A narcissistic injury occurs when narcissists react negatively to perceived or real criticism or judgment, boundaries placed on them, and/or attempts to hold them accountable for harmful behavior. It also occurs when a person does not accommodate a narcissist’s insatiable need for admiration, special privileges, praise, etc. The “injury” also shows up when the narcissist over-amplifies and personalizes benign interpersonal interactions. It can also come out when a person with no malintent does not meet the narcissist’s impossible-to-achieve desires for high levels of praise and admiration.
The “injury” is often followed by the narcissist’s loss of control over his or her emotional equanimity, and a subsequent burst of passive or overtly aggressive vindictive responses. These bouts of emotional tumult are referred to as emotional dysregulation, as the activated narcissist emotional reaction spikes and often is beyond his or her control.
In my book, The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us, I explain how the loss of emotional control and the reflexive need to punish an “offending” person can be traced back to the narcissist’s core shame and pervasive levels of pathological loneliness, about which the narcissist is often either in denial or oblivious (disassociated from).
The hair-trigger “injury” reaction is a direct result of attachment trauma the narcissist suffered as a child, often because of an abusive, neglectful, or depriving narcissistic parent. As much as I make a case for the distressing nature of attachment trauma, the agonizing experience for the child who is to become a Pathological Narcissist is far worse.
In The Human Magnet Syndrome’s chapter, The Origins of Pathological Narcissism, I explain that the massive abuse, neglect, and/or deprivation perpetrated by both the Pathological Narcissist and, to a significantly lesser degree, the codependent parent, results in psychological trauma of the highest degree. To emotionally survive this anguish, the child’s mind reacts in a manner similar to adult victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When a traumatic event is beyond the brain’s ability to process, sort through, and integrate as an experience of severe trauma, it is relegated to what many people refer to as our unconscious mind.
The human brain has a circuit breaker-like response to trauma. In other words, a natural safety mechanism that is activated when any given traumatic event(s) exceeds the brain’s capacity, or is overloaded. The “circuit is tripped” and the traumatic experience is relegated to a part of the brain that deeply buries these memories. In other words, the trauma is neatly packaged in what I refer to as a “hermetically sealed memory container,” which is physically located in the brain’s limbic system, specifically the amygdala. Once buried, the trauma memory is disconnected from a person’s conscious abilities to recall the event and/or experience the emotions surrounding it.
Considering the manner in which a narcissist-to-be child processes attachment trauma, this author believes all Pathological Narcissists, or those with Narcissistic, Borderline, and Antisocial Personality Disorders, also have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Therefore, underneath the narcissist’s psychological “surface,” lies a deeper reservoir of self-loathing and core shame. Although the attachment trauma is blocked from the narcissist’s conscious recollection, they show their “ugly face” during narcissistic injuries.
More often than not, defense mechanisms successfully protect pathological narcissists from realizing the truth about their highly traumatized, shame-based, and psychologically impaired selves. This form of protective amnesia wards off personal meltdowns (emotional dysregulation) by the psychological processes known as defense mechanisms. Such mechanisms include: Conversion, denial, displacement, fantasy, intellectualization, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, regression, repression, sublimation, and suppression.
Since the human brain was designed through the imperfect process of evolution, and not by computer programmers, neurologists, or mechanical engineers, the brain’s natural defense mechanisms by themselves are not insufficient in keeping stowed away trauma memories from “bubbling up” into the narcissist’s conscious mind. Despite the brain’s best efforts to keep the trauma cordoned off from consciousness, the “seals are broken,” and there is “leakage.”
The activation or re-surfacing of the trauma manifests as feelings of danger, insecurity, and extreme discomfort, which then trigger a cascade of angry second-level emotional responses, such as hatred, resentment, and/or disgust for the “perpetrating” individual. The resulting emotional dysregulation, at most, is just a temporary solution to the narcissist’s misperceived threat. Although the hair-trigger reaction emboldens and protects the narcissist, it is only temporary. Like a loosely fitted bandage, it will eventually fall off – exposing the underlying wound (core shame). This is when defense mechanisms kick back into action, and once again divert the narcissists away from their core shame, and toward their grandiose and entitled dissociated selves.
Narcissistic injuries are almost always projections, which is the misplacement of the narcissist’s unconscious self-hatred onto any person who they experience as threatening. Feeling “bad,” “broken,” and/or “never good enough,” like they did as a child, is simply not an option for the Personality Disordered narcissist. In actuality, projections are dissociated feelings of self-hatred and self-loathing, that are attributed a person who threatens the narcissist’s veneer-thin self-esteem. In other words, projection diverts the realization of self-hatred and core shame by transferring self-judgment and condemnation onto the activating or ‘injuring” person. Because projections intertwine with narcissistic injuries, it is only academic to separate them.
Narcissistic injuries are quite varied. They range from active aggression, like a disapproving glance or kick in the shin, to passive aggression, which includes the silent treatment or triangulation of others against the “injuring” person. A narcissistic injury may even occur when the recipient of the abuse does absolutely nothing. It is the perception of a threat that causes the internal emotional meltdown, not the real thing!
Whether it is yelling, threatening, or even highly dangerous aggressive actions, narcissistic injuries are unnerving to many, and downright frightening to most. They provoke an internal fury that incites punishing pronouncements, judgments, and actions against the perceived perpetrator. The only real cure for them is to find an exit route to the interaction, and potentially out of the relationship. Unfortunately, people who suffer from codependency, or what I now refer to as Self-Love Deficit Disorder™, find themselves powerless to Pathological Narcissists. The reason for their attraction to narcissists and their inability to extricate themselves from harmful relationships with them is explained in full in my book, The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us. Sadly those will Self-Love Deficit Disorder mistake the abuse for love, and explain away their harm (trauma) by using some of the same defense mechanisms as mentioned above.
And remember this: few narcissists learn from the consequences of their out-of-control narcissistic injuries. Any act of contrition or remorse is just a guise to hide their fear of being abandoned by the very person to whom they are causing so much suffering. It is a psychological fact: few narcissists learn from the outcomes of their abuse. And when confronted about it, they do not experience empathy, as they feel justified in their actions
10 Tips To Protect Yourself from a Narcissistic Injury
- Always protect yourself and your children from unacceptable harm that results from the narcissistic injury. If necessary, contact the police.
- Remember, narcissistic injuries are rarely about you, but rather about the narcissist himself. My video, “It’s Not About You. It’s About Them!” explains this phenomenon.
- Apply my Observe Don’t Absorb Technique, which is explained in my seminar of the same name.
- As much as possible, do not react defensively to the narcissistic injury, as to do so will antagonize the perpetrator of abuse. See my video and Huffington Post article on the topic.
- Whenever possible, find an escape route, as narcissistic injuries and the harm that follows, are meant to hurt the projected perpetrator — you!
- Find a good therapist who can help you uncover why you have subjected yourself to the narcissist’s harmful treatment.
- When in psychotherapy, consider discussing how and why the absence of self-love and core shame is at the root of your codependency, or Self-Love Deficit Disorder.
- Explore my Self-Love Recovery, Self-Love Deficit Disorder™, and Codependency Cure,™ material to assist you in self-protection and personal and psychological recovery.
- When you find yourself forgiving the offending narcissist, consider that you are more afraid of being alone/lonely then being hurt again. My video on Pathological Loneliness can help.
- Consider reliable intensive retreats and breakthrough experiences to uncover why your fear of loneliness trumps your ability to protect yourself from pathological narcissists and their narcissistic injuries.