Narcissistic Injury: Definition, Causes, and How to Deal with It

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Feeling insulted when someone says or does something inappropriate is perfectly normal.

Sometimes, you may get angry enough to point out what bothered you.

And that’s okay too, if you can accept an apology and move past the offense without making too big of a deal out of it.

But for narcissists, putting an unintentional insult aside is rarely an option.   

Because of their fragile self-esteem, they’re easily offended and often react violently.

This disproportionate reaction to perceived criticism or insult is what experts call a ‘narcissistic injury.’

What is a Narcissistic Injury?

Narcissistic injury (or narcissistic wound) occurs when a person with narcissistic tendencies or narcissistic personality disorder reacts violently to perceived criticism, abandonment, or insults.

As with any other coping mechanism that narcissists employ, a narcissistic injury is hard to detect as they are experts at manipulating and gaslighting others into thinking they are the ones who should feel bad for what they said or did.

Sometimes, it can also lead to veiled threats, passive-aggressive behavior, and even violent outbursts.

For someone unfamiliar with the idea of narcissistic injury, such experiences can be pretty intense.

You might even end up taking all the blame, even though all you did was offer an honest opinion or voice a concern.

But the worst part is that a narcissist might use this event against you in future arguments.

This is all part of an elaborate coping strategy that narcissists use to protect their fragile ego by playing the victim or reducing you to silence.  

Just remember it has nothing to do with what you did or said, but how they perceived it.

What Can Trigger a Narcissistic Injury?

Any situation that “wounds” a narcissist’s fragile ego can trigger a narcissistic injury, giving rise to intense reactions.

Let’s look at some typical situations in which a narcissist can take things extremely personally.

1. Perceived Abandonment

Having dealt with emotional abuse as a child, the narcissist grows up feeling unloved and unwanted.

For them, breakups, separations, or divorce can instantly trigger a narcissistic injury.

As they operate on the assumption that no one will love and want them, the reasons behind a breakup become irrelevant. All that matters to them is retaliating against the ex who hurt them.   

And so, they engage in smear campaigns, make threats, or try to manipulate their ex into getting back with them.

2. Criticism

Narcissists think highly of themselves.

Their grandiose self-image and inflated sense of self-importance mask an extremely fragile ego.  

As a result, they will never be open about their insecurities, admit fault, or take constructive feedback as an opportunity to improve themselves.

Criticism strikes deep into their identity because the notion that something they did was anything but perfect or exceptional is simply unacceptable.

3. Difference of Opinion

From my experience, narcissistic individuals tend to have a rigid mindset.

In other words, there is no “my truth and your truth,” only “I’m right, and you’re wrong”.

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Narcissistic rage is a strong reaction to something that the narcissist perceives as a threat to his grandiose self-image.

A difference of opinion can quickly turn into a heated battle of arguments.

And when they’re left without arguments, they will “hit below the belt” with passive-aggressive remarks and gaslighting.  

4. Not Getting Something They Want

Narcissists expect to get everything they want, whether it’s a job, a date, or a reservation at a fancy new restaurant.

Since they have a hard time taking ‘no’ for an answer, narcissists experience intense feelings of betrayal and rejection whenever someone declines their requests or proposals.

Just like in the case of criticism, this narcissistic injury stems from the inflated sense of self-importance they exhibit to cover a fragile ego.

5. Others’ Achievements

For narcissists, someone else’s success is a painful reminder of their profound sense of worthlessness and inadequacy.

Furthermore, not being in the spotlight and watching others receive praise can trigger a strong emotional reaction.

As a result, they may retaliate against the one who “stole the spotlight” by slapping them with the silent treatment or indirectly bullying them through false rumors.   

Why Do Narcissists React This Way?

To understand narcissistic injury, we need to look at the core of the narcissistic personality.

Contrary to popular belief, narcissists aren’t always the overconfident, outgoing, and charismatic individuals who dominate the room with their imposing presence.

If you come across a covert narcissist, you might be surprised to discover a nice, quiet guy who is secretly in love with his presence.  

Whenever I explain narcissism to someone with zero knowledge of psychology, I use this simple comparison.

A narcissist is like a jawbreaker candy – hard layers on the outside but with a soft and mushy center.

In other words, the exaggerated sense of self-importance, the distorted self-image, and the ruthless pursuit of success and power that narcissists often display are rooted in a profound lack of self-esteem.

The Child Who Never Felt Loved and Wanted

Underneath those ‘hard’ and intimidating layers is a wounded child who never felt loved by or enough for his parents and constantly felt inadequate and rejected.

As an adult, he learns to hide this emotional wound underneath an inflated sense of self-worth and the boundless desire to be admired, praised, and envied by everyone. 

That’s why he gets easily triggered by any remark he perceives as hurtful, unfair, or insulting.

Any perceived judgment can damage a narcissist’s sense of self

But instead of expressing vulnerability and letting others know they feel hurt, they resort to brutal retaliation in the form of violent outbursts, gaslighting, projection, or pure rage.

In many cases, this strategy works as it makes the other person feel like they were out of line when all they did was set a boundary, offer some constructive feedback, or simply express their disagreement on a topic.

Long story short, ‘when Dr. Jerkyll becomes Mr. Hyde’, you either get slapped with the silent treatment or endure a stinging barrage of insults and reproaches.

Either way, this exaggerated reaction is rooted in a narcissistic wound that has nothing to do with you.

What Are the Signs of Narcissistic Injury?

A narcissistic injury is an exaggerated reaction that someone displays when faced with perceived criticism, abandonment, or insults.

The outcome usually depends on the situation, the narcissist, and the relationship dynamic.

Let’s look at how narcissists typically react to something they perceive as insulting, unacceptable, or unfair.

1. Passive-Aggressive Remarks

When dealing with an emotional injury, narcissists will turn against the person they think hurt them.

If they can’t attack directly, they will resort to passive-aggressive remarks or attitudes.

For instance, they may “forget” to invite you to their birthday or look the other way when you greet them.

2. Narcissistic Rage

Narcissistic rage is a strong reaction to something that the narcissist perceives as a threat to his grandiose self-image.

It could also occur when a narcissist doesn’t receive the recognition and admiration he believes he deserves.

This intense reaction, which stems from narcissistic injury, comes in the form of extreme displays of anger, exaggerated criticism, intimidation, or verbal abuse.

3. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is one of the most used strategies in a narcissist’s arsenal.

Narcissists will employ gaslighting to protect their image, Whether they feel wounded by something you did or simply want to keep you from speaking out against their abusive behavior.

The only way to protect yourself is by understanding how this strategy works.

4. Playing the Victim

Not all narcissists have the “luxury” of retaliating against the person they believe has wounded them.

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When they can’t attack you directly, narcissists might try to hurt you through your friends, coworkers, or family members.

Maybe they depend somehow on that person, so they can’t afford to act violently or abusively.

However, they can play the victim to avoid taking responsibility for how things unfolded.

5. Veiled (Or Even Direct) Threats

Intimidation is one of the oldest tricks in the narcissist’s playbook.

Narcissists often threaten to harm you or your reputation whenever they feel injured by something you did or said.

Phrases like “You will regret it” or “I wonder how your friends will react when I tell them …” are meant to manipulate and force you into playing by their rules.

6. Physical Violence

In some extreme cases, narcissists can even become physically abusive.

The motives behind such extreme reactions to narcissistic injury depend mainly on the type of narcissism.

While vulnerable narcissists are triggered by perceived abandonment, grandiose narcissists are triggered by threats to self-esteem. [1]

7. Denial

When faced with an accusation for which they have no arguments, narcissists will straight up deny it in hopes of avoiding the embarrassment of ‘being caught with their pants down.’

Sometimes, they will deny an accusation with such ferocity that you start feeling bad for bringing it up.

If you want to see this in action, just turn on your TV and listen to politicians and celebrities facing corruption charges or sex scandals.

8. Narcissist Discards

Depending on how wounded they felt by something you said or did, narcissists will go so far as to exclude you from their social circle.

Although this action can often result from a narcissistic injury, it also has a lot to do with how narcissists view relationships.

For a narcissist, friendships and even romantic relationships are often strategic partnerships from which they seek to gain some benefits.

In other words, he may choose you as a romantic partner because he considers you beautiful enough to draw others’ admiration or become friends with you for your financial status.

9. Spreading False Rumors

A smear campaign is the perfect revenge for a narcissist with a wounded ego.

When they can’t attack you directly, narcissists might try to hurt you through your friends, coworkers, or family members.

In other words, they seek to damage your reputation by sharing an intimate secret, fabricating embarrassing rumors, or even sharing a nude photo of you on different online platforms.

How to Respond to Narcissistic Wounding

1. Understand How a Narcissist’s Mind Works

Anyone who’s ever been around a narcissist knows their perception of themselves differs from what others see.

In other words, they see themselves as more important, valuable, and overall superior compared to others.

Because they think and behave as if everything revolves around them, narcissists are rarely open to treating others with respect and affection.

They only offer respect, appreciation, and affection when they need something from you or are afraid to lose you.

Basically, they use emotions as a currency to get what they need or want.

If you spend enough time with a narcissist, you’ll realize he operates on a child-like mentality. This can baffle some of us as we don’t expect a grown person to overreact to a minor misunderstanding.

Unfortunately, their behavior rarely changes, and if you’re unlucky enough to trigger a narcissistic wound, you risk being blacklisted for life.

Maybe the narcissist in your life is your boss, or maybe it’s even your loved one.

In any case, I think the first step is to understand what narcissism is and how to interact with a narcissistic person without neglecting your needs or sacrificing your boundaries.

2. Ask for a Second Opinion

Given that narcissists are expert manipulators and gaslighters, it’s easy to get lost in their version of reality and sacrifice your needs or desires for the sake of peace.

If there’s one thing I want you to remember, it is that everyone can fall victim to a narcissist’s manipulation tactics.

When you say or do something that triggers a narcissistic injury, the response you typically get is quite intense and overwhelming.

You start to feel guilty for what you said or did and overthink your actions.

In other words, the moment you start doubting yourself is the moment you fall into their trap.

Sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to get a second (even third) opinion on the matter.

Whether you talk to a licensed professional or a friend, getting an outside perspective can help you see things differently and avoid gaslighting yourself.

3. Focus on Setting and Keeping Boundaries

Whenever I talk about dealing with the narcissists in our lives, one of the main topics I address is boundaries.

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Yoga is famous for restoring balance between mind, body, and spirit.

But learning to set boundaries in relationships isn’t just a way to protect yourself from narcissistic manipulators. It’s also a skill that helps you maintain a positive self-image.

When it comes to personal boundaries, there are a few key points I want you to remember:

  • You have every right to set and maintain personal boundaries. Your boundaries act as filters, allowing what is acceptable in your life and keeping out what is not.
  • Your needs and feelings are just as important as others’. I encourage you to remember this every time someone makes you feel guilty or inadequate for how you feel or what you think.
  • What is unacceptable for me? This is a question each of us must answer for ourselves. Some might find it acceptable for their partner to shout during a heated argument, while others don’t. Some might be okay with putting a pin on a problem and discussing it later, while others need to clarify it ASAP.

Furthermore, here are some signs which may indicate unhealthy or unclear boundaries:

  • You go against your values and emotional needs to please others.
  • You let others define your worth.
  • You feel guilty every time you say ‘No’.
  • You don’t stand up for yourself when others mistreat or abuse you.
  • You automatically feel ashamed whenever someone is triggered by your actions or words.

4. Practice Self-Soothing Techniques

As you’ve probably realized by now, dealing with the outcome of a narcissistic injury can be incredibly consuming.

The rage, the passive-aggressive remarks, the veiled threats, all the unpleasant reactions that an injured narcissist throws at you can cause a lot of pain and tension.

Sometimes, you feel strong enough to withstand it; other times you just need to retreat and recover.

Let me share a few practices to help you soothe the emotional pain and release the tension.

  • Take a mindful walk. It doesn’t have to be a long one; even ten minutes can be enough to calm you. The important thing is to detach yourself from the drama. Relax your eyes, feel the body’s movements, look around, and enjoy the experience.
  • Practice yoga. Many people prefer yoga to relax or reconnect with their body. Yoga is famous for restoring balance between mind, body, and spirit. It incorporates breathing exercises, simple movements, and meditation, making it accessible to almost everyone.
  • Keep a mood journal. If yoga or other activities that involve movement are not your forte, why not give journaling a try. You don’t necessarily have to focus on the negative aspects of your life; write whatever helps you achieve inner balance. Long story short, journaling can teach you to express yourself emotionally and unload heavy feelings.

5. Know When to Leave

Sometimes, the only way to deal with the backlash of narcissistic injury is to cut them out of your life.

Maybe it’s not the easiest decision, especially when the person causing you so much distress is a parent, spouse, or close friend.

But when boundaries fail, disagreements keep piling up, and there’s zero accountability on their part, leaving might be the only option left.

It’s easy to imagine that your nightmare will finally end once you break up with them.

However, narcissists tend to intensify their abusive tendencies during a breakup.

We can all agree that separation can bring out the worst in even the most amicable couples, but narcissists never miss an opportunity to instill fear and manipulate.

That’s why going no contact is the toughest but also the healthiest thing you can do after cutting ties with a narcissist.

Final Thoughts on Narcissistic Injury

Narcissistic injury occurs when people with narcissistic tendencies face criticism, disappointment, and perceived abandonment.

As a result, they tend to react with hostility toward the person they believe betrayed or insulted them.

This reaction can spark intense arguments and create abusive dynamics where you’re constantly made to feel like you are the one causing all the problems.

To preserve your self-esteem and not fall victim to their manipulation tactics, it’s vital to:

  • Understand what narcissism is and how it can affect relationship dynamics.
  • When it doubts, ask for an outside opinion.
  • Make sure to set and maintain healthy boundaries.
  • Practice self-soothing techniques.
  • If nothing works and you start to feel hopeless, consider the possibility of leaving the relationship.

In the end, a narcissistic injury is the sign of a child who never felt enough for his caregivers. As an adult, he can’t tolerate the slightest unpleasant remark.

Although you cannot blame the narcissist for being the way he is, it’s perfectly okay not to tolerate more than you can handle.

And if you're looking for articles about narcissist and narcissism, be sure to check out these blog posts:

Finally, if you want to identify YOUR personality type, then take one of these 11 personality tests to better understand what makes you tick.

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[1]A. Green and K. Charles, “Voicing the Victims of Narcissistic Partners: A Qualitative Analysis of Responses to Narcissistic Injury and Self-Esteem Regulation,” SAGE Open, vol. 9, no. 2, 2019.
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