When a narcissistic person feels their grandiose, superior, and entitled self-image has been threatened or challenged, they experience what is called “narcissistic injury”. It refers specifically to a person’s sense of self being attacked (real or imagined) rather than a person’s feelings being hurt or just any type of emotional pain.
Narcissistic injury tends to feel unbearable to the narcissist and triggers self-righteous defensive mechanisms, including rage, violence, and vindictiveness.
To some extent, we can all experience narcissistic injury. In psychoanalytical terms, it refers to psychological pain that threatens our identity, self-image and self-esteem, and the way we want to be perceived by others.
They are threats and wounds that disrupt our sense of who and what we are. The emotional reaction to these injuries is shame, humiliation, and anger.
However, a person who is high up on the narcissism scale is quicker to perceive others’ behavior and words as an injury and will have a more severe reaction to it.
Often, these injuries would not be objectively perceived as injuries but a narcissistic person is highly sensitive to other people’s behavior and words: they tend to over-analyze and are almost trying to find insults and slights.
In This Article
What Causes Narcissistic Injury?
Narcissistic injury is caused when a person’s sense of who they are is disrupted. A highly narcissistic person has built a fantasy world in which they are superior, grandiose, and loved by all.
It is an especially fragile self-image that is threatened easily and often. The causes of narcissistic injury can be divided into the following categories:
At the very core of narcissistic injury lies entitlement. Narcissistic individuals feel entitled to the unconditional positive regard, admiration, and attention of other people.
When these entitled needs are not met, they feel they have the right to act out; that they are entitled to be enraged and respond by “destroying” the source of injury.
Furthermore, because of their self-righteous beliefs, they cannot accept responsibility but rather feel entitled to an apology.
Threats to Self-Image/ Perfectionism
The narcissist’s grandiose self-image is a survival mechanism; a fortress they have built around themselves that protects them from having to accept that they are ordinary human beings. In their view, only special and perfect people deserve love, attention, and admiration.
Thus, if this fortress is under attack, they will defend it with all their might.
Threats to their self-image could include any kind of criticism, even when it is delivered constructively. It could mean being called out on their behavior, even when it was unacceptable.
As a result of the injury, they experience anger, which often (subconsciously) stems from feeling ashamed or humiliated.
Challenges to Self-Perceived Dominance
Highly narcissistic people are convinced of their superiority and dominance, which means they have an excessive need to control their environment and other people.
When their self-perceived dominance is challenged, they experience this as a narcissistic injury – “how dare you challenge me?”
If you disagree or argue with them or they feel they are losing control over you, this challenges their position of power. The ensuing rage is a way for the narcissist to feel they have taken back control. Here is an example from a qualitative study:
“The minute I stood up against him or he felt he was losing control he would get aggressive and violent . . . once we were arguing and he knew he was losing the argument so he grabbed the iron, held it two inches from my face and said “I will burn you and nobody will ever look at you again.”
Fear of Abandonment
For a narcissistic person, being abandoned is the ultimate narcissistic injury as it threatens to take away a source of narcissistic supply (attention, admiration, and control) and it puts into question their desirability (or self-perceived perfection).
In this context, abandonment can refer to physically leaving them or making them feel undesirable or unimportant in any other way, e.g., withholding affection or sex, not running after them after an argument, etc.
If they feel they are being abandoned, it will cause the narcissist to experience intolerable emotions and narcissistic rage.
What Happens When You Cause A Narcissistic Injury?
Narcissistic injury cuts deep and therefore a highly narcissistic person will feel entitled to react in any way that will restore their pride and self-esteem.
Therefore, if it is not managed, narcissistic injury inevitably leads to narcissistic rage, including:
This could include verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, and/ or threats.
Passive aggressive behavior is an indirect way of expressing negative feelings (e.g. anger or resentment) and therefore does not provide the opportunity to fix the underlying problem. It could be withdrawing, sulking, or making sarcastic comments.
You may confront them about their behavior (e.g., cheating, lying, or calling you names), and they deny it. Their grandiose sense of self does not allow them to accept that they made a mistake or are less than perfect so they will deny any wrongdoing even in the face of clear evidence.
This is usually a form of narcissistic gaslighting wherein they try to confuse you or make you doubt your perception of reality. For example, they might say “that never happened” or “I would never do such a thing”.
In an interpersonal context, devaluation refers to reducing the value or importance of someone. They might tell you “there is something wrong with you” or “you are crazy” or “without me, you are nothing.”
Putting another person down is a way for the narcissist to assert dominance and take revenge on the person who caused the narcissistic injury.
Disagreeing with or saying no to another person, often without reason, makes the narcissist feel they have power and thus validates their self-perceived dominance and superiority.
You might start asking a question, and before you have finished, they have already said no and shut down the conversation.
Or they might disagree with you on a topic even if they have previously agreed with you.
Refusing to communicate with someone can be a way to avoid confrontation, but it can also be used as punishment and control. The silent treatment leaves someone feeling uncertain, anxious, and ostracized.
These are difficult emotions to deal with, which makes it more likely that the victim will apologize or otherwise pander to the narcissist’s needs – giving them control.
To a highly narcissistic person, being called out for poor behavior is perceived as a narcissistic injury. This is because it would mean they have done something wrong, which would undermine their self-perceived superiority or perfection.
So, instead of owning up to or apologizing for their behavior, they will turn the tables and play the victim. This is a form of manipulation aimed at making you feel guilty and undermining your argument/ claim, which ultimately gives them power.
Defensive projection means projecting your own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors onto another person as a way to avoid having to confront them in yourself. That means, if a narcissist accuses you of cheating, it may be because they are themselves cheating.
Or, if they call you “ugly”, they may feel that about themselves and project that onto you.
Narcissists need to preserve their inflated self-esteem, the fortress they have built around themselves, and thus cannot accept having any shortcomings.
Somewhere deep down they know they are not perfect but instead of acknowledging this, they project their fears, undesirable traits, and insecurities onto another person.
Contempt can include sarcasm, name-calling, vicious imitating, eye-rolling, sighing, and any other behavior that is aimed at making their victim feel unimportant and unworthy.
After experiencing a narcissistic injury, contempt is a way for the narcissist to feel in control and restore their self-esteem.
What to Do If You Have Inflicted a Narcissistic Wound
Inflicting a narcissistic injury or wound on a narcissist is easily done. It is often unintentional and sometimes you may not even know what you have done wrong.
If you are in any form of relationship with a narcissist, you likely feel you are walking on eggshells a lot of the time. They are highly sensitive individuals when it comes to perceiving insults to their self-esteem.
So the first thing to remember is that it probably is not your fault. The following is further advice on what to do if you have inflicted a narcissistic wound:
De-escalation does not make narcissistic rage acceptable; it represents a way to bring the narcissist back down from their rage and to keep yourself safe and avoid further abuse:
- Do not argue with them
- Do not blame (they will always turn the tables back on you)
- Focus on listening, avoid talking
- Empathize: say things like “I understand why you are feeling angry” (even when you do not)
- Do not ask for or expect an apology
- Depending on the situation, it might be helpful to change topics – something you know they like to talk about, like themselves, or something they know a lot about
- Ignore the insults and do not take them personally
Focus on Your Well-Being
If you have some form of relationship with a narcissist, the best thing to do is to set strong boundaries.
Make sure your well-being is your priority and you are making decisions from a place of self-love, rather than appeasing the narcissist.
Amid their outburst of narcissistic rage (whatever that might look like), try to focus on keeping yourself safe, breathing deeply, and not rising to their attempts at provoking you.
Leave If Necessary
If keeping yourself physically, psychologically, and emotionally safe means leaving then do not hesitate to do this. If you are worried, call the police.
You can read more here on how to cope with narcissists.
For Narcissists: How to Get Past a Wound
Getting past a narcissistic wound means accepting that perfection is an illusion, recognizing our triggers, identifying the kind of person we would like to be, and working towards that.
As mentioned above, we can all experience narcissistic wounds to our self-esteem and sense of self. However, for those who have higher levels of narcissism, these wounds cut deeper and the ensuing emotions cause more extreme and potentially destructive reactions.
Narcissism, like all personality traits, lies on a spectrum from low to high, with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) lying at the extreme end. If you have identified narcissistic traits within yourself, this does not necessarily mean you have a personality disorder.
It may mean that you have some traits that negatively impact you and the people around you. In any case, your brain can change throughout your lifetime and you can unlearn narcissistic beliefs and behaviors. The following is advice on how to get past a narcissistic injury:
Working with a therapist can help you to understand your triggers, beliefs, and behaviors. Sometimes it can be difficult to recognize unhelpful patterns of thought and behavior in ourselves.
That is why having an objective and experienced person to speak to can allow us to go deeper and understand more. If you are struggling with narcissism, it is advisable to seek a therapist but below are also some things you can try on your own.
Perfection Is an Illusion
Ask yourself: why do you need to be perfect? What happens if you are not perfect? If it is not perfect, do you believe that this means it is a failure or worthless? Where does this belief come from?
Perfection is unattainable because it is subjective and thus nothing in this world is objectively perfect. Furthermore, perfection is never needed. Learn that you are worthy and lovable the way you are, including your quirks and flaws.
Triggers are situations, words, or behaviors that produce strong negative feelings in you. What makes you feel injured and why?
Write a list or keep a diary of everything that hurts your self-esteem and sense of self. For example, “when people criticize me, it makes me angry”.
Then, think about how else you might interpret other people’s actions. Could it be that they are expressing how they feel without the intention of hurting you? Give people the benefit of the doubt and try not to take things personally.
Grow Your Empathy
Try to vividly imagine life from another person’s perspective. Imagine how another person will experience your words and behaviors – how would you react if someone else treated you in this way?
Be curious and try to listen to the other person’s perspective.
Are there ways that you behave that are causing you problems? Are there behaviors you wish you could change, such as becoming enraged or vindictive? Make a list of the behaviors you want to let go of.
Once you have identified beliefs and behaviors that you would like to change, you can focus on the solution. If you want to be less angry, focus on being peaceful. In other words, your focus should be on how you want to be, rather than on how you do not want to be.
Close your eyes and imagine what kind of person would you like to be, how you like to treat yourself and other people, and how you want others to see you. Keep your attention on the outcome, not the problem.
Put It Into Action
It is easier to think about how we have changed hypothetically, but when we are triggered, we often fall back into old patterns. When we sense a threat, we have a strong emotional reaction, go into autopilot and behave in the way we always have to protect ourselves.
It is at this stage that we must intervene and take a moment: breathe, count to 20, and remember how we want to react and the kind of person we want to become.
It takes time, hard work, and patience to change our beliefs and behaviors. Celebrate the small wins, keep working, never give up, and remember that if you can imagine it, it is achievable.
Green, A., & Charles, K. (2019). Voicing the Victims of Narcissistic Partners: A Qualitative Analysis of Responses to Narcissistic Injury and Self-Esteem Regulation. SAGE Open, 9(2).
Levin, J. D. (1993). Slings and arrows: Narcissistic injury and its treatment. Jason Aronson.