By Dana Morningstar
This term is short for “narcissist speak,” and generally refers to a series of either misleading, loosely-related, or nonsensical words that a narcissist will string together in an effort to avoid accountability and groom their target into not questioning or challenging them in any way. Like the rest of a narcissist’s behavior, narc speak is about gaining and keeping control over the situation, their target, and their target’s perception of reality.
You may also hear the term “narc speak” being referred to as “word salad.” However, it can be helpful to understand that there are two types of word salad. On a medical level, the term “word salad” is generally used to describe the disorganized speech (which includes loose associations and resulting bizarre word combinations) that can happen from cognitive impairment due to schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, a stroke, or other type of brain injury or mental illness. This is not the same type of word salad in which narcissists engage.
The difference between “medical” word salad and a narcissist’s word salad is that medical reasons for word salad are due to a cognitive issue, whereas with narcissists it’s due to a personality issue. When a person suffers from a cognitive form of word salad, it is not intentional; it’s generally ongoing and happens regardless of the topic brought up. The person with word salad usually struggles to make themselves clear, and their disorganized speech may improve with medication or time. Narc speak type word salad is intentional (it’s their attempt to manipulate), it isn’t pervasive through all of their speech, it tends to only happen when they are trying to avoid accountability or gain control, and they don’t strive to make themselves more clear—if anything, the conversation gets more confusing and frustrating the more they speak, and medication or time don’t impact their behavior in any positive way.
While narc speak is often “word salad,” it can also be any form of communication that doesn’t make sense or is the opposite of what’s actually happening. Narc speak is crazy-making, and often leaves those who experience it feeling frustrated, exhausted, and confused because they are usually working overtime trying to make sense of a nonsensical conversation. They often spend a lot of energy trying to get through to the narcissist, and to get the conversation back on topic, thinking that a lack of communication is the issue—which it’s not. The narcissist isn’t trying to reach an understanding; they are trying to confuse and detract from the original issue at hand. In short, the narcissist is trying to keep control over the situation and the target by not giving them the clarity that they need.
Narc speak often involves a narcissist talking in circles, not staying on topic, or just flat out not making sense. An added layer to the crazy-making can be when the narcissist blames the target for not being able to communicate effectively or for the conversation getting derailed or not reaching a resolution. Narc speak often leaves a person wondering what on earth has just happened. The conversations are so confusing and exhausting that, during one, the target often gets burned out and just wants the madness to stop—but then often spends hours or days rehashing what was said in an attempt to untangle it, as well as trying to formulate reactions to all the points that they didn’t get addressed. These conversations are often such a mishmash of unrelated points that the target has a hard time articulating what has just happened or what was even said to friends or others, often describing it as “A bunch of craziness,” or “The conversation went nowhere…as usual.”
Here are some different ways narc speak is done:
Saying one thing but meaning another. When a narcissist is using narc speak to mislead, they may say one thing to keep their target on the hook but actually mean the opposite. Unfortunately, the only way to really tell if a person is saying the exact opposite of what they are intending (or doing) is after a person has experienced a pattern, although sometimes this behavior does raise a red flag. You might get the feeling that someone is trying too hard to convince you of their intentions—especially if they are speaking in such certain terms shortly after you’ve gotten to know them. As a side note, people who are telling the truth assume that they will be believed; they don’t try to convince others they are telling the truth, or of their intentions.
Narc speak: “Trust me. I would never hurt you.”
Translation: “You can’t trust me. I am going to hurt you.”
Narc speak: “I love you.”
Translation: “I don’t love you, I just want you to think I love you because it keeps you around so I can continue to use, abuse, and exploit you for my own selfish reasons.”
Narc speak: “I will do what it takes to earn your trust back.”
Translation: “I want you to think I’m dedicated to rebuilding trust, so I’m going to tell you anything I think you need to hear, and maybe I’ll be on my best behavior for a while if that’s what it takes to keep you sucked in. Nothing I say will be the complete truth, but you should be grateful that I’m even willing to discuss any of this, as frankly, I feel entitled to do whatever I want and you just need to deal with it—because we both know that you aren’t going to leave. If you need additional proof about what I’m doing, or what I did, I won’t give it to you, because then you might leave. I’ll get upset and tell you that you are living in the past or bringing up old issues, and keep pushing you to trust me and to never question me. And if you have a hard time trusting me (which you should), then I’ll make you feel like you are the one who is jealous, insecure, and has issues with trust.
Random words and phrases strung together. These types of conversations generally happen when a narcissist gets knocked off balance by being confronted with the truth and they scramble to regain control. What tends to come out of their mouth is a mishmash of excuses, lies, and random words, all strung together in a frantic attempt to regain control over the conversation (and of their target).
Example: Mary catches Jim in a string of lies and confronts him about it.
Jim: You took all that the wrong way, but I think you were looking for a way to diminish this and an excuse to leave. I respect your choice, but you should take a look at that if you really want to find love.
Mary: What exactly did I take wrong?
Jim: Whatever you perceived in my text that would provoke you to give up on something with this much potential so quickly.
Mary: You mean all the small lies?
Jim: Tell me exactly what it was that made you decide you should give up on us.
Mary: All the small lies.
Jim: All in jest. The crux of humor. There is no plural to that word. I am not a liar, but I do understand your past and the way it looked on the text. I understand how you feel and I respect your choice. I wish you nothing but the best.
“Plausible Denial,” as in the good old Bill Clinton type. I refer to this as the “semantic shuffle,” as they choose their words very carefully so the shuffling of one or two words can change the meaning of what they are saying completely. For example, they might say something like, “There IS no relationship with that woman,” instead of, “There WAS no relationship with that woman.” On the surface, it may seem like they are denying having a relationship with “that woman,” but that’s not what they are saying. What they are saying is that currently there is no relationship with her, not that there never was a relationship.
They redefine words and concepts in order to convince themselves and others that they aren’t a liar. For example, a narcissist might say, “I was never involved with that woman,” and in their mind, since they never officially dated or were married to that woman, then they weren’t ever “involved” with her. If the target finds out down the road that they were having an affair with that particular woman, when confronted, the narcissist might claim that they weren’t technically involved, and because the target wasn’t clear, they told them what they felt to be the truth.
With both the plausible denial as well as their redefining words on the fly, the target eventually realizes that they can never fully tell what’s happening. You may find yourself asking them the same question, worded in ten different ways, just to make sure you’ve covered all your bases, and then you still wonder what you’ve missed and how you can be clearer with your communication. And frankly, it doesn’t matter how clear and direct you are, because if the narcissist can’t play the semantic shuffle or redefine reality, they will most likely resort to either blaming you or someone else, or just flat-out lie about what they did. So don’t be fooled into thinking that the issue is with your communication. If the tables were turned, and you were to play the semantic shuffle or redefining reality game with them, they’d be outraged.
Incoherent mumbling. They will mumble something incoherently in the middle of a discussion, but won’t repeat it when asked, and will often accuse the target of not listening to them. Then, if the issue comes up later, they will say, “I TOLD you…” This seems to be a type of “insurance” for them. It is a way for them to avoid being accountable, because however things turn out, they can always say, “That’s what I said,” or, “It’s not my fault you didn’t hear me.”
Denying their own bad behavior, and instead bringing up (and focusing on) the target. Because the narcissist is never at fault, and they have a huge sense of entitlement to do whatever they please, they believe that their behavior should never be in question; instead, any potential problem that someone else has with their behavior is invalid, and the focus quickly shifts to make the target the problem, and the conversation is derailed.
Target: “Why is that woman texting you sexy pictures of herself?”
Narcissist: Well, you still talk to your ex-husband.”
Target: “What does that have to do with anything? I only talk to my ex when I have to—and even then, we only talk about the kids.”
Narcissist: “Well, I don’t like that you talk to him, but I don’t say anything to you about that. I think you still want him back. I mean, how do I really know I can trust you? You could be having sex with him, for all I know.”
Dana Morningstar is a former psychiatric nurse turned domestic violence educator who specializes in abuse awareness and prevention. Her passion is working with survivors of abuse to reclaim and rebuild their self-esteem, boundaries, confidence, and identity. She is an author of multiple books on the subject, and also has a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel, as well as several online support groups, all of which you can find under the name “Thrive After Abuse.”