Narcissism (Part 3): How Narcissists Act When Feeling Upset or Threatened

Friday, May 19, 2017

To understand this article better, it is highly recommended to read the previous two titled Narcissism: What It Is and Isn’t and Narcissism and Self-Esteem.

Narcissistic Phases and Tactics: Two Examples

1. Close relationships (romantic, familial, friendship, acquaintanceship)

If you are unwilling or unable to provide narcissistic supply anymore, the narcissistic individual will feel wronged because, for them, you only exist to give them what they want. And since they feel entitled to what they want, they believe that your refusal is an act of aggression against them. Often this formula disregards reality, but to them, it is real. To deal with this and all the emotions that come with it, then, the narcissistic person will behave a certain way.

The mechanism narcissists use is sometimes described as the Drama Triangle, which consists of three roles: the Victim, the Persecutor, and the Rescuer. Now, there are two versions of the triangle: the objective one and the narcissist’s perception of it. In the narcissistic person’s mind, they are the Victim; the person they are abusing, manipulating, or exploiting is the Persecutor; and a new source of narcissistic supply is the Rescuer. In reality, the narcissistic person is the Perpetrator, the old supply (the target) is the Victim, and the role of the Rescuer is fulfilled by a new love interest or by narcissist’s enablers and accomplices (knowingly or unknowingly).

Since the narcissistic person perceives themselves as the victim and you as the perpetrator, they will tell you all about how you hurt, punish, or don’t appreciate them. And since they think in black and white, they may alternate between seeing you as the Persecutor and as the Rescuer. If you refuse to accept their skewed perception of reality and don’t provide what they want, they see this as an act of aggression and are likely to look for replacements, enablers, and supporters to feel validated and just in their beliefs and behavior. They might try turning family members, friends, common acquaintances, and newly met allies against you and use them as their narcissistic supply to regulate their self-esteem.

2. Professional, non-romantic, “competitive” relationships

Narcissistic individuals have a few tactics when they feel upset or threatened, especially in “competitive” relationships (as they see it), like at work, among peers, or on social media. They not only have low self-esteem, but they also view the world in black and white terms which leads to feelings of insecurity and therefore leads to competitive behavior. This low self esteem and skewed perception of the world means that they are easily threatened, which not only creates anxiety but also a deep sense of shame and worthlessness. More often than not, the narcissistic person is unaware of why they feel this way, or even of what exactly they are feeling. Consequently, they perceive it as others aggressing against them, they project. To deal with it, the narcissistic individual might go very far to show that they are right, virtuous, great, and that “their competitor” is worthless, unfair, or evil.

A simple example: A person has a wage work position. The individual is professional, minds their own business, works hard, and therefore achieves more professionally than their coworkers. Meanwhile, one of their coworkers takes every opportunity not to work, hides in the back to check their phone or to stand around and chat with other colleagues. However, when they notice that the hard-working person is making more money than them or otherwise has achieved more, they feel upset and threatened. They think that it’s unfair and that they should have as much as their hard-working “competitor,” if not more.

Instead of trying to figure out how they, too, could be more successful and looking at the situation objectively—which would mean accepting themselves and their behavior realistically and “their competition” as simply being professional, they see themselves as a victim and the other person as an enemy now. As a result, instead of being more professional and efficient (since in their mind the problem is not them), the narcissistic person may start slandering the hard-working colleague, criticizing and reporting the smallest mistakes, turn others against them (including the management), make their days at work miserable, or even get them fired. In their eyes, it’s a defense or a necessary, justified, even noble line of action. As “the competition is destroyed,” as “the demon is slain,” the narcissistic person starts feeling better about themselves again. And that’s all that matters.

Narcissism and Validation-Seeking Behavior

In both examples, the narcissistic person feels wronged or threatened and deploys certain tactics to regulate their self-esteem, emotions and thoughts. The goal here is to manage what sometimes is called a narcissistic injury to one’s self-esteem and identity. The most common behaviors the narcissistic individual uses to “defend” against their “Persecutor/Enemy/competition” (i.e., the actual Victim) involves but is hardly limited to the following: damaging or destroying private property, stalking, mimicking, plotting various wrongdoings, lying, pretending, falsifying stories, intimidating, bullying, slandering, manipulating, turning people against “the Enemy,” encouraging people to pick their side and support “what’s right,” i.e., the narcissist (intellectually, mentally, or financially), showing off to impress, buying expensive things, spreading false accusations, pursuing sole legal custody of children, and physically or sexually abusing others.

Psychologist Elinor Greenberg describes this mechanism by distinguishing four narcissistic behavioral patterns1:

If you have ever been puzzled by the seemingly erratic shifts in behavior of someone who has major Narcissistic issues, you will be happy to know that most of what you see has a rather simple explanation…One can conceive of highly Narcissistic behavior as centered almost totally around self-esteem regulation. Individuals who have made Narcissistic adaptations see themselves and others in a highly unrealistic, polarized, black and white way. There are no gray areas: you are either special, perfect, unique, and entitled to better and different treatment than everyone else (at the top of the Status Hierarchy) or worthless, defective garbage entitled to nothing but shame and whatever crumbs those above you choose to give you (at the bottom of the Status Hierarchy). Of course, given the implications of this stark view, everyone with a Narcissistic adaptation fights very hard to hold onto the belief that they are in the Special category.

I call this fight to prove one’s specialness the “Grandiose, Omnipotent, Defense,” or GOD for short.

Here is the “formula” for predicting what the Narcissists in your life will do next. If you yourself have these issues, the following may help make your own behavior more understandable to you as well.

There are basically only four types of things most Exhibitionist Narcissists do to support their self-esteem. (there are other types of Narcissists, but I won’t discuss them today). You can think of these as four buckets and sort most of the behaviors that you observe into one of these buckets.

1. DISPLAY: This involves displaying oneself to an admiring audience by talking about one’s accomplishments, telling stories, and bragging about all the important people that one knows. This is the state that the Narcissistic individual finds most rewarding and wants to be in ALL the time. It is blissful because any doubts that they have ever had about their worthiness are completely out of awareness. As long as they feel their audience is totally admiring, they are in Narcissistic heaven.

2. COMPETE: Unfortunately for Narcissistic individuals, there are other people around who also feel as if they too deserve attention. The Narcissist’s response depends almost entirely on where the other person is in the Status Hierarchy. If the person is someone the Narcissistic individual looks up to as having much higher status, no fight will occur. However, if the other person is about at the same level, then the Narcissistic individual will fight ruthlessly to prove that the other person is actually far below them. They literally cannot tolerate the idea that someone might be their equal. Anyone who is seen as competition will be fought with until either the Narcissist feels as if he or she is clearly the winner, or has lost badly and then needs to repair his or her self-esteem. Narcissistic individuals have only two basic tools that they use for self-esteem repair.

3. BECOME GRANDIOSE: Here we have the “I am a GOD” situation (Grandiose Omnipotent Defense) that I mentioned above. The individual tries to rise above the competition by doing something so wonderful that it proves that he or she is supreme and the other person is nothing. If the Narcissistic individual is talented, this might involve winning the Nobel Prize. If they are rich, they might build a hospital or support a cultural institution and have it named after them. If they do not have the wherewithal to do something wonderful, they may simply insist that they have special powers that no one else has…In that moment, they are simply doing what they can to feel better about themselves, even if it means sacrificing reality.

4. DEVALUE: If Narcissistic individuals cannot mobilize a GOD defense and grandiosely rise above whomever they suppose is competing with them or attacking them—and attack is defined as anyone who holds a different view or is trying to give them constructive advice or simply does not notice how special they are—they will devalue that person as publically and as thoroughly as possible. They will make every attempt to destroy the other’s person’s self-esteem…The other person’s real motives are unimportant. All behavior that makes a Narcissist feel less than is a punishable offense.

If none of the above defenses work to shield the Narcissistic individual from the knowledge that they are not always special and not everything that they do is perfect, they are likely to sink into a shame-based, self-hating depression. This depression differs from most other depressions in that its primary characteristic is not sadness, but shame about the self and the unrealistic conviction that he or she is totally worthless and a complete failure.

Is Wanting Acceptance and Validation Always Narcissistic?

We all want to be recognized and accepted for who we are, and when someone threatens us or does us wrong we want fairness. In a therapeutic setting, validation and acceptance are two of the core prerequisites for a person to get better. So wanting to be recognized for who you are or feeling bad when you are wronged or threatened is not inherently dysfunctional. It’s actually normal.

However, since a highly narcissistic person falsely sees themselves as being right, or being a victim, or being underappreciated, or being cheated on, or being aggressed against, their reaction to their shaky perception of the world creates numerous complex interpersonal problems that end up hurting others. What they perceive as “defense” or “competition” is actually aggression.

Narcissistic people need external validation for their perception of their experience so much that they can go to great lengths to get it. It involves lying, manipulating, pretending, triangulating, slandering, insulting, turning people against each other, and otherwise hurting others. Ultimately, the goal is to find allies—tools, objects—who would believe and support their delusions. If there is an interpersonal conflict, in a narcissistic mind, the more allies they find (especially of a higher social status), the more right, righteous, and virtuous they are—and the more wrong, evil, and dangerous the other person, “the Enemy,” is. What is true and who gets hurt doesn’t matter. What matters for them is regulating their false self-esteem and false sense of identity to an acceptable level.

In contrast, as psychotherapist Amy Morin phrases it, “While some people seek validation from others, mentally strong people are less concerned about gaining recognition. Instead, they’re intrinsically motivated to become better.”

Resources and Recommendations
Greenberg, Elinor. How to predict what a Narcissist will do next. LinkedIn. Accessed May 18, 2017.
Narcissism (Part 1): What It Is and Isn’t [article]
Narcissism (Part 2): Narcissism and Self-Esteem [article]
On The Difficulties of Identifying Narcissistic, Unhealthy, Toxic, Dangerous People [article]
Manipulation and Character Assassination—and How to Handle It [article]
Narcissistic Rage and Narcissistic Injury (Wikipedia)
The Drama Triangle (Wikipedia)
Torture By Triangulation [article]
Triangulation (Psychology)
Characteristics of Narcissistic Mothers [article]
Why Do People Become Narcissistic [video]
Narcissism / Family Dysfunction [playlist]
Self-Esteem [playlist]
Want to improve your life but don't know where to start? Self-Work Starter Kit might be just the guide for you!

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