Once you look into the narcissistic personality more deeply, you begin to understand how fragile and broken it is, despite the outward confidence and “bluster” some narcissists exhibit. Given this, it’s actually not that hard to trigger a narcissist by puncturing their false, grandiose but fragile sense of self.
Oftentimes, well meaning but naive people who don’t understand the narcissistic personality do it by accident, causing narcissistic injury to the narcissist by deflating or undermining their grandiose sense of self in some way. It can also be done on purpose, but once you do this, you will send the narcissist into a fit of narcissistic rage, where they launch into a vicious attack on the (often unknowing) perpetrator, determined to “get even” with them even to the point of “destroying” them and everyone around them as well.
This can include more obviously toxic behavior like screaming or shouting, but can also be more covert or hidden in terms of a relentless form of sneaky bullying, digs, undermining, passive aggressive comments, and so on.
In general, you can tell when a narcissist is triggered, because you’ll see a reaction that’s prolonged and disproportionate, like they’ve been sent into a fit of rage that they take a long time to come out of. We’ll cover this in the final section.
But let’s start off with some examples of what triggers a narcissist.
1. When You Try To Engage On Equal Terms With Them
This is the very first one that needs to go on the list, because it’s one of the most common mistakes well meaning but naive people make when they get tangled up with narcissists in relationships. They try to relate on a equal footing, as two mature adults, but this is impossible with a full blown narcissist.
Narcissists don’t and cannot do “equal“. In fact, they hate it. They MUST be superior, dominant and “on top” of people at all times. They cannot be “equal” with people; they must always be “above” them.
The narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by a feeling of grandiosity, superiority and entitlement. Therefore these people do not consider themselves as “equal” with others, but superior and “god like”.
Therefore, to satisfy a narcissist, you MUST be their fawning, submissive, supplicant little slave who is just glad to be in their presence. You try and mess with that dynamic, and relate on an “equal” basis with them like a grown adult, they’ll go crazy and viciously attack you.
Examples of this could include:
- Trying to sincerely express anger to them about something they did, trying to reason with them as an adult that what they did was wrong.
- Trying to call a narcissist boss out on something they did wrong, even if you have evidence to back it up. Or request that your boss do something, or stop doing something, in a way that isn’t totally fawning and submissive towards them.
- Trying to tell a narcissist what to do, or requesting them to do something in a way that’s asserting your own power (however polite and reasonable).
- Whenever you DON’T act in a fawning, placating, hero-worshipping way towards them, and instead assert your own (reasonable) power and boundaries with them.
- You try to hold them accountable for something perfectly reasonable, that any other adult would be held accountable for.
Narcissists DON’T do “equal” – explained in second half of video
And then here’s a common “vicious cycle” or trap naive people often get caught in when engaging with narcissists:
- The naive person tries to interact with the narcissist on an “equal”, respectful, adult footing.
- This “triggers” the narcissist, who starts to attack, belittle, demean and undermine the other person. They MUST feel superior and “above” other people at all times.
- The other person naively thinks the narcissist must be “confused” or “in a bad mood”, and pushes the pedal down on reason/information, continuing to act on a equal, reasonable level.
- This continues to annoy and trigger the narcissist even more, who continually attacks the other person, and the toxic cycle escalates.
- Once a narcissist is triggered in this way, they can have childish fits of narcissistic rage that can last days or even weeks, so they’ll continue trying to dominate and subjugate the other person if they continue to tolerate it. The message they’re sending to you is “you’re getting too big for your boots, humble slave. You always need to be below me, worshipping me, licking my feet. Never equal or above”.
Yes, sometimes narcissists can also play the fawning, submissive type, often when they’re trying to “hoover” you or get you back – they engage in an alternating bully-fawn pattern. But this never lasts long, and as soon as they can, they go back to bullying and dominating others.
Therefore you are almost guaranteed to trigger a narcissist by trying to engage on a equal level with them, since this undermines the sense of superiority that keeps them afloat.
Richard Grannon’s “Remove The Narcissistic Malware” course from 2015 (affiliate link) has a detailed seminar on the inner world of the narcissist (“Planet Narco”), which goes into much more detail about this aspect of the narcissistic personality – the inability to do “equal”, including where it comes from and common reactions when they’re triggered in this way
2. Being Ignored
This is something that can arise as a response to some of the other points raised in this article. When we start seeing a narcissist’s toxic side, we often just try to ignore them and not engage, but this often makes them worse. Narcissist’s hate being ignored, because it’s punctures their grandiose sense of uniqueness and specialness.
Ignoring a narcissist is sending them the message that they are not important, special, or worthy of attention, all of which are key aspects of the narcissistic personality that keeps it afloat. So you’re undermining the foundation of their (very shaky) identity, which will trigger them and draw a rageful, vindictive response.
Put simply, if you try to ignore a narcissist, they will make you engage with them in one sense or another, even if it’s by insulting and provoking you to the point where you finally lose your cool and respond. Pathological personalities feed off ALL attention, including negative attention. They’d rather have someone engage with them in a blazing row than ignore them completely.
Any behavior towards a narcissist that tries to undermine their need to be the center of attention, will trigger them and draw a toxic response.
3. Being Treated as Boring, Uninteresting & Unexceptional
This is one of the key points we covered in our article on irritating a narcissist. One of the key things they draw “narcissistic supply” from is the feeling of being unique, special or exceptional in some way. Flipping the script on them and doing the opposite is guaranteed to trigger them.
If you suggest or imply in an obvious or subtle way that a narcissist is not unique or special and is in fact just like everyone else, it will send them into a fit of rage, or else more fragile ones will slump into a depressed state.
Either way, this is a great way to puncture their false self image, but be prepared for an obnoxious response. Richard Grannon puts this weakness in the narcissist this way:
“Just frame whatever the narcissist wants or needs as completely banal and ordinary. Their needs are ordinary, their wants are ordinary,… their life is ordinary…..You know what that would do to a narcissist in your life, they would go ballistic. If you just very calmly just kept repeating that ‘everything you want is normal, you’re a completely normal person, you’re one of many, you’re not special, you’re not special, you’re not special’. They’ll flip their lids.
Tell a narcissist how boring they are….(that’s) a nice little liver shot there. Just suggest or imply they’re dull…That’s harsh”
Richard Grannon/Sam Vaknin.
Here are some ways to do this:
- Narcissists often drop subtle hints or facial expressions that you’re boring them to provoke a reaction. Flip the script and do the same to them: hint with your body language, hints and facial expressions that they are boring you. Drum the table, blow through your lips, look at others instead of at them.
- Imply that the time you spend with them is really boring and nothing special, and that you have much better and more exciting things to do with other people (hedonistic narcissists will go crazy over this).
- Imply that their interests, hobbies or other “things” they like are boring, dull or unexceptional.
- Implying that the papers/books/articles they have written or other projects they have worked on are boring, dull or unexceptional and ordinary.
- More generally, imply that they, or anything they do, say, have or follow, is boring, uninteresting and unexceptional, clearly ordinary.
- Take subtle digs at them through back handed compliments which have an aspect of praise in there, but also with an insult embedded, but always with a smile and positive body language.
- Doing these things will actively irritate and trigger the narcissist, since by criticizing anything they do in this way, they’ll take the insult by extension to themselves. They’re very fragile in this way – they will fume if their fake image of perfection and special-ness is broken.
These are great ways to trigger a narcissist, because you’re deflating their grandiose sense of superiority and unique-ness that keeps them afloat psychologically.
4. Being Rejected Or Told No
No one likes being rejected, but a narcissist’s reaction will be in a different league to most other people’s, especially in romantic contexts. They can fly into a rage that’s very disproportionate and viciously attack the other person, because being rejected sends them the message they aren’t the perfect, flawless, god-like entity they think they are.
Being told no will also have a similar effect. Narcissists have a strong sense of entitlement firmly embedded into their psyche, and being told they can’t have something, or they must wait in line like everyone else, punctures this and sends them in a rage. They need to feel special and superior at all times, like they’re getting treatment and concessions no one else would.
Being refused this special treatment or rejected punctures this fantasy they have, and is guaranteed to trigger them into an obnoxious response. Narcissistic customers can indeed be the most difficult to deal with in retail/leisure environments.
5. When Someone Tries To Express Authentic Love To Them
This is a more variable one. Sometimes narcissists can “play along” with the love game for as long as it suits them, but other times, expressing true authentic love to narcissist – either platonic or romantic – will trigger them.
Firstly, there’s a “rottenness” inside NPD people that means they cannot ever accept authentic love from people anyway (romantic or non romantic), since they never received it themselves in childhood. And secondly, with unconditional love, you’re again trying to relate to them on an equal level, which irritates them. They can’t do “equal”.
Although this can happen in romance, perhaps the best example of this I’ve seen was actually not even in a romantic context, but in more a “brotherly” or platonic context. London Real co-founder Nic Gabriel tried to express his brotherly “love” for his narcissist fellow co-founder Brian Rose after doing plant medicine, which just triggered and annoyed him and led him to soon after discard Gabriel altogether.
Richard Grannon put it this way:
“Nic (Gabriel), the South African lad, a lovely sincere (person). And do you know what killed (his relationship with Brian Rose)?
He went away, he took psychadelics, he came back to Brian post enlightenment on psychadelics. And he sat opposite Brian and said ‘I love you, I love you like a brother’. And showed him real authentic emotion.
He was (screwed). You saw Brian’s eyes turn. He turned into a reptile. He was like ‘well you’re gone!’
This is characteristic of a narcissist, who has no true authentic emotions or connections to other people, and therefore is triggered when other people try to bring this to them. More generally, any time you try to truly get close to a narcissist, you risk triggering them into becoming more obnoxious and pushing you away. They can’t handle intimacy, vulnerability or real emotion from others.
6. Being Criticized
This goes back to the point on a narcissist’s sense of perfection and specialness, which means in their mind, they can do no wrong.
Therefore, they will not react well to any form of criticism, however politely and reasonably delivered, since it’s puncturing this grandiose, god-like sense of perfection.
Of course, lots of us don’t like being criticized, but we can take it in eventually even if it hurts to hear it. Or we are fine with criticism as long as it’s delivered in a polite, fair and balanced way. Or at least, if criticism does hurt us, we can realize that this hurt is ours to process and deal with, and not project onto others.
Not so for a narcissist. Any kind of criticism, even if 100% valid, is likely to send them into a triggered rage where they attack the other person brutally and find everything they can wrong with them. If you do have the gall to criticize a narcissist, you will be cast as the worst human being on the planet.
Also, this particular issue of criticism is where it’s easy to see the hypocrisy and double standards of a narcissist. I’ve had narcissist bosses who are happy to criticize and nit-pick others regarding petty, pathetic things that don’t matter, but fly into a childish rage if their management style and people skills are ever questioned.
Again, it’s triggering them because it’s puncturing their sense of perfection and flawlessness, and they don’t like this.
7. Being Kept Waiting
This is more of a nuance of everyday interactions than a broad trait, but I’ve noticed it several times with narcissists. They love to keep other people waiting and demonstrate that their time is more important than yours. But if you dare flip the script and do the same to them, it’ll trigger them into a rageful response.
Keeping a narcissist waiting is a sure fire way to irritate them. You can add to this if you want by not apologizing and blaming their reaction on them being “moody” or “over sensitive” (gas-lighting them just like they do to you).
If you have a established communication routine with them and don’t respond to texts/emails/calls within the normal timeframe, this can also send them into a childish rage. You will be cast as the worst person alive just for being busy. Similarly, if your narcissist boss sends you a text on your day off, and you don’t respond (as is your right), expect a barrage more texts to come through, or to face an inquisition when you’re next in.
This probably goes back to the narcissist’s sense of importance and superiority. It’s OK for them to keep others waiting, because in their minds they are the superior one. But they can never be kept waiting by the “humble slaves” who must always serve them.
What To Expect From a Triggered Narcissist
Narcissistic rage is not a very pleasant thing to experience, since it tends to be very determined, vicious and prolonged. Once a narcissist is triggered, they don’t just calm down in a few minutes or hours – it sends them in a childish fit that can last days or even weeks. They don’t just quickly forgive and forget slights against their fragile ego, even if it was completely unintentional.
If you overstep boundaries or otherwise upset someone mildly, someone with healthy, composed assertiveness will merely assert a boundary, say what they need to, and then drop the issue and move on to engage on equal footing again. A narcissist doesn’t think that way – they need to be totally dominant and superior at all times, and they often feel they need to completely “destroy” and subjugate anyone who punctures their grandiose sense of self.
Narcissists must “win” and be “on top” at all times, and they’re always scoring on points. But with a narcissist, if you (in their mind at least) score a “blow” against them and their fragile ego (even if you didn’t mean to), it’s not enough for them to simply level that score in 1-1.
They’re not even happy with 2-1 or 5-1 either. No, they want it to be 1000-1 in their favor, which is why once triggered, they often just keep going in their abuse of others, to the confusion and puzzlement of those on the receiving end (“what is this guy’s/girl’s problem?” might be a common refrain). With the worst narcissists, they literally want to destroy the person who triggered them, which is why they can be so unpleasant for such a long time.
Therefore expect the following things from a triggered narcissist:
- Prolonged vicious verbal abuse (either overt, and more covert and hidden behind “digs” and “slights”)
- Prolonged undermining and bullying by narcissist bosses. They’ll start gas-lighting and undermining you, calling/texting you on days off with nonsense, creating blow-ups and arguments on purpose, deliberately doing bad rotas, and just other general nonsense to make your life there hard work.
- If you continue to try and engage equally with them, it’ll often make them worse
- If you try to find “common ground” in negotiations with them, any and all reasonable suggestions will be batted away, because THEY must be the ones in control.
- In back-and-forth conversations, your points will always be dismissed, rejected, batted away, undermined, and their view will always be opposing yours (oppositional-defiant traits)
- If you try to call them out on their obnoxious behavior and inquire what’s going on, they just behave worse (because you’re trying to do “equal” again).
- If you try to re-establish harmony and cordiality, you’ll find this is impossible once they’re triggered, and they’ll often behave worse and ramp up their abuse.
- They’ll keep hammering away at weaknesses they’ve “clocked in victims” for weeks or months, and they won’t stop, even if the other person realizes and stops doing whatever triggered the narcissist. They can be very cruel and vicious.
- In group scenarios, they’ll keep trying to undermine and humiliate you in front of others (happened to me with a narcissist lecturer who I unintentionally triggered).
Again, you’ll see these reactions to be excessive and disproportionate, to the point of being vicious and cruel. They’re not happy with a quick “shot” or “dig” back – they just keep going until you’re thoroughly undermined and demoralized.
Therefore, it’s very important to not be naive when dealing with narcissists, understanding that their mindset is almost alien to that of normal people, and be careful not to trigger them, and if you do trigger them, get away as soon as possible.