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.