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Whither Politics

This Is Uncharted Territory

If one of two major political parties no longer believes in free and fair elections, how can democracy still function?

Written by Molly Jong-Fast and published in The Atlantic 10/14/2022 .


A man holding an American flag and a sign that says Vote Now
Win McNamee / Getty

Wait, What? covers the right from over on the left.

Yesterday, following a months-long investigation, The New York Times published that “more than 370 people—a vast majority of Republicans running for these offices in November—have questioned and, at times, outright denied the results of the 2020 election despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported similar findings: More than half of all Republicans running for congressional and state office this midterm cycle are 2020 election deniers. Forty-eight out of 50 states have Big Lie supporters running for some kind of office, from governor on down.

Since former President Donald Trump took control of the Republican Party, the party’s platform has evolved into a bizarre hodgepodge of election denialism and owning the libs. The owning-the-libs part is annoying but probably not terminal. However, the election denialism could, if left unchecked, end American democracy.

That isn’t hyperbole. The stakes boil down to a single basic question: If one of two major political parties no longer believes in free and fair elections, how can democracy still function?

It feels like we’re on the precipice of a disaster. And yet, the tone of most mainstream political coverage rarely reflects the terrifying possibilities implicit in the very news they’re covering. As the former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan told me, “The mainstream press doesn’t seem to quite get that American democracy is on the brink, or be willing to clearly state who’s driving that movement.” Should an election where one side no longer embraces democratic norms be treated like business as usual?

Whatever the case, this election season is very much not business as usual. Take, for instance, Nevada’s Republican Secretary of State candidate Jim Marchant, who told the crowd at an October 8 rally that he would “fix” elections if he wins his race. He added, “When my coalition of secretary-of-state candidates around the country get elected, we’re going to fix the whole country, and President Trump is going to be president again in 2024.”

Of course, it’s been well established that the 2020 election was completely fair, and ditto its outcomes. But in the alternative reality of election deniers, is it possible that people will believe it’s not cheating if they interfere with election results they disagree with? Will they think that stealing an election is well within their rights—or, perhaps, that doing so is merely making the results fair? These are terrifying considerations to draw from a political candidate’s speech just weeks before a major election. Yet, as Media Matters pointed out, Marchant’s remarks went all but ignored by Nevada news outlets.

One of the most worrying election deniers on November ballots is the Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. Essentially a female Donald Trump, Lake is already famous to many Arizonans from her time hosting Fox 10 local news. And also like Trump, Lake has a knack for stoking feverish support among her party’s base; she’s currently polling neck and neck with her Democrat opponent, Katie Hobbs. An Arizona Republican operative told The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey, in an article published last week, “[Lake] could talk about lizard people and you’d be like, ‘What is up with those lizard people? That is a great point!’” What happens when a truly magnetic politician is elected governor of a swing state on a “Stop the Steal” platform? How will someone whose entire campaign has hinged on election denialism help administer fair elections?

In September, President Joe Biden tried to highlight the election-denialism problem and gave the GOP an opening to answer these questions. Speaking in Philadelphia, Biden told the gathered crowd that he believes “MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution … [or] the rule of law.” He continued, “They do not recognize the will of the people. They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they’re working right now, as I speak, in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.”

But instead of sparking bipartisan dialogue, Biden’s speech “for the soul of the nation” was met with Republican fury. The party’s response was swift—in fact, it began before Biden’s speech even started. Citing Biden’s recent remarks declaring Trumpism a philosophy of “semi-fascism,” GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy delivered a pre-buttal to the president’s Philadelphia address, stating, “When the president speaks tonight at Independence Hall, the first lines out of his mouth should be to apologize for slandering tens of millions of Americans as fascists.”

The message from McCarthy and his ilk, both before and after the speech, was clear: How dare you accuse us of doing what we’re doing. Hell hath no fury like a Republican called out for something they’re doing—such as denying the basic premise of the democratic process. Media outlets covered the GOP response; there was little reflection on its effect. We’re now just a few weeks from the midterms, and Republicans are continuing their election denialism with zeal. So we find ourselves in a country where one party no longer trusts our electoral system. This is uncharted territory.

Can democracy work if only one party upholds its tenets? We simply don’t know. The American democratic system has been through a lot, but it’s never sustained a prolonged period of attack by a significant number of elected officials and candidates running for offices across the board.

Now, less than a month out from the 2022 midterms, mainstream-media narratives are still approaching the upcoming election as though today’s political landscape reflects more or less the same stakes as a pre-Trump America. Meanwhile, ‘Big Lie’ Republicans are playing by their own truly scary rules. They are obsessed with changing the very system that has given us peace and prosperity for so many years. We know that these midterm elections will be fair—but will they be our last?

The Power of Understanding

To know someone here or there
with whom you can feel there is understanding
in spite of distances or thoughts expressed.
That can make life a garden.


Sometimes I stop to wonder why there are so many divorces, fights, arguments and hard feelings among people. I think I have finally found one of the culprits- mind reading.

You might think of the magic trick where the magician figures out what card you have chosen. Possibly you imagine an old married couple one of whom anticipates what the other is about to say. Or maybe you invite a friend over for dinner and serve exactly what your friend had imagined.

I was sitting on my porch with the above words on my pad, trying to decide what to write next. Along came my mailwoman, Jen, who asked what I was writing as she delivered my mail. After I told her, she offered her opinion that too often people are caught up in their own thoughts and don’t empathize with others. They make up their own minds rather than walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Could she have been mindreading and known exactly what thought I needed next? I suppose so.

When I sat in counseling with warring couples, I frequently pointed out their pattern of mind reading. They spoke as if they were in each other’s heads or acted as if the other person said something they hadn’t.

I suppose mind reading is harmless enough if you don’t go off half cocked and react to something that might or might not be true. What if you decide your spouse, child, parent or friend is deliberately trying to be obnoxious and do something rotten in return? You might have just started a needless battle which could rage for years. And it could all be due to your faulty imagination and your mind reading.

So how do you get to understand someone? Even if they are talking the same language, people sometimes mean different things by the same words, glances, or mannerisms. Sometimes a person has no idea what another means and assumes that everyone means the same thing by what they say or do. They don’t.

One way to understand people is to ask, “Is this what you mean?” Isn’t that better than assuming you know and fly off the handle in response? You could tell people how you feel when they say or do something which upsets you. When you talk about your feelings rather than attacking others, you have a much better chance of them hearing you. There are no doubt other alternatives as well. Mind reading can be fun when it is a game but devastating when serious matters are at stake.

Action Steps

  • Think of any unresolved issues you have with people. Could they be due to misunderstandings?
  • What could you do to resolve the matter?
  • Have you ever been surprised when someone got upset about something you said or did when you meant no harm?
  • If there are still hard feelings about it, would it help if you explain what you meant?
  • If you are locked in conflict with someone, try stopping to listen to each other’s position rather than just insisting you are right.

Selection from my book, Navigating Life: Commonsense Reflections for the Voyage, available at Amazon.

The Power of Strength


Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right use of strength.

~Henry Ward Beecher~

Strength is a physical characteristic which can be used for good and bad. We can use it to accomplish important tasks when needed. Building houses, growing food and even getting from one place to another call on our physical strength. Fighting off attacks requires us to be strong. Protecting ourselves and those we love can also call on our strength.

Sometimes we use our power for less noble purposes. Bullies grab what they want from weaker people. Other people use their speed to reach what they want before others can get there.

Strength is also mental. We can use our thinking to determine how to handle difficult problems. We can learn to handle threats by avoiding them rather than direct confrontation. We can also consider alternate ways of doing something to see which way might be best.

Our minds might also pursue devious purposes. Examples are tricking people into doing what we want while disregarding their best interests lying to others to get what we want and lying to ourselves to justify what we do.

We also have spiritual assurances that what we do in life has a higher purpose. Our long term goals take us beyond immediate difficulties. But our power of choice can ignore what we believe and act only in our own best interests, setting aside what we have learned about God, nature and humanity.

A family life of deprivation and abuse can incline us to seek revenge on people we see as having offended us. If we can’t get back at them, we might be tempted to take out our anger on whoever is available.

A supportive and peaceful family life can incline us to share our good fortune with others physically, mentally and spiritually. We would like others to find the peace we have found for ourselves.

Despite our backgrounds, life experiences and goals always have choices before us. We can choose to be selfish or concerned about others, greedy or generous, mean or kind, warlike or peaceful. Every time we make choices, what we choose becomes part of us.

As Charles Fillmore put it, “We grow to be like that which we idealize.” People don’t become saints or monsters by single acts. What we think about, wish for and choose on a daily basis moves us toward a certain way of being. How do we want to live our lives and how do we want others to see us?

Action Steps

  • Think about the physical, mental and spiritual power you have.
  • How do you use your power?
  • What is really important to you?
  • Are you moving in a life direction you find worthwhile?
  • If not, what could you change?

A selection from my book, Navigating Life: Commonsense Reflections for the Voyage, available at Amazon

Getting Ahead of Ourselves

Having spent the better part of my life
trying either to relive the past
or experience the future before it arrives,
I have come to believe that
in between these two extremes is peace.

~Author Unknown~

A recent letter to the editor complained about a prominent Halloween store display in August. Department store catalogs and circulars, TV ads and other advertising also focus on what is coming rather than what is happening now.

Maybe this is all part of the rush to get to the next stage of our lives. Cars sprinting past my house every morning remind me of our rush to live in the future rather than in the present.

Are our lives so empty that we need to look past the current moment? Do we expect the future to be an improvement on the present? We forget that the past is over and the future is just a possibility. We don’t even know if we will be alive when the future arrives.

We can’t change the past and we can’t control or even predict the future. We can manage only the time we have right now and we do have a choice of what we do at this moment. We create our past by how we handle the present moment. We can influence our future by forging a path for our next steps.

So, what can we do about right now? First, we can stop looking backward or forward at least for a little while. We can think about where we are right now. Most of us have heard the expression “living in the moment.” Is this just a saying or is there something to it?

We are wasting our time thinking about what might have been or what could be. That is unless we use our past to guide our current decisions or use our future goals to enlighten our current choices.

When we examiner our past, it is easy to take ourselves to task for not doing things better. “How could I be so dumb?” We sometimes spend quite a bit of time fretting about the future as well. I have met more than a few people whose mantra is, “What if…” People paralyzed by what might happen find it hard to make any decisions at all.

Sometimes the present moment doesn’t call for a decision on our part. We can take a deep breath and enjoy its peace. How many such moments can you remember in your lifetime, or in the past week?

Most of us carry concerns around with us such as health, money or difficult people waiting in our path. But do we have to spend every moment of our lives wringing our hands? If we take time to enjoy a particular moment, our world will not fall apart. Instead, we might find that our moments of reflection refresh us and sometimes give us a new perspective.

Action Steps

  • When was the last time you took a moment just to exist?
  • What was it like?
  • Did the sky fall down?
  • Try scheduling a few moments of peace for yourself.
  • If you enjoy it, make it a habit.

Selection from my book, Navigating Life: Commonsense Reflections for the Voyage, available from Amazon

Respecting Our Wisdom and Judgment

Wisdom is meaningless until your own experience has given it meaning and there is wisdom in the selection of wisdom.

~Bergen Evans~

Have you ever thought about how we end up doing the things we do? Have you ever acted a certain way and then thought to yourself, “That was dumb?” I would guess all of us have from time to time. Those of us with experience as parents have often watched our children getting into trouble by not thinking first. I would dare say one of the main jobs of parents is to get their children to think before they act.

Knowledge is a collection of facts. Wisdom is the way we evaluate our actions and put them into perspective. Judgment involves thinking before acting. People sometimes are able to recite all the facts about what will happen if they act a certain way but don’t take the consequences seriously. Criminals are well aware of the consequences of their crimes but somehow don’t think the rules apply to them.

Sometimes we make up our own rules as we go along. We expect one thing from everyone else but have our own private set of rules for our actions. I think we sometimes forget why there are rules in the first place or don’t consider them as applying to us.

When we were children, the ultimate authority lay in our parents. Even if we did not understand the rules or want to accept them, our parents said these were the rules “because I said so.” As we became older, most of us took the time to understand why we have rules. It is a way of knowing what to expect from others and what others expect from us.

Respecting the rules is a way of respecting each other. Could you imagine driving down the road and not knowing whether another driver will stop at a red light, drive on the expected side of the road or obey traffic signs?

Wisdom is not always written down as laws or rules. Much of wisdom is the result of learning over generations about consequences and the best way to do things. Some of this wisdom ends up in the laws of our civilization but some of it is handed down in our family traditions. We can learn everything the hard way, but we save ourselves a great deal of trouble by learning from our forebears. The problem is that it takes a certain amount of wisdom to recognize the wisdom of others. We sometimes think we know best and can learn everything we need to on our own.

We might be able to find our own path, but it is like clearing a way through a jungle when there is a nearby path waiting for us to follow it. Do we really want to spend all that time learning what others have learned and rediscovering paths which our ancestors have forged? We do have a choice.

Action Steps

  • Think about what lessons you have learned from your parents and grandparents.
  • Compare what happens when you listen to wisdom or act impulsively.
  • Who are the wise people in your life now?
  • What can you learn from them?
  • What would it take to share your wisdom with others?

Selection from my book, Navigating Life: Commonsense Reflections for the Voyage, available at Amazon.


The Magic of Everyday Life


Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.

~Boris Pasternak~

I learn daily of the number of people dying in violence-related incidents.  read of the ingrained hatreds among groups around the world and wonder how things could have come to this. The problems seem overwhelming. How could the world be a different place?

Just when things seem most hopeless, something happens to remind me that life is still full of wonderful surprises. They do not appear every minute or maybe they do and I just don’t notice them. When I sense them, they remind me that people are on earth to enjoy what God has put before them rather than to find more efficient ways to destroy each other.

I have seen the most glorious sunset I could imagine at Sunset Beach in Oahu. I was present at the births of three healthy babies entrusted to my safekeeping. I looked down on the Grand Canyon from thirty five thousand feet in the air.

I have heard Dvorak’s Symphony From the New World played in a park in Pittsburgh and the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute sung in concert as well as whistled on the street. I have heard my grandson Joey talking a mile a minute after having to learn sign language because of his delayed speech.

I have smelled the scent of holly flowers meant to attract bumblebees. I have enjoyed the aroma of honeysuckle pervading the countryside and the fragrance of night blooming cereus wafting `across my front porch.

I have tasted Evil Jungle Prince sitting in Keo’s Honolulu Restaurant among the orchids, sipped Sangria at a modest restaurant in Gijon, Spain and relished Pat Davis cakes at family celebrations.

I swam in the Sea of Cortez, felt my hair stand on end as I touched a Van de Graf generator and had my hand tickled by a salamander scooting across my palm.

These are a few of the sensory experiences which have surprised me over the years. I did not plan or expect any of them to happen and they are by no means the only pleasant surprises I have encountered during my journey through life.

Thomas Moore in The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life helps us regain a sense of wonderment about the many mysteries of the world waiting for our exploration and appreciation. Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses gives us a context for appreciating all that our senses bring to our life experience.

I am sure there are many delights I have encountered in passing but have not dwelt upon sufficiently and many others which I have not taken the time to even notice. I hope I can set aside my concerns to better notice the delights God has placed along my path. I also hope that delight in nature can help turn the world people’s attention from its conflicts and give them a context in which to start appreciating each other better.

Action Steps

  • Recall what has delighted you over the years.
  • Think of the last delight you encountered.
  • Which of your life experiences means the most to you?
  • Think about how you could delight someone you care about.
  • Set aside some time for wonderment about the world you live in.

Selection from my book Navigating Life: Commonsense Reflections for the Voyage, available at Amazon

Understanding, Confronting and Resolving Anger 9. Alternatives to Anger

Photo by Andre Tan

Meditation can help us embrace our worries,
our fear, our anger; and that is very healing.
We let our own natural capacity of healing do the work.

~Thich Nhat Hanh~

We have been looking closely at ways to handle anger on a variety of levels and in a variety of situations. It’s not always easy. It might be more accurate to say that it is almost never easy. Nobody likes dealing with anger, even if it appears justified by the circumstances in which it arises. Is it be possible to avoid anger altogether rather than ignoring it? Yes it is. I discovered two approaches to avoiding anger, one in the Western tradition as explained by the psychologist Albert Ellis and the other in the Eastern tradition as presented in the writing of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Let’s take a look at both understandings and approaches.

Beliefs which fuel and cool anger

The psychologist Jeffrey Bernstein talks about both types of belief. He discusses them in the context of avoiding anger with your child, but they apply to adult relationships as well:

  • “I’m unimportant if I don’t get my way.” You might not have ever said this out loud. Yet you might have thought it to yourself. When you see it in writing does it make any sense? Here is an alternative belief. “I’m disappointed but I still have value as a person even if I don’t get my way.” Does this seem more realistic and likely to keep your emotions under control? I thought so.
  • “I must be stupid for letting them deceive me.” There is an old saying that you can fool all of the people some of the time. On occasion you will doubtless find yourself on the receiving end of a lie and believe it for a time until you discover the truth. The alternative belief is: “Swallowing his dishonesty does not make me stupid.” You are entitled to make mistakes from time to time. Just stay alert to the proof or lack thereof for what you are told. Ask for the evidence regarding any questionable opinion.
  • “He shows me no respect at all; he’s a loser, anyway.” This is an extreme position to take about someone who does not agree with you and it will do nothing to help you gain respect for your opinions. Consider this alternative belief: “He is likely struggling and fighting his own battles. It helps to remember not to take him so personally.” This kinder approach helps you keep your differences in perspective. If you had that person’s set of experiences instead of your own, how would you feel?
  • “I must have her respect and be taken seriously.” You will shortly learn about “musturbation” and how it leads you to see yourself as the big cheese and others who disagree with you as lesser beings. Consider this alternate belief: “I will be disappointed in not having her respect but I can still respect and feel good about myself.” Remember that your worth and self respect do not depend on whether others agree with you or on how they feel about you.
  • “I must have her respect and be taken seriously.” Do you have any control over how others react to you? Probably not. Remember that you have no absolute right to be held in high regard by anyone else. Instead, consider this belief: “I will be disappointed in not having her respect but I can still respect and feel good about myself.” That seems more realistic to me. How about you?

Hopefully you can see the differences between these alternate sets of beliefs. Are you wondering how to get from the first set to the second? If so, you are in luck. In the next section you will see how to do it.

Rational Emotive Therapy (RET)

This is the approach the psychologist Albert Ellis developed to use in working with people, their thoughts, and emotions. He has published many articles and books over the years explaining how the process works.

Ellis starts by presenting myths about dealing with anger:

  • Actively expressing your anger reduces it. This myth is based on the premise that holding anger in is harmful. We talked earlier about the effect anger has on your body, mind, emotions and relationships. Yet the answer is not just letting your anger fly where it will. Here we will explore how not to get angry in the first place.
  • Take time out when you feel angry. This might be a good temporary approach while you are working on ways to manage anger but not a good permanent solution. Avoiding the problem just lets it fester and creates problems on a number of levels which we discussed earlier.
  • Anger pushes you to get what you want. It might push you in that direction but it does not usually provide an effective way of getting what you want. Even if you do, you might well alienate others in the process and cause them to avoid you and not discuss with you what irritates them. You might feel you have won but might have succeeded only in isolating yourself.
  • Insight into your past decreases your anger. Maybe you will come to understand your anger better but insight does not change your behavior. Instead you need to find a better way to handle your thoughts and emotions.
  • Outside events make you angry. It is not what happens that makes you angry. It is what you tell yourself about what happened, what conclusions you draw, and how you react that result in your anger.

Anger ABC’s

Myths aside, how do your thoughts and emotions create or dissipate anger? Ellis wrote extensively about his Rational Emotive Therapy treatment which originally consisted of a three step process which he called the ABC approach. These three steps describe the process and the fourth suggests what to do about it:

  • Activating event or experience–In other words something happens which triggers a response in you. In the case of anger, this could be something someone says or does which becomes an occasion for you to react angrily.
  • Beliefs–This is what you tell yourself about what happened. Your beliefs might be constructive and rational. On the other had, your beliefs might be destructive and irrational. We talked before about where your beliefs come from. They might arise from family traditions and practices. You might interpret how others react to circumstances in which they find themselves. You might also come to your own conclusions about a new situation in which you have never been before. Your beliefs could be in keeping with the seriousness of the event. You could also under-react or grossly over-react to the situation.
  • Consequences–What you believe or tell yourself leads to how you feel about any given event. For example, you might tell yourself that someone should treat you a certain way and that it is terrible when that person does not act the way you think he or she should. In response you might become highly incensed and find yourself in a rage when others do not act the way you think they should.
  • Disputing–This step was not part of Ellis’s original formulation of his theory but was added later as a key to resolving irrational beliefs and subsequent behavior. It refers to the process of evaluating how rational your beliefs are and changing irrational to rational beliefs.

The consequences of your beliefs depend on how rational they are. Nobody is perfect. If you do something you wish you had not done, it might be unfortunate, disappointing or regretful. You might also have the same appropriate emotional reactions to things others do that do not set well with you.

If you start “awfulizing” and overreacting to your own or others’ behavior, you will likely end up feeling that what you or they did was awful or terrible. As a result you will find yourself highly agitated, perhaps to the extent of rage which is not a productive reaction in any situation. Other destructive emotional states which might result are depression, panic, self pity and low frustration tolerance.

Stop overreacting

So how do you keep yourself from getting carried away with anger? Ellis suggests a number of approaches to consider:

  • Progressive muscle relaxation–This is a technique developed by Edmund Jacobson in the 1920’s. It has since been incorporated into yoga approaches and other ways of calming your body. The technique consists of isolating groups of muscles throughout your body one at a time, tightening the muscles for a few seconds and then relaxing them and noticing the difference between tension and relaxation.
  • Rational coping statements–Practice telling yourself less dramatic and upsetting statements about the experiences you allow to upset you. Reinterpret how you see these events.
  • Disputing irrational beliefs–When you start telling yourself things which don’t make sense, challenge your thinking. Step back to see how you might be overreacting.
  • Highlighting the cost in your life of irrational beliefs–Take a look at how such beliefs unnecessarily upset you, the inner turmoil they cause you and the effect they have on your relationships.
  • Using paradoxical intent to reduce irrational beliefs to absurdity–This is an alternative developed by the psychiatrist Victor Frankel. With this approach you practice imagining your belief in the extreme in order to see how ridiculous it is.
  • Using humor to laugh at your anger–We looked at this earlier. Once you can see that you are being ridiculous, it is a short step to seeing how funny you look when you are highly upset and viewing something as a disaster when it is merely unfortunate.

Handling anger in close relationships

Ellis suggests some ways of dealing with anger coming from those who are close to you. His suggestions include:

  • Acknowledge your anger to yourself. Admit that the anger you feel is your anger and that it takes place within you. As I said before, your anger is about you, not someone else.
  • Assume full responsibility for your anger. Again, your feelings are your own and not caused by anyone else. No one can make you feel anything.
  • Accept yourself with your anger. You are not a bad person because you are angry. Even if you are angry, you have a choice of how you deal with it.
  • Stop making yourself anxious or depressed and stop blaming yourself for being a fallible human being. Despite your best intentions, you are not perfect and might occasionally give in to anger and where it takes you. Learn to forgive yourself when necessary. Life is a series of learning steps.
  • Look for the assumptions behind your rage. These usually have to do with what you think you deserve even when you have no inherent right to be treated the way you might like.
  • Distinguish wishes from musts. There are ways you might wish to have things in your life but that does not mean they must be that way for you to survive. You can always find a way to cope with whatever is going on around you even though it might be a challenge at times.
  • Dispute and debate musts. Ellis used the graphic word “musturbation” to describe how people get caught up in what they MUST have and how they and others MUST act. It’s not up to you to decide how the world must or should be. You have your preferences but they are not written into a law for everyone else to follow.

Avoiding conflict

It would be great if we got along well with everybody all the time. I suppose this might be possible if everyone had the same thoughts, feelings, beliefs and patterns of behavior. But we don’t. Anyway, that might make for a rather boring world. It would be good to have ready ways to handle our differences with others. Sarah Cunningham has some suggestions you might consider to ease the process suggested by Ellis:

  • Talk out the situation as soon as is sensible. Letting a conflict sit unresolved for too long gives both sides time to bolster arguments for their side and to build resentment. Without dialogue, neither side gains any understanding of each other or possible paths toward resolution. Yet trying to talk right away before either has had any time to think might also be a recipe for disaster. The key is to talk when both sides have settled down enough to listen respectfully and start working toward a solution to the standoff.
  • Keep it light. Before jumping into the heart of the disagreement, it would be helpful to say that you don’t like feeling in conflict. If you went overboard in stating your case or expressing your anger, it would be helpful to apologize.
  • Empathize with all feelings. You don’t need to agree with someone else’s opinions and feelings in order to acknowledge them. Listening to their opinions should help others realize that you are taking them seriously. Then you are in a better position to have a discussion rather than an argument.
  • Make a point to listen well. This means not replying immediately to what the other person says with your own point of view. A good listener hears the other person out and tries to clarify anything he or she does not understand. Once the other person feels heard, you can proceed with your position and a mutually courteous discussion.
  • Speak clearly and keep it brief. When you have heard and understood what the other person has to say, offer your opinion succinctly. Rather than badgering the other person to accept your point of view, give a brief synopsis of your position and invite a response. Now you have a dialogue.
  • Try to accept different points of view. You may have good reasons for holding your point of view based on your life experience. Again, understand that not everyone has had the same set of experiences you have. Their lives might have led them to different ideas, emotions and viewpoints. Listening can help you accept the differences between their experiences and yours.

These approaches are likely to give you the best chance of reaching a compromise. They might also help both sides to accept and respect each other. Although you differ, you are both making your best effort to make sense of life as you see it. You can agree to disagree and look for areas of agreement on which to base your future interactions.

An Eastern tradition approach to anger

So far we have concentrated on approaches to understanding, dealing with, and avoiding anger. I have touched on practices such as yoga, and more specifically mindful breathing. This last one originally came from the Eastern tradition. We will now look a little closer at this tradition and what it has to offer you regarding anger.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk originally from Vietnam but currently living in France. He has written extensively on Buddhist practices and how they affect your relationship with yourself, with each other and with Earth. Among his many writings is his book, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames.

Tools for building anger

Hanh starts by listing a number of contributions to your anger which you might not have considered:

  • Your food may contain anger. Unless you take steps to carefully select your food, you are probably eating foods from the assembly line where vegetables, meat and eggs are seen as commodities to be produced in the most efficient manner. Little if any thought is given to the welfare of the plants or animals which provide the food. All you see are the cans, jars and packages in the grocery store with no knowledge of how these foods got to the grocery shelf. More of our food now comes from factory farms than the traditional family farms which once nourished us. Imagine what would it like to be one of the plants or animals which feed you?
  • What we read or see on TV can be toxic. Also conversations. It is easy to get into the habit of passively consuming whatever comes over the airwaves or through your cable, Internet connection or cell phone. Interactions with others can also be toxic. You do have a choice. You can limit yourself to information which nourishes your spirit rather than poisoning it. You also have a choice of whether or not to remain present in toxic conversations which also detract from your state of wellbeing.
  • Overeating creates difficulty for the body. I mentioned emotional suffering earlier, but poor eating habits create turmoil in your body which creates emotional upset and may make you more prone to becoming angry.
  • Alcohol creates suffering, causing disease to the body and death on the road. Maybe you don’t take drinking to the point where it contributes to illness or anyone’s death from drunk driving. But if you are not careful, you can use it as a way to avoid dealing with the reality around you and the emotions swirling within you. We talked earlier about the dangers of stifling your emotions. Alcohol and other drugs can be chemical means of avoiding thoughts and emotions which may well need your attention.
  • Revenge escalates suffering for both people. You might think getting revenge for feeling wronged would satisfy you and help you let go of your anger. It doesn’t. Not only do you create more pain for another person, you also harm yourself by letting your anger lead you to actions you would not ordinarily consider part of your makeup.

Cooling the flames

Next, Hanh presents a number of ways to cool down your anger so it does not consume you or cause harm to others. He refers to these as mindful activities. He does not view them as being exclusively associated with any religious tradition. They work regardless of what you believe or don’t believe in a religious sense. Here they are:

  • On a physical level you can breathe mindfully. Be aware of your breath entering and leaving your body. Feel and hear it.
  • Mindful walking gets you in motion. You can concentrate on the feeling of your feet on your path, sounds of nature if you are in the woods. You can resonate with the rhythm of the waves at the seashore. You can pay attention to the air you breathe as you walk.
  • Look at yourself in the mirror. See how your unpleasant emotions tighten your muscles and contort your face, making you look ugly.
  • Use these activities to find calm inside you. Keep at it until you can think calmly. Then you can address distressing thoughts more rationally.
  • Take care of your anger. At first this sounded strange to me. As I thought and read about it, I realized that what Hanh means is to take care of you even when you are tempted to become angry. He refers to the Buddha’s teaching that anger represents feeling hurt. Sound familiar? We talked about this earlier. Therefore you must take care of the part of you that feels hurt.

You can care for your anger by telling a person who is the butt of your anger that you are angry, are suffering, and doing your best. Then you can ask for their help. If another person is angry with you, you can acknowledge that you see his or her hurt and try to understand it.

If one of you is not ready to talk about these sensitive matters right away, make an appointment to discuss them. While you are waiting for the appointment time, consider your part in the conflict and acknowledge it when you finally talk. “Understanding leads to relief from suffering–others’ difficulties and their deepest aspirations in addition to your own.”


Understanding, Confronting and Resolving Anger Part 8. Your Response to Anger

Photo by Andre Tan

People who are prone to anxiety are nearly always people-pleasers who fear conflict and negative feelings like anger. When you feel upset, you sweep your problems under the rug because you don’t want to upset anyone. You do this so quickly and automatically that you’re not even aware you’re doing it.

David D. Burns, author of Feeling Good~

Anger as a psychological problem

We have seen that anger is not a simple concept but one with a complex history and having implications for your own well­being as well as for your relationships on a personal, social and global level. Wiley Anger Management defines some terms it would be helpful to understand as we proceed.

One diagnosis we have not discussed is intermittent explosive disorder included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or DSM5 (5th edition). This is a pattern of exploding emotionally on occasion but not continually. Everyone gets upset at times but not everyone explodes, causing a major scene.

Another diagnosis is post-traumatic stress disorder. This is also a diagnosis from the DSM5 which involves sometimes severe emotional reaction to triggers bringing back memories of past traumatic events. Not only do memories arise but the feelings associated with the trauma return as if it were being re-experienced in the present. Along with the memories and emotions a number of untoward actions may arise as well. Among them are explosive and aggressive outbursts, hostility and making judgmental statements about others.

A third is antisocial personality disorder. Its symptoms include looking angry, lack of cooperation, hostility in group efforts, being disrespectful to authorities and using abusive language to intimidate people. Many of these may be related to feeling under threat as we discussed earlier. Yet people with these disorders look more angry than hurt and often give little clue as to what lies beneath the surface.

Many of the DSM5 diagnoses involve anger, but we are not doing a diagnostic exam or psychotherapy here. The article we are discussing is geared toward therapists, but the goals of therapy can also be adapted for personal consideration of ways to manage your anger. Let’s look at some of the treatment goals and how you might adapt them toward work on your own anger:

  • Identify what triggers your anger whether it involves situations in which you find yourself or inner thoughts which bring your anger to the fore. This is what we talked about in Chapter 2. If you want to control your anger, it is a good start to figure out what triggers it and learn to make an appropriate connection to what happened before.
  • Find out whether any medical conditions might be contributing to your anger such as neurological problems like seizures, tumors or hormone irregularities. Unless you are a physician, this is a hard one to figure out on your own. You can research physical conditions related to anger and then discuss it with your doctor. If research is not your thing, you can start by talking with your doctor about the possibilities.
  • Consider evaluation for the appropriateness and usefulness of psychiatric medications. Again this is not an approach to try on your own. Your doctor will work with you to find appropriate medication when indicated or refer you to a specialist.
  • Learn appropriate ways to think about your anger and how to manage it through experimentation, self examination and sharing what you learn with people you trust to help you with the process. Your family and friends might know you as well as you know yourself, perhaps even better. They can be helpful with their observations of what makes life difficult for you and also help you see patterns of your behavior of which you might not be aware.
  • Keep track of anger triggers, how they make you feel and how you react to them. You can do this in a journal as I mentioned earlier. Once you know what triggers your anger, write down the feelings which emerge and the ways you react to your anger being summoned.
  • Talk with others who might help you identify patterns of anger, how they affect your inner life and your relationships with others. Those close to you can be helpful in your search for ways you can change your response to anger. After all they most likely bear the brunt of your anger and are likely to want to help you become an easier person to live with.
  • Learn ways to calm your emotions through approaches such as focused breathing, meditation, and yoga. There are many videos, books and classes on how to use these calming techniques. We will discuss these more in Chapter 7.
  • Learn to replace inappropriate ways of thinking about your anger and react to it with healthier approaches. You can experiment with viewing a situation and your consequent anger in a different light. Those close to you or a therapist can also help you expand your view of a situation beyond what you see with your own eyes and mind.
  • Learn to stop the process of upsetting thoughts. You first need to listen to your thoughts leading to anger. Then you need to see whether they make any sense. You can simply tell yourself not to attend to them or find something more constructive to think about. More about this in the next chapter.
  • Learn assertive and healthy ways of expressing your anger and ways to solve problems rather than allowing them to continue upsetting you. Stopping your anger by not expressing it or by blasting someone will not do you or anyone else much good. There are alternatives as we shall soon see.
  • Look in the psychological mirror. Learn to recognize what you look and sound like to others. Again, what you show might not be immediately obvious to you. Listen to what others say about how they see you.

These are healthier approaches to try in approaching your anger than you might have tried in the past. Let’s look more closely at how you react to others’ anger. A.M. Tadas suggests that the best way to deal with other people’s anger is to work on your own anger. Tadas decided to try this approach for himself when he realized that he was allowing others to upset him and in that way controlling him.

With this realization, he began to examine the root causes of his anger and then took responsibility for it. He found that this put him in a better position to manage his reaction to others’ anger. Tadas offers some deceptively simple techniques to help you stay in control of your own emotions while dealing with others’ anger:

  • Breathe deeply. As your muscles contract when you experience difficult emotions, your breathing also becomes strained. Maybe you feel you have lost your breath for a moment. You can reverse this by concentrating on deep breathing, feeling, and listening to your breath go out of you and return with fresh air. We will look at this closer in the next chapter under the topic of meditation.
  • You don’t need to stay paralyzed after an upsetting incident. You can put the anger process on hold by taking time to yourself before reacting at all. This way you will save yourself from actions you will later regret.
  • Explore your state of mind. In a difficult situation, identify your feelings by name and consider your feelings without passing judgment on them or on yourself. Consider what caused you to be angry, where you feel anger in your body, and, if you lost control of your anger, what prompted this.
  • Consider what prompts the behavior of the people who occasioned your anger? What did they do and what is behind their actions. Are they struggling with their own emotions? Are they troubled about something you said or did? What might be going on in their lives which caused their outburst? Maybe their anger has nothing to do with you and you have no practical reason to respond to it other than with kindness.
  • Engage your sense of humor. It’s easy to respond to another’s anger by retaliating with your own anger. It’s hard to imagine how this response might be helpful. If you think back to situations when you did react this way, how often did the interaction end well? The most likely result is escalation of the conflict between you and another person. Seeing humor in this situation is not easy and takes practice. Sharing what you see as funny does not always go over well either. If you can just smile inside, it might be worth learning the skill.
  • Give yourself credit. If any of these approaches helps you de-escalate an angry and tense situation, congratulate yourself on your power to follow through. Keep refining your skills.

Going deeper

The techniques suggested by Tadas are good initial ways of dealing with anger directly but none of them help you heal from the hurt you experience when caught in the tangle of angry emotions. He suggests some deeper techniques to help you recover from feeling hurt by another’s anger. These are approaches for you to try changing your reaction in the face of anger and not ways to change the other person. Let’s look at them next:

  • Face your demons. List times you experienced a considerable disruption in your life. Think of times when your health, relationships or possibly professional standing took a hit because of anger. How would your life have been different then without that disruption? How would it be different now? Be honest with yourself. Resolve to develop new habits so these events do not keep happening and disrupting your life.
  • Identify situations that create your stress. You have your own particular triggers for stress which can easily lead you to a feeling of anger. You can make plans to avoid or manage these situations in a way which does not inevitably lead you to anger.
  • Make an inventory of your weaknesses. Pay attention to what propels your anger to spin out of control. Maybe it’s your tendency to judge other people, insisting that others do things the way you think they should, or taking what others say or do personally. They might have their own motivations which have nothing to do with you. If you start to see a pattern which gets you into trouble, make a point of trying to changing it.
  • Do whatever it takes to soften your heart. Many people find that they feel chronically depressed or resentful toward others for some reason. Anger is more likely to boil over with these mental and emotional states in the background. One way to work your way out from under these dark clouds is to do some nice things for yourself and for others. Kindness toward others helps you redirect your thoughts and feelings in a more peaceful and positive direction.
  • Practice giving people the benefit of the doubt. Ruiz suggests in one of his four agreements with yourself to always do you best. Another way to decrease your anger toward others is to assume that they are doing their best as well. Their best might look better or worse than you would like and might also vary from day to day. If you follow your own efforts to do your best, you will notice that your best varies with your mood, what is going on around you, and your physical condition. Be accepting of your own varying success as well as that of others.
  • Learn to quiet your mind. Many spiritual traditions including Christianity suggest reducing the noise in your head and giving your mind a chance to be at peace for a while. Constant TV, radio, cell phones ringing or other noise can fill you with distraction and prevent you from communing with nature and listening to your own inner dialogue. Earlier, I mentioned concentrating on your breathing. This is a good start. You can also pay attention to feelings in various parts of your body or perhaps to the sounds of nature such as a breeze, the trickle of a brook, or passing clouds. You don’t have to do anything about these things but just enjoy and commune with them.
  • Contemplate impermanence. Reflect on the delicate balance of your life as well as of all other life. You won’t be here on earth forever. Although it might not feel like it, your days are numbered and one day you won’t be here any longer. Remember that all things pass. The joy you find in life will pass but so will your trials and tribulations. Keeping your life in perspective makes it easier to deal with passing upsets like anger.
  • Practice gratitude. This is another way to keep things in perspective. I start every day writing down five things for which I am grateful that day before writing the rest of my journal. Focusing on the good things makes the difficult things easier to bear. Others who have encouraged this practice include Oprah Winfrey and Henry David Thoreau.
  • Watch what you eat. Everybody deals with food a little differently. Allergies to food can put you in a foul mood when you eat them. Some foods can be harder to digest than others. If you think about what you eat and how you feel later, you will have a better understanding of how your body works and how your eating affects your mind and emotions. Drugs, legal and illegal, can upset your nervous system and keep your emotions off kilter. Pay attention to how they affect you if you use them.
  • Establish your why. If you are reading this because you want to make some positive changes in your life, think about what prompted you to consider making these changes. You might want to write down what you would like to change in your life and the reasons why. Then post them were you can see them on a regular basis.
  • Start a diary to track your progress. If you wanted to lose weight but never wrote down your starting weight or kept track of your progress over time, how would you know how well you are doing with your goal? In my diary, I keep track of my gratitudes but also my challenges, questions about life and little accomplishments. When I look back over my diary from past years, I can see the progress I have made with my life goals as well as places where I need to improve. It might work for you as well.

Anger at Bay

The American Psychological Association suggests some ways to limit the effect of anger on you. These are mostly ways of changing how you approach situations which might otherwise lead to anger. These are ways you can head off becoming angry.

  • Relaxation–I mentioned paying attention to your breathing as one way of clearing your mind of concentration on emotions such as anger. Shallow breathing from your chest won’t do the trick. The way to do deep breathing is called diaphragmatic breathing. Your diaphragm separates your heart and lungs from the rest of your organs. Think of yourself as breathing with your belly. You can watch your belly rise and fall as you practice this approach.

    A related way to relax is to repeat a word or syllable while breathing deeply. Oriental traditions use a syllable such as “om” repeated continuously as you breathe and clear your mind. Imagining yourself in a relaxing setting or practicing gentle yoga are other variations.

  • Cognitive restructuring–This is a fancy psychological term which means changing the pattern of your thinking. Think of how you sound when you are angry. You use dramatic, forceful words and often include swear words which might not be part of your ordinary vocabulary. What you think might be worse than what you actually say. In the next chapter we will look at “awfulizing” or telling yourself that things are much worse than they really are. Work on getting your emotions, thoughts and speech to a more realistic level. Events which produced your anger might be unfortunate but are not always terrible. The psychologist Albert Ellis has quite a bit to say about this. We will hear more of his ideas later.
  • Problem solving–Anger represents a feeling of being stuck in a bad situation. Sometimes there is no easy solution to a vexing problem. Sometimes there is a solution but you are too upset to see it clearly. While you might not have an immediate solution at hand, you can start working on an approach to resolving the situation. You can learn how to cope with it even if you can’t make it go away. Finding a constructive path is often the best way out of feeling lost in your anger.
  • Better Communication–If you have examined your own anger and how it affects you, it is likely that you have discovered how hard it is to resolve anything while you stay focused on your anger. If your anger centers on a conflict with someone, try to slow down and listen to what he or she has to say. It may be that you have a misunderstanding rather than a real difference. It may also be that the other person’s reason for being upset has nothing to do with you and there is no reason for you to become upset in return. Listening carefully will help you choose appropriate responses.
  • Using humor–We talked a little about this earlier. What if you imagine the person who is angry at you as a raging bull and what he or she would look like in his or her daily life as a bull pawing the ground? Can you imagine yourself as literally tied up in knots and then trying to go about the rest of your day carrying the ropes which bind you? If you can bring yourself to share the humor you see in a tense situation with the other person, all the better.
  • Changing your environment–I once worked with a fellow psychologist who on occasion wrote in his appointment book, “John alone.” When I asked him about this, he told me that he needs his own help to keep his life in perspective as much as his clients did. Often, changing the circumstances which lead you to anger can help you reframe the situation into one which does not invoke your anger and is more manageable.


What to do when you are the target of anger

So far in this chapter we have been looking at your anger directed at yourself or at someone else. In addition, you will probably find occasion to face someone else’s anger toward you. Now what do you do? Gary Vassar suggests some possibilities. He concentrates on the choices available to you:

  • Do you have an exit strategy? You might not know the other person well. The first decision to make is how to get away from this situation should it become necessary. You don’t want to wait until you are under threat of being harmed. This is not something to be taken lightly or to be dismissed easily. Anger can quickly escalate. The circumstances change as another’s anger increases. Keep in mind that it might become necessary to escape at any moment.
  • Are you in imminent danger? You should be able to tell this by the intensity of the anger you face. If the other person is becoming out of control, you have several options. Remove yourself from the situation if possible before you get hurt. If escaping is not possible you have several other choices. Do whatever you can to prevent the situation from becoming more intense. You might even agree with the other person’s point of view at least on the surface until you have a chance to escape. It’s hard for people to argue with you when you agree with them.
  • Use statements that de-escalate the tension. If you are not in danger, look for things in the other person’s line of thinking with which you might agree and turn the conversation to those. Apologize for anything you think might have been interpreted by the other person as provoking their anger. Try to let the other person know that you understand how he or she feels and try to turn the conversation toward what you can do together to resolve the issue rather than continuing under a cloud of angry emotions.


Understanding someone else’s anger

We have been talking about things you can do to settle down someone else’s anger. Tadas suggests that understanding what is behind another’s anger might help resolve it and head you both in a more positive direction.

If you are both angry, it might be hard to make much progress. Understanding your own anger as we discussed previously should be helpful in settling down your emotions. Then you might consider what is going on inside another’s mind. Tadas sees angry people as full of resentment and discontent which they tend to take out on others. He sees such people as “driven by a sense of shame and inferiority.” He also sees them as possibly overwhelmed by the demands of their life and becoming lost in the associated feelings.

You might find it helpful to put yourself in the other person’s position to the extent that it is possible. If you listen carefully you might begin to hear what is behind the other person’s anger. If not, perhaps you can give the other person the benefit of the doubt and consider the possibility that he or she is overwhelmed by things to which you are not privy. We will look more closely at understanding what lies beneath anger in the next chapter.


More ways to keep cool under the stress of anger

Nina Sidell suggests more strategies to keep you from becoming embroiled in others’ turmoil:

  • Do what you can to stay calm, centered, and at peace. Just because another person is raging does not mean you have respond in kind. This might not always be easy but it is not impossible. Even if it is hard at first, you will improve with practice.
  • Utilize healthy outlets when you feel stressed. The more your stress is under control, the easier it will be to control your emotions in the face of someone who is out of control with anger. Healthy eating, exercise and periods of relaxation can all help you prepare to deal with stress and minimize its effect on you as we have seen.
  • Surround yourself with healthy people who can manage their emotions and impulses. Related to this is avoiding the company of people who are likely to blow their tops frequently. If you are with a group of more even tempered friends, you will not need to face an angry person alone.
  • Set limits or walk away as soon as someone unloads on you inappropriately. You don’t have to stand there and take it. You might not be able to get in a word of reason. In this case why stay there and put up with abuse?
  • Get support from your loved ones, close friends, and helping professionals if necessary. They can be more detached and unemotional in talking with you about how to react in an angry situation that does not directly affect them. You never know who might have a great idea for you.
  • Sit in the position of observer. Try pretending that you are just watching what happens between you and the angry person rather than being in the middle of it. That might help you see what you both contribute to the problem. This would probably work better if you do it after rather than during an argument.

Do what keeps you balanced. Make sure you meet your own needs and do not find yourself in a position of vulnerability. Taking care of yourself is the best way to prepare for any challenge. Anger can be very challenging to you even over minor issues. Make sure you are always functioning at your best level possible.

Understanding, Confronting and Resolving Anger: A Series 6. Narcissistic Rage



Photo by Andre Tan

Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.

~Mahatma Gandhi~


Being an activist is about getting things done.
It’s not about standing around shaking your fist in anger.

~Christine Quinn~

Now we will look at narcissistic rage, perhaps the most difficult type of anger you are likely encounter. It is no fun to deal with but it is best to be prepared,

What is narcissistic anger?

Mark Goulston, M.D. in his Psychology Today article, refers to narcissistic anger as “a chilling rage.” From the point of view of a narcissist, the world “looks like it should approve, adore, agree with and obey you. Anything less than that feels like an assault, leading a narcissist to feel justified in raging back at you.” You might imagine a person sitting on a throne expecting everyone else to bow to the ruler’s wishes and to anticipate his or her expectations.

Goulston lists characteristics of narcissists. These include:

  • Control freaks–They try to exercise tight control over everything that happens around them and freak out when things do not go their way.
  • Irritability–They are easily annoyed and anything unpleasant tends to grate on them.
  • Short fuse–You have probably heard the saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” They don’t see this as applying to them. Everything they don’t like is of major importance.
  • Low frustration tolerance–Life around them is calm only when everything is as they want it and everyone agrees with them.
  • Argumentative–They don’t believe in allowing others to have their own opinion and that it is possible to coexist peacefully with those who don’t agree with them. All differences must be attacked.
  • Need to have the last word–They never let anything go unchallenged and fight to the bitter end to have their ways accepted as the right ones.
  • Unable to lose–Their goal is to win at all costs regardless of the magnitude of the situation.
  • Won’t take no for an answer–For them no is NOT a complete sentence. It is a challenge to keep arguing.

They have other unpleasant traits as well:

  • Being quick to anger if you don’t accommodate them–They don’t discuss arrangements they don’t like. They are much more likely to attack you since they see you as being wrong or inconsiderate.
  • Being quick to become aggressively defensive if you call them on any deficiency, fault or responsibility–Another way of saying this is that they have “thin skin.” Nothing is ever their fault and there is always something wrong with you for attacking them.
  • Can’t apologize or, if they do, they can’t do it sincerely–Any apology tends to be hollow and not really meant. You will be left with the uneasy feeling that they think any fault lies with you.
  • Rarely say thank you or congratulations–You are not important and anything you accomplish reduces their feeling of self importance.
  • Don’t feel or demonstrate remorse–They don’t generally feel they have ever done anything wrong. Therefore they feel no need to feel sorry for anything they have done.
  • Feel entitled to enthusiastic and appreciative approval, adoration, agreement, and obedience–They view themselves at the top of the heap in all matters and expect others to bow down to them constantly.
  • Gloating in victory, sullen in defeat–Don’t expect any gracious gestures whether they get their way or not. It’s all about them.
  • Quick to rage if you humiliate them–Humiliation can be as simple as viewing them on the same plane with ordinary mortals. They take offense very easily.

Maybe you are wondering how some people get to be raging narcissists. One theory is that by nature they have trouble feeling good about themselves and need constant reassurance of their value. They may well come from a childhood in which they are constantly told of their lack of worth as human beings. As adults they try to compensate for their inferior feelings by seeking constant adulation from others. When they don’t find what they are looking for they show the characteristics we have just discussed.

Another theory is that they need to feel better than everyone else in order to remain stable, at least to some degree, and feel in balance. When they do not get the praise they crave, they turn to rage in an attempt to bully others into revering them.

Alexander Burgemeester reminds us that narcissistic personality disorder is a psychiatric diagnosis as we saw earlier. He describes people with this pattern as follows, “They have little to no empathy, cannot understand the problems of people around them and are not aware of other people’s feelings. Although they act superior and confident, this actually hides the fact that they have very fragile egos. The slightest disrespect or challenge can quickly lead to the development of a furious rage in them.”

He traces the term narcissistic rage to the psychiatrist Franz Kohut who described it as a response from a narcissistic person who feels under attack. Narcissistic rage differs from ordinary anger in that it is not based on reason and is an overblown reaction to a possibly unimportant remark.

Burgemeester cites three causes of narcissistic rage:

  • Challenge to their confidence–This results when someone challenges or questions their actions or ideas as imperfect.
  • Injury to self esteem–Rage seeks to discredit or punish others who challenge a narcissist.
  • False sense of self–Their rage responds to someone questioning the worth of their ideas or actions.

In addition he lists seven stages of anger for most people. They are:

  • Stress–You have learned that stress is a normal reaction to an actual or imagined threat.
  • Anxiety–If you can’t find an immediate solution to your stress, you begin to worry about it.
  • Agitation–When anxiety persists, it affects your concentration and focus, leaving you feeling on edge.
  • Irritation–Little things which normally don’t upset you begin to grate on you as well as the original stress.
  • Frustration–You feel at wit’s end and have trouble finding any reasonable options.
  • Anger–You might be angry at your inability to solve the problem or at another person for creating it in your life.
  • Rage–Most people don’t reach this stage, but frustration might build inside you to the point where you explode.

Narcissists tend to skip the first six stages and react immediately with rage. They use their rage to attack any perceived questioning of their fragile self-image and superior feelings.


Responding to Narcissistic Rage

Richard Goulston notes that engaging a person in the midst of narcissistic rage is not likely to be productive. If it is safe, you might just listen until they are finished ranting. You can later request that they talk to you in a calm and respectful manner. If that does not happen the next time, it might be best to just walk away if you can or avoid such people altogether.

Susan Whitbourne, Ph.D. suggests specific ways to handle narcissists in a work situation, although her suggestions may apply to other settings as well:

  • Determine which type you’re dealing with. A grandiose narcissist might be a good ally if your goals exactly match theirs. Vulnerable narcissists are harder to deal with because they are constantly on the lookout for people who might further diminish their already poor concept of themselves.
  • Acknowledge your annoyance. Learn to recognize where your annoyance lies, usually related to the person who constantly interrupts you when you are trying to accomplish something.
  • Appreciate where the behavior comes from. Understand that vulnerable narcissists need to make themselves feel better. A modicum of reassurance is necessary for them to focus on a group task. Just don’t get carried away with praising them or they will take over a project.
  • Evaluate the context. Some situations will worsen their tendencies toward being defensive, vindictive and spiteful. One example is a narcissist who was passed over for a job but still needs to work with the team they do not lead.
  • Maintain a positive outlook. Some narcissists enjoy seeing others suffer. Letting them see your annoyance is likely to increase their efforts to make your life miserable.
  • Don’t let yourself get derailed. Stay focused on your own goals despite a narcissist’s efforts to take center stage and monopolize the direction of your group.
  • Keep your sense of humor. Try using humor to react to a narcissist’s attempt to monopolize group goals rather than using direct confrontation.
  • Recognize that the person may need help. A narcissist whose low self esteem leads them to disruptive behavior may be in need of help to find better ways to improve how they see themselves.

These suggestions appear to be good ones when you are the one in charge. If the narcissist is the one in charge, your chances of using any of them will be quite diminished. Using these approaches when you are in a vulnerable or one-down position is likely to be seen as undermining the power of the narcissist in charge. In such a situation, your options for improving the situation do not look good. Your best bet may be to find a way to remove yourself from the situation.

Maybe you are not ready to flee or are not in a position of being able to afford to do so. Now what? Susan Price has some ideas. Here is one possible scenario: “Your boss is a complete narcissist: he expects you to be at his whim all day, he blames everyone for mistakes except himself, argues and contradicts employees with every small detail, even with things he said himself.” If this sounds familiar, read on. Here are her suggestions for handling the situation:

  • Forget being friends. You will have to sell your soul to be considered a friend by such a person. Remember that narcissists are not capable of making friends in the sense of having mutual respect and caring for each other. Your interests are never a priority.
  • Don’t criticize. Your criticism will never be taken at face value. Anger and rage are to be expected when you criticize a narcissist.
  • Focus on analyzing problems. Sharing your feelings is not likely to get you anywhere. Narcissists are interested only in their own feelings. Instead, concentrate on problems and potential solutions. Then, don’t count on receiving credit for a good idea.
  • Let him or her make decisions. Presenting options works better than suggesting the best option. Then allow him or her to take credit for the plan.
  • Make him or her look and feel good. His or her importance and having it recognized are uppermost in such a person’s mind. Don’t be stingy with praise.
  • Absorb the blame. Narcissists never see themselves at fault. Someone else is always the blame for whatever goes wrong.
  • Set boundaries and keep them. Focus on solutions and temper criticism with praise.
  • Don’t compete. Don’t expect praise for yourself or thanks for doing a good job. A narcissist will always take credit for teaching you to do a good job.

To survive, you need to set aside your own needs and become a cog in the machine operated by a narcissistic boss. Staying afloat is a tricky business and has few rewards. You might be better off finding a more rational and rewarding position. If you decide to stay, don’t expect much for yourself.

You might be wondering whether dealing with a narcissist with power is a lost cause. It is difficult but not impossible. In a social group, you can work with others to reconstitute the group without the offending narcissist. In a corporation, the board of directors, informed by shareholders and workers, has power over any given boss. In government, citizens have the power to elect representatives who have the power to contain if not remove narcissists not in touch with public needs. In all these cases, your job is to start working with others and find a mutual path toward resolving the impasse.


Getting back to you


Anger can be scary or at least uncomfortable to deal with, especially the extreme of narcissistic anger. One good thing is that you do not have to deal with it by yourself and there are always others who can help you manage to deal with it. Going it alone can be very trying. The next post will suggest some ways to keep you from being overcome by your own or others’ anger.