Narcissistic Injury: What It Means And Why It Happens?

Narcissistic injury is an emotional wound inflicted on the narcissist. It is the narcissist’s pain that others cause.

The answer to whether a narcissist can ever be hurt or humiliated is yes. They are no easy targets, but they have their weak points.

Narcissists in relationships are more vulnerable to narcissistic injury because they believe they have complete authority over the other person and can micromanage their lives.

Narcissists preoccupy themselves with fantasies of unlimited success, power, intelligence, beauty, ideal love, a sense of ‘specialness’ or entitlement, and envy.

Narcissists feel lost and failed without snippets of validation from others.

Praise is to narcs what scrolling through the comments and emojis on their Reels and Snaps is to modern-day digital addicts.

What is Narcissistic Injury

What Is Narcissistic Injury?

Narcissistic injury is the emotional distress caused by a threat or hurt to a narcissist’s grandiose sense of self-worth, entitlement, or pride. This ‘injury’ to their fragile, unstable self-esteem creates feelings of inadequacy and shame. Also called “narcissistic wound,” “wounded ego,” “ego deflation,” and “mortification.”

The term was first used by Heinz Kohut in 1972.

Narcissistic injury describes damage to the individuals’ experience of their ‘real self’. In its more extreme forms, individuals are left with no awareness at all of who they really are. In the less extreme variations of this disorder, there is often a vague comprehension of the real self but also a rejection of it.

— Andrea Halewood & Rachel Tribe, University of East London, 2003

What Makes A Narcissist Vulnerable To Narcissistic Injury?

Narcissists have an unhealthy obsession with their self-image, which makes them vulnerable to narcissistic injury. They have low self-esteem, which anyone can undermine further by criticism, unmasking, or defeat.

They are also dependent on external validation and praise, the cancelation of which makes them succumb to narcissistic injury.

A narcissist’s grandiose exterior hides a deep sense of inadequacy caused by disturbed self-experience (Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry, 1983).

Narcissists aren’t particularly pleased with themselves. Their main source of happiness is their illusions of superhero-like self-images. A narcissistic injury shatters those euphoric self-images and feel-good fantasies.

Narcissists have an unhealthy obsession with their own image
Narcissists have an unhealthy obsession with their own image

Actually, most narcissists face shame and disgrace at some point in their lives. Even if they hide it well, they carry the injury like a festering wound, feeling humiliated and wanting revenge.

One narcissistic injury can make them live the rest of their lives terrified of being wounded again.

So, the narcissist builds a fan base to reinforce their ego, while constantly on the alert for anyone who might come too near to breach it.

Narcissists carry a highly developed version of a ‘false self.’ Asking them to “be themselves” doesn’t work on them, since it would bring out their wounded true self.

What Causes Narcissistic Injury?

Narcissistic injury can be caused by criticism or ridicule, the loss of love and approval from others, being ignored or shunned, or even something as minor as someone looking at someone else instead of oneself.

Pseudo-Perfectionism

Narcissists frequently present themselves as perfectionists, though falsely. This pseudo-perfectionism is a crucial part of their strategy to build a grandiose self-image and be the focus of attention.


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Now, when they fail to attain the perceived level of perfection, it makes them feel guilt, shame, anger, or anxiety because they are afraid of losing other people’s praise and love.

Criticism

Any criticism can cause the narcissist to feel wounded.

Any criticism is a direct attack on a narcissist’s perceived supremacy because they believe their ideas and work are above all criticism.

Narcissists secretly feel they are superheroes and are omnipotent. They believe they are God’s gift to humankind, oblivious to the fact that people around them find them toxic.

A criticism brings down their mask and exposes their sorry and shameful persona.

The narcissist’s sense of entitlement is unfettered. They feel they deserve the finest things in life without working for them and without consideration of other people’s feelings.

So, when someone tears apart this unjust image, they get hurt like nothing else can hurt them.

Desertion

People exist in a narcissist’s life, mainly to boost their ego and gratify their craving for admiration.

When someone abandons a narcissist, they feel wounded. The reason is that they feel they could not keep up their charm to keep their source of narcissistic supply in their life. This is particularly true for aging narcissists.

They also feel thwarted that the person gone away would reveal to others the dark secrets of the narcissist, and they would further lose their carefully built aura.

The Injured Narcissist

Narcissistic injury shatters a narcissist’s inflated sense of self-importance. The injured narcissist can then react to the hurtful person with aggression, depression, or isolation. They never forget the suffering you caused them, even if you had righteous reasons (like catching them cheating on you).

At the root of all narcissistic rage lies narcissistic injury. Anything or anyone that can cause the narcissist to feel diminished, tarnished, or threatened, will unleash their narcissistic rage.

A narcissist with a wounded ego may not show any signs of being hurt. They may not appear as if they are harboring any feelings of resentment, revenge, or shame. However, those are some telltale signs of an injured narcissist.

A rejected, hurt narcissist holds a grudge for life. They may not carry out their plans for vengeance right away, but they do not give up their bitterness.

They can wait for years to get their “pound of flesh” while acting as if nothing bothers them. Of course, the charmers that they are, they are excellent at hiding their dark ambitions.

When they see the chance, they may respond with contempt, fury, or a defiant counterattack.

A risky way of bringing out their nefarious intents is to needle them with a slight criticism. If you can frustrate them enough, it can flood out those hidden negative feelings.

Translating The Injured Narcissist: 22 Things Narcissists Say in Narcissistic Injury

What happens when you cause a narcissistic injury?

Narcissists are sensitive people who always need to be in control. When you whittle down their authority, it creates a narcissistic injury.

In response, most narcissists attack, blame, and belittle anything and anyone they perceive to be the source of their injury.

However, if you can quickly identify if you have indeed caused a narcissistic injury, you can decide to move out of harm’s way early on and help yourself stay safe.

Here are 7 signs you see in a narcissist after a narcissistic injury:

1. Denial

If they are caught doing something wrong, whether at home or at work, they will most likely deny it and try to pass the blame to someone else. This could include downright lying.

Narcissists cannot confess that they did not complete something they were assigned or vice versa. Denial of the entire incident saves them from being forced to admit their mistakes.

In denying it, they may project their failures back to you. Like, “You did it, not me! Don’t blame me.

Their denial is a defense mechanism designed to protect them from feeling humiliated and experiencing shame.

2. Overt Aggression

This is the explosive type of narcissistic rage.

They will maintain a high level of rage at all times, putting you down and insulting you outright at any chance they get. They may throw and spill things, and then go off without cleaning up.

They may also resort to bullying and trolling. Their threats are usually directed against people who are lower in the status hierarchy than the narcissist and who refuse to do what the narcissist demands.

Their raging, disparaging, bullying, and threatening of others are their psychological defenses against getting their vulnerabilities and shameful deeds exposed.

3. Passive Aggression

Narcissists are not always the loud and obnoxious people that we think of when we hear the word. They express their irritation or frustration with passive-aggressive behavior.

Narcissists work to undermine the self-esteem of other people and make them feel worthless. This feeds their own ego. Some examples of their self-centered passive-aggressive behavior are:

  • Pretending that they don’t care or aren’t interested in what you’re saying and flipping through a magazine or checking their phone when you’re talking to them.
  • Giving someone a present and then telling others how they are not good enough for the present.
  • Making excuses for why they can’t do something or go somewhere with you, but then acting like they never wanted to go anyway.
  • Making false promises, walking off abruptly in the middle of a conversation, doing something repeatedly that gets your goat.

4. Devaluation

When they experience a narcissistic injury, they feel less valuable or important. They take this out on you by projecting their hurt egos on you.

They may call you good for nothing, criticize your every act, and pull up past fiascos to devalue you. Their criticism towards you is designed to shift your focus on yourself. Some examples of their evaluating behavior are:

  • Making cutting remarks, insulting your intelligence, or belittling your accomplishments.
  • Using dark sarcasm that they are good at, to put you down or make you feel bad about yourself.

5. Opposition

They will disagree with and oppose each of your opinions, ideas, and decisions. They will refuse to do anything you ask, or expect, of them.

They may suddenly take the opposite stand on issues both of you have supported all their life, just to oppose you.

6. Silent Treatment

When you cause a narcissistic injury, they might become silent. It is a phase when they have to reluctantly accept their folly and take the blame.

Since they are too proud to apologize, they go silent and cold in their responses. This silent treatment is designed to make you question yourself if you were right in pulling off their mask.

When they go silent or carry on with their daily lives as usual, you know something is amiss but can’t put your finger on it. You’re afraid they’ll erupt, but you’re not sure what will set them off.

So, you take to walking on eggshells, extremely cautious with your words and actions when they are around.

Those eggshells you walk on to keep the peace only get louder, the more you avoid why you have to walk on them in the first place.
Sweep them up, pour them in the middle of the room, and refuse to ever bend to someone else’s breaking ever again. Even your own.
You’re bigger than the trauma that you learned to walk around, for fear you may wake a monster you know well.
Walk straight through it, babe. It is the only way.

— Stephanie Bennett-Henry

You can use this therapist-recommended book to stabilize your relationship and protect yourself from violent behavior with a borderline or narcissistic person in your life: Stop Walking on Eggshells by Paul T. Mason and Randi Kreger.

7. Victim Playing

The narcissist will shift all the blame to you, holding you accountable for all the mess that happened. They will make false accusations and call up your past slip-ups.

They will minimize their actions and portray themselves as a victim of circumstances or the intentions of you or someone else.

They may even run a smear campaign against you to make you look like a transgressor and them as a victim in the public eye.

Playing the victim and projecting all the blame onto you creates a situation that allows them to defend their self-esteem.

FAQs

What is the strongest form of non-physical pain for a narcissist?

Shame. The strongest form of non-physical pain that any narcissist can feel is shame for oneself.

In its most extreme form, this shame is a publicly humiliating experience, when they are exposed to the same people who they labeled as losers and fakers.

The unpleasant behaviors of a narcissist are simply defenses against their low self-esteem. As long as narcissists have their defenses strong and intact, narcissistic injuries can unsettle or damage them, but not generate shame.

How long does narcissistic injury last?

In most cases, it is safe to assume that a severe narcissistic injury, like humiliation in public, will last a lifetime.

Even when a narcissist is too old to remember what they ate in the morning, they might remember the ego hurt they felt at your hands 50 years back. Of course, brain science reveals that past memory is the last to go.

For mild narcissistic injuries, they may let it go and even forget the injurious incident completely.

They might learn to forgive others, and it may help them evict the grudge related to the narcissistic injury.

Further Reading:

Final Words

A narcissist can dupe anyone. Their charm keeps us blind to their manipulative side.

You will be all right as long as you agree with the narcissist and do things they want. They will never let you out of sight as long as you have high admiration for them.

But if you were to point out their flaws and tell them what they could do better, the charm you believed was compassionate suddenly changes into a battery of abusive behavior.

You thought they cared for you, loved you, or admired you, only to find out they were simply incapable of doing it, and it was all a well-designed ruse to get their narcissistic supply.

“Your worst bruises will come from people who didn’t touch you at all.”

If you find you are going through the wrath of an injured narcissist, don’t battle it out alone. Reach out to a mental health professional.

• • •

Kohut (1977) suggested we all have a narcissistic element in our psyche. Most of us grow out of our infantile narcissism into healthy adults. When this growing-up process is disturbed, a narcissistic disorder results.

Adults with narcissistic tendencies were often reared by narcissistic parents. Miller (1981) speculated that narcissistically disturbed mothers may raise narcissistically disturbed children.

So, while we are all born narcissists, we do not grow up to stay one. Moreover, narcissists don’t all grow up the same. There are six types of narcissists, and one of them is the most dangerous.

• • •

Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, mindfulness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).


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