How Narcissists Retaliate via Procedural and Legal Abuse
Five ways narcissists weaponize punitive institutional policies and protocols.
Psychology Today cross-published this essay.
- Legal abuse consists of covert, institutionalized tactics of power and control, and weaponizes policy and protocol in retaliatory ways.
- Embellished child abuse reports, fabricated petitions for involuntary commitment, or threats of deportation are all examples of legal abuse.
- Motives for weaponizing punitive institutional policies and protocols mirror driving forces of narcissistic abuse.
Legal abuse — sometimes referred to as abusive litigation, abuse of process or procedural abuse, or malicious use of process — consists of covert, institutionalized tactics of power and control.
Common examples of legal abuse include:
- Making false reports to Child Protective Services (e.g., claiming you are an unfit parent).
- Starting or threatening to start custody battles.
- Threatening to contact immigration services to control you.
- Filing protection orders randomly or when no contact has been long-standing.
- Filing petitions for involuntary commitment to mental health facilities.
- Using discovery requests to share embarrassing or irrelevant things about you.
- Filing appeals to reopen and re-litigate settled cases.
This form of psychological abuse weaponizes policy and protocol in retaliatory ways and can play out in courtrooms, human resources offices, immigration detention centers, mental health hospitals, and student disciplinary boards. The primary motive of those who abuse laws and procedures is to disempower and silence victims — to make them feel afraid, alienated, and ashamed.
Moreover, the formal and authoritative nature of investigatory proceedings can pressure victims to doubt whether they are actually innocent, a form of self-gaslighting that serves the abuser or manipulator.
Pop singer Britney Spears’ 13-year conservatorship is a quintessential example of legal abuse. In October 2008, Britney’s father gained legal authority to control every arena of her life — her estate, finances, publicity, and even her doctor’s visits and prescriptions — after her public meltdown in 2007. The following month, MTV premiered the documentary Britney: For the Record, in which Britney stated, “If I wasn’t under the restraints I’m under right now, with all the lawyers and doctors and people analyzing me every day — if that wasn’t there, I’d feel so liberated.”
The more Britney resisted, the more the overseers of her life retaliated through courts, resulting in more surveillance and invasions of her privacy, stricter routines, and higher doses of tranquilizers.
While the #FreeBritney movement represents a high-profile instance of retaliatory legal abuse, similar cases oppress everyday people every day — bullied students who defend themselves, co-parents, co-workers, foster kids, forcibly hospitalized inpatients who refuse psychiatric medication, street pharmacists and vendors, tent-dwellers and LGBTQ+ homeless youth caught out past curfew, undocumented immigrants, and more.
Why Do Narcissists Retaliate?
Clear signs of narcissism are selective empathy, resistance to perspective-taking, and willful ignorance in response to constructive criticism or well-intentioned feedback, often to the point of self-sabotage.
For some narcissists, these traits are rooted in insecure attachment during early childhood — which often leads to insecurity and low self-worth — whereas, for others, impenetrable defensiveness results from being overvalued as a child, not being abused or neglected.
Either way, narcissists tend to act entitled to respect that must be earned, then maintained. And whether they are “faking til they make it” or genuinely believe they are God’s greatest gift to humankind, narcissists tend to think they deserve to associate with people they deem accomplished and esteemed.
In fact, a hallmark trait of narcissism is kissing up, kicking down — gravitating toward influential people who make them feel special by proxy while speaking to and treating subordinates and/or peers like trash. While ample literature exists on narcissists preying upon empathic martyrs, note that narcissists also actively seek out people who have power in their own right.
And this is where the trouble begins.
A narcissist needs to feel they are always doing better than others and, conversely, that others are always doing worse. Yet, they gravitate toward confident, talented people who are prone to make them feel insecure or outshined. This can trigger one of two responses: covert narcissism which, over time, subtly erodes a target’s self-worth and detracts from their credibility and reputation, or outright one-upmanship and power plays.
The latter response typically occurs when the narcissist pushes a victim to the limit and they dare to speak up instead of being pushed over the edge. Narcissists want cheerleaders, not friends (which is why they become masterminds at getting others to open up without reciprocating vulnerability themselves). When a cheerleader steps out of line to assert self-respect or set a boundary, the narcissist feels genuinely annoyed and insulted, even betrayed
Narcissists are more concerned with losing you as a source of narcissistic supply than listening, so they tune you out, shift the focus back to your faults, and deflect. Common tactics include DARVO defensiveness (deny, attack, reverse victim and offender), shapeshifting excuses or rationalizations, blame-shifting and finger-pointing (e.g., “…but what about how you…”), toxic amnesia and gaslighting (e.g., “That never happened,” “I never said that,” “Your forgetfulness is scary,” “You’re delusional”), or minimization (“You’re so sensitive,” “It was just a joke,” “You’re such a drama queen”).
Fortunately, many victims eventually pick up on the narcissist’s patterns. But even this comes at a price: The more control narcissists lose over you, the more vindictive they become.
Nothing enrages a narcissist more than you cutting through their lies, and no one will assassinate your character more than someone afraid you will reveal how they have no intention of ever listening or growing.
The Narcissist’s Plot
The narcissistic abuser can deploy an array of accountability-dodging tactics. While survivors of narcissistic abuse often validate these schemes and maneuvers for one another’s healing, rarely are they contextualized to institutional policies and protocol. Following are 5 ways narcissists weaponize punitive institutional policies and protocols — investigations, penalties, and sanctions — also known as retaliatory legal and procedural abuse.
Gang stalking, pair bullying, and surveilling. Narcissists often keep as many tabs as possible on victims to outmaneuver them, especially when they are prone to legal abuse. They often set victims up to divulge information to “flying monkeys,” allies who pretend to be neutral but report back to the narcissist. If flying monkeys are unavailable, a narcissist might resort to surveillance via invasion of privacy (e.g., checking the victim’s browser history, text messages, medicine cabinet, etc.).
Lying by omission. Narcissists are notorious for leaving out their contributions to conflicts — for example, resisting their restriction of your body movement turns into you attacking them. Screaming out of frustration — in response to them mocking and cursing at you — turns into your “blowing up for no reason.” Filed reports aimed at legal/procedural abuse almost always contain these distortions.
Pathologizing. One of the most common tactics of narcissistic abuse is portraying a victim’s character or temperament as always and only angry, hypersensitive, lazy, or irresponsible. Unsurprisingly, narcissists employ this tactic to initiate or substantiate legal/procedural abuse or malicious use of process. Pathologizing victims garners sympathy for the narcissist while “othering” or stigmatizing the victim.
Stonewalling. Narcissists are known for giving the silent treatment — for weeks, months, sometimes years — because they know it can pressure victims to doubt themselves or compromise on their boundaries and non-negotiables. For narcissists prone to legal/procedural abuse, the silent treatment is also a trap that sets you up to face allegations of harassment if you reach out first, let alone follow up.
Weaponizing professionalism and respectability, while playing dirty. Narcissists are the calmest liars. You will be amazed by their ability to pretend to not know of the harm you are describing. In professional spaces — a space prime for procedural abuse, in response to workplace bullying allegations — this act often looks like weaponizing professionalism against you as you express your shock and disbelief in any way that is less than perfectly cool, calm, and collected.