The vindictive character. The revenge plan. The lack of remorse and empathy. This is how narcissistic personality disorder is often and inaccurately portrayed in pop culture.
A highly stigmatized and misunderstood condition, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is never a personal choice.
Instead, it’s a complex mental health condition that goes beyond a few stereotypical behaviors or attitudes.
Can a person with NPD be vindictive? Yes. However, vindictiveness isn’t an official symptom of the disorder, nor is it exclusive of people living with mental health conditions.
Only a mental health professional can accurately diagnose narcissistic personality.
A grandiose sense of self, an intense craving for admiration and recognition, and fantasies of unlimited success are just three of nine narcissistic traits.
As with many other mental health conditions, not everyone experiences the same symptoms of NPD or with the same intensity. In this sense, narcissistic personality can be thought of as a spectrum.
In fact, everyone can act out grandiosity and other aspects of narcissism in certain situations. This doesn’t mean they live with the disorder.
The difference between narcissism as a personality trait and NPD as a mental health condition is how persistently it shows over time and across all situations.
“We all have exaggerated when telling a story out of excitement,” explains Nicholas Hardy, a psychotherapist in Texas. “But someone who is narcissistic constantly exaggerates their stories and discusses their achievements with an aura of overinflated importance — to the point that they may become defensive when questioned or when someone challenges their idea of superiority.”
In some cases, someone may present with more symptoms of narcissistic personality or experience them in a more intense way.
When this is the case, some experts call it “extreme narcissism.”
NPD is not a personal decision. Most people with the condition aren’t even aware of their symptoms and how they may affect their relationships. They may, however, experience these symptoms intensely and pervasively.
Many experts refer to extreme narcissism as when NPD symptoms become so persistent and intense that they may begin to have an even greater impact on the self and relationships.
“There are always varying levels of a disorder,” Hardy says. While there may not be a clinical distinction, Hardy explains everyone experiences narcissistic personality differently.
“In many ways, they are incapable of seeing outside their own false beliefs and have an ‘at all costs’ mentality,” Hardy adds. “Even when it’s not about them, they often create scenarios that redirect others’ attention.”
There’s also a difference between overt and covert narcissism: Some people with NPD might act very dominantly and with a sense of superiority (overt narcissism), while others may have the same inner beliefs but act these out in more subtle ways (covert narcissism).
In general, someone who is vindictive might tend to hold grudges and “get back at you” when they feel you’ve wronged them in some way.
Everyone can act in vindictive ways in some situations, and not everyone who does lives with a personality disorder. In the same way, not everyone with narcissistic personality acts vindictively.
Vindictive narcissism isn’t a formal diagnosis. “Vindictive” refers more to how someone with NPD may act in some situations.
A vindictive behavior in someone with NPD might be an extreme manifestation of their symptoms. It’s usually a result of what some experts call narcissistic rage.
“Often, this individual will personalize any experience that brings into question their own false beliefs,” Hardy explains. “They view differences as personal attacks and respond in ways that attempt to terrorize whoever is responsible.”
In other words, someone with vindictive narcissism may tend to feel extremely and permanently hurt by someone else’s rejection, boundaries, or contradictory behavior. In turn, they may react intensely and with a need to counteract this perceived opponent.
“That opponent is rarely a [true] opponent, but instead how the narcissist has configured them in their minds,” Hardy says.
Vindictive behavior might look different in every case. Sometimes, it might be about sabotaging another person. In other instances, it might be saying something hurtful or using something they know against the person.
The trigger for this vindictive behavior might also be different in every scenario.
Someone with NPD might react with rage after someone doesn’t give them the attention they seek, if another person gets the promotion they think they deserve, or when someone contradicts them in something they’re saying.
Or, says Hardy, “If any argument starts, they may bring up past secrets and use them against you in ways that are hurtful.”
Is everyone who does you wrong or says hurtful things during an argument a “narcissist”? Absolutely not.
As with other mental health conditions, there’s a lot more involved. Only a mental health professional can make an accurate diagnosis.
The causes of NPD, in general, aren’t well understood or established.
Researchers think several factors could play a role, including:
- traumatic events
- excessive criticism from a loved one
- excessive pampering
- a family history of NPD or other personality disorders
- growing up in an individualistic culture
“Some consider narcissism to be a pathological state, along with other personality disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder and borderline psychopathy,” explains Chivonne Henry, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Miami Gardens, Florida.
In other words, Henry says, they may have low empathy for others. As a result, they can’t understand or relate to other people’s pain or how they cause it.
When someone doesn’t see a direct link between their behaviors and how other people feel, or don’t gauge those behaviors’ repercussions, they might tend to act in more vindictive ways when they feel hurt.
NPD is a mental health condition with complex cognitive and behavioral processes. It affects how you see yourself, others, and the world in general.
Someone with NPD might interpret situations in a different way and perceive them as challenging or threatening to their integrity, even when they’re not.
Underneath an apparent sense of superiority, there might also be an exaggerated need to feel approved and loved, and a vulnerable self-esteem.
In this sense, some people with NPD might experience any hint of rejection as a trigger for vindictive behavior.
These triggers could be:
- being critiqued at work, even if constructively
- having their opinion or experiences challenged
- someone else getting all the attention in a given situation
- not getting a promotion, even if they just started working at the place
- someone not following their advice or instructions
- a loved one developing another important relationship
- having their boss praise someone else’s work
These actions might not be directed at the person with NPD. For example, a boss praising a co-worker doesn’t imply they think anyone else’s work is not as good.
But for someone with the disorder, this instance can be perceived as a direct threat or challenge to their own worth. This might lead them to feel the need to sabotage that co-worker who’s getting attention, for example.
Being in a relationship with someone with NPD can be challenging. It might be particularly difficult if they act in a vindictive way.
Whether they’re a friend, a co-worker, a family member, or a significant other, you might want to do a few things to protect yourself emotionally — and, occasionally, physically.
“The most important way to protect yourself while in a relationship with someone who is narcissistic is to establish firm boundaries,” Hardy says. “In establishing these boundaries, it is important to firmly establish your ‘why’ and ground yourself in what you know to be true based on your values and beliefs.”
Someone with the disorder may try to challenge these boundaries or try to convince you to adjust them. Stand firm.
Any compromise you make will most likely benefit them, and that, according to Hardy, is an unhealthy compromise.
Also, consider keeping those boundaries, even when they’re “family.”
Admittedly, it can be really challenging for some people to set these kinds of boundaries, especially if the person with NPD is a close family member.
“When the vindictive narcissist is a family member, we often feel an inherent obligation to remain committed to the relationship based on pre-established norms,” Hardy explains. “I often hear comments such as ‘But that’s my mom’ or ‘We always go over there during Thanksgiving.’”
But it doesn’t matter if that relationship is predetermined by genetics.
“When unsafe, these customary norms lead to further damage and perpetuate unhealthy cycles,” Hardy says.
That’s why it’s even more important that you set the terms of engagement with this person based on your own needs and safety.
Vocalize your terms or boundaries
When you set your own terms, the person with NPD has a chance to understand them and either accept them or walk away.
This is a way of playing fair and letting them know what you will or will not tolerate.
If they can’t accept your boundaries — or repeatedly challenge or combat them, especially in vindictive ways — then you can take steps to further protect yourself.
“Stand up for yourself and be assertive,” Henry says. “Do not let their disrespect of you go unchallenged. If they say hateful and disrespectful things to you, and then you do not have anything to say… you are validating their position.”
Hardy agrees: “I would recommend moving towards accepting what the relationship is not, and exploring other avenues to get similar needs met.”
And sometimes, that might mean walking away from the relationship, especially if they’re constantly acting in a way that hurts or harms you.
Don’t second-guess yourself
In some relationships with people with NPD, you might second-guess or overly question yourself. This may be because some people with narcissistic personalities may use manipulation tactics and games.
“When this occurs, there is also a tendency to lose your ‘voice’ in the relationship and always rely on their ‘better’ judgment,” Hardy says. “This has devastating repercussions on one’s confidence and self-esteem.”
Try not to internalize
When a person is acting vindictively, they might say things that seek to define you in a certain way. “You’re so weak” or “You’re always imagining stuff,” for example.
Consider reminding yourself that they’re hurt and perhaps trying to hurt you, too, due to how they inaccurately perceive a situation as threatening.
It’s important that you don’t internalize these hurtful comments or assume responsibility for their behavior.
How they act is never your fault — no matter what they might say to shift the blame.
Remember, they have a condition that might distort the way they interpret your behavior or any given situation.
Shelter from their anger
This one can be quite challenging, especially if they say something hurtful toward you. But it’s important.
“Limit attempts to ‘prove them wrong’ during fits of anger,” Hardy says.
You might feel what they’re saying is incorrect. It might be so. But someone with NPD may not ever admit to it. Trying to convince them could simply result in an escalation of the conflict.
In addition, your own anger won’t serve any useful purpose.
If they say something hurtful or mean to you, don’t respond with an insult or hurtful statement back at them, Henry says.
“Sometimes the only appropriate response is to quietly remove yourself from the situation and not engage in a response,” she adds.
Develop a safety plan
As in any situation where violence may arise, having a safety plan in place is highly advisable.
“A vindictive narcissist is not always physically violent,” Hardy says. “Although they may have exploitative behavior or extreme responses to certain experiences, this does not always mean they will physically assault you.”
However, if they do harm you — or threaten to — it might be a good idea to develop a plan to leave the relationship safely.
“None of us has the right to carry out violence or be violent with someone else,” Hardy says.
If you’re unsure of how to leave your relationship, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 800-799-SAFE, or chat with them online.
Consider asking for help
It’s natural to feel confused about leaving a relationship with what some people might call “a vindictive narcissist.” For you, they’re a friend or a loved one.
It’s OK, however, to seek help and emotional support to cope with what is going on in your relationships.
Consider talking with other friends and family members about what you’re going through.
You might also want to consider seeking the support of a mental health professional yourself.
“Being in a relationship with someone who is narcissistic can be extremely challenging and difficult,” Hardy says. “Without clear and consistent boundaries, the psychological impact can be detrimental to your long-term social and emotional health.”
A counselor, therapist, or other mental healthcare professional can help you develop practical tips to cope with your emotions and the relationship.
“Even after a relationship ends, the residual effects can have long-standing ramifications,” Hardy says.
This is why you might also want to seek support after and if you decide to leave.
Suggest they seek help
Therapy does have the potential to help someone with NPD change how they relate to others and themselves.
It can also help lessen their chances of developing other mental health conditions, including:
- anxiety disorder
- substance use disorder
Be prepared to accept if they don’t follow your suggestion, though.
This is why it’s a good idea to focus on supporting your own mental health.
Being in a relationship with someone with NPD can be challenging. It can be even more difficult if they have an extreme — or vindictive — tendency.
Even when this is the case, though, it’s never a personal choice they make. They live with a mental health condition that may distort the way they interpret the world and themselves.
This doesn’t mean you have to accept behaviors that may hurt or harm you. Setting firm boundaries, avoiding escalation, and walking away from the relationship might be steps to consider.