The Nastiest Trick in the Narcissist Playbook

What happens when the lights go out.

Image by On the Couch

You’re not a narcissist.

I know this because you’re reading this post. Narcissists don’t read about narcissism. Not for the right reasons, anyway.

Clinically speaking, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a mental health condition, characterised by an extreme self-focus coupled with the inability to consider, and relate to, the thoughts and feelings of others.

NPD, like any personality disorder, is not black and white so there are risks in rushing to a diagnosis. But, when someone exhibits a cluster of NPD traits, it can have serious implications for relationships.

I’ve heard a lot of stories from people who’ve been — and still are — in relationships with people who demonstrate narcissistic traits. They’re not pretty stories; they’re sad and scary.

But — violence aside — there’s one act from the narcissist playbook that gets me every time because it’s so psychologically manipulative: Sleep deprivation.

Here’s how it goes…

It usually follows a pattern like this: In the middle of the night (1–4am) the narcissist wakes their partner. They say something like they want to have a “talk” about their relationship. Or about anything.

The partner, foggy with sleep, attempts an answer to a question to which there is no answer (because that’s the point). And whatever they say is used to make and accusation or pick a fight — which can turn to rage and/or demands for apologies (or sex).

Sleep is over for the night, at least for the partner. They spend the rest of the night fearful and shaken; then attempt to go back to ordinary life the next day as though nothing happened. Their anxiety hums, after a while it never goes away.

Narcissists won’t do this every night. It’s a control tactic so the unpredictability of it is part of the game. Often they’ll do it when things are good and relatively calm. But, if you are the target, it means you can never be fully at peace — not even when you go to bed.

Sleep deprivation in a relationship

Sleep deprivation is a known interrogation technique, in which people are kept awake for extreme periods to be questioned. It’s been described as a form of torture, highly effective in “breaking someone’s will” without leaving any physical scars.

In relationships, the practice is not about being kept awake for days, it’s about disrupting sleep at random so that the partner is kept constantly on edge. Over time, this causes sleep problems, even chronic insomnia.

Obviously, too, sleep problems impact mental health. They are one of the early symptoms of many mental health struggles — such as anxiety, depression and other mood disorders and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Fatigue, irritability, confusion and difficulties with focus/concentration and decision-making are the fallout. The sleep-deprived person can then become disoriented, anxious and withdrawn, which keeps them in the narcissist’s holding pen.

What you need to know

“Nice people don’t necessarily fall in love with nice people.” ― Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom

Sleep deprivation is often not identified as a calling card of abuse, because it doesn’t leave any physical scars — and just because there is just so much else to deal with in a toxic relationship. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that has no off-switch.

Often, it’s not until a person is out of the relationship, and reflects back on it, that they recall the frequent disruption to their sleep. And they have an “aha” moment when they realise the confusion and exhaustion that comes with it is one of the reasons it was so hard for them to leave.

The insomnia can persist, even after breaking free. It makes sense: When you’ve been functioning on “high alert” with an unpredictable partner it can take time to learn to fully relax again, which is a key factor in sleeping well.

It’s important to recognise sleep disruption — or deprivation — as part of the package of abuse. It was not just a random act, it was part of a contrived plan to manipulate and control your thoughts and emotions.

If you’re in this place now, reach out for help. And if you’ve been in this place show yourself some compassion. Hold onto the truth that people can — and do — heal from toxic relationships. And know that you will too.

Thanks for reading! Join my email list here if you’re interested in practical psychology for everyday life.

Clinical psychologist, writer. Editor of On the Couch: Practical psychology for everyday life. karen@onthecouch.co.nz

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