Photo by Andre Tan
Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.
Being an activist is about getting things done.
It’s not about standing around shaking your fist in anger.
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.