Narcissists are really good at having their abusive behavior go unnoticed or be excused by others. It is very common for them to be mislabeled as “misunderstood”, “a high-performance person”, or “someone who is just really intense”. Narcissists are really deceptive but one warning sign of a narcissistic personality that they can’t hide is their response to criticism. 

When criticized, narcissists are unreceptive and aggressive because criticism contradicts their grandiose sense of self-importance, specialness, and uniqueness. One should expect a narcissist to respond with rage, gaslighting, the silent treatment, projection, and/or self-victimization when criticized.

This article is going to explain why narcissists react so poorly to criticism and guide you through the different abusive behaviors that narcissists use in the face of criticism so that you can better understand narcissism and narcissistic abuse. Paying attention to one’s response to criticism is a very good way to spot a narcissist. We’ve created a short video down below with some other warning signs that you can use to spot any narcissists in your life.

A Short Video About Spotting a Narcissist In the Beginning of the Relationship

Why Do Narcissists React So Poorly to Criticism?

Narcissists have such a poor response to criticism because in the face of it they don’t have the emotional poise or receptivity to understand that criticism isn’t intended to be a malicious attack on their identity. It is believed that this emotional inadequacy that narcissists have originates from an abusive upbringing with unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent primary caregivers.

When a child has to grow up with neglectful primary caregivers, they don’t get the validation, reassurance, and admiration that they need to have a healthy cognitive development and to develop a realistic sense of self so they have to turn to their external world for validation, admiration, and reassurance. 

What this means is that the child begins to construct their sense of self out of the validation, admiration, and reassurance that they can get from their external environment. For example, imagine a child of neglectful primary caregivers constructing their sense of self out of the validation, admiration, and reassurance that they get from their external environment for being a really good golfer. 

Over time, the child is going to develop a number of serious negative emotions like a sense of inadequacy, a fear of abandonment, and self-hate. The only problem is that the emotional neglect that they experienced as a child has left them so emotionally inadequate and immature that they’re incapable of managing all of their negative emotions about themselves.

What they do instead of using healthy forms of emotional regulation to manage their emotions is they use the sense of self that they construct from the validation, admiration, and reassurance that they get from their external environment to suppress all of their negative emotions deep within themselves.

What this means is that their false sense of self is the only thing protecting them from complete and utter emotional turmoil. When a narcissist experiences something that contradicts their false sense of self, it triggers their suppressed negative emotions, and compromises their emotional stability. 

Criticism, or any type of feedback for that matter, is one of many aspects of life and human interactions that contradicts a narcissistic sense of self and jeopardizes their emotional stability. That is why they have such a poor reaction to it.

With that being said, let’s take a look at the personality traits of a narcissist’s false sense of self so that you can fully understand how criticism contradicts it and compromises their emotional stability. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), narcissistic personality disorder is defined as the following:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance
  • A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • A belief that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
  • A need for excessive admiration
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Interpersonally exploitative behavior
  • A lack of empathy
  • Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of him or her
  • A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes

We bolded a grandiose sense of self, a belief that they’re special and unique, an excessive need for admiration, a sense of entitlement, and envy of others or belief that others are envious of them because those are the core aspects of a narcissist’s sense of self that get contradicted when they receive any type of feedback, especially criticism. 

What Abusive Behaviors Do Narcissists Use When They Are Criticized?

In this section we’ve written about five of the most common abusive behaviors that narcissists use when they are criticized. However, we highly recommend that you familiarize yourself with the other abusive behavior patterns that narcissists use when their false sense of self is contradicted as well.

Gaslighting

Gaslighting is when a narcissist doubts and/or denies reality. It is a pattern of manipulation that is designed to invalidate, devalue, and/or minimize the thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs of the victim. We’ve written a lot about this in our article What Does Gaslighting Do to the Victim, but over time gaslighting will manipulate the victim into questioning their own sanity, sense of self, and ability to conceptualize their own version of reality accurately. 

We have a lot of examples of gaslighting in our articles 6 Powerful Examples of Gaslighting and 119 of the Most Common Gaslighting Phrases but when a narcissist is criticized it is very common for them to make statements like, “You’re overreacting,” or “ I’m sorry that you feel that way but you need to grow up,” or “You’re putting words in my mouth!”.

By invalidating, devaluing, and minimizing the thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs of the person who criticized them, the narcissist is able to protect their emotional stability by convincing themselves and others that the criticism was unfounded.

Projection 

Projection is a defense mechanism that we all use from time to time. It occurs when we take aspects of our identity that we find unacceptable and place them on others. A simple example of this would be a woman criticizing her daughter for being “overweight” instead of acknowledging that she feels insecure about the weight she has gained.

Projection is an emotional safety net for a narcissist. The reason being that the primary defense a narcissist has against their suppressed negative emotions that they are too emotionally immature and inadequate to manage is narcissistic supply, also known as the validation, admiration, and reassurance of others.

When a narcissist experiences something that contradicts their sense of self and takes away the narcissistic supply, like criticism, projection is the unhealthy form of emotional regulation that they use. 

Projection in narcissistic relationships definitely happens on a small scale, meaning that a narcissist will accuse someone of doing something that they are doing themselves that makes them feel ashamed or inadequate to project the negative emotions that they have onto others.

But it also happens on a large scale and this occurs when a narcissist uses invalidation, devaluation, humiliation, and abuse to project their emotional instability onto others. We’ll cover this in the next section more thoroughly, but this often manifests in the form of narcissistic rage. 

By making the person who criticized them feel as insecure, weak, inadequate, and alone as the criticism made them feel, narcissists are able to project their emotional instability onto their victim. This allows them to figuratively point their finger and think, “You’re the inadequate, weak, insecure, and lonely one, not me.” 

Narcissistic Rage & Silent Treatment

As you know, narcissists are emotionally inadequate and immature. They are incapable of using healthy forms of emotional regulation to manage all of the suppressed negative emotions that are triggered when they are criticized by others. It is for this reason that they use narcissistic rage and the silent treatment to manage their negative emotions when they are criticized. 

Their emotional inadequacy and immaturity causes them to explode into a rage or clam up into a silent treatment. The silent treatment is very similar to what young children do when they don’t get something they want. 

They get really upset and don’t want to talk because they don’t have the emotional skills to express their emotions yet. Same is true for narcissistic rage but there is also a much more malicious aspect to it.

The need for revenge, for righting a wrong, for undoing a hurt by whatever means, and a deeply anchored, unrelenting compulsion in the pursuit of all these aims which gives no rest to those who have suffered a narcissistic injury – these other features which are characteristics for the phenomenon of narcissistic rage in all its forms and which sets it apart from other kinds of aggression – Heinz Kohut 

Narcissistic rage is a very twisted form of projection. When their false sense of self gets contradicted through a criticism or some other contradiction, they use rage to project their emotional instability onto their victim by quite literally trying to emotionally or physically destroy them. Again, successfully doing this allows them to figuratively point their finger at their victim and think to themselves, “You’re the weak, inadequate, and lonely one, not me.”

We highly recommend that you read our articles on narcissistic rage from our Narcissistic Rage Content Hub to better understand this dangerous response that narcissists have to contradictions to their false sense of self. 

Self-Victimization

We spoke about this a lot in our article Why Do Narcissists Go Into a Depression but if you were to criticize a narcissist in such a manner that stripped them of their narcissistic supply and didn’t allow them to project their emotional instability onto someone else, the weight of their negative emotions could cause them to fall into a very victimized and depressed state.

It is important to note that there are many narcissists who regularly use self-victimization or come off as depressed when their sense of self gets contradicted, like a covert narcissist, because it is a core aspect of their personality.

Characteristics of a Narcissist Who Is Using Self-Victimization

  • They victimize themselves.
  • They are vulnerable and needy.
  • They are socially inadequate and anxious
  • They are resentful, irritable, and hostile.
  • They often come off as depressed.
  • They are passive aggressive, hypersensitive to criticism, and argumentative.

The point is that narcissists who use self-victimization are going to try to make the victim feel selfish, cruel, ungrateful, ashamed, etc., for criticizing them. The characteristics above are heavily associated with covert narcissism. However, there is a very interesting study that we outline in a video down below. The study suggests that under the right circumstances, the other narcissistic personalities will adopt the personality traits and characteristics of a covet narcissists which explains why self-victimization is so common in the narcissistic realm.

A Short Video About Grandiose Narcissism and Covert Narcissism Existing Side-By-Side In the Same Person

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

Narcissists do not respond well to criticism because it contradicts their sense of self, specifically their grandiose sense of self-importance, specialness, and uniqueness. You should expect a narcissist to be consumed with rage, gaslight you, give you the silent treatment, use projection, and/or portray themselves in a very victimized light when they are criticized.


All of the content that Unfilteredd creates is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care — please visit here for qualified organizations and here for qualified professionals that you can reach out to for help. This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

References

Atlas, Gordon D., and Melissa A. Them. “Narcissism and sensitivity to criticism: A preliminary investigation.” Current psychology 27.1 (2008): 62-76.

Glover, Natalie, et al. “The five-factor narcissism inventory: A five-factor measure of narcissistic personality traits.” Journal of personality assessment 94.5 (2012): 500-512.