Last Updated on April 7, 2021 by Alexander Burgemeester
“Narcissistic rage” is a term coined by Heinz Kohut in his book The Analysis of the Self when it was published in 1972. It occurs when the narcissist perceives he is being personally “attacked” by someone else.
Grandiose self-worth, vanity, and entitlement are basic characteristics of this disorder; when these are challenged it often leads to narcissistic rage.
Narcissistic rage is a reaction to” narcissistic injury”- a perceived threat to their self-worth or self-esteem. Their rages can be of two types: explosive or passive-aggressive. The explosive rages are just as they sound- explosive, volatile outbursts which may be verbal, physical or both.
The passive-aggressive rages are exhibited as a withdrawal into a sulky, silent treatment as the means to punish the offender.
What is Narcissistic Rage? a Real-life Example
“He has this very childish ability to get really worked up about something… when he’s very frustrated, his way to achieve catharsis is to hurt somebody. And I think he feels he has a liberty and a license to do that. The normal rules of social engagement, he feels, don’t apply to him.”
Does that sound like anyone you know?
That’s actually a famous quote from Jonny Ive, Chief Designer at Apple. He’s talking about the company’s co-founder and former CEO, Steve Jobs.
Like many high-powered, successful businesspeople, Jobs was known for his aggressive and abusive outbursts. One minute he could be calm, collected, and focused. But if he heard something he didn’t like, he could fly off in a seemingly uncontrolled rage, throwing nasty and hurtful insults at whoever had upset him.
So was Jobs some hyped-up alpha male? Someone who would be equally at home in the military, or as captain of a sports team, as he was in the boardroom?
Actually, no. Jobs was notoriously thin-skinned. “That’s one of the things that makes his antisocial behaviour, his rudeness, so unconscionable,” Ive said, in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs. “I can understand why people who are thick-skinned and unfeeling can be rude, but not sensitive people.”
Although Jobs was never diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), his reported behaviour does fit much of the criteria for NPD. It’s very common for narcissists to be thin-skinned, and to experience bouts of intense anger – which we call narcissistic rage. And the two traits are related.
This is the piece of the puzzle that Ive was missing – the thin skin leads to the narcissistic rage. That’s what we’ll explore in this article – what narcissistic rage is, where it comes from, and, importantly, how to deal with it.
The Difference Between Anger and Narcissistic Rage
Everyone gets angry. If you get cut off while driving, if someone is rude to you, if your neighbours are playing techno music at 3AM, it’s perfectly normal for a little anger to swell up.
Scholars believe that anger evolved to help us survive. When other people make an affront against us, a little anger shows them we mean business. They may think twice about messing with us in the future if they see we’re prepared to fight back.
In healthy people, the amount of anger you experience is proportional to whatever triggered it in the first place. If someone cuts you off, you might get a little frustrated. If a conman scams you out of a lot of money, you’ll likely be very angry.
In people with NPD, it’s almost like this anger circuitry is wired differently.
Narcissists have a huge, unrealistic sense of their own self-worth. They believe that they are special and superior to other people. However, that belief is a very fragile lie. The truth is, narcissists actually have very low self-esteem. Deep down, they hold grave fears that they are not as special as they like to think they are.
Confronting your own self-worth can be a painful thing to do, especially for people who are deeply insecure – and even more so for people whose positive self-image is built on a fragile foundation.
So when narcissists receive even a very slight criticism, or even if they simply don’t get the amount of adoration they need, they react as if their entire self-image and value as a human being has been threatened.
We call this a narcissistic injury.
This triggers not just frustration, not just anger, but something more – a narcissistic rage. Unfortunately, narcissistic rage can be triggered very easily.
What Triggers a Narcissistic Rage?
As described above, narcissistic rage is a protective mechanism against a narcissistic injury. Narcissists feel that they are being attacked, and the rage is an attempt to defend themselves.
But, their high opinion of themselves, and their high expectations for the people around them, makes them hypersensitive. They can be triggered by things that seem completely neutral – or even positive. Here are just a few examples:
1. They don’t get their way – even if what they want is unreasonable or impossible
People with narcissism often place unrealistic demands on their partners or children. These demands are frequently challenged by the person in the relationship.
When challenged, the narcissists’ brittle egos are unable to accept the idea that they were wrong or seen as imperfect. They turn this into a personal attack and respond with rage toward that person to regain their sense of superiority.
2. They are not getting as much attention as they need.
Even if there is some crisis going on that legitimately and reasonably pulls people’s attention elsewhere
3. They do not receive the special treatment that they believe they deserve
The Narcissist deserves all the attention there is to be given. If they tell you a story which is much more interesting then your story you better be listening and give them appraisal.
4. They feel like they are losing control of the situation, or of other people
When a narcissist’s shortcomings are pointed out by someone, they feel an overwhelming sense of shame. The narcissist then lashes out toward the person who pointed out the shortcomings.
The rage is executed to seek revenge upon the accuser. The need for revenge results in explosive rage and does not die down until the narcissist feels the person was dealt with appropriate punishment.
5. They are criticized in any way – even if the criticism is accurate and delivered in a very gentle, constructive way
The narcissist has a false sense of self. Underlying this false sense of self are feelings that he is not loveable for who he is or what he offers in relationships.
When a lover or partner begins to feel doubts about the narcissist, that is when the narcissistic rage surfaces.
So once a narcissistic injury has occurred, what does a narcissistic rage look like? What form can it take?
What Are the Symptoms of Narcissistic Rage?
As the word “rage” suggests, the response to a narcissistic injury tends to be disproportionate, and lacking in control. This is not to say that narcissists’ anger cannot be expressed in a cool, measured and calculated way – it can, especially by malignant narcissists. However, the in-the-moment reaction tends to be reactive and uncontrolled.
Anger and hostility are the most common symptoms, which may lead to verbal, physical, or sexual abuse as the narcissist retaliates against the perceived attack against them. But usually, these are not the only unpleasant emotions the narcissist feels.
At the root of a narcissistic injury is shame – the feeling, or fear, of being exposed for who they really are, of not being as special as they believe themselves to be. Even in healthy people, the feeling of shame can trigger anger, and this is massively amplified in people with NPD.
Types of Narcissistic rage
Typically, narcissistic rage will involve a direct attack at the person the narcissist perceives to be threatening them, but this is not always the case.
A 2019 study by researchers at Edinburgh Napier University found that narcissists can respond to narcissistic injury in two different ways – with explosive rage, or passive-aggressive rage.
Explosive Narcissistic Rage
This is the classic form of narcissistic rage, sometimes referred to as “overt anger.” It can involve insults, abuse, screaming, and threats. As we will discuss shortly, it can also lead to physical violence, and in some cases, narcissists may inflict physical harm upon themselves.
Narcissists can also respond in more “covert” ways. For example, they might sulk or refuse to speak to the person who offended them. Note that the two forms are not necessarily exclusive – a narcissist may initially respond with explosive rage, and then switch to passive-aggressive range when the have calmed down somewhat.
Are narcissists violent?
It’s important to make clear that not all narcissists are violent, just as not all instances of violence are related to narcissism. However, there is certainly a clear link.
In 2019, psychologists at the University of Bath carried out an analysis of 25 studies looking into narcissism and violence, and their work showed a consistent relationship. In fact, the studies showed that narcissists were somewhere between 20% and 11 times more likely to exhibit violent behaviour than non-narcissists.
The studies also confirmed that violence was significantly more likely to occur after an ego threat – that is, a narcissistic injury.
Narcissistic Rage Cycle: The 7 Stages of Anger
Rage is a primitive, immature child-like expression of thwarted needs and/or (actual or perceived) invalidation. For most people, anger goes through several levels of emotion, each level requiring a certain level of self-control. According to psychiatrist Adam Blatner, there are seven levels of anger:
- Stress Feeling angry subconsciously but not demonstrating it.
- Anxiety Anger shown through subtle clues.
- Agitation Displeasure is shown without blame.
- Irritation A little more displeasure to elicit a response.
- Frustration Anger with a scowl or harsh words.
- Anger Anger with loudness of speech and expression.
- Rage Losing temper and getting into a rage; aggression.
What Goes Wrong?
It appears that narcissists do not go through the 7 stages like other people do. The smallest infraction will send them right to level 7-rage. Why is that?
Their rage seems to be caused by any threat to their ego, and the ensuing rage acts to erase that threat and maintain their self-image and feelings of superiority.
To narcissists, rage is a perfectly appropriate response when they experience any threat to their view of self.
The Do’s and Don’t of Dealing with Narcissistic Rage
If you are in a relationship or have any other dealings with a narcissist, it’s really important to understand what triggers the narcissistic injury, so that you’re better able to manage the person’s self-esteem and keep yourself safe.
However, as noted earlier, even minor criticisms can be perceived by a narcissist as a major attack. You are effectively walking on eggshells here. A completely innocent comment, a particular tone of voice, or even something you don’t say or do, can trigger a narcissistic injury and narcissistic rage.
So the first thing to realise, is that you are not to blame for these outbursts, nor are you responsible for them. Although the narcissist may attempt to paint you as the villain, and place the blame on you, understand that this is not true. They may believe that themselves, and they may seem convincing, but narcissists do not see the world in a rational, balanced way, especially when angered.
With that said, it’s also important to know what to do when a narcissist is mad at you.
How to respond to narcissistic rage?
Every narcissist is a unique individual, but there are some general dos and don’ts which can be helpful to know:
- Respond with your own anger or rage. Remember that narcissistic rage is triggered by a narcissistic injury. If you raise your voice, or become aggressive yourself, this could be perceived as a further threat to their self-worth.
- Engage in a logical debate. Don’t try to prove why they are overreacting, and why you didn’t do anything wrong. In the state of rage, the narcissist’s cognitive judgement is impaired. They can’t think straight, and will happily lie to prove themselves right. They are not holding a debate – they are lashing out. If you did convince them that you were right and they were wrong, you would be positioning yourself as someone with power over their self-esteem – and this is something that they won’t accept.
- Blame yourself. You cannot make someone act in an abusive way towards you – that is something they can only do themselves.
- Placate. Although direct confrontation of the narcissist’s points is not productive, placating and accepting their point of view is also not an effective response. It often simply reinforces the abuse, as the narcissist realises that they can elicit submissive, appeasing behaviour from you by acting in this abusive way.
- Plead or apologise for your behaviour. Narcissists often show contempt for behaviours that they consider to be weak. Furthermore, apologising simply reinforces that they are right and you are wrong.
- Put your safety first. No matter what a narcissist may say to you, you do not deserve to experience verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. If you believe you are in danger, contact the police or a domestic abuse helpline.
- Recognize the type of rage you are dealing with. If this is explosive rage, your best approach may be to leave their presence. If it is passive-aggressive rage, which often manifests itself as “silent treatment”, it is often best to simply ignore it and go about your business.
- Stay calm. Speak and act calmly, without raising your voice or becoming aggressive. They may try to get a rise out of you, and goad you into an argument – avoid this. I know it’s easier said than done when you have a raging narcissist bearing down on you, but try not to take the bait.
- Validate their feelings. Narcissistic rage is driven by emotion, not logic, this is why debating doesn’t work. Instead, you can simply say something like: “I’m sorry you feel that way, but you are entitled to your feelings.” This validation can boost their self-esteem a little (which might reduce their anger) without you having to accept what they are saying.
- Set boundaries. Mark Gouldston, Professor of Medicine at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, recommends waiting until the next day, and stating that if they speak to you in that way again, you will ask them once to stop. If they don’t stop, you will simply walk away to another part of the house. If you have made this statement, however, it is important to follow through.
- Practice self-care. Stress-reduction techniques like mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or slow breathing exercises can help you stay calmer under pressure. They can also help calm your nervous system after you’ve been the victim of narcissistic rage.
- Seek support. If you feel overwhelmed, you might find speaking to a psychotherapist or joining a support group beneficial. If you have a close friend or family member you can confide in, don’t hesitate to contact them. Narcissists, especially during a narcissistic rage, will often try to “gaslight,” which means to convince you of a particular point of view (usually where you are the one in the wrong). An outside perspective can help defend against this.
Above all, if you do find yourself on the receiving end of narcissistic rage, consider the impact of this person on your life. Do they really give you something that makes what they inflict on you worthwhile? Do they treat you in ways that you actually want to be treated? If the answer to either question is “No”, consider that it may be time to end the relationship.
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