I met a guy at a wedding last year, call him Sy. He was a narcissist, and not a particularly adept one. He had a few good strategies though, and like a local pool hall hustler he could make out pretty well for a time with an unfamiliar audience. Somehow he picked me out - why does this always happen to me? - and sat next to me before the ceremony. He postured as if we were long lost friends; and, agreeable fool I often am, I politely matched his level of enthusiasm, not realizing I’d been targeted and selected.
I’ve noticed toxic people - particularly the smart and adaptive ones - often have a very neat and efficient strategy to filter the people in their orbit. They frontload their bullshit, but in subtle ways. Those who are wise to it can’t effectively call it out because it’s subtle, so they simply disengage; and those that aren’t wise to it are selected in, set up in the desired game from the start. And so the dysfunctional person collects others who play along, and avoids entanglement with those who’d threaten them.
Anyway, Sy was making a ton of noise and turning heads during the ceremony. He was posturing in a way I was familiar with, and had actually done myself in the past: a very self-conscious appeal to onlookers, “I am the sort of person who takes deep enjoyment in the happiness and success of my friends.” In his case, so much that he could barely contain it. He asked for my phone to take pictures for me to send to him because his was dead. I’m realizing now he did this to get my number; he probably saw me as a high value target and wanted to keep a hook in.
Why are these people pulled to me? What signal of vulnerability am I sending out? NYC street hustlers pick up on it instantly. I remember locking eyes with one walking in Harlem and his face widened into a bemused grin – as if he’d hit the jackpot.
If some street hustler challenges you to a game of three card monte you don't need to bother to play, just hand him the money, not because you're going to lose but because you owe him for the insight: he selected you. Whatever he saw in you everyone sees in you, from the blonde at the bar to your elderly father you've dismissed as out of touch, the only person who doesn't see it is you, which is why you fell for it.
The Last Psychiatrist, The Dove Sketches Beauty Scam
In the past, I would have spent the entire night with Sy, and not because I particularly liked him, but just because he knew how to pull all of my exposed strings. It’s the role to which I’m adapted and disposed, to complement people like this. On one level, they intuitively sense a prime mark for their strategies; but on another, I think they see that I’m not trying to reduce them: that I’m trying to understand them for who they really are, to see them on their own terms. Both attract them, and there’s a tension between them: they desperately crave acceptance and validation of who they fundamentally are beneath all of their misdirection and bullshit, but intensely avoid ever truly being seen because it’d require them to be too vulnerable.
He’d pulled me aside when a group of us went to go smoke out back, annoyed after I’d interrupted his bravado with too earnest a question - he’d stared at me dumbfounded for five full seconds. We went up the road - why did I agree to any of this? - and, after a few lines of cocaine, he began to tell me about his struggles and learning to toughen up. He showed me the cut marks on his wrists. “This sensitive guy shit, it ends now. Look at me. Make the decision. It ends now.” I started to sense the whole thing was for him. By that point at least I realized I had to get away.
Hey man I want to get back, I think the next thing’s started.
I gave you your time and now you give me mine.
Don’t make me regret getting real with you.
Under ordinary circumstances, particularly so early on, people like this don’t have to say this sort of thing explicitly - the really good ones pretty much never have to, ever. They fence their targets in with softer, more nebulous indications communicating the same thing: deviate from the script and there’ll be a problem. And like circus elephants, their prey almost never test the boundaries of the circle to realize there wasn’t actually anything real holding them back: it was all smoke and mirrors. They count on this. It’s what they’re selecting for, and they have incredible instincts for it.
This game tends to play out at an almost completely subconscious, instinctual level; you usually can’t even see much less point to the ways you’re being fenced in or threatened. You only feel the effects, pulled in certain directions with a nagging sense that something’s not quite right, and the only way out is a daring act of bravery - to scream ‘NO!’ even though you have no idea how to explain what it is exactly that you’re rejecting and why. To call what is so obviously a spade a spade even though no one else will agree.
But many fail to trust themselves early on. And in the advanced stages you’re made to feel like you’re crazy for what you feel, and you stop trusting your internal sense to instead defer to them. It’s exactly what these dark magicians want: you’re locked in.
My ’NO!’ - only the second of my life - came later in the evening.
I was separated from Sy at dinner - saved by assigned seating - and had some time to think for myself without the pressure of his presence. The girl next to me, a very pretty writer from New York, laughed, “Was that you making all that noise during the ceremony?” “No,” I smiled, “I was just right next to him. You don’t know the half of it…”
Dinner was over and people began to migrate to the dance floor. I saw my friend, the only person I knew there besides the bride, and actually a rather remarkable narcissist dark magician (NDM) himself - I didn’t realize this until much later - and began to tell him about Sy. “Classic, classic narcissist-codependent trap.” Sy was suddenly right behind me. Had he heard? My friend left - he later told me he’d instinctively avoided this guy after talking with him very briefly and feeling him trying to get hooks in.
“We all good bro?”
“Yeah, yeah we’re good.” I shook my head with an expression of confusion at the question. I don’t like to lie but these people make it hard.
Sy didn’t seem to like that I was dancing. He’d pegged me as the type to stand on the periphery and talk, and I think envisioned he’d help me overcome my fears and meet some women - my Steve Carrell to his Ryan Gosling. It was ironically a role he wanted to play because he didn’t like dancing and was looking for a way to still look cool. His instincts were right - this was actually the first wedding I’d ever danced at. But I was beginning to decide not to play along.
He danced near me for a bit, but I could feel him trying to pivot to conversation, willing me to stop. He could feel me rejecting it.
“We all good bro?” he asked again. I once more gave him a confused expression and assured him nothing was wrong, this time with more irritation, holding eye contact longer than was comfortable - for me at least.
He looked at me smiling, as if reevaluating. “You’ve got some fire in you then.”
It makes you wonder if they know what they’re doing. Most of the time I don’t think so - and yet in these rare moments they seem to tip their hand…
This piece is about narcissist dark magicians like Sy: their psychology, the strategies they use and why people fall for them, and the impact they have, on individuals and on society more broadly. Sy was a relatively obvious and mostly harmless case, but these people can be quite subtle – and devastating. They’re CEOs, beloved community leaders, politicians and public officials; they’re also midlevel corporate drones, vagrants, and gangsters. You probably know and love one. And if they’re really good, you probably have no idea.
Their strategies take many forms, but this is always the result when successful: you are manipulated to play their game, in their terms and to their ends, without even realizing it.
Aella calls it frame control:
[F]rame control is the “man doesn’t announce his presence, he just stalks you silently” of the communication world. It’s when you end up in the other person’s box without knowing that it happened […] it’s a slow build of their frame around you until you don’t remember what your box ever looked like.
Sy leveraged a few different tactics to get me playing his game.
His opening gambit was excessive familiarity and the pretense of friendship. Perhaps he could sense I was not the type to say “I don’t know you dude, back off.” This was his in.
That’s the core of their strategy: to find a place you’re afraid to go, corner you over it, and leave with you the choice to take their hand – and accept their terms – or fall in. Everyone has these, and NDMs tend to have pretty good instincts for which to try. In my case I was afraid of conflict and especially of hurting people’s feelings, and would bend over backwards to avoid doing so – even if it meant accepting insane commitments. And each time you go along with their terms, the stakes get higher, and it gets harder to unroot the whole thing and cast it away. They know this: “We all good bro?”
It’s not just your fears they leverage. Anything will do so long as it’s effective. Sy for instance shoved his drink in my hand as he went to go dance with a girl, taking advantage of a social norm that male friends are supposed to look out for and support one another in romantic pursuits. It wasn’t about the drink, though. It was about dominance, and his expression said it all: a careful avoidance of eye contact as he made the move, and, despite his efforts to mask it, an unmistakeable self satisfaction at pulling one over on me making its way into his swagger.
That’s the thing with NDMs - it’s never what they pretend it is. They always have an angle, something they’re trying to advance, and they’re masters at couching their behavior to maintain plausible deniability. The more time you spend with them, the more you begin to see the true contours of their intentions, and it can be crazy-making to try to force them to admit it - or to get those less familiar, often under the NDM’s spell, to side with you.
Everything to them is only a means to the end of reinforcing their self concept and image - that’s the priority to which every other possible concern and value is subordinated. Which is why once you suspect you’ve found one, it’s often best to get the hell away and never look back:
And this is why my general philosophy for people who frame control is “burn it with fire.” I don’t have this for any other human flaw – people with terrible communication skills, traumatized people who lash out, anxious, needy people who will try to soak the life out of you, furious dox-prone people on the internet – I believe there’s an empathic route forward. Not so with frame control.
Frame control uses the pathways of love, desire to do good, empathy – of any sort of human connection. […] You look for their human intent, you imagine what it’s like to be them, you empathically step into their world, and then it clamps down around you.
You’re probably wondering what a very adept NDM is like. I’ve had the bad luck to know many rather talented ones - and a few of genuinely world class caliber.
NDMs are trying to force others to view and interact with them a certain way - as dominant, wise, benevolent, kind, whatever the high status traits of the day might be - and being a good NDM means being good at both this coercion as well as its obfuscation. Very good ones can see threats and challenges to their self image coming from very far away, and are constantly working to reign in, disarm, and preempt them.
The logical end of this process is total dominion and control over others’ minds: to have them abandon their internal sense and perspective to instead look to you for their fundamental orientation. This is what extremely good NDMs are able to do, slowly and steadily over time, without their targets noticing - and often with their targets coming to love and fiercely defend them.
How can they do this? I have some insight into this, both on the giving as well as the receiving side of it.
I wasn’t ever fully lost to this - an uncommon and even irrational commitment to honesty prevented me from completely falling in - but I did engage in some of these behaviors. I’d been bullied quite severely in middle school, and in the time after had been exposed to an extraordinary NDM talent. I think I saw a very natural solution to my problems, and you absorb things quite quickly and deeply at that age. I was never great at it, but I did learn to curate and impose an image; and in time I was no longer bullied.
It all happens on an instinctual level. I could sense how to angle and posture myself to force others into my desired game - which tended to involve me as a kind of spiritual higher power, exceedingly kind and benevolent. The truth is that if you present the frame subtly and confidently enough, people almost always accept it. But more importantly I could feel when I couldn’t get away with it.
I remember the way one friend, himself an NDM, bristled when I bested him. I’d given him some unsolicited advice about his mistreatment of a mutual friend, and ended with a friendly pat on the back: ostensibly to show friendship and that I meant no ill-intent or challenge; but the real purpose, and this wasn’t clear to me at all at the time, was to dominate him. His jaw was clenched and he seemed like he might hit me. He was particularly sensitive to these maneuvers, and I’d never really had that reaction from someone before. But I backed off and learned not to go there with him.
None of this felt wrong - it felt quite natural to want to be seen well by others, and I believed my image. It didn’t feel like I was dominating others; it just felt like I was doing the right thing. It was only the unmitigated failure of these strategies and a rather dark period of my life in the aftermath that led me to face what was really happening.
But I could never do what truly great NDMs do: defang and own you.
The most powerful NDMs know how to speak directly to the subconscious, intuitive parts of our selves, and cow them into submission.
I’ve seen two ways they do this. One is to use anger and love strategically, coaxing you in their preferred direction with one and snapping you back when you overstep with the other. Their genius here is in knowing precisely how to shape you; knowing exactly where to coax you and where to shut you down in order to advance their ends and dismantle any threat you could ever pose. With enough time, their complicated rules become second nature to you, and they almost never need to actually enforce them - and you’re left wondering without a clue why you feel so much pressure and anxiety around them.
The other is more a kind of psychological warfare. It’s an effect that happens when you’re repeatedly made to go along with something you know on some level isn’t true, and is all the more powerful when it isn’t clear to you what exactly is wrong. Confused and overridden in this way often enough, your instincts begin to grow disordered, and eventually are worn down to nothing. At that point, you’ll go along with almost anything.
It’s similar to what happens with kayfabe, professional wrestling’s system of lies. Kayfabe layers truths and falsehoods on top of each other, and as the structure grows more complicated, it becomes increasingly difficult for the audience (and even performers) to keep reality and fantasy separate. The audience comes to abandon the effort, “believing and disbelieving in what it sees at the same time”; and in the absence of a sense of reality, they can be easily led around by the emotional logic of the spectacle.
I think this erosion of instincts is why I’m so susceptible to NDMs. They come upon me to find their work has already been done.
I have this fundamental outward orientation that’s like a handle for them to grab onto, and they see it.
It’s why, when a car turning onto a busy street almost ran over me and my dog, my only impulse was concern for the driver - that he not be too hard on himself for his mistake.
The instincts that are supposed to orient me and structure my experience are just… broken.
It’s the natural result of dealing with them too long, and it’s part of why these plainclothes wolves tend to dominate wherever they go - as long as those around them can’t say no.
Our institutional settings are practically made for them. NDMs have a particular talent for manipulating others and cultivating a positive image, and so they’re a natural fit in institutional structures - places where reputation is everything, and nobody can say no so long as they want a job.
Not all NDMs end up being hyper successful. But they’re overrepresented, at least in the fields where their talents apply. These skills get you a lot farther than the more ordinary ones.
It’s not just those who cross their paths professionally who have to deal with their bullshit. If you’ve ever wondered why attractive women tend to be bitchy, it’s often because they have to be - imagine being a honing beacon for every species of manipulative tactic ever developed.
Narcissists are fundamentally only working to meet their needs: they paper over the gaping hole at their center with praise, recognition, domination, status. The problem is that it comes at your expense: every conversation and interaction steered and coerced to enable them to demonstrate their value and stature; your entire relationship with them merely a source for validation. These victories are ultimately empty - praise is meaningless if coerced - and so can’t provide any real happiness. But they can distract from pain. And so the narcissist finds ways to take the edge off, never sated, while the real sources of their pain compound.
Sy had found me on the dance floor: “Did you see I made out with her?” It was uncharacteristically guileless. He seemed annoyed that I hadn’t, but I tried to give him some genuine encouragement and a fist bump. There’s a deeply patronizing and condescending way to play people like this off; I never use it. There’s something underneath their games, and the prospect of reducing and writing them off has always struck me as horribly cruel. Is that what keeps me open to this?
But I did distance myself from him, awkwardly but decisively, and he stopped engaging.
Sy wasn’t yet a great magician, but with time and some more challenging marks, he’d probably get within spitting distance of the top tier. He’d already cowed everyone in his local environment.
The only way out for these people is to have their illusory self image so utterly foreclosed on that they have no choice but to face who they really are and what’s really going on inside them. That’s how it was for me anyway, and I’m about as self-reflective and earnest as they come.
The reality is that most will never have to.
Within thirty minutes, Sy was already plying new targets.
Very interesting - I think you captured a lot of what drive narcissists like Sy.
One part that stuck out to me was your description of your own experience as an NDM. From one perspective, your behavior at that point fell into NDM territory because you were consciously working to influence people's views of you. However, from another perspective, you were simply being *you* - perhaps not the "true" you (whatever that means), but the you who was hurt and tired and needed a way out. It seems like there's only a blurry line between the people we pretend to be and ourselves; as Vonnegut put it, “we are what we pretend to be”.
wow, some of the best writing I've seen on the topic. I'm new to your sub stack after reading your lex Fridman thread, and just read all the articles you have up and wanted more hahah. I really hope you keep writing if you find the time and desire to!