that.

No matter how ‘good’ you are, you will never be enough, good enough to reach the lofty goals the narcissist sets. You can only walk in your own truth and forget their and their flying monkeys’ opinions of you.

You will question whether you ever knew this person at all to start with. The truth is they never ever really knew you either. They like to believe that they are the authority on you and your life, but they never really understood the strength you had to make a break when you do. You are a survivor and not what he thought you were at all, and you are so much more than they ever thought you were. They will try to make you into what they need you to be for them and for no other reason.

Finally, don’t gamble with your sanity when it comes to a narcissist, they are not known for their integrity and honesty, and just when you think you’ve understood them, they will rip the rug out from underneath you yet again.

‘.. and as he spoke from beneath his cloak, he slipped another ace’ – Spanish Train Chris De Burgh

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