Narcissistic collapse is an intense emotional reaction experienced by a narcissistic person when they sense a setback. It can lead to withdrawal or vindictive behaviors.

The signs of narcissistic collapse may vary from person to person. In general, it may involve intense emotional reactions and a tendency toward vindictive behaviors, but it could also lead to depression and withdrawal.

Narcissistic collapse isn’t a permanent occurrence once it happens. Typically, the emotional pain will decrease and the person may return to feeling their usual.

In popular culture, people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are often portrayed as self-assured, confident individuals who care nothing about others.

In reality, people with NPD are complex emotional beings like everyone else. They live with a mental health condition that has formal symptoms like grandiosity, low empathy, and the constant need for praise and admiration.

Although there’s no consensus about it, some experts have found that this attitude of superiority may help them compensate for fragile self-esteem and a sense of vulnerability.

There’s limited research about it, though, and it’s difficult to determine whether this really applies to everyone with a narcissistic personality.

Narcissistic collapse refers to an emotional reaction that some people with narcissistic personality disorder experience under specific circumstances. It isn’t a condition or a formal symptom of NPD. It may also be more common among people with certain types of narcissism.

What causes a narcissistic collapse?

Mental health experts have observed that, sometimes, when a narcissistic person doesn’t receive the external validation they believe they deserve, it can result in a high level of stress and hurt.

This emotional pain may turn into narcissistic rage. This rage is at the core of a narcissistic collapse.

It’s a good idea to remember, though, that we’re all unique. In this sense, not everyone who lives with NPD behaves or feels in the same way. At the same time, not everyone with NPD experiences narcissistic collapses, and if they do, they might not act in the same way.

Instead, some assume a narcissistic breakdown is a behavioral and emotional response to frustration and pain when someone feels they’ve had a setback.

Dr. Alexander Lapa, a psychiatrist at Ocean Recovery Centre in Blackpool, United Kingdom, explains that narcissistic collapse happens when a person with NPD can’t maintain their superior or confident image.

When a narcissistic person doesn’t get a constant supply of validation or someone injures their self-esteem, their confident and superior facade can collapse.

A narcissistic collapse may happen because others don’t see the person like they want to be seen, for example. Or perhaps they didn’t get that promotion that they were convinced they deserved. Or their partner has left them.

“A collapse can also be triggered as a self-defense technique if they feel their self-image or self-esteem is being threatened,” explains Lapa.

For example, perhaps they’ve been exposed for doing something unethical or engaging in a narcissistic manipulation game.

According to research, those with covert or vulnerable narcissism may be more likely to lash out when experiencing a collapse.

This means that they may be more likely to act in vindictive ways or express rage than people with overt narcissism.

It may be challenging for some people to empathize with a narcissist if they’ve been on the receiving end of manipulation tactics or dismissive behaviors.

But feeling their superiority or self-image threatened can be a very painful experience for someone with NPD. How they act might be an expression of this intense emotional pain.

Not everyone who receives a diagnosis of narcissistic personality experiences it in the same way or with the same intensity. The same goes for a narcissistic collapse.

How do you know, then, if someone’s having one?

The answer isn’t straightforward. Some people going through a collapse may withdraw and silently experience intense sadness and frustration. Others may act impulsively and in hurtful ways toward other people.

Lapa explains that a person having a narcissistic collapse may gravitate towards behaviors that may put their or other people’s safety in jeopardy. They may, for example, engage in:

  • gambling
  • excessive drinking
  • substance use
  • reckless driving

Other signs of narcissistic collapse may include:

  • increased irritability
  • increased sensitivity
  • verbal expressions of strong emotions like hate
  • erratic and non-typical behavior
  • self-harm
  • manipulation tactics like the silent treatment or ghosting
  • anxiety
  • intense anger outbursts

One of the formal symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder is a diminished ability to experience empathy. Because of this, a narcissist may not be able to understand that some actions or words will hurt other people.

According to Lapa, experiencing narcissistic collapse may feel similar to experiencing an episode of depression.

The difference is that a person with NPD typically isn’t able to reflect on or recognize their role in the situation. This is a common symptom of a narcissistic personality. They often lack insight and aren’t aware that they live with the disorder.

This can lead a person to “act out,” says Lapa.

According to Lapa, narcissistic rage involves an angry outburst because of the perceived destruction of their self-image.

“It can present on a large spectrum from becoming withdrawn all the way up to extreme violence and verbal abuse,” says Lapa.

More often, narcissistic rage is an intense emotional response accompanied by hurtful comments and actions.

On the outside, it may look like someone’s out of control or they’re out to “get you.” On the inside, they may feel intense pain and vulnerability and a significant need to regain control.

Narcissistic rage and violence aren’t formal symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, and not everyone with NPD experiences or acts this way. Sometimes, narcissistic rage will lead them to experience intense depression.

A person with NPD who’s challenged in their sense of superiority may experience a narcissistic collapse. This is an emotional reaction of pain and vulnerability that may lead them to withdraw or act vindictively.

There’s still no consensus on the reasons for this reaction. And because many people with NPD aren’t aware of their symptoms, they may not realize they’re acting this way or why.

For the person on the receiving end, someone experiencing a narcissistic collapse may look out of control, extremely angry, and vindictive. In some cases, it may look like someone withdrawing altogether and giving them the silent treatment.

For the person experiencing the collapse, the event may be of extreme emotional pain and panic, and an increased need to regain control.

In every case, NPD isn’t a personal choice. Instead, it’s a mental health condition with complex symptoms that include a low ability to empathize, diminished self-reflection and insight, and the need for praise and admiration.

People living with the condition often aren’t aware of it. This may make it difficult for them to change those attitudes and behaviors.