Narcissistic injury is widely misunderstood. Many people believe it relates to the trauma experienced by the victims of narcissists. But instead, it is what is experienced by the narcissist when they lose or are abandoned or criticized. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM):
“Vulnerability in self-esteem makes individuals with narcissistic personality disorder very sensitive to 'injury' from criticism or defeat. Although they may not show it outwardly, criticism may haunt these individuals and leave them feeling humiliated, degraded, hollow, and empty. They may react with disdain, rage, or defiant counterattack.”
The narcissistic individuals I have known who have had this kind of injury reaction take a long time to get over it. They hold grudges and want to get back at the person they perceived harmed them; they seek revenge, try to cause problems for their attacker, and seem never to forgive or forget.
We have all felt abandoned or rejected at times, and most of us get over it with a little time and processing of our feelings: We move on. But the narcissist does not. Narcissists are not enough in touch with their own feelings to move on. The issues remain in their mind as “it’s all your fault,” or “How could you do this to me?” They want to strike back and seek revenge. While they may act arrogant and haughty and put on a show that nothing bothers them, this façade makes it difficult for others to see their inward self-loathing. They do not have a solid, developed sense of self so we see them swing from depression to grandiosity with little in-between. Their presentation deceives most people until they get to know the narcissist. When the narcissists’ façade of charm and deception gets cracked, their whole world bursts apart. They will then blame others for their feelings of inadequacy, lack of happiness or success, and lack of love.
As long as you are in agreement with the narcissist, revolve around them, do things their way, and have great adoration for them, you will be fine. But if you take a different highway from them, you will then see their disdain and serious “get back at you” tactics. We see this in politics, in narcissistic parenting, and in high-conflict divorces when someone is divorcing a narcissist. You may also see it at work or with a friend you have discovered is a narcissist. The charm you thought was real suddenly turns into a vicious battle of abusive behavior. While you thought they cared for you, loved you, or admired you, you find out they were not capable of that and that it was all a charade to get what they wanted. Deep down, their motivation is to exploit you for their personal or professional gains. They are envious of others, fiercely competitive, and always must come out on top no matter the issue. This is traumatic to realize, especially if you were close to the person in a work, family, or love relationship.
In healthy situations, we can disagree with someone, but we talk it out. We sometimes agree to disagree, but we don’t hold grudges for the rest of our lives. True narcissists cannot do this. They strike back hard and then usually wipe you off their slate, but they never forget. It will always be your fault because they are never accountable. People involved with narcissists often have a hard time understanding this because it is not normal behavior; in fact, it's abusive. The key to recovering from this abusive behavior is our own internal work, realizing it is not us and not our fault. We must separate ourselves from abusive behavior and focus on our own wellbeing. It is also important not to carry their shame, which they will try to dump on you. Many clients I have worked with feel shame that they even got involved with such people, but I want to clearly say that anyone can be duped by a narcissist. They are very good at presenting a façade of charm and grandiosity. The narcissists’ goal is to deceive and manipulate for their own ends, and often they are quite successful in this endeavor.
If you have been duped by a narcissist, know that there is hope and recovery. I remain a strong advocate for narcissistic abuse recovery and I know it is worth it. You may be wondering how to recover, and what else you need to understand to take good care of yourself and your family. These additional resources could help.
American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed, text revision (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2000) 715