Narcissistic collapse occurs when a narcissist’s ability to uphold their grandiose, confident image is threatened. As a result, they often become enraged, resulting in impulsivity, intense lashing out, or harm to others. While this reaction isn’t typically intentional, it’s a way for the narcissist to re-establish a sense of control.
What Is Narcissistic Collapse?
A narcissistic collapse happens when a narcissist believes that someone (or something) is threatening their ability to maintain their superficial inflated ego. People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) often look down on others to maintain the positive images they hold about themselves. If their behavior is called out or challenged, their fragile self-esteem is damaged, resulting in intense reactions and abuse toward others.1
Narcissistic collapse isn’t an official psychiatric term and hasn’t been extensively studied. However, some researchers and psychologists argue that collapse essentially disarms the false self associated with narcissism.2 Because narcissists are so insecure, they often feel empty and hollow–they need admiration from others to feel validated.3
For example, if a spouse leaves them or a boss fires them, it disrupts the narcissist’s entire status quo. Instead of reflecting on what happened or trying to address the conflict appropriately, they can become hysterical, volatile, or rageful toward themselves or those around them.
Overt Vs. Covert Narcissistic Collapse
Overt narcissists, or grandiose narcissists, tend to be extroverted and present with high self-esteem. They typically come across as overly confident and self-important. Conversely, covert narcissists, or vulnerable narcissists, are more insecure and will often avoid confrontation.
Covert narcissists will come across as passive-aggressive and use the silent treatment or sarcastic comments when they experience narcissistic collapse. They tend to be conniving, manipulative, and accusatory. An overt narcissist may explode in a narcissistic rage outburst and engage in a more outward expression of collapse.
What Causes Narcissistic Collapse?
Research suggests that people with NPD rely on narcissistic supply to ensure their needs are met and their superior image is upheld. This supply consists of any source of validation, attention, or admiration. When the supply is jeopardized, the narcissist can become unhinged.
Narcissistic collapse may be caused by a threat to a narcissist’s perception of themselves or others. These “threats” can stem from mild inconveniences to severe disturbances, making it hard to know exactly what can set the narcissist off. For instance, a friend taking too long to respond to a text or not receiving a promised raise at work can trigger the narcissist.
11 Signs of Narcissistic Collapse
Not every narcissist will experience narcissistic collapse or cope with a damaged ego the same. However, when a collapse does occur, it can seemingly come at a moment’s notice and even a slight infraction may trigger it. Therefore, it’s important to recognize the early signs of narcissistic collapse so you can approach the situation appropriately.
Below are 11 signs of narcissistic collapse:
1. Impulsive Behaviors
Impulsivity is a trademark characteristic of narcissism.4 When a narcissist’s overinflated confidence is injured, they may ignore advice and make impulsive decisions to show they are always right. Impulsive behaviors, such as unprotected sex, gambling, or excessive spending, help them counteract challenges to their ego.
Depression and narcissism often go hand-in-hand. Narcissists frequently have trouble regulating their emotions, which can cause depressive episodes when they cannot cope with a challenge to their self-worth. The narcissist’s access to supply dwindles during a narcissistic collapse, contributing to these low moods.
Narcissistic gaslighting is a narcissistic manipulation tactic used to distort a person’s reality or memory. A narcissist may gaslight others when they feel threatened to divert attention from their shortcomings. When a narcissistic collapse occurs, they use this tactic to hurt the person questioning them.
4. Mental Breakdowns
A narcissist may have a breakdown if their supply is cut off and they feel vulnerable, embarrassed, or out of control. Narcissistic breakdown symptoms can include rage, impulsive behaviors, or other ways of showcasing intense mental suffering. A narcissist will lash out at you in any way they can or hurt themselves to cope with the shame.
5. Anger Outbursts & Rage
Rage outbursts are commonly seen during a narcissistic collapse episode. In the narcissist’s mind, it is easier to be angry than deal with the uncomfortable emotions of embarrassment, rejection, or shame. Rage is especially typical with vindictive narcissists.
6. Smearing Someone’s Reputation
A narcissistic smear campaign may happen after a narcissist ends a relationship, especially if they lose control of or access to supply. Smear campaigns are intended to harm a person’s social, familial, or professional reputation. The narcissist may do so by saying the victim is “crazy” or “unstable.” A smear campaign ensures the narcissist maintains control of the narrative and that their image is sustained.
7. Self-Harm Behaviors
A covert narcissist may engage in self-harming behaviors when they feel slighted. By doing so, the narcissist can maintain control and regain attention or sympathy during a narcissistic collapse.
8. Making Accusations
During a narcissistic collapse, a narcissist may make untrue accusations toward another person to deflect from their behaviors. Such allegations distract from a narcissist’s mistakes or faults if they are called out. In this way, they avoid feeling ashamed or embarrassed if they can place blame on their victim.
9. Intense Anxiety
Narcissists may experience anxiety during a narcissistic collapse, possibly as irritability, increased distressing thoughts, or engaging in rituals. Anxiety may develop if they fear certain behaviors will be exposed or they are ignored, lose control, or receive too little attention.
Stonewalling refers to a narcissist’s refusal to communicate with others, allowing them to preserve control by making their challenger feel guilty, confused, or stressed. The narcissist wants their victim to respond and engage with them so they can twist the situation in their favor and recover from a collapse.
11. Suddenly Ending a Relationship
A narcissist may end a relationship if it fails to meet their needs. This action, or the “narcissistic discard,” is often considered the final stage of narcissistic collapse. If the narcissist realizes their supply is being cut off, they move on to their next victim but remain involved in the person’s life by spreading a smear campaign or hoovering.
What to Expect From a Collapsed Narcissist
Narcissistic collapse often results in extreme, negative projection. Narcissistic projection is a defense mechanism that helps narcissists protect their ego and self-concept by attributing their negative traits to someone else.5 Subsequently, they may turn their self-hatred or rage onto other people.
Example of Narcissistic Collapse in a Parent
If a parent has NPD, narcissistic collapse can occur if their children challenge their core values or concept of self, such as a child not eating a meal the parent cooked or choosing to date someone they dislike. The collapse may resemble a serious temper tantrum where the parent becomes explosive and then depressed or withdrawn. A narcissistic parent may threaten to estrange or cut off their children and, in some cases, will actually do that. However, they will make it appear that the child ended the relationship.
Example of Narcissistic Collapse in a Partner
In romantic relationships, narcissistic collapse can look like a sudden breakup without warning or cause. Narcissistic collapse after a separation can manifest as obsessing, stalking, or trying to win someone back if the partner ends the relationship. While still in the relationship, the narcissist may oscillate between love-bombing their partner and discarding them entirely.
Example of Narcissistic Collapse in the Workplace
In the workplace, narcissistic collapse can also resemble a tantrum. A narcissistic boss may impulsively fire employees, bully others, or make nasty threats about how they intend to issue consequences.6 Moreover, if an employee attempts to quit, they might try to sever their reputation or blackmail them into staying.
How to Protect Yourself From a Collapsed Narcissist
Dealing with a narcissist can be confusing, frustrating, and emotionally draining. If you have identified symptoms of narcissistic collapse, avoiding the current situation entirely is best. Highlighting the narcissist’s behavior (or trying to fix it) will likely backfire. Instead, it’s essential to focus on letting people with NPD cope with their own emotions and consequences. It isn’t your responsibility to make things better.
You need to focus on prioritizing your own well-being and personal needs, particularly if you feel targeted during this time. Some people may benefit from taking a no-contact approach and eliminating communication. Others might practice setting healthy boundaries with a narcissist and specific limits on their willingness to engage.
When to Seek Professional Help
Recovering from narcissistic abuse can be difficult. If you feel stuck, scared, or uncertain, therapy can help. Using an online therapist directory to find the right therapist who understands NPD and narcissistic collapse can make all the difference. Therapy may be beneficial for processing your emotions, gaining support, and learning healthy strategies for managing boundaries moving forward.
People with NPD may rely on manipulating others to meet their needs. Knowing their real intentions and underlying insecurities can help protect yourself and your loved ones. Identifying how narcissistic collapse works–and recognizing key warning signs–can prevent ongoing pain and frustration.