Narcissism is a broad term that is used to describe a wide range of different but related psychological conditions relating to self-love and self-esteem or, more commonly, to self-obsession and exaggerated self-importance. A narcissist, one who possesses an exaggerated sense of self-worth, is unable to handle criticism or perceived ‘attacks’ on his self-worth. They often become angry because of these perceived attacks and typically lash out in revenge. The narcissist’s ego is out of proportion and so are his or her reactions. Real or perceived disrespect or rejection brings an immediate hostile reaction known as Narcissistic Rage. The urge for vengeance runs deeply through the narcissist’s blood. Revenge is as prehistoric as life in the caves…it is an act of retaliation for a perceived wrong or injury—time for payback. Yet for a narcissist it is a major influence on his behavior and can be evoked for even the smallest slight.
The relationship between narcissism and revenge is as complex as the personalities of the narcissists themselves. One narcissist may be insulted and seek revenge because of a gesture or word that was not even intended as criticism, while another may only respond in a vengeful manner to direct criticism (constructive or not). The relationship between narcissism and revenge also varies in the methods used for vengeance. Some may simply attempt to devalue the achievements of the alleged attacker, others will socially undermine them, yet others may fly into a narcissistic rage and attempt to cause physical harm.
Beneath the narcissist’s aura of charm, friendliness and expert social graces, he or she has a dark side apparent to those who live with him or her. Nobody says “No” to the narcissist—unless they want to be the recipient of extreme retribution. Narcissists have very rigid personality structures that do not change. They have unyielding wills of steel; they insist they are always right, their way is the only way, and anyone who dares to challenge them will be discarded or severely punished. The narcissist plays dirty; he or she is a street fighter. They are masters of finding weak spots and vulnerabilities of their ‘opponents’ (anyone who defies them or thinks for themselves) and know exactly where and how to turn the screws. Most people are intimidated by the power and force of the narcissistic personality.
Narcissism and Revenge Connection
A lab study conducted by Brad Bushman and Roy Baumeister investigated the connection between narcissism and revenge. Students were told that another participant had proclaimed that their essay was “the worst I’ve ever read.” Those who scored high in narcissism then took revenge by acting aggressively against the person who insulted them. Self-esteem didn’t predict who would be more aggressive after an insult, but narcissism did. Another related study found that if the insult was a social rejection, narcissists would also be aggressive toward an innocent person (think Columbine, Virginia Tech, and other shootings).
Why Do They Feel a Need for Revenge?
There are a variety of different psychological theories that purport to explain the connection between narcissism and acts of revenge. Freud posited that the various early traumas in childhood sexual development were responsible for narcissistic personalities that lead to feelings of revenge for perceived wrongs. Other theories describe the narcissist’s need to control his external environment as much as possible. Revenge is aimed at those who attempt to usurp that control and can be seen as an attempt to reassert control.
Another theory suggests that narcissism and its revenge-seeking behaviors tend to develop from a child’s upbringing. Children whose parents gave them excessive praise for even trivial accomplishments tend to handle criticism poorly and respond poorly to a perceived lack of praise. On the other hand, children who receive constant harsh criticism also find it difficult to handle criticism as adults and are likely to perceive attacks in casual comments. These individuals use revenge as a tool to re-establish their self-worth.
Narcissism, Revenge and Divorce
The world of revenge is dark and murky. It is entangled with secrets, of plots to destroy another by revealing private information that will injure another human being, psychologically and emotionally. Narcissistic revenge can become especially ugly during a divorce. He or she will stop at nothing to “win”- whether that is grabbing all financial assets, aggressively moving toward full custody of the children or making direct efforts to destroy the professional and personal reputation of his former partner. During a divorce, the narcissist plots and hatches acts of revenge. One classic ploy is the narcissist’s bullying tactics as he/she convincingly threatens to take their partner down financially and psychologically. Even after the divorce is final, the narcissist often continues the ‘war’. Many narcissists cannot let go, not because they loved their spouse, but because they can’t stop until they have psychologically destroyed the previous partner. Rumor campaigns are ignited to ruin the reputation and social standing of the previous spouse. Threats are made to change custodial agreements, again not because the narcissist wants to have more involvement in his children’s’ lives, but for the sole purpose of upsetting the ex-spouse. One of the more potent ploys of the narcissist is to play the victim role. After destroying his ex-spouse’s self-esteem, indeed-their very life, for decades, he claims that he was the recipient of psychological and emotional pain and that the ex-partner was the perpetrator.
The narcissist will never change and is likely to continue delusional cycles of revenge until he or she finds another opponent. Knowledge and insight into the narcissistic personality and developing strategies to combat their war games will increase the ex-spouse’s confidence and have a positive influence as they move on to re-establishing their lives. They need to do everything in their power to defend themselves in court, to take the assets that they deserve or even a smaller amount if the narcissist is being unfair and ruthless (which is usually the case) so that they can move on to the next phase of their lives. They can avoid further psychological or emotional harm to themselves and their children by not engaging with the narcissist. Understanding the narcissist and learning how to handle his/her tactics of revenge puts them back in control whether they are married to a narcissist, considering a divorce, in the divorce process or post divorce.