Buttons Narcissists & Psychopaths Push (Plus Coping Tips)

“Normally when you tell a partner that something is upsetting you, they work on doing less of it. But with a sociopath or narcissist, they’ll start doing more of it. Sociopaths learn what makes you “tick” and then experiment with how much they can get away with doing it.”

Psychopath Free Blog

The Cluster B personality disorders (psychopaths/sociopaths/narcissists/borderlines/histrionics) are by their nature provocative, dramatic and reaction seeking. They love to push the buttons of their victims psychologically and sit back and watch the negative reaction unfold. They love to see others down.

Because of this, it is important for anyone involved with these personality types to a) understand the nature of these disorders, including what drives them, and b) take steps to control one’s own emotional reactions in the face of the toxic mind games they will play in an attempt to provoke you.

It is also important to understand one’s own vulnerabilities, to understand what weaknesses psychopaths and narcissists can exploit in you.

Here are some common buttons they like to push in others:

  • A sense of not being adequate or good enough.
  • A sense of being left out, excluded or isolated.
  • A naturally defensive, self blaming disposition
  • A desire to be seen as conscientious and never cause trouble.

Toxic, disordered people love to sniff out and poke at these wounds and fears, so it is vitally important to be aware of these tactics and increase our own self awareness, so we can understand how our weaknesses can be used against us.

Thankfully, with an increase in knowledge of personality disorders and increased knowledge of ourselves, it is possible “flip the script” on narcissists and psychopaths and become immune to their petty mind games.

Let’s look in more detail at how they push these buttons in us, as well as some general principles we can follow to stop them getting away with it.

Some Common Buttons They Like to Push

Let’s run through each of the buttons we listed above in more detail, and include some examples of how this manipulation can play out.

1. The Not Good Enough Button – Psychopaths & narcissists can also very quickly hone in on insecurities regarding your talents, competencies and skills. They can see if there’s a self doubt there, a nagging sense that you aren’t good enough, either in a specific context, or just low self esteem in general.

Here are some ways they can play on this vulnerability:

  • Constant overt or subtle criticism of your body, appearance or clothing.
  • Constantly comparing you unfavorably to others (triangulation). A very common tactic in toxic intimate relationships.
  • Cheating on you and then waving the new person in your face to make you feel there was something wrong with you that made them cheat.
  • Relentless nit-picking and micromanagement in a work setting. Always finding a problem. Nothing is ever done right.
  • Never offering praise or encouragement; only ever criticism.

Two very common variants of this button that toxic personalities love to push are:

  • “There’s something wrong with you”
  • “You’re not OK as you are”.

Again the way they poke at these insecurities are very similar – they’ll use verbal and non verbal tactics to make you feel weird, and outcast or somehow inadequate, especially in comparison to others.

2. The Left Out/Excluded Button – This is a very common one in workplace and social scenarios. Toxic people are masters at making you feel isolated in a group.

They can do this through a number of means:

  • Excluding you from group conversations or banter, and undermining or ignoring you when you try to enter it.
  • Being seemingly warm, nice and charming with everyone else in a group settings except you. Selective empathy and rapport.
  • Subtle comments that indicate you are unpopular or an outcast in a work or social setting. (eg. “Ah, he’s changed the rotas, so now I’m working with you, now”, with the “you” said in such a way that it’s a subtle dig at you. Subtly undermining meta-communication).
  • Smearing you to others in a work or personal setting in a way that leaves you feeling vulnerable and isolated. See our article on the sociopath/narcissist-empath-apath triad for a framework of how they play on the apathy of others to isolate good people.

3. The Defensive Button – They can also sense very well if you are naturally a defensive person that may blame yourself a lot or assume you are the one at fault in any kind of conflict. They’ll readily hone in on this self doubt either to get themselves off the hook from something, or just for their own amusement.

Here are some ways this can play out:

  • Accusing you of doing something they know you didn’t do, just to start an argument and put you on the defensive.
  • Making false accusations against you that they know aren’t true, just to get you expending energy trying to defend yourself.
  • Pouncing on small mistakes and making them into big issues on purpose to make you feel bad (common in the workplace).
  • Trying to portray you as being the source of a bad atmosphere in a work or relationship environment, when in fact they are seeking to cause trouble.
  • In extreme cases of “gas-lighting”, they’ll try blaming you for something they know they’re responsible for, just to see if they can bully you into accepting the blame.
  • The general message they like to send, with overt and meta communication, is “you’re to blame” or “you’re the problem”. If we have a naturally self doubting and self blaming tendency, we will internalize this message and believe it to be true even if it isn’t. We’ll take on all the toxicity in the relationship, while they sit back and enjoy the show.

In this way, psychopaths and narcissists love to get you on the defensive, getting you expending energy explaining and justifying yourself, while they sit back, either inwardly or outwardly smirking, happy that they’ve got you worked up and agitated trying to defend yourself.

4. The Conscientious/Good Person Button – Psychopaths & Narcissists are toxic, disordered people at the core. They are not high performers or top achievers, despite their confident persona.

Therefore, they love to invert reality and “flip the script”, painting good people out to be bad, and bad people out to be good. They know that empaths or highly sensitive people often pride themselves on being good, conscientious, hard working and well put together people, never in trouble and never causing trouble. So they like to invert this and try to make out the opposite to be true.

Here are some ways they can do this:

  • Again constant nit-picking and micromanagement, you are never good enough.
  • Smearing you to work colleagues and higher management in an attempt to destroy your good reputation and standing.
  • Setting you up with this smearing, so that if something does blow up at work, you get the blame for it whether it’s your fault or not, such have they been stabbing you in the back to others. They relish seeing someone who prefers to get their head down and work hard be seen as a “problem” and be the center of attention in a negative light, because they have so undermined them and damaged their reputation through malicious gossip.
  • Incessantly provoking reactions and then victimizing themselves when you eventually do react, painting you out to others as being crazy, hard work, “trouble” or insensitive.
  • Undermining you to friends or work colleagues, using gas-lighting and malicious gossip to isolate you and make others think you “have lost it” or are “going crazy”.
  • Accusing you of cheating in a relationship, when in reality they are often the ones who are cheating.
  • Accusing you of being selfish or “not a team player”, when they are the ones who are causing all the trouble and acting only for themselves.
  • In general trying to get you so agitated, flustered or angry that you lose your usual calmness, composure and cheerfulness, which starts to negatively impact you relationships with others. You start to think there is something wrong with you.
  • Getting you on the defensive so much that you feel you must defend yourself to others, which may sometimes drive them away.
  • For theoretical background, what is often happening here is that the disordered person is projecting their own internal toxicity and flaws onto you, effectively making you absorb or “take in” their poison. Denial and projection are two common patterns with the Cluster B disorders.

In this way, psychopaths and narcissists are often able to create a warped reality, where good people are forced out of jobs or lose friends, while they walk off scot-free, smirking at how they’ve managed to turn things on their head, destroying the reputation of someone who was previously considered (and in reality still is) good, conscientious and hard working.

“The narcissist/psychopath reaches out with a provocative communication, with the intent of upsetting or hurting you…..The victim gets their adrenaline spiked….they become angry or anxious or depressed….The victim feels instantly, neurotically compelled to redress the balance…and they reply way too instinctively, way too quickly, with way too much emotion….trying to use reason where there is none….

….(The victim feels): ‘I have to drop everything and answer straight away and send through a 500 word essay about what they just said was wrong, and it was wrong, and they shouldn’t and it was unfair,  and this is because of this, and also when you say that to a person that means X etc etc.’

And you’re psycho-babbling and philosophizing and you’re pouring out all this stuff. And the psychopath/narcissist is sat back going “Ha ha ha ha! Got ya!”.

You’ve given them exactly what they want. Because you’re showing them you’re upset. You’re showing them you’re in an emotional state.

The narcissist then goes into an emotional high….and they learn that this works, and they keep it in their toolbox. Effectively what we do over time is we teach the narcissist what hurts us….Don’t teach the narcissist what hurts you”

Richard Grannon

I’ll leave the comments open on this post – anyone with experience of dealing with Cluster B’s, please leave any other suggestions of buttons they commonly like to push. I’ll add them to the list.

The inner world of the psychopath/narcissist is actually a stormy, barren mess, and this is why they need to provoke others so much to feel good about themselves

Tracing This Back to Older Unresolved Wounds

Whilst it is true that toxic people like narcissists and psychopaths are 100% responsible for the abusive way they treat others, it is also true that in most cases, they are exploiting wounds that already exist in us from the past.

If by pushing psychological buttons, they manage to “trigger” you into a negative emotional state, it is likely because what they are doing to you is in some way resembling something else that was done to you in the past, usually in childhood.

In other words, personality disordered people like to exploit and poke away at us to reopen old wounds from the past. They like to trigger emotional flashbacks in their victims.

Here are some examples of how each of the “buttons” we listed above could feed back into something else from childhood:

  • Not good enough button – Parents had unrealistic demands and expectations of you. Gave too much criticism and not enough praise.
  • Isolated/excluded button – Parents excluded you from their activities, or favored a sibling over you. Or you were excluded and bullied at school, leaving you isolated.
  • Defensive button – Parents were constantly blaming you for everything, even if it wasn’t your fault. Left you feeling constantly attacked and under threat.
  • Conscientious/good person button – Parents may have praised you for being well behaved, but excessively punished and shamed you for any kind of bad behavior. Or else their love may have been entirely conditional on you being a “good little boy/girl” that never opposed them, rebelled or caused any trouble. More generally, your needs may have also come last – you were expected to be quiet and not cause trouble.

From these examples, we can therefore see that when the psychopath or narcissist provokes us, we are not just reacting to what they have done to us in the present, but are also being “triggered” back into how we felt when something else was done to us in our childhood.

This is why Cluster B abuse can be so devastating, because once these predators find out what our wounds are, they’ll hammer away at them, traumatizing us in the present as well as reopening old wounds from the past.

These are only examples of course, and they are many more ways in which childhood abuse can play out. It is important to work through this with a qualified therapist to uncover your own wounds, and the specific scenarios in which they were created. It will of course differ for each person.

See the excellent video just below from Richard Grannon, where he covers the intersection between Cluster B abuse and pre-existing emotional wounds in the victims.

Psychopaths & Narcissists Poke Away at Your Unresolved Wounds…


See here for our Find a Therapist page for resources on finding a suitable therapist to work through these issues with, so you are less open to abuse from Cluster B disordered people.

Stop The Narcissist/Psychopath Triggering You

Thankfully, there are ways of dealing with the provocation of narcissists and psychopaths in a way that it does not lead us to fall into these debilitating emotional flashbacks, or at least has far less impact on us.

Again the best resource on this is Richard Grannon, Spartan Life Coach. We keep citing his work because it simply is the best in terms of not just solid information, but actual practical advice on becoming stronger, more resilient and less open to abuse.

He has plenty of resources on exercises to quickly reduce the regularity and severity of these emotional flashbacks.

Here are some of his free resources:

More generally, do not teach the narcissist what triggers and hurts you. If they can see that something they do or say gets you upset or distressed, they’ll store it away to use again in the future whenever it suits.

By reducing your reaction to their behavior, you give them much less to feed off, and they’ll have to get their supply by provoking someone else.

Pushing the Toxic Person’s Buttons in Response

“Planet Narco (The inner world of the narcissist/psychopath):

A toxic, barren, tempestuous mess. Baseline state of panic and emotional dys-regulation. Power and emotional reaction fixated”

Richard Grannon

Narcissists and Psychopaths feed off other people’s unhappiness. They get a kick out of other people’s sadness. This is why they are so often seeking to provoke an emotional reaction in others. They like to see they have got in someone’s head and made them doubt themselves or feel bad. It inflates their mood and makes them feel good to see someone else down.

This will seem bizarre to a normal person with some kind of decency and conscience, but it’s completely normal and everyday in the world of the narcissist or psychopath. They need to make others feel bad to make themselves feel good.

There are however some good ways to turn the tables on these toxic characters, and use their own weaknesses and internal disorder against them.

Here are some ways to provoke the narcissist especially (the psychopath may be more resistant):

  • Imply through body language, tone of voice, and meta-communication that they are boring, dull and uninteresting.
  • Imply that they are mundane, everyday, commonplace, and not special (will enrage the narcissist especially).
  • Be subtle and covert in the way you do this, just like they often are. Just little digs or insinuations here and there, to imply they are very dull and ordinary, not exceptional at all.
  • If they then explode into a rage-ful reaction, then patronize them like you would a spoilt child or point out their over-reaction to others.
  • More generally, remain cheerful and unaffected by their provocation and mind games. Disordered people will actively hate this.

More generally, it is important to realize that the inner world of the Cluster B disordered individuals is not at all well put together as they project, but actually a toxic mess. This is why they need to provoke reactions in others so much.

Once you see this, you see how vulnerable they really are, and how easily you can put yourself back in control, by not being affected by their provocative tactics.

By using the resources linked above to better manage your emotional state, you can remain actively happy and cheerful in the face of the psychopath or narcissist’s provocation, and this will actively irritate and deflate them, because they see they could not deflate your mood by provoking a reaction in you. Their usual tactics didn’t work.

Once you get your emotional flashbacks under control, they wont be able to send you into a bad mood spiral, and this will annoy them. Wave the fact that they can’t get to you anymore in their face by showing how unaffected you now are by their childish mind games.


Using my personal experience and research to educate others about narcissists and other pathological personality types

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