This is a question so many of us ask after finally getting out of toxic relationships with psychopaths and narcissists. We want to know what it is that made the disordered person target us, what drew them to target us specifically, and not all the other people they could have preyed on.
It is true that one of the key characteristics of the Cluster B personality disorders, which includes psychopaths/sociopaths and narcissists, is exploitativeness. They are constantly looking for opportunities to manipulate and exploit others for their own ends.
But what exactly is it that psychopaths and narcissists exploit in their victims? What character traits or flaws do they look for to take advantage of it others?
Here is a quick summary of the main vulnerabilities and weaknesses psychopaths and narcissists exploit in others:
- Need for the approval of others
- Poor boundaries and lack of ego strength
- An overly kind & forgiving nature
- A “Fixer” or “Saver” mindset (I can fix them)
- Secrets or things you want to hide (or keep private).
- Overly naive ideas of unconditional love
- Superficiality and lack of critical thinking
- Unresolved childhood trauma.
Whilst there are some minor differences between the psychopathic and narcissistic personalities, for the purposes of this article, they can be treated as equivalent, since both personality types are fundamentally exploitative in the same way in terms of the weaknesses they prey on in others.
Some of these traits also cross over and overlap in some ways. Let’s break down each of the traits listed in more detail, explaining how they can exploit each tendency, with some specific examples as well.
1. Need For the Approval of Others
This is a huge weakness that psychopaths and narcissists will prey on time and again. If you are still neurotically dependent on the need for approval from others, the toxic disordered personality will very quickly figure this out and realize they have you under their control, either to specifically target or to co-opt as a bystander in their attacks on others.
We all need approval from other people to a certain extent, but as many psychologists have pointed out, when we don’t get this approval on cue, then we can become neurotic individuals, who compulsively seek the approval and validation of others.
This is manipulative person’s dream, since they can use this neurotic need for approval against you. Here are some examples of ways they can play on and exploit this weakness:
- A tendency to be overly sensitive to any perceived or real signs of disapproval from others, in terms of body language, tone of voice, facial expression, and so on.
- A tendency to have your mood affected and ruminate a lot (“go inside yourself”) if this approval is withdrawn, or is perceived to be withdrawn.
- A need to “go along with the crowd” or “go along to get along”.
- A refusal to speak out against their bullying and wrongdoing for fear of “standing out” or “making a scene”.
- A fear of simply outright rejecting someone who feels manipulative, out of fear of how they’ll react. People with strong boundaries often reject psychopaths and narcissists right off the bat, because they can see they’re a fraud and aren’t bothered about them disparaging them to others. It’s the people with weak boundaries that struggle with this. See the sections on boundaries and C-PTSD below for more on this.
- A need to be accepted and not feel “weird” or out of place in a group situation (a psychopath can very quickly do this if they sense this is what you fear).
- An over-agreeable nature, not wanting to disagree or oppose them too much for fear or eliciting disapproval.
- A fear of conflict, especially heated conflict (people pleaser syndrome).
- A sense of vanity which they can either play on by complimenting you, or undermine by subtle undermining comments.
If a personality disordered individual sees this weakness – and they very quickly tend to hone in these weaknesses in anyone they meet – they know they have the person under their control.
If the target is excessively dependent on approval and validation to feel good in themselves, then the predatory person knows they can give and remove this approval on cue to control the person psychologically.
This is arguably why toxic characters like psychopaths and narcissists seem to be doing so well in modern materialistic Western societies, since media and cultural influences have left the vast majority of people dependent on the approval of others to some extent.
However, at least being aware of it on an individual level is a start, since you can more readily spot when someone is playing on this weakness to be liked and accepted by others to their own ends.
We all need validation & approval, but when we need it too much, we are open to manipulators
2. Poor Boundaries, Lack of Ego Strength & Self Doubt
This is another huge weaknesses psychopaths and narcissists will always look to exploit, and is what so many abusive patterns in relationships eventually boil down to – a lack of ability on the victim’s part to set healthy boundaries and stand up for themselves in the face of conflict or bad treatment.
Once a psychopath or narcissist sees weak or porous ego boundaries, they know it is “open season” on this person, and they’ll be able to chip away at and exploit this person without end. It is a crucial weakness that recovering victims of psychopathic or narcissistic abuse need to become aware of.
A strong tendency to doubt oneself is also a strong counterpart to this – the tendency to always be unsure of one’s perceptions and seek outside approval from others to validate one’s perception. This can leave targets hopelessly open to “gas-lighting”, an extremely common tactic of emotional manipulation, where the psychopath or narcissist continually invalidates their perception of reality and events and further chip away at their already weak boundaries.
Here some ways this abuse can manifest once they seek this weakness in someone:
- An invasion into the person’s life with relentless invasive questioning and prying.
- Sometimes an overly rapid physical invasion into the person’s space, moving in after a few days or weeks of knowing them.
- As the psychopath or narcissist sinks their hooks in, abusive behavior patterns start to creep in, and the person doesn’t see them as abuse and keeps rationalizing them away.
- The disordered person adds to this by “gas-lighting” the person, continually invalidating the person’s reality.
- When there is a blow up, the psychopath or narcissist is able to project blame onto the victim, and in their self doubt the victim will accept this.
- A gradual erosion of a person’s privacy, self esteem and self respect results from this
- Because of the poor boundaries, the person this is being done to continues to tolerate this increasingly unacceptable behavior, unable to clearly just “see” this as wrong and stand up for themselves. They are stuck in uncertainty and self doubt (“Is this all just me?”).
- Even if they do manage to call out the abuse and get rid of the psychopath/narc, poor boundaries can also lead the victim to let the abusive person back in – see the next section right below for more on this.
Where this problem of poor boundaries comes from is another matter – see the last section on childhood trauma for more on this – but at least being aware of this as a weakness toxic personalities will exploit is an important first step.
Psychopath & Narcissists will constantly hone in on any sense of self doubt to confuse and gas-light their victims
See the “Setting Boundaries” section of our Resources Page for links to some excellent books that can help you with the issue of setting boundaries in relationships.
3. An Overly Kind & Forgiving Nature
This is another classic trait psychopaths and narcissists will exploit – an excessively kind, innocent and forgiving nature that like to always believe all people are good, that all people act out of goodness, and all people should be forgiven for mistakes that are “innocent”.
Here are some ways this weakness can manifest, and that the psychopath or narcissist will happily take advantage of:
- A tendency to always assume to best of people in terms of motives and intentions.
- A tendency to assume that all people are basically good at the core, despite outer toxic behavior. See our article which covers how this is not true when dealing with toxic personality disorders.
- A tendency to continually forgive or rationalize away bad behavior for this reason (“they’re good really”, “they’re just on a bad day”, “they mean well” etc etc).
- The “If I try harder, they’ll be a good person”, mindset trap.
- A tendency to always believe that people can change and be given a second chance.
- A compulsion to try and “get through” to the psychopath or narcissist, to talk to them about change, reform, opening up their heart, “healing the inner child”, “letting Jesus in”, etc etc. See the next section below on the “fixer” mindset for more on this.
- A tendency to believe the psychopath or narcissist’s well acted pleading performances where they promise they’ll change if you just give them one more chance.
- See our article on how psychopaths take advantage of your kind nature for more on this topic.
Now for the cold hard truth on showing kind thought and forgiveness towards the Cluster B personalities:
All of this is nonsense with the Cluster B disordered person such as the psychopath or narcissist. They just treat this kindness and forgiveness as fuel and ammunition to use against you, to continue to exploit you for their own ends.
This is hard for many victims of these people to get their heads around, but is essential to finally being able to cut these toxic people off once and for all and never look back. See the two excellent short videos just below for more on this.
Forgive a Psychopath?
The severe Cluster B personality disorders have proven completely immune to any kind of treatment or change over time, so any attempts to forgive or make excuses for these characters is just a waste of time and energy and will leave you open to more abuse in the future, as they lure you back in, act the way you want for a while, then slowly slip back into old ways as they show they haven’t really changed at all.
Once you realize you are dealing with a psychopath or narcissist, you will have to cut your losses and move, leaving behind any ideas of forgiveness and reform and “one more chance”.
4. A “Fixer” or “Saver” Mindset
This is closely related to the above section on forgiveness and kindness, but is such a common trap good natured but overly “open” people fall into that it needs to stated separately.
We are so often drawn into these relationships, and co-opted into staying in them even when they turn toxic, by a belief that these people are basically good, but also by the belief that we are the ones who can “fix” them or “save” them from their illness.
There is often a sense of ego or “specialness” on our part in this fixer mindset. Here are some common beliefs and mindsets that can keep this fixer fallacy intact:
- “I really can save them. They’re good at the core really. Everyone is.”
- “Deep down, they’re really troubled and hurting. I need to find this part of them and heal them”.
- “No one else could find the good in them, but I can. I can find the good in anyone.”
- “I can reach the core of them if I stay with them long enough. I can bring out the goodness.”
- “Everyone else rejected this person, but they just weren’t persistent enough. I’ll show them that they’re really good”.
Psychopaths and narcissists rub their hands in glee at people with this kind of mindset. They know they can manipulate these people and string them along for years on end, constantly luring them in and getting repeat chances with promises they’ll change this time.
This can also often be the basis of “hoovering” from psychopaths and narcissists, where they try and play on the person’s fixer mindset once they’ve discarded them to try and manipulate them into letting them back in for once more chance: “This time I’ll change, you can fix me. I promise”.
A Perfect Example of Hoovering From the Psychopath/Narcissist
“You can fix me this time. You really can”
To repeat the point from the section on forgiveness, these toxic personality types are beyond any kind of help or saving and need to be permanently rejected and cut off with strong boundaries for any kind of healing to take place for victims.
Any promises to change or attempts to paint themselves as vulnerable and “fixable” are just more attempts to manipulate and “game” the target. The Cluster B personalities are exploitative at the core; interactions are always manipulative and agenda-based and never genuine or authentic.
See the excellent quote below from Richard Grannon which emphasizes the self deception in this “fixer” mindset:
“Remember, there is a little bit of ego in that, where we go ‘we’re the ones who can save them. Nobody else did, but I can do this’. That’s what kept me in my last (toxic) relationship. ‘I’m a psychologist, I got a degree. I’m a master practitioner in NLP. I’m gonna be fine’. No you’re not, son, no you’re not.
If somebody has been practising to do a certain thing (ie. manipulate others) since the age of 3, and you come along as I was at age 30, and think you’re gonna do battle with them, what chance have I got? None, none whatsoever. You just get toyed with.”
Richard Grannon, Spartan Life Coach
5. Secrets or Things You Want to Hide or Keep Private
Predatory characters like psychopaths and narcissists are masters at sniffing out things we have to hide, fears we have, or simply a tendency to be private about our lives. Whether there is actually anything to be ashamed about or not, they will exploit these fears ruthlessly to their own ends.
Manipulative people know that we all have things we like to hide or keep private, and are brilliant at chipping away at your boundaries and privacy until they find what you fear and hammer away at this fear to either control you or shame you in front of others.
This can include things such as:
- Things in your relationship or sexual past.
- Things in your personal life or family history.
- Fears you have about relationships or sex.
- Fear of ridicule or embarassment in front of others.
- Social anxiety or awkwardness.
- No secrets as such but just a tendency to be private about your personal life.
- Also watch out for a relentless barrage of invasive questioning and prying to try and get you to reveal more about your personal life or daily activities. If it feels uncomfortable then set clear boundaries to stop it.
- If you do confide something personal/private to one of these characters then they will have no problems breaking this trust if it benefits them or hurts you.
Psychopaths and narcissists will exploit any weaknesses such as these, often under the threat that they’ll manipulate those around you to make these fears come true should you even cross or oppose them.
Oftentimes they’ll even seek to create the image of secrets or skeletons in the closet about your life, even when there are none! They may make assumptions, exaggerate or expand on things you tell them and gossip to others about this, attempting to smear you or paint a certain image to others that there is something you are hiding, even when there may not be.
It is important to be very careful of this smear tactic with toxic personalities, in workplaces as well as personal relationships. Psychopaths and narcissists will do anything they can to smear and undermine anyone they see as an easy target or a threat, and this includes spreading false rumors and malicious gossip.
They don’t care about whether these things are even true or not; all they care about is the end outcome, of them “winning” and someone else losing. Be very careful who you give your trust to and set clear boundaries as to what you discuss about your personal life and past with people you aren’t totally comfortable with.
6. Naive Ideas of “Unconditional Love”
This is another important one to mention, because Hollywood and pop culture in general (films and music) have created this notion of “unconditional love” that is again just easy for manipulative personalities to exploit and prey on for their own ends.
It comes again under the umbrella of “forgiveness” and “happily ever after”, but love should be never be totally unconditional.
When taken to the extreme, it means you should forgive a person no matter what they do to you. This is open season to manipulative and abusive personalities like psychopaths and narcissists! They can just do whatever they want to you and you’ll always love them. “Perfect!”, they’ll be thinking.
Avoiding this trap again comes under the general concept of having strong boundaries, of being able to call out unacceptable behavior for what it is, and having your clear line in the sand whereby you say “enough is enough” and cut out of your life permanently anyone who has repeatedly mistreated you to the point where it is a systematic pattern of behavior.
Love is never really conditional once we realize toxic personalities exist. We always need to be prepared to leave a relationship if we have to. No one should be forgiven and loved no matter what they do. You’ll be too open to abusive personality types if you adopt this approach.
“When and if you give to a person, how do they reciprocate? Do they rely on words or deeds to placate you? Or don’t you have boundaries? Perhaps you believe in unconditional love? If you do, expect to be victimized time and time again. There’s no saving you. In this life you need three things to survive and succeed: boundaries, boundaries and more boundaries.”
Psychic Vampirism website.
7. Superficiality & Lack of Critical Thinking
This is another thing psychopaths and narcissists exploit, both in victims and more generally in everyone they meet in daily life. These personality types are defined by a manipulative and deceitful nature, and they know that most people can be easily taken in by the glib, superficial charm they can exude.
They know they easily have most people “covered”, such is their ability to “smooth talk”, appear interested and tell people what they want to hear, seem interested and interesting. They know this is enough for most people.
Here are some deeper things most people don’t do which lets psychopaths and narcissists get away with so much of what they do in the world of work and personal relationships:
- Not looking past their glib, superficial charm to see if there is any real depth of character there.
- Being too taken in by the hedonistic “good time charlie” image they often project out, of perpetual fun, with no downsides. Not realistic.
- Being taken in by the smoothness, slickness, “coolness”, lack of vulnerability or self doubt they project. Again not real or authentic. Imperfection and vulnerability are authentic.
- Not using critical thinking to unpick stories of their life and past, and see that there is more to them than they are telling you (skeletons in the closet). Things they tell you will not add up, but many of us ignore this.
- Unconditionally trusting and not verifying things people tell you when you don’t even properly know them.
- Just accepting silly explanations they give you for things they said or did, without using your critical thinking and seeing them as silly and nonsensical. Not challenging them on this.
- Not spotting how they are co-opting and using more apathetic, easily influenced people around them to target and undermine a vulnerable scapegoat or empath. See our article on the sociopath-empath-apath triad for more on this dynamic. Very common in workplaces.
Just stepping back, looking past the glib charm and asking some simple questions will often allow us to unpick the nonsense that psychopaths & narcissists so often bombard us with
8. Unresolved Childhood Trauma
We want to finish off this article with the one major factor that the other factors we cover so often feed into as to who psychopaths and narcissists exploit and why. This is some sense of unresolved childhood or adolescent trauma in the victim, which toxic personality types very quickly hone in on and exploit.
Childhood trauma often leaves us with porous or weak ego boundaries, which toxic people can then exploit in our adult lives. This is often known as codependence, or also as people pleaser syndrome.
Put simply, without proper modelling of boundaries in childhood, we struggle to see where we end and others begin, and we also struggle to say no to others, for fear of disapproval or rejection. We struggle to stand up for ourselves in the face of conflict or criticism.
This is a psychopath or narcissist’s dream. Once they see these traits in someone, they see that they can manipulate and toy with this person for their own ends, projecting blame onto them since their ego boundaries are so weak.
This is where so much of these weaknesses ultimately stem from, including the poor boundaries, tolerance of continual abuse, confusion and self doubt, illogical forgiveness, and the “fixer” or “saver” mindset.
It is very true that codependents and psychopaths/narcissists often go together, since normal people with healthy boundaries simply don’t tolerate these toxic characters. They see their nonsense for what it is and quickly reject these people.
Conversely, it is because of their weak boundaries that the codependent personality lets the psychopath or narcissist in where others would reject them, and from there the two form the unhealthy relationship, with the narcissist abusing and the codependent continually accepting the blame and forgiving them over and over again.
See the excellent video below where Richard Grannon covers this intersection between childhood wounds (C-PTSD) and Cluster B abuse.
Invisible Wounds That Make You Vulnerable to Abuse
Get rid of these unresolved wounds, and you leave nothing for the psychopath or narcissist to feed off. This is the key to getting out of these toxic relationships with psychopaths and narcissists once and for all and avoiding them in the future.
The whole topic is very complex and in depth but here are some resources to get started:
- See our Resources Page for some good books on this topic. We particularly recommend Pete Walker’s book on C-PTSD. The other books on narcissism and toxic parenting are also useful.
- See Richard Grannon’s YouTube channel for excellent videos on C-PTSD and Cluster B abuse, both individually and how they intersect.
- See also Richard Grannon’s Spartan Life Coach site for courses which can get the bar moving quickly for recovering from these wounds which leave you open to abuse from psychopaths and narcissists.
- See also our Find a Therapist page for some resources to find a suitable therapist to work through any childhood issues with (be selective – not all therapists will do an equally good job of this).