Are you at the beginning of your recovery journey from narcissistic abuse? Are you learning all about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and coming to grips with the abuse you’ve suffered? If so, chances are you’re waking up to the ugly truth of it: what the pathological narcissist is, and what they are capable of. And the question ‘what happens when the narcissist knows you’ve figured them out’ is front of mind.
Understandably (and very necessarily…), with these realisations, the urge to free yourself is rising within you. Equally reasonably because of the nature of the disorder, you may be stressed, anxious and possibly also fearful about what will happen when they know you’re onto them.
Pathological narcissism exists on a spectrum, with a variety of differing profiles covering the continuum including overt, covert, malignant, and sociopathic narcissists.
Specifically how each one reacts when they know you’ve figured them out therefore varies. There are however commonalities.
In preparing to set yourself free, this article sets out for you likely responses from the narc.
The mind of the bully
Understanding what fuels the pathological narcissist is the closest a non-disordered individual can get to following the irrational thought processes that drive their behaviour.
Let’s set the scene and attempt to sketch this out with respect to what happens when they are sprung.
Where your relationships are based on connection and genuine care for those you choose to surround yourself with, this is not so for the Narcissistic Personality Disordered (NPD) person.
People to the narc, are tools that serve a distinct purpose which is to feed their beliefs about the fantasy land they have created where they rein as supreme, omnipotent, special, and perfect beings.
This need is such that they are effectively addicted to securing corroboration that supports these beliefs, hence the term ‘supply’.
The narc’s addiction is the dependence on this external reinforcement that their false self-beliefs are based in fact, in order to keep knowledge of their true selves, at bay.
As with any addiction, withdrawal has significant repercussions for the afflicted. It is centred on the belief that without satisfying ‘supply’ needs, survival is jeopardised.
It’s therefore no surprise that faced with being unable to score their hit, your supply, the very darkest aspects of the narc take over.
The narc’s tipping point
Most of the time, their denial is (almost) bullet proof and successfully shields them from their awful truth. It is (almost) inconceivable to them that they could be flawed. This is evidenced in all the blaming you cop for their actions & behaviours, the projection, the denying irrefutable facts etc.
The construct of the disorder is such that conscious awareness of feeling threatened is infrequent. The tipping point of vulnerability for the narc, is generally a culmination of circumstances occurring when:
- You are still useful to them as supply, and they therefore haven’t as yet, planned to discard you. In other words, feeding their addiction is at risk.
- They are unaware that despite their relentless efforts to gaslight you into full submission, you have retained some of your autonomy, clarity of thought, self-belief, ability to question the reality they create for you, and will to be happy. This fracturing of their control over you, deeply challenges their self-concept.
- AND, you have done something that penetrates their shield sufficiently to threaten their false perceptions of grandiosity, superiority, entitlement, and/or power (a.k.a. a narcissistic injury). This would be anything that communicates to them that they are not in control, for example, discovering you have raised your concerns about them with someone else; not complying with their directives and doing your own thing; calling them out on their disordered behaviour in an exposing way, etc.
So, what happens when the narc knows you’ve figured them out?
Power and control
The only way the pathological narcissist knows how to regain their inner equilibrium and get back to feeling safe in their make-believe world, is to re-establish control and power over you.
And this they will do in a frenzied, manic, their ‘life depends on it kinda way’.
Control and power for the narcissist invariably involves proving you wrong. To their way of thinking, if they establish this for themselves, they also nullify the threat you pose to their false selves. (For more on the importance of invalidating you read Invalidation and Narcissism: Why they slowly erase you).
Remember that for the narc, flaws/mistakes/being wrong cannot be integrated into their view of one being due to splitting (see the Narc Wise Glossary for any term refreshers). You can be either all good, or all bad. All right, or all wrong.
To confirm your ‘wrongness’ in any department, is sufficient to cover all bases, including your suspicions about them.
And by invalidating you, and your views, they reinstate their control over you. And ultimately, control over themselves. The threat you presented, has been eradicated.
Amplification of their ‘go to’ methods
As stated, flavours of narcissism vary. As do preferred modus operandi.
Some are fans of aggressive physical/verbal violence & bullying; some the ‘poor victim’ approach; some are gaslighters extraordinaire stealthily and steadily breaking the trust you have in yourself; some the illusion that they are, above all else, the world’s greatest giver and lover.
Whatever their primary go-to is, expect this to be amplified. They will use whatever their ‘forte’ is, full throttle.
Predictable narc mechanisms when they feel threatened
1. Narcissistic rage
This is fury and vitriol like you’ve never witnessed before. It is the external manifestation of the narcissist’s internal short-circuiting. Their complete inability to cope with the truth of who they are.
It is the rage sparked by being unmasked as weak, out of control, and false. Their glimpse of what lies beneath their denial and their momentary understanding of being flawed to the point of being disordered. It is a snapshot of comprehension of what they spend a lifetime obsessively hiding from.
In the moment of narcissistic rage, they are completely out of control. This does not mean ‘out of control’ with respect to intentionality, awareness of actions & behaviours, nor consequently of responsibility. It means ‘out of control’ in terms of consequences be damned.
The expression of their rage will vary, however the greater the narcissistic injury, the greater the reaction, which may be verbal through to physical aggression.
Following narcissistic rage, is the shift back to calculated manipulation and abuse. It is the return from being out of control, to fully in control and mindful of all actions and behaviours.
The malignancy the pathological narcissist is capable of, and that you experience in some forms regularly throughout devaluation, is at this point fully unleashed.
Not only to teach you a lesson about who has power and control over you, but to punish. To cause harm. Because in their minds a) they are entitled to do so, and b) you deserve it.
So, what does this cruelty look like? Again, this will depend on the flavour & ‘go to’s’ of the narcissist.
Common strategies that leverage the knowledge they have of you based on vulnerabilities you have shared with them are:
- Baiting – deliberately provoking and antagonising you to react negatively by jabbing at your deepest wounds.
- Gaslighting – ramping up efforts to have you question your sense of reality and mental health (for more on this strategy read 5 ways to counteract the narcissist’s gaslighting).
- Withholding/Stonewalling – removing your access to information, emotional or physical resources you either depend on or value the most. Denying access to children for no valid reason, isolating you from emotional/social support, and financial abuse, are all examples.
- Smear campaigns – spreading false information and gossip, to discredit, undermine, control and isolate you further (for more on smear campaigns & how to tackle them, read Narcissists and smear campaigns: Why they do it and What can be done to stop the narcissist’s smear campaign).
If the narcissist believes that there is still a possibility of brainwashing you back into their make-believe world, and you retain some usefulness as supply, hoovering will hit hard. These are all the strategies used to suck you back in.
Once more employing all the knowledge they have of you, and activating the triggers they have programmed in you through their abuse, you can expect:
- Love-bombing – bombarding you with professions of love, promises of the future emotionally healthy relationship that lies before you and their forthcoming changes.
- The fauxpology – often accompanying the love-bombing, if the narcissist deems it necessary for the purpose of the hoover, is the ‘sorry not sorry’. An apology devoid of sincerity, accountability or empathy, yet rolled out much like love bombing messages to give you what you want to hear (for more on the fauxpology read The narcissist’s apology: Sorry, not sorry ).
- Using fear, guilt and obligation – tailoring pleas and demands to stimluate your deepest wounds, and elicit pre-determined reactions to pull you back in. These ones may sound like ‘how could you do this to me, after all I’ve done for you’, or ‘no one will ever love you like I do’ etc.
DO NOT BE FOOLED GORGEOUS ONE.
These ones are arguably the most difficult to withstand because they target what you want most and fear most. This is precisely why they are used on you.
You are not a puppet. Cut those strings now.
(For more on these tactics read How the narcissist hooks you: Hoovering & baiting).
On the other hand, if the narc figures their game is up and you no longer represent usefulness as supply, the final phase of the cycle of narcissistic abuse will be instigated: discard.
This is the follow through of all threats implicit throughout devaluation coming to fruition. It is your callous rejection and abandonment, devoid of any closure.
In most instances, the narcissist will already have alternative supplies lined up. These will often be intensified prior to your discard to ensure your awareness of replaceability as added punishment.
For more on the phases of the cycle of narcissistic abuse, read From ‘soul mate’ to worthless: What’s behind the narcissist’s 180? & The narcissist’s ‘soul mate’ effect: How & why they do it.
What to do about what happens when the narc knows you’ve figured them out
Many of the abusive tactics cited, as you know, are present throughout a relationship with an abusive narcissist.
When applied once the narc knows you’ve figured them out however, the difference is they no longer have anything to lose. Specifically, your supply. Which brings on the ‘no holds barred’, Satan rises, kinda situation.
This may strike the fear of God into you. Clearly this isn’t without basis.
Gorgeous one, please don’t take the possibilities of what may occur and likely fear, as rationale to stay in the situation you are in.
Remember that the fear, and myriad other negative outcomes on your wellbeing and whole-of-life outcomes, that you sustain from the abuse of the narcissist, ARE the reasons you must break free.
You are not alone. There is help.
If you need support in preparing to leave your abusive situation, reach out to your local domestic violence service providers or call your national domestic violence hotline for referrals and to develop a safety plan.
For support with self-harm or suicidality, please contact your local suicide prevention service. For services near you please refer to the resources provided by the International Association for Suicide Prevention.
If at any point you fear that you or anyone else is in imminent danger, contact emergency services immediately.
Gorgeous one, you’ve got this. A thousand times over. You’ve got this.
Wake up from this nightmare. Prepare. Plan. And set yourself free.