Think of a creature so full of self-loathing that they can’t bear themselves. A being robbed of self-esteem and internally at least, totally without redeeming qualities. In literature you have it marked out in characters like Tolkien’s Gollum, Dickens’ Uriah Heep, or Nils Bjurman from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. It is hard to believe from the selfish and grandiose behaviour of narcissists, but if you had a magic mirror which could reflect how they feel inside, their mirror image would be something like one of these three, a kind of Dorian Gray of the soul. This is the essence of the narcissistic injury. And it is an injury which keeps on giving since the vulnerability they feel means they can get injured over and over again and they are helpless to change. Immature rage is their only consolation in their own private cesspit of self-hatred. A sad place to be indeed.
So What is Narcissistic Injury?
Every one of us received criticism, some more than others and people react differently to it. Some brush it off, others take note and try not to repeat the event which has caused them pain, for a few the hurt inside and remembering causes further pain, but with a narcissist it goes deeper and is more wide ranging than for almost anyone else. What is more, life keeps throwing opportunities for injury at the narcissist because although it may seem counterintuitive, they are more sensitive than the rest of us.
Freud was the first to recognise that injury lay behind the many unattractive attributes of people with NPD. Typically, of Freud he located the problem firmly in sexual development. He did however, share other insights which suggested that “a failure of love in childhood” was the catalyst which caused the development of Narcissistic personality.
Where Freudian concentrated on the “primary injury” in childhood, Heinz Kohut, also from the psychoanalytic background, developed theories about the “secondary” injuries which afflict narcissists on a day to day basis. Kohut argues that any failure causes shame which repeats the experience of injury. An interpretation of this is as if the narcissist has an imaginary voice in their ear shouting their failure at them beyond endurance. The voice might be their own, or it could be the remembered voice of the disappointed parent. Thus, they experience injury every time they experience a perceived failure or slight. Because the narcissist is a pseudo perfectionist then if they have not been the “greatest” “biggest” or “best” it is enough to cause further injury.
What Causes Narcissistic Injury
The sad thing is, almost anything but the usual cause, friends, partners, business associates who surround the narcissistic adult is that, unlike their parents or childhood influencers, there is usually no intent to undermine the person. Here are a few typical examples of behaviours which cause Narcissistic injury:
- Pointing out inconsistencies in their narrative – It might be an out and out lie or it could be an exaggeration, but if you notice and comment on it then they see that as a challenge to their story of themselves. A businessman who had, for example made more money from being a celebrity on TV than they had in business might not like to read any newspaper article which suggested this.
- Someone in their own domain challenging their dominance – for example being better qualified, younger, more successful, even solving problems. It is particularly galling to the narcissist if other people notice it too and comment on it.
- A friend / lover/ business partner deciding to leave – The ultimate rejection. Every narcissist knows that their rules dictate that it is only the narcissist who can discard a person when they are no longer useful. Narcissists are the one who control relationships not the other way around. Threats to sue, destroy or humiliate the other person are not uncommon.
- Suggesting to the narcissist that others might be more important – This may be a moral challenge such as accepting the needs of other people with good grace, a requirement that they stay in the background. A similar provocation might be the arrival of children in a marriage. A narcissist would struggle with the competition, especially a male who viewed his partner as a mother substitute.
- …When you say nothing at all. Praise, flattery and comment is the very oxygen to a narcissist. If they fail to get noticed, receive compliments for their deeds, thanks for their “good works” , praised for their looks or successes which are better or attract more people then they will be hurt, because they are more fragile.
The Effects of Narcissistic Injury
An injured narcissist is like a wounded animal in that they will lash out indiscriminately at those who they feel has caused the injury and anyone who tries to get near. Given that according to Kohut, a narcissist is incapable of mature assertiveness they resort to open and violent aggression and revenge, even after the threat has passed. This is known as narcissistic rage.
Rage is an extreme, often disproportionate reaction to an event, which cannot be quelled by usual means and takes longer to pass than other emotions such as anger or disappointment. In the modern world, it is less likely to result in physical violence but more likely to lead to aggressive social media activity, litigation or intemperate and unbecoming public comments about nasty people. We are all capable of these behaviours (especially after a glass of wine!) but it is the vehemence and enduring nature of such comments which mark or the narcissists. They are of course the “greatest” and the “best” at displaying narcissistic rage.