By Dana Morningstar
This is a real or perceived threat to a narcissist’s ego which usually results in them going into attack mode, known as “narcissistic rage.” This attack mode can happen subtly and behind the scenes, or it can happen with them exploding and going on a verbal and/or physical attack. A narcissistic injury could happen in any number of ways, but perhaps the most common are challenging the narcissist’s decisions or abilities, criticizing them, questioning them about their behavior (or anything really), setting boundaries, talking positively about others, talking positively about good things in your life or even talking about positive things in the life of their children or other family members.
Everyone gets jealous or envious of others from time to time, and no one really likes feeling challenged or questioned—and this is all normal to an extent. What’s not normal is to fly off the handle or to have a meltdown when things don’t go our way. However, narcissists have a paper-thin ego, and any criticism of them, or something good that is happening to someone else, is perceived as an attack. Because narcissists go into attack mode when their ego is threatened or when they start to lose power over their target, a target of abuse needs to be careful when they go about leaving them, as this is when they are the most dangerous. It is always a good idea to anticipate how you think they might respond, and then to err on the side of caution. Even if a narcissist has never been physically violent before, they can easily become violent during this time.
Example: Julio tells his work buddy Todd that he is excited about his new promotion. As he talks about how he’s so relieved to be able to pay off some debt with the money from his pay raise, Julio notices a sneer briefly flash across Todd’s face. This strikes him as odd since they are friends and work in different departments—it’s not like Julio got the promotion over Todd. Soon after Julio had told Todd about his promotion, Todd’s behavior radically changed. He became cold and critical of Julio and began making snide comments about his choice in clothing, his weight, and how easy his job was compared to Todd’s. He would say things like, “Now that you’ve got some extra money, maybe you can get a tie that’s not from the 1980’s,” or once when Todd passed his office, he made a comment about how Julio’s pizza smelled good, but that he worked too hard at the gym and didn’t want to let himself become fat. During this time, Julio began noticing that faxes from his clients began to go missing. The first few times this happened, he chalked it up to the fax machine being on the fritz. It wasn’t until paperwork began to go missing from his office that he began to wonder if he was going crazy. Still thinking that Todd was his friend, he mentioned this to him, and Todd told him that maybe he was under too much stress with his new promotion. Julio began to wonder if Todd was right.
About a week later, Julio overheard Todd telling their supervisor that Julio was very unprofessional with clients and had also been making a lot of mistakes at work—and that he was concerned about him. Maybe he had a drinking problem, as Julio had always been such a great employee. None of this was true, and Julio then realized that Todd wasn’t his friend, and was in fact out to get him fired. He also began to wonder if Todd was responsible for all of his missing paperwork. Julio realized he needed to distance himself from Todd, as well as talk to his supervisor in order to let him know what has been happening.
Example: Linda always felt as though her mother was in competition with her when it came to men. Linda’s mother had always dressed overly sexy and acted immature and flirtatious around men. She always had to be the center of attention, and growing up, Linda had dreaded her mother showing up to her school for any event or parent-teacher conference.
Linda recently began dating, and her boyfriend had made the comment on Facebook that Linda was “the most beautiful girl in the world.” When Linda’s mother read this comment, she began accusing Linda of being a whore, and demanding that she stop seeing him. When Linda protested, her mother began yelling at her, calling her names and belittling her.
Example: When Jane’s verbally abusive husband, Ryan, came home from work, she told him she was filing for divorce. Ryan began yelling, cussing at her, and calling her names. He threw the keys at her and told her to get the hell out of his house, and she had better watch her back.
Example of projection and a perceived narcissistic injury: Sam and Karen had been dating for five months, and up until recently things had been great. Over the past few weeks, Sam began accusing Karen of cheating on him. Karen was shocked by these accusations and was confused as to why he’d even think that. He began insisting that she didn’t wear makeup and for her to stop going to the gym, because he accused her of trying to make herself attractive to other men. He began texting her often during the day and would become upset when she couldn’t text him back right away, and began accusing her of being too busy having sex with her coworkers. He began going through her laundry and insisting he smelled cologne on her clothes. What Karen thought was so strange was that Sam had quite a few women texting him and sending him sexy pictures, and if anyone was cheating, it was most likely him. No matter how much she tried to convince Sam that she was being faithful, nothing seemed to help, and his behavior was getting worse with time, not better. Karen knew she should probably break up with him, but she was scared to do so, as she knew he’d think she was leaving him for another man—even though she wasn’t.
(Sam was most likely cheating on Karen, projecting his behavior onto her, and then lashing out at her for what he was in fact doing. And if Karen were to point out to him that he was most likely projecting, in an attempt to give him some insight as to his behavior, Sam would likely become enraged. Because when a person is projecting their “uncomfortable” or bad thoughts, feelings, and actions onto others, they are doing so in an attempt to distance themselves from what they are doing. In other words, if a person can’t handle the truth about their own behavior, and then they are confronted with that truth—especially by their target/scapegoat—this will most likely only make their defenses escalate, and the abuse becomes worse.)
Example: Scott recently broke up with his girlfriend Kim. He couldn’t handle any more of her “psycho” behavior and controlling ways. Ten minutes later she began sending him a barrage of texts calling him names and threatening to tell everyone that he had raped her if he didn’t respond. Scott became enraged and scared that she would accuse him of raping her, but still he knew he needed not to respond. His friends told him to make sure to keep all the texts from her, in case he did wind up in court, and to block her number, which he did. Later on that night Kim showed up at his house, screaming out on his front lawn, demanding that he talk to her. He immediately called the police, and when they got there, they told her to leave—which she did. As he was leaving work that next week, he discovered that his car had been keyed.
Dana Morningstar is a former psychiatric nurse turned domestic violence educator who specializes in abuse awareness and prevention. Her passion is working with survivors of abuse to reclaim and rebuild their self-esteem, boundaries, confidence, and identity. She is an author of multiple books on the subject, and also has a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel, as well as several online support groups, all of which you can find under the name “Thrive After Abuse.”