The Dynamic of Narcissistic Injury In Narcissistic Personality Disorder
What Is 'Narcissistic Injury'?
The mental health disorders classified as ‘personality disorders’ have some characteristics in common, one of which is the tendency to be overly sensitive to what is sometimes called ‘narcissistic injury’ (NI), or ‘narcissistic wounds’. Narcissistic injury is a characteristic or effect that can occur to anyone, but is most pronounced and notable in those who have a personality disorder, and most specifically, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
In order to understand NI, it is important to understand several points concerning the human personality as well as the personalities of those with NPD. Any time a person receives some kind of insult in human interaction, there is a risk that the person will experience an ‘injury’ to their self-esteem. This is especially true if the person rather fancies themselves as quite talented or good at something and then receives criticism concerning that. Essentially, the person has been ‘brought down a peg’, so to speak. While the average person may feel the sting of the criticism for a few hours or even a few days, they usually quickly recover and are able to balance out the criticism with the work of realistic and courageous self-review and self-validation.
A simple and stark example of this are the reality shows where contestants sing in front of experts for a chance to move up in the game. Those talented normal folks who try out and are told that they need a bit more experience and training by the expert judges, usually express disappointment, but also acknowledgment that the coaching is valuable. Those who lean towards narcissism will be highly insulted, flabbergasted, and enraged that their impeccable sense of key and artistic expression falls short of the standard.
Narcissistic Personality Injury and Narcissistic Personality Disorder
So, narcissistic injury is a fairly common effect in human interaction, and most people are able to cope (in varying degrees of success) with the insult or injury to their self-esteem. The same kinds of narcissistic injury, of course, happens to those with personality disorders, but the difference is the depth and level of reactivity that will be noted. As a way of understanding this, if we understand the NPD individual as someone who is emotionally only about two years old, we can begin to see how narcissistic injury is far more impactful to the NPD person.
One theory is that from a very young age, the child who becomes an NPD individual was totally and consistently overindulged by the parent(s) to such a degree that they never had to experience the real life events of disappointment or anyone telling them that they occasionally are wrong or make errors. These parents defend their child’s behaviors to the nth degree, and are overindulgent both physically and emotionally.
Another theory of how NPD develops in a person is that there has been tremendous self-esteem damages done to the person when they were a child, usually by one or both parents. In most cases, one of the parents has NPD. An NPD parent may ‘ride’ one or more of their children in such a way as to make life a living hell for the child. Essentially, the child will never be able to please or satisfy the NPD parent, because the only one who can reach perfection is the NPD parent. Any time the child does anything well or good, the NPD parent will find a way to take credit for that, or tell the child that they could still do better.
Alternately, the NPD parent may choose one child as their favorite, and will reward their loyalty to the NPD parent (as in believing their lies, defending them, becoming a ‘minion’, and shaping themselves in to an excellent protégé). At the same time the favored child of the NPD parent is being groomed with narcissistic skills, the NPD parent also constantly places the child in a ‘one down’ position, just as they are with the un-favored children. It must not be forgotten that no one can be better than or receive more attention than the narcissist; even the favored child that the NPD parent is shaping into an NPD adult is simply either a tool to enhance the NPD parent’s status, or a toy to entertain the NPD parent. It may be that narcissists are born from either overindulgence or grooming by an NPD parent, or both.
Narcissistic Injury in an individual with NPD represents to the person with NPD a total attack on who and what they are, not just the criticism at hand. For the NPD individual, NI is a clear black and white situation: “Hurt me (criticism) in any way, I will reject you, because if you do not agree with me and support me one hundred percent, you are an enemy’. The NPD person does not even need real narcissistic injuries, as there enough imagined ones in their head. After all, they imagine that since they are so great, others must be jealous of them and out to discredit or destroy them.
The NPD individual will experience any resistance to their will, ideas, or suggestions as insubordination in underlings, or as conspiracy in higher-ups. Keeping with the idea that the NPD individual is an emotionally underdeveloped (two year old) adult, the level of hurt and expression of that injury can be as dramatic as a two year old being refused a cookie before dinner. This emotional storm and tantrum is often called ‘narcissistic rage’.
How Narcissistic Injury and Narcissistic Rage Are Displayed
Any criticism of an NPD individual’s position, opinion, statements of fact, or defiance of their will results in narcissistic injury; this injury leads to a spectrum of reaction ranging from simple ignoring and irritation to tantrums and all out displays of rage. Often, those around the NPD are unconsciously being behaviorally shaped by the NPD over time, to comply with what the NPD wants to avoid such tantrums and rages. The implied consequences of displeasing the NPD are strong enough to gain the victim’s cooperation. In addition, if the NPD individual is in a position of power or honor (a judge, police officer, doctor, or pastor), the victim makes an unconscious assumption that no one in such a position would ever be deceitful or as selfish as NPD’s are.
Depending on the social situation, someone with NPD, while receiving NI, usually has the ability to control their expressions of narcissistic rage. After all, it would not serve the NPD judge, police officer, doctor, or pastor to demonstrate ‘crazy’ behavior in front of just anyone. They usually save the really big demonstrations of rage for individuals, or small groups at most. The expression of rage will be on a spectrum ranging from the NPD person ignoring someone completely, to mild expressions of annoyance, through small to moderate tantrums, or the full blown dramatic display intended to intimidate and control.
One thing consistent in the spectrum of rage expressions is that of revenge. The NPD individual seems not able to resist striking back at real or perceived narcissistic injury. It is not unusual for the NPD individual to begin to experience NI in a cascading fashion, due to the increasing difficulty that they may have in holding on to the reigns of their need to seek revenge. Because the NPD cannot tolerate any appearance or suggestion that they are not perfect or in control of their field of influence, they will ceaselessly work to do damage control to their image (still trying to satisfy their NPD parent). In fact, they become consumed by this, and in the process often weave a tremendously complex web of lies between themselves and the minions that have bought into their lies, and those who have either been take the and should anyone discover that lie and call them out (another NI), yet more leis are needed. Like any two year old that has not yet learned the moral lesson that one lie will always beget more lies, the NPD individual’s ways of interacting with others is a house of cards that eventually begins to catch up with them.
Despite the obvious reaction to NI, the NPD individual will never admit to feeling hurt or damaged in any reasonable, calm fashion that allows for genuine healing or repair. The NPD person may become indignant or claim the high moral ground and expect or demand an apology from the victim of their abuse, but will feign that they are not really affected by the criticism or damage. They may even appear to have coped well with the NI, but rest assured, there is a plan quickly forming to mete out revenge, which can range from purging the offender from the NPD person’s life, or some subversive, vengeful action. Since the NPD individual cannot tolerate any tarnish to their image, they are quite proficient at the use of ‘smoke and mirrors’, including the use of bold-faced lies, to tarnish the image of anyone who dares to suggest that they are not what they appear to be.
If an NPD individual can be identified for what they are, and you will be in unavoidable, relatively close contact with them, it is wise to invest some time in learning about NPD and how to manage them.