Erin Tahvonen, LMHC
The Weapons of the Vindictive Narcissist
Updated: Jan 24
Vindictive behaviors are a central component of narcissism. Remember, narcissism is a cluster of personality traits in which the narcissist manages the ego through external means. They attempt to inflate this ego by having what people want, surrounding themselves with things (yes, they view people as things) like a trophy spouse, house, perfect kids, expensive cars, high profile careers, because the feedback they receive supports their belief they are superior and feeds their grandiose sense of self. When a narcissist faces a challenge or threat to their ego, however, they lash out.
What could trigger this ego threat?
o Perceived criticism
o Receiving a critique
o Their target (significant other, child, colleague, family member – whomever they are using to manage their ego) setting boundaries
o A person laughing at what they interpret as their expense
o Comments that challenge their self-view or make them insecure
o Other people’s success, happiness, accomplishments
o Relationships their target has outside of them
o People seeing the “real” version of them
When this threat occurs, they behave in predictable but damaging ways. Examples of the punishment they inflict fall under five primary categories:
1.) They WITHHOLD
Money. Narcissists use money as a form of control and often withhold it as punishment. They may threaten their child’s college savings if the child confronts their abusive behavior. They may drag their co-parent to court frequently or refuse to pay for any of their children’s needs. They may encourage their spouse to stay at home, then belittle them for their lack of income. They may use money to seek approval from their employees or punish those who they view as challengers to their authority. Narcissists often have more money than most as they prioritize money and view every interaction as transaction for which money is an effective tool. They withhold money, they often hold positions of authority, and they are selfish – a formula to retain wealth.
Attention and affection. When challenged, narcissists will ignore their targets, avoid physical affection, withhold sex.
Communication. The silent treatment is an oft use form of punishment in narcissistic relationships. The narcissist might ice out his child or spouse. A narcissistic colleague or boss may leave you off of an important email or communicate behind your back. They may fail to inform a co-parent of an event or doctor’s appointment. Then they attempt to blame their target for not having the information they withheld.
2.) They engage in ACTIVE AGGRESSION
Physical abuse, rage, violence. There is a higher rate of physical aggression among narcissistic individuals, which can be extremely dangerous. Threats to their ego can cause them to act in violent ways, breaking things, hurting people, making threats of harm. This will almost always escalate and any violent behaviors should be taken seriously. Not all narcissists act physically aggressively however; for some, the obvious loss of control makes them feel more vulnerable and they wish to hide their emotional dysregulation from the world. For others, they are aware of this dysregulation and keep the abusive behaviors behind closed doors.
Verbal abuse. During the love bombing phase of a relationship, the narcissist appears deeply interested in hearing about you, particularly your vulnerabilities, insecurities, and emotional injuries from the past. It has a double-edged effect: you feel heard and understood, drawing you into their web, and it gives them ammunition for the future. When their ego is threatened, they will hurl insults that cause their targets significant pain. In intimate relationships they might compare you to your problem parent, they may bring up a hurtful experience from your past, say they are really starting to see things from the point-of-view of your abusive ex, or use insults or name-calling to which you are sensitive. To their children, they may use put-downs, weaponize guilt, remind them of their failures, tell the child they should feel grateful for all they’ve done, or compare them to their parent whom they make clear they dislike.
Control. To maintain their sense of power in the relationship, a narcissistic must carefully control your interactions with the outside world. Can’t have anyone filling your head with reason… or (gasp) self-confidence. So, when you seem to be having a great conversation with a friend or you are laughing with your mom or getting affection from your child, the narcissist will pounce. They might pick a fight with the person you’re feeling connected to and put you in the middle, encouraging you to show your loyalty to them, or they might be more direct and tell you they don’t want you to spend time with a specific person.
3.) They strike with SOCIAL ATTACKS
Embarrassment. Narcissists use embarrassment to boost themselves up at your expense. If they perceive an ego threat, your boss might invite you to a dinner party and greet you kindly. Then, when they have everyone’s full attention, they may say something boldly critical of you in order to shame and embarrass you, only to smile and thank you for coming on the way out the door. Your significant other might wait until you are having dinner with friends and you are laughing and having fun to tell an embarrassing story you asked him to keep private. The goal is to keep you in your place as their narcissistic supply, leaving you feeling unbalanced and damaging your image.
Reveal personal or private information. As an effective combination of using control and embarrassment, the narcissist might cause damage to your relationships with people close to you by sharing private information. They might wait until a family holiday to bring up a fight your sister had with her husband that she shared with you in confidence. Remember that the narcissist’s interest in your life is almost always mining for ammunition.
Smear campaigns. Narcissists spread your faults and shortcomings (sometimes real, sometimes manufactured) with anyone who will listen. I know, I know, you might not believe me, but it’s true. They don’t wait until the relationship has soured to start this campaign. As soon as the love bombing ends, the smear campaign begins. They cannot tell their family and friends how wonderful you are because they must always be either the hero or the victim. Either they are wonderful because they are helping poor, sad you or they are practically saints for putting up with your difficult ways.
Flying monkeys. When a relationship with a narcissist ends or is significantly damaged, they engage their flying monkeys. These are the people who surround the narcissist, family/friends, etc, and enable their behavior. Sometimes the flying monkeys see the narcissistic tendencies and are willfully ignorant, sometimes they are so manipulated by the behaviors they are blind, and sometimes they just have not yet encountered information on narcissism. These people will defend the narcissistic abuse. They will condemn you. You will be hurt. But you cannot change their minds and you should not try.
4.) They employ PASSIVE AGGRESSION
Sulk/self-pity. When they do not receive their narcissistic supply, the narcissist will sulk, whine, pout, mope, and feel very, very sorry for themselves.
Hurtful comments/jokes. A narcissist will lash out with a hurtful comment or make a joke at your expense, then backpedal by telling you you’re too sensitive or that they were only joking.
Withholding. Withholding got its own category but withholding behaviors can fall under passive aggression as well.
Gaslighting. People have become very familiar with the overused term of gaslighting, but it is a primary weapon of narcissistic personalities. It can reflect both active and passive forms of aggression. The narcissist will attempt to convince you that your claims of their abuse are not reality. Because people who have endured long-term narcissistic abuse have been so psychologically broken down, it becomes an effective tool to continue the abuse cycle.
Cheating. Narcissists are notorious cheaters. They feel entitled to cheat, they lack empathy, their primary concern is having their own needs met. They use it both completely without consideration of their target/partner, but also as a form of punishment.
5.) They use DOWNWARD SOCIAL COMPARISONS
Boasting, bragging. Narcissists have an inflated sense of self. They believe they are superior to others. Sometimes this plays out through flaunting of material things – commenting on a coworker’s car, noticing that they couldn’t get the newest model, or creating the perfect social media profile where they show themselves on the most expensive vacations or surrounded by people of “status”. Sometimes it plays out through flaunting of relationships, which is particularly common once a narcissistic relationship ends – posting photos of their new target on social media or sending you photos, bringing their new target to places you frequent or around friend groups with whom you either still interact or will get the information back to you, showing off your children or using them to get to you.
Negative Comparisons. Narcissists have a clear understanding of your vulnerabilities and insecurities. To punish you, they may compare you to a person in a negative light. If she has body insecurities, they may tell their thin girlfriend that the overweight television character looks exactly like her.
Despite their self-centered nature, narcissists are excellent at reading people, particularly their targets. Their punishments are intended to hurt – and they do. Recognizing narcissistic abuse for what it is can be the hardest and most important step you’ll take toward recovery. If you're ready to move on from a narcissistic relationship and work toward healing, contact us www.innercalmwellness.com