“The food was awful. My ex used to make that dish really well, why can’t you?”
“My friends are more fun than you, and they don’t give me s*** like you do.”
“You’re always messing up these reports. Why can’t you do them like Jane does?”
Have you ever heard comments like this from a narcissist in your life? If so, you may have become the target of narcissist triangulation.
This is a very common manipulation tactic among narcissists, which unfortunately can have a severe effect on its victims. But don’t worry – in this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know to recognize, understand, and deal with narcissist triangulation. Let’s get started.
What is narcissist triangulation?
Dr. Ramani Durvasula, Professor of Psychology at California State University, calls narcissist triangulation a “psychological threesome that you didn’t consent to.”
It’s where the narcissist brings a third party into your relationship, engineering a rivalry, usually to gain some kind of control or power over you. The third person may be someone you know – maybe a sibling. But often, the third person will be someone you don’t know well, or even at all – perhaps someone from their past. This technique isn’t unique to narcissists – although triangulation and narcissism often go hand-in-hand.
Narcissist triangulation can take a few different forms, depending on the nature of the relationship, so let’s run through a few examples.
Narcissist triangulation with ex partners
If you’re in a romantic relationship with a narcissist, you may experience narcissist triangulation with ex-partners of the narcissist.
This can happen even when it’s someone you’ve never met – they might tell you all the wonderful things they liked about their ex, or mention the things their ex did better than you. This can start out very subtle – little off-hand comments here and there, that doesn’t worry you too much. Then it can escalate to more overt comparisons. The goal here is usually to make you jealous.
They may also use triangulation with an ex they didn’t like. In this case the strategy is a little different – the narcissist might talk about an ex in very negative terms, making it very clear that this is someone they don’t like or respect at all. Then, they’ll compare you to them. The aim in this case is to shame you for being or doing something similar to their ex.
Narcissist triangulation within the family
If you’re the child of a narcissistic parent, you may have been nodding your head as you read some of the above descriptions. Narcissistic parents often have one favoured or “golden” child, and a scapegoat – the target of the triangulation.
At it’s core, narcissist triangulation within the family boils down to the classic “divide and conquer” strategy. Julius Caesar used triangulation when conquering the Celts – sowing mistrust among the separate tribes, pitting them against each other, and putting himself in a stronger position. And narcissistic parents may do a similar thing with their children.
The golden child is idealised, and the narcissistic parent may see them as their heir apparent – a close extension of themselves. The scapegoat is the opposite. They can do very little right, and regularly find themselves at the receiving end of criticisms, complaints, and unfavourable comparisons with the golden child.
Narcissist triangulation in the workplace
Narcissistic leaders in the workplace may use triangulation to foster a chaotic, toxic environment amongst their staff.
An employee, or several employees, might find themselves the subject of workplace gossip. Meetings may be held without all relevant people present. People may “accidentally” be left off of email chains. And in a similar way as with the family dynamic, favoured staff members will be turned against those that are less favoured.
This creates a dynamic of mistrust amongst the staff. The narcissist is playing a chess game here, using people as pawns. Only he can see the whole board, and this makes people reliant on him – everything has to go through him because only he has all the information.
Unfortunately, this type of work environment is quite common when narcissists move into leadership roles – a study in 2011 found a strong link between narcissistic traits in CEOs and the presence of bullying in the workplace.
So that’s what narcissist triangulation is. Now let’s move on to the motives for this behaviour. Why do narcissists triangulate in the first place? What drives them, and what are they trying to achieve?
Why does a narcissist triangulate?
To understand many behaviours of narcissists, it can really help to understand a little about their nature. So before we get into triangulation, let’s do a quick overview of their psychological makeup in general:
- Although most narcissists (with the exception of vulnerable narcissists) project a grandiose outward appearance and have an unreasonably high opinion of themselves, this masks a low and fragile self-esteem.
- Narcissists have great difficulty in defining or understanding their own self-worth, and because of that, they need a constant supply of admiration, flattery and attention from other people. We call this the narcissistic supply.
- If they don’t get their supply, they can suffer a narcissistic injury – this is when get a glimpse of their “true” self-esteem, and see that it may not match up with how they like to see themselves. This is extremely unpleasant for a narcissist and can often lead to narcissistic rage and abusive behaviors towards others.
While narcissists might have different reasons for using triangulation, their use of it will tend to fit within this overall framework. This will make more sense as we look at some of the key motives for triangulation.
To gain control
Gaining control is an important goal of many narcissists, and triangulation is one of many techniques they may employ to achieve it.
As we’ve just discussed, narcissists need flattery and attention from other people to prop up their self-esteem – to get their narcissistic supply. So, leaving people to their own devices is a risky proposition for a narcissist. You never know when someone might say or do something that hurts your self-esteem.
So, a better strategy – from their point of view that is – is to try to control people. To use whatever means at their disposal to paint themselves in a positive light in the eyes of others. They are trying to guide to act in a way that gives them their narcissistic supply.
With triangulation, the narcissist can become the puppet master of their social world. It’s their ace in the hole, that they can use to control what people think and how they feel. If people start to threaten their self-esteem, they can bring in the third person to nip that behaviour in the bud – whether that’s talking about the third person, or literally bringing them in and getting them on the side of the narcissist.
The ability to control people also provides a sense of power to the narcissist – something they feel they deserve.
To make you chase
This motive is most common in intimate relationships. The goal is to create jealousy, to make you feel like you are in competition with the third person in the triangle. Maybe they mention things they like about them, “Like” their posts on social media, or ask you to dress like they do.
Once they’ve got you feeling jealous, the idea is that you’ll start chasing the narcissist. They want you to work harder at trying to please them.
And if you react negatively to the triangulation, well, that’s fine too. If your jealousy makes you angry, that just shows them that you care – which is a form of narcissistic supply in itself. It also might lead to a fight, giving them an excuse to argue with you, belittle you, and lower your self-esteem. Which brings us to the next motive for triangulation…
To lower your self esteem
As noted above, a narcissistic injury can occur when a narcissist gets a glimpse of their “true” self, and sees that it might not match up to their idealised version of themselves.
Now, if this happened to someone without narcissistic personality disorder had this experience, they might be upset, but it might also be a positive thing. They might use it as a springboard try to improve themselves – maybe they’d change how they act towards certain people, read personal development books, or find some other way to become a better person.
But narcissists struggle with this logic. They already are perfect, there’s nothing to improve. So if improving themselves isn’t an option, what’s left? Sadly, the opposite approach is to try to put down the people around them – even those they claim to love. If the narcissist can knock the people around them down a peg or two, they’ll be on top again.
Triangulation is a highly effective strategy for this purpose. They cleverly bring someone else into the picture, and make that third person seem superior to you. Pointing out your flaws, true or not, makes them feel better. And after a while of such abuse, you may eventually start to believe it, which keeps you where they want you to be.
How to react to narcissist triangulation?
If the above descriptions are ringing alarm bells for you, this does raise an important question: how do I stop narcissistic triangulation? What can I actually do about it?
Here are 6 ways to help you stop the triangulation.
1) Recognise the game
Although not all narcissists are calculating, manipulative schemers, some certainly are – and some are superb at what they do. You may not even realise you’ve been triangulated until you’re deep into the game.
So the first step out, is to realise that this is happening to you. Does your parent treat a sibling in a vastly different way to you? Does your romantic partner bring up a potential rival, and do you find yourself feeling jealous of this person? Is there a strong sense of favouritism at your workplace, or do you feel excluded, or do people gossip about you?
If you find that you’re being triangulated, remember why it’s happening. Keep in mind that this is a person with a mental disorder, and they are acting impulsively, reacting to their own deep-seated issues.
They may act in cruel and malicious ways – and this should not be ignored – but it can help to take the edge off when you realise that their actions are being driven, at root, by an extremely low and fragile self-esteem.
2) Don’t play the game
The only way to win this game, is not to play.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that if you give in to their needs, this will end the abuse. Don’t try to chase them, or seek their approval and validation, thinking that once you earn it, this behaviour will stop. In all likelihood, it won’t.
All you’d be doing is reinforcing the behaviour – you’re showing them that if they behave in this way towards you, then you will reward them with the attention they want.
And even if it did work, this wouldn’t be the basis for a healthy relationship – whether that’s with a parent, work colleague, or romantic partner. Your needs are important, so don’t sacrifice them for someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart.
3) Respond, don’t react
The best way to react to narcissist triangulation when it happens, is not to react at all.
This is difficult. In a sense, you’re being attacked. When you’re being compared negatively to someone else, it’s natural to want to defend yourself. You want to argue, to tell them they are wrong, that the comparison isn’t fair, that they are being insensitive.
But as we’ve seen, triangulation is an emotional provocation – a reaction is what they want! It only pulls you deeper into the game. Once you react emotionally, the conversation can move to your reaction, rather than the abuse that led to it. Now they can say “Look at you, overreacting as usual, your sister doesn’t act like this!” Or they can turn it around on you, “I’m insensitive?! You’re the one who’s being unfair, look how your treating me right now!”
Rather than engaging, a better approach is to remain calm, and just say something like “You’re entitled to your opinion.” or “OK, I don’t agree with what you’re saying, but you’re entitled to your feelings.” Don’t get drawn into the game – respond, but don’t react.
4) Try mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation is a mental exercise that can help you stay calm when under pressure. You pay attention to a particular stimuli, usually the breath or your bodily sensations, and you practice merely observing it without reacting.
Meditation can help put a gap between something happening to you, and your reaction to it. With practice, that gap gets wider, and eventually it gets wide enough for you to stop, take a breath, and calm yourself down before your emotions flare up.
If you want to give it a try, the Happy Project has a good mindfulness guide aimed at beginners.
5) Get support
Triangulation is a form of emotional abuse, so it’s not something that you should face alone. Get support from a trusted friend, or ideally, from a professional who specialises in narcissistic personality disorder.
6) Leave the triangle
Narcissistic personality disorder is a complex and difficult condition to treat. There are cases where narcissists have sought treatment, and seen a subsequent change in their behaviour for the better. But admitting they have a disorder, and seeking help to treat it, is not something that narcissists, by nature, are inclined to do.
So, if you are the victim of triangulation at the hands of a narcissist, it’s unlikely to expect this behaviour to change. Leaving the triangle – which is to say, cutting contact with the narcissist – is something you should consider.
Making a decision like this and carrying it through can be difficult. That’s why this step 6, and not step 1, even though in many cases it should be the ultimate goal.
Make sure you’ve at least got some support, that you’re not engaging with the triangulation, and that you’re taking steps to look after your own mental health – which could be through mindfulness mediation or some other method. After that, think about whether leaving the narcissist might be the best move for you.