The DARVO Method: How Narcissists Avoid Accountability and Blame Victims
What is meant by the term DARVO? Now you might not necessarily be familiar with the term DARVO, but if you are or have been in a relationship or an environment with a narcissistic person you’ll probably recognise it. Narcissistic people often use this in their relationships to control and coerce others. That being said, sometimes you see it used in organisations, cults, movements, to paint whistle blowers as conspiracy theorists, extremists with a particular agenda.
For today I’m just going to focus on it when it’s used in a relationship with a narcissistic person. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
So the term DARVO is an acronym which stands for Deny, Attack and Reverse Victim and Offender. The term was first coined in the 1990s by a psychologist named Jennifer Freyd. It refers to a form of manipulation which is aimed at shifting the focus away from any wrongdoing and to avoid any consequences, and attacking the victim in ways that allows them to switch roles. The aggressor becomes the victim, the victim becomes the aggressor.
It’s a form of gaslighting in the sense that the person using the strategy rewrites the narrative, rewrites the version of events. In many cases fools others into believing their version of events. For instance, they might even claim they’ve been wrongly accused by someone who is malignant, insane, and therefore gain sympathy and support from others. And it tends to happen whenever a victim of abuse, mistreatment, or any kind of wrongdoing confronts or challenges their abuser.
So let’s first of all look at the denial. Denial can take many forms. There’s denial it happened. There’s denial of the severity or the intent. There’s also justification of the behaviour. Outright denial might just sound like, “That didn’t happen,” or, “That didn’t happen the way you say it did.” The narcissistic person may become righteously indignant. “How dare you accuse me of that, that’s not the kind of person I am. Everybody knows I’m not like that.”
The narcissistic person becomes outraged and accuses their victim of lying and attacking their character. Any aggression that follows is portrayed as them defending themselves against unfair accusations. Another form of denial is confusion, sometimes referred to as toxic amnesia. They can’t remember what they did. They might claim they’ve been under a lot of pressure at work. There are very busy with this, that and the other thing. They may claim that they are being blamed on so many things and have that listen to so many lies and accusations they just can’t keep up. Victims will hear things like, “When did this happen? What are you talking about? Why you bringing that up now? Why would I do that?” They behave as if this is news to them. The victim tries very hard to explain pretty much what the abuser already knows. They may even give concrete examples, but they are met with more bewilderment and confusion. Quite often the victim might become frustrated, so they are accused of being aggressive or being crazy.
Then there is minimising the victim’s experience. “Get over yourself it wasn’t that bad, you’re just too sensitive, it was only a joke.” Or, “Sure you like me calling you that.” The victim is left feeling devalued and invalidated. The narcissist may tell other people, “We only had an argument, all couples argue. They’re just blowing things way out of proportion.” Now if the victim tries to explain to others what happened, remember, they have probably been told a sanitised version. So the more they try to explain themselves, the more they try to make themselves understood, they may sound as if they are exaggerating or engaging in a smear campaign, which the narcissist has probably warned them about.
Then there is justifying their actions. “Well, I had to because…” and it could be, “It was for your own good, it was for the greater good,” or, “I’m trying to make this relationship work and all you do is criticise and attack me.” The victim is led to believe that they maybe are being unreasonable for not accepting the behaviour. Sometimes even questioning themselves “Am I really just being too sensitive?” or, “Is my reaction out of proportion to this?”
Now let’s look a bit closer at the attacks. The attacks are aimed at deflecting away from their own behaviour and onto to the character, behaviour, motives, sometimes even the mental health of someone else, usually their victim. It’s a way of diminishing the victim’s credibility. All evidence is criticised, refuted. The narcissist may tell their victim to say again what it is exactly there being accused of. Now if the victim does not repeat the same thing word for word the narcissistic person may claim, “That’s not what you said a moment ago. That’s not what you said yesterday or last week.” The victim is accused of making things up. They’re accused of lying or accused of changing their story. So end up trying to defend themselves against errors they never made or lies they never told in the first place.
The victim’s character, their morality is brought into question. A narcissistic person will use any indiscretion, mistake, fault their victim has ever made as evidence of their guilt, their sinister agenda. Any personal information or secrets that may have been shared as a couple, they are used. They are twisted and used against the victim to discredit and shame them. They will throw things up like, “Well sure wasn’t your dad an alcoholic? You have always struggled with… What about that time you lied to your parents, when you were ten?” They will bring up other times the victim had the back down. “Sure you admitted you were wrong about last time.”
If there is more than one person challenging or confronting the narcissist, the narcissistic person might claim that these accusations are part of a hate campaign, an agenda to destroy them somehow by people who are malignant, envious. They might claim it’s a witch hunt.
Now let’s look closer at the victim and offender roles, the switching of those roles and why they seem to work. Narcissistic people seem to have this belief that the more people they tell the more true something becomes. They tell their version to anyone who will hear them. They will tell it in public, they will tell it to strangers. They will put it out there on social media. The victims are accused of gaslighting, spreading rumours, character assassination. Their motives, their mental health is called into question. The abuser is a falsely accused, innocent victim. It also works in the sense that the narcissist doesn’t have to accept responsibility or accountability for their actions.
The true victim ends up being blamed and shamed. They are vilified and attacked for pointing out the bad behaviour and the effect it has on them. DARVO also relies on emotion rather than facts. The narcissist relies on their victims fears. The fear of being criticised, the fear of being rejected, the fear of public opinion, and the fear of being punished by everyone, not just the narcissist. It also relies on discrediting the victim. It is the victim who is a narcissist, a psychopath they’re an alcoholic, they have anger issues. There can be threats of consequences if the victims were to speak up. There may be threats of violence, threats to destroy property. There could be threats to tell other people about their dark secrets. There may be threats to go to the authorities to report any false allegations.
Some victims of narcissistic abuse often remain silent because they have seen how the narcissist has reacted anytime anyone else ever spoke up against them. And the long term effect of this tactic can have victims feeling isolated, invalidated and shamed. Living in fear of doing or saying anything that might be used against them at a later date. Victims can feel both helpless and hopeless to do anything about their situation and it has a detrimental effect on their decision making, their self efficacy, their self esteem and their confidence. It can have an effect on their relationships with others, in friend groups. Productivity at work even suffers. They may be reluctant to have any future relationships, even friendships and become hyper vigilant and having difficulties with trust. It can also lead to increased anxiety, constant stress, depression and trauma.
They become afraid to speak up so accept responsibility for everything that goes wrong in that relationship and for how they are treated. Remember also many narcissistic people project their own stuff onto their victims. That’s why I think we’re living in a generation of educated narcissist at the moment. They often claim that their victims are narcissists. It’s the victims who are gaslighting, using DARVO. They’re using reactive abuse, while they are claiming to be traumatised. Many victims fear that they will be blamed for being the abuser.
So to summarise, the intent of DARVO is to silence victims. To silence them through denial, confusion, invalidation, minimising or intimidation. While they’re attacking the evidence, the victims credibility, their claims and also claiming that they are the victim while they’re doing it. Once you recognise the pattern, like I said earlier, once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
Charles Beaudelaire once said, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Ken Ammi said, “The second greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he’s the good guy.”
This article was written by sentientcounselling