When pain and frustration take over, someone with narcissistic personality disorder may react intensely and, sometimes, vindictively.

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.

Mental health experts have observed that, sometimes, when the narcissistic person doesn’t receive external validation, it can result in a high level of stress and hurt, and this can manifest as what some experts call narcissistic collapse or rage.

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.

Narcissistic collapse isn’t a condition or a formal symptom of NPD.

Instead, some assume it’s 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 the person doesn’t get a constant supply of validation or someone injures their self-esteem, their confident and superior facade can collapse.

This may happen because someone doesn’t see them 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 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 NPD 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.

This angry reaction isn’t necessarily on purpose or out of malice. They’re in pain and their difficulty regulating emotions might lead them to act without a filter — even more so than usual.

One of the formal symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder is a diminished ability to experience empathy. Because of this, they 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 may not be able to reflect on or recognize their role in the situation. This is a common symptom of a narcissistic personality. They’re often not aware that they live with the disorder.

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

Lapa also 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 or narcissistic rage

Some people with NPD who are having a narcissistic collapse may fall into a narcissistic rage.

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 the condition, and not everyone with NPD experiences or acts this way. Sometimes, their reaction may be intense depression.

A person with NPD who’s challenged in their superiority may experience a narcissistic collapse.

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.