What is “a flying monkey”?
The expression “flying monkey” originates from the book “The Wizard of Oz”, in which a group of winged monkeys serves an evil witch and executes her destructive commands. In real life, it describes a person who was manipulated into tormenting somebody on behalf of the manipulator.
This term is most commonly used in the context of narcissists and narcissistic abuse; a “flying monkey” is somebody who is directly or indirectly persuaded by a narcissist into making a victim’s life difficult. However, it’s not necessarily only narcissists or psychopaths who manipulate in these ways; such games are often played by average people too, although usually to a lesser extent.
There can be a whole flock (swarm? sussuration? murder?) of “flying monkeys”. These are, for example, people who join online persecution of somebody they barely even know, except they heard something bad about them, or read a quote taken out of context. Or anybody who harasses victims of revenge porn. Or a group of teenagers who follow a ringleader into ostracizing a less popular classmate. You don’t really need a true narcissist for such things to happen.
Various religions organizations can make big parts of whole populations into their flying monkeys, by spreading unreasonable fears, misconceptions and falsehoods about any group of people they don’t approve of (historically, “witch hunts” are a perfect example, but there are plenty examples in modern times, too, all over the world). Organized ideologies in general are full of flying monkeys. Neonacism, sexism, any kind of intolerance and labeling people, anything that encourages discrimination and dehumanizing of somebody else for the sake of an ideology… there is not necessarily a single narcissistic person who manipulates others into it, but there are often several distinguished cases somewhere in the background.
These kinds of games often start already in childhood. Did you ever join into ostracizing or abusing another child just because most other kids were doing it too? Maybe one child started it, maybe several were the leaders, but most were flying monkeys. Some children (and adults) do it because they truly enjoy malice and the power it seems to give them, and some do it because they are afraid they might become victims themselves if they don’t follow the crowd. The reason doesn’t matter; the results do.
On a more individual level, you might be a “flying monkey” if you spread rumors and gossip. Or if you start acting hostile towards somebody after hearing rumors and gossip about them, without checking their side of the story. It fairly often happens after love breakups, but it’s also common within business and family relationships. Even helping professionals can sometimes become “flying monkeys” for abusers, if inexperienced and overly trusting. The person who initiates such abuse might want revenge, or some form of tangible profit, or just to release frustration and gain sympathy, for example.
Why are “flying monkeys” sometimes good people?
Do you believe you wouldn’t fall for such a thing? Narcissists often choose well intentioned, but inexperienced, naive or impulsive people for the role of a flying monkey. Children and young people fit this description, but also adult people with strong sense of justice and strong emotions. Narcissists often present themselves as victims, trying to incite righteous anger toward the true victim. Some people are very skilled in this.
Another category of well intentioned “flying monkeys” are people who spread various conspiracy theories and alarming articles without carefully checking how realistic, logical and proven they are. Spreading alarm can be a powerful feeling (Hey, look at me! I know more than others, my eyes are wide open, I defy powerful authorities!), or it might be a result of fear or desire to help others, but not only it’s often a waste of time and deflects focus from real, urgent problems; it can and does create real damage to others (such as decreasing group immunity by refusing to vaccinate children).
(To be clear: some conspiracies do happen and create huge damage, but it’s a big difference between believing in a conspiracy that includes a narrow circle of people (or corporations), and realistic motives and proofs, and a conspiracy theory that theoretically includes whole professions worldwide without any obvious motivation or profit, or proven data.)
You might be manipulated into being a “flying monkey” even if you love the victim and dislike the abuser.A jealous ex of your partner (or a jealous parent, sometimes) might tell you something bad about your partner and make you suspect or put pressure on them, or even leave them. On the other hand, some warnings might be genuine and realistic. How to distinguish between facts and fantasy?
Avoid becoming a flying monkey:
- For the start, observe your own emotional reactions. Avoid being driven by strong, but short-term and superficial emotions; rather listen to a calmer, more intuitive feeling below the surface. If there is healthy doubt, you are more likely to hear it that way. Analyze the words used by a certain person or an article. The more dramatic, emotionally loaded, abstract expressions, clichés and exclamation marks, the more likely it is that you are being manipulated. Still, this is not enough to make a decision; the more skillful the manipulator, the more subtle the manipulation, and some honest people just like a bit of drama or they are used to pathos as normal communication in their families. Some manipulators use science or pseudoscience, or even pretend they are trying to help their victims.
- Recognize the need for anger. Anger can literally, on a neurological level, be a bit intoxicating; it activates reward centers in our brains by stimulating dopamine production. In other words, our bodies can actually reward us simply for feeling anger and rage, so we might feel motivated to stay in those emotions.
- Recognize your need to be “good” or to belong. If everyone around you is outraged about something, you might feel insecure, whether by feeling afraid that they might turn against you if you don’t join in, or by not really trusting your own personal qualities and perception. Fear of making mistakes is often involved. In the long term, you’d profit from working on your self-esteem and trusting your instincts; in the short term just do your best to be honest to yourself.
- Recognize existing prejudice you might have and whether they can influence your decisions. If you believe, for example, that corporations are greedy and corrupt (which they often are), it’s very easy to immediately believe any new rumor about some new way a corporation has found to exploit or oppress people, even if some of those news are pure clickbait. I’ve chosen corporations as a relatively mild example compared to religious, racial and similar prejudice; now consider how the latter can inflame people and you get a nice foundation for becoming a “flying monkey”.
- Notice if you have a need to vent accumulated frustration and feeling of helplessness on someone unrelated with the real problem. Redirected aggression is sometimes difficult to recognize and acknowledge, especially if you feel justified. But if you notice feeling subtle relief or pleasure after expressing anger or otherwise punishing somebody you heard bad things about, question your feelings carefully.
- Seek more information. Lots more information. As many details as possible, and check their sources and how reliable they are.
- Ask for the other side of the story. Ideally, talk directly to the person at whom mud was thrown. You don’t need to reveal the source of rumors, but it’s important to at least show effort to hear the target of defamation. Don’t necessarily count with that person’s honesty (sometimes rumors might be true), but ask for specific details and pay attention to their nonverbal communication, and then check your intuitive feeling about how honest it seemed. (Be aware that some insecure people might feel generally guilty if they are accused of something even if they are innocent; focus on signs of shiftiness rather than insecurity.
- Face the source of defamation directly. This is not recommended if it might be a dangerous narcissist who might start targeting you as a revenge, but in other cases, try to explain your doubts to that person and observe how they react. If they at least somewhat acknowledge and understand your attitude, even if they don’t approve of it, they are more likely honest. But if they start playing a victim, attacking or accusing you, it might be that their intentions are bad.
What if you are the target?
Most commonly, you’ll face flying monkeys at work or within your family, if a jealous colleague or family member (your partner’s parent, for example) sees you as a threat and tries to defame you to others in your environment. The target often notices strange and hostile looks, sudden inexplicable cold behavior by others (perhaps including their partner), passive-aggressive comments and similar – but might be afraid to ask what is going on, or even won’t realize it is an option, if they were trained by their family not to ask challenging questions and to ignore communication problems. Such avoidance of reality might be encouraged by some strange human need for self-deception when facing unpleasant facts.
My advice, is, of course: face it. Truth cuts trough the bullsh*t. It might be uncomfortable in the short term, but would you rather suffer a bit now, or a lot for a prolonged time? Once you have more information and a clear idea who is involved and why, I’d suggest you bring everybody together for a talk – so, initiators of the trouble together with their “flying monkeys”, and yourself. Explain the situation, explain your doubts and ask for their side of the story. If a person is at least somewhat healthy, such an approach would encourage much more appreciation and goodwill (if you do it in a constructive way), than avoiding, ignoring, being passive aggressive in turn and similar games people play.
Of course, the manipulator who started the whole thing won’t give up so easily, so don’t expect everything to flow smoothly. If you know that person fairly well and know their methods, try to prepare yourself up front how to respond to what they might do. Avoid taking their bait (such as diverting the topic, trying to prove yourself, letting them intimidate you or make you feel guilty…), just stick to the bare facts as much as you can, and express your perspective honestly rather than trying to influence anybody’s reaction. Most people are able to recognize and appreciate such honesty, at least in the long term. They might not believe you immediately, especially if emotionally bonded to the manipulator, but you are likely to at least prevent the damage from spreading further.
Only if this approach doesn’t work (or you have good reasons to presume it wouldn’t work; fear of failure, criticism or unpleasant feelings NOT being a good reason), then you can resort to ignoring and “raising above” such people. If you can, end such relationships. However, ignoring and rejecting people who might simply be well meaning victims of manipulation, without giving them a chance to hear your side of the story, is neither wise or useful, and it might cause you even more damage.