A narcissistic breakdown happens when someone with narcissistic personality disorder feels vulnerable or exposed and can’t rely on their usual defenses to cope.
This breakdown is a response to their narcissistic supply being cut off or changed, and it can result in narcissists acting enraged, impulsive, or extremely defensive.
Because narcissists have fragile self-esteem, they constantly rely on external sources for validation.
When they lose those sources, they feel threatened and may not know how to react.
Their false self becomes more entangled with their true self, and this merging feels impossible to handle.
What Is a Narcissistic Breakdown?
It’s no secret that narcissists present as overly confident and grandiose in everyday life.
But underneath that facade lies a much different reality. Narcissists have a deep sense of emptiness within them, and they rely on other sources to provide them with external validation.
Therefore, a breakdown can happen when that validation is threatened (or cut off entirely).
A narcissistic breakdown occurs when a narcissist’s usual defenses or behaviors stop working.
This leads to a “breakdown” in behavior, in which the narcissist often becomes anxious, depressed, angry, ashamed, and lonely.
It’s a sign that the narcissist has lost control over their identity and doesn’t know how to cope.
Sometimes, during a collapsed state, the narcissist realizes they are no longer all that special. This creates immense anxiety and a deep fear of being revealed for their “true selves” or as fakes or frauds.
Other times, the collapse leads to more anger. The narcissist can’t handle feeling exposed, so they will double down on their rage and exhibit destructive, chaotic, and even terrifying behaviors.
Is It the Same as a Collapse?
The terms narcissistic breakdown and narcissistic collapse are often used interchangeably.
Narcissistic collapse happens when a narcissist’s false self is threatened. The narcissist feels a loss of control, which results in them acting out toward others or themselves.
Collapse happens in stages and doesn’t always lead to a full breakdown.
A breakdown is generally the final stage of accepting that narcissistic behavior no longer works effectively.
Signs of a Narcissistic Breakdown
When a narcissist has a breakdown, they feel misunderstood and even abandoned by others.
They don’t receive what they want, creating immense internal tension.
Their confident image may be shattered (i.e. they didn’t get an important promotion or they’re crush doesn’t like them back).
The signs of a narcissistic breakdown include:
- extreme irritability
- angry outbursts (also known as narcissistic rage)
- defensive behaviors
- impulsive or self-destructive behaviors
- withdrawing or isolating from loved ones
- depression or anxiety
- ending a relationship or threatening to do so
Narcissistic breakdown doesn’t follow a one-size-fits-all formula. For example, an overt narcissist might lash out at their loved ones and make dramatic claims about how nobody loves them. A covert narcissist might be quieter with their breakdown- they might act as if everything is okay, but then they go on a passive-aggressive social media rant.
Most narcissists will initially deny the breakdown when it’s happening. That’s because they might not even realize they’re experiencing narcissistic collapse.
At first, the signs of breakdown closely resemble the signs of narcissistic rage (a common state they’re used to being in).
Other times, they want to gaslight others and cause them to feel guilty or worried about what’s going on.
Stages of Narcissistic Collapse
The stages of narcissistic collapse mirror that of the stages of grief. A collapsed narcissist feels out of control and doesn’t know how to cope with their circumstances.
If they have a co-occurring mental health condition like anxiety, depression, or PTSD, those symptoms will likely flare up during this time.
Denial is the first stage of narcissistic collapse. Most narcissists never fully leave this stage.
At this point, a narcissist lacks insight into their behavior. They justify, rationalize, or blame others for their wrongdoings, and they may present as the victim.
Anger during narcissistic collapse can be severe. That’s because the narcissist never thinks they’re wrong.
At this stage, the narcissist is full of rage, and they become hostile, and they may become aggressive toward others.
Their anger may be directed at one person, but it can also be more general and may affect anyone in their life.
A covert narcissist might become overly passive-aggressive or engage in silent treatment.
During the bargaining stage, a narcissist tries to “fix things.” At this point, they may have some insight into their problematic behaviors (and even be able to identify that they did something wrong).
They make promises to change or seek professional help. They might apologize for their actions, and they may express some guilt over how they hurt others.
The depression stage occurs when the narcissist experiences a deep hopelessness about their current situation.
This is when they realize they can no longer maintain their false self and come to terms with their low self-worth.
This can lead the narcissist to stop functioning successfully, withdraw from others, engage in self-harm, and even feel suicidal.
Some narcissists will enter treatment at this point, but they’re generally only focused on treating the depression.
Reality has sunk in during the acceptance stage of narcissistic collapse, and a narcissist starts to recognize the severity of their behavior and identity truly.
This self-awareness can lead to change- some narcissists will go to therapy or try to develop healthy strategies for emotional regulation.
However, acceptance does not inherently mean “being cured,” and narcissists can still regress into old behaviors.
How to Cause a Narcissistic Breakdown or Collapse?
There’s no guarantee you can trigger narcissistic collapse. However, if you have a strong insight into the narcissist’s behavior and know what generally causes an intense emotional reaction, you may trigger a narcissistic collapse.
Most people recognize that boundaries are essential for healthy relationships.
But a narcissist feels threatened by limits- they feel entitled to do whatever they want and want to set the parameters for their relationships.
You setting and sticking to your boundaries may cause them to collapse.
Focus On Your Own Hobbies or Interests
Narcissists don’t value people thinking or acting differently from them, and this is especially true for romantic partners.
You focusing on your own life feels threatening and can trigger some of their self-doubt and self-importance.
They may think their influence no longer matters, and that can cause them to lose control.
Stop Validating Narcissistic Traits
You may trigger narcissistic collapse by simply ignoring narcissistic behavior. Narcissists love attention – even arguing back to them can be fulfilling.
Avoid validating their narcissism in any way. If you must compliment them, make it genuine, sincere, and related to specific circumstances.
And if they act aggressively or in a toxic way, call them out on it.
Build a Strong Support System
Narcissists often want to isolate their victims from the outside world. They don’t want external influence to affect their thoughts about the relationship.
They also need to maintain as much power as possible in the relationship, knowing other people might threaten that.
The best way to prevent this is by staying in close contact with your friends and family. Prioritize your support system, and don’t allow the narcissist to dictate how you spend your time socializing.
End the Relationship
Narcissistic collapse often happens after an important relationship ends. This is especially true if the breakup or no-contact takes them by surprise.
They lose their most important source of supply, and they will either scramble to find a new source of validation, or they will start collapsing.
Keep Labeling Their Behavior
Don’t dismiss their toxic behavior. Name it for what it is. Tell the narcissist, “That is a form of gaslighting,” or, “I won’t tolerate you criticizing my moral character.”
However, keep in mind that this strategy doesn’t always work, and it may trigger even more narcissistic rage.
But if a narcissist is open to changing their behavior and improving the relationship, they might be more inclined to listen.
How Long Does Narcissistic Collapse Last?
It varies. Some collapsed narcissists bounce back quickly, especially if they have multiple streams of narcissistic supply.
Other narcissists may stay stuck in their intense feelings of sadness, anger, or shame for many months or years.
Extreme collapse can lead to physical aggression towards others or themselves. In serious cases, it may result in a suicide attempt (the person often feels that life isn’t worth living if they can’t maintain their facade).
The good news is that the collapse can lead to change if the narcissist is willing to acknowledge their behavior and seek appropriate treatment.
However, this is not something other people can control. If someone wants to change, they have to be willing to do the work and make the effort.
What Happens After a Narcissistic Breakdown?
In most cases, a narcissist will try to “cure” their narcissistic breakdown by restoring their sense of power and control. They will seek supply in whatever form they can find.
If you’re with a narcissistic partner who has a breakdown, they might try to “save” the relationship. They may be overly apologetic and willing to do “whatever it takes” to fix things.
Other times, a narcissistic breakdown leads to serious changes in behavior. A narcissist might act extremely impulsively- this can look like quitting their job, trying drugs or using drugs more frequently, cheating on their partners,
Which Kinds of Narcissists Are More Likely to Have a Breakdown?
Covert narcissists may be more likely to have a collapse than grandiose narcissists.
Covert narcissists generally have some insight into their low self-esteem and often have co-occurring issues with depression, addiction, eating disorders, or anxiety.
Because they tend to be more passive and insecure, they are impressionable about how others treat them.
Grandiose narcissists can also have a breakdown, but the stakes generally need to be higher.
For example, they might need to be fired from an important role or divorced to start reflecting inward. Even then, there’s no guarantee they will develop insight or change.
If You Experience Narcissistic Collapse, What Should You Do?
If you identify as having narcissistic traits and think you’re in a collapsed state, it’s important to use this time to try to be more reflective about your narcissism.
Think about how you rely on admiration and grandiosity to survive. Remember that the need for continual external validation is a hollow endeavor – you will always feel vulnerable to needing reassurance to feel secure.
Therapy can help change your thoughts and engage in more adaptive behaviors.
Because most narcissists have early trauma histories, working on those triggers is essential.
You will also need to learn healthier ways of managing your emotions, and you will need to be more mindful and respectful in your relationships.