What is a narcissistic breakdown? A psychologist explains the symptoms

  • A narcissistic meltdown occurs when a person with narcissistic personality disorder experiences failure, humiliation, or some other blow to their hidden fragile self-esteem.
  • Depending on the type of narcissist, the collapse can look different and be more frequent.
  • Anyone can experience this breakdown, but it can lead to debilitating depression for diagnosed narcissists.

People may use “narcissist” to describe someone who is vindictive and self-serving, but deep down, true narcissists struggle with extreme low self-esteem and shame.

When a narcissist’s deep-seated and often hidden self-criticism reaches their breaking point, they experience what’s called a narcissistic meltdown, psychologist and author of Rethinking Narcissism, Craig Malkin, told Insider.

According to Malkin, for someone witnessing a narcissistic meltdown, it can feel like “walking on eggshells” with the falling person. A narcissist can also seem dysfunctional, unable to fight, and abusing substances, wrote Elinor Greenberg, a therapist who diagnoses personality disorders like NPD for other therapists, in Psychology Today.

Because narcissism exists on a spectrum, everyone experiences this kind of devastation when they turn down a job offer or break up with someone they really like, Malkin said. But people with the most extreme form, narcissistic personality disorder, experience debilitating anxiety, depression, and suicide as part of the breakdown.

According to Malkin, a collapse looks different depending on the type of narcissist, but regardless, it feels the same.

With introverted narcissists, the breakdown is more pronounced

Contrary to some media portrayals, all narcissists assert their importance in clear ways.

When it comes to covert narcissists, for example, they internalize their sense of uniqueness until someone or a situation challenges it, Malkin said. For this reason, he calls this type of narcissist “introvert.” At a party, an introverted narcissist might sit alone in a corner and think about the fact that no one is giving them the attention they think they deserve.

When this type of narcissist crashes, Malkin says, you feel like you’re “on eggshells” with them. They may cry or be in a bad mood, which they don’t try to hide. But instead of explaining why they feel that way, they stonewall you, Malkin said.

“There’s a sense that the air is being sucked out of the room, and if you don’t share their pain and suffering all the time, you’re failing,” Malkin said.

During a meltdown, an introverted narcissist may say that they have been hurt by certain actions or words, but they don’t explain why they hurt them or how to deal with it. It takes real vulnerability, which is the narcissist’s greatest fear, Malkin said.

Extroverted narcissists are less likely to crash because they plan their lives around their activators

In grand narcissists, people who come off as likable, successful and well-liked leaders, the breakdown is less but debilitating, Malkin said.

He calls grandiose narcissists “extroverted” narcissists because they project their uniqueness by taking charge and winning over others. Extroverts or grandiose narcissists will go to great lengths to hide their negative traits or information that others might not like, Insider previously reported.

As a result, they become actors, politicians or other leadership positions where they are rarely questioned or scorned, thus avoiding opportunities for disaster, Malkin said.

If they fall, it can lead to anxiety and depression, which prevents them from getting out of bed and functioning at a normal level, Greenberg said. Collapse can also lead to suicide attempts, he said.

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