After much reading and researching about narcissism, have you started to recognize that someone’s narcissistic behavior has negatively affected you?
If you feel angry, then good for you! You might feel so overwhelmed with anger that you’re not exactly sure what you’re specifically angry about. You might feel like you’re angry all the time, at just about everyone. Or maybe you’re just feeling annoyed, irritated, resentful, or in a bad mood. Those are forms of anger too.
Feeling annoyed, in a bad mood, or resentful can make you feel bad about yourself and lower your self-esteem.
Unexamined anger can create issues between you and others, or cause problems in your relationships, drain your energy, and lower your ability to think clearly and make decisions.
So, let’s talk about why you might feel some form of anger after recognizing how someone else’s narcissistic behavior has negatively impacted you.
Narcissists, whether they have a few narcissistic behaviors, or full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD,) mistreat others. The hypervigilance, trauma bonds, and cognitive dissonance created during this wounding also create emotional triggers.
If you have a memory, or when a certain event happens, and you immediately feel angry, it’s because your brain hasn’t fully processed it before reacting. These types of knee-jerk reactions are your “emotional triggers.”
To identify our emotional triggers, (aka “buttons“) we need to examine our feelings and our reactions to these feelings in deeper detail.
If I’m in line to buy something and someone cuts in front of me, I might immediately feel angry and lash out at that person. Why would I do that? Well, it’s about how I interpret what’s going on, but the cause of the anger might not be what I assume it is. Isolating the cause (the “trigger” or “button”) is what this article is all about.
This first step is not about judging yourself. It is about gaining awareness. It’s about getting to know your mind and catching what it’s doing without your permission. Noticing when unconscious programming takes over is a necessary step if you want to discover your triggers.
So, how can we discover and take control of our emotional triggers/buttons?
In the previous example, if my interpretation of the offending line-cutter is “they think they’re more important than me” or “they think they don’t have to wait like the rest of us,” or “what an entitled so-and-so! How disrespectful!” then I’ve given the line cutting behavior a specific meaning which relates to myself, and it may or may not be an accurate interpretation. The interpretation I’ve given the behavior might trigger feelings like: I don’t matter, I’m not important, or I’m not respected. It’s these first emotions that I feel(I don’t matter, I’m not important, I’m being disrespected) that trigger my anger.
But what if I stopped and gave the benefit of the doubt? What if I changed my interpretation? Maybe the person is stressed and in a hurry and didn’t notice the line? (I’ve done this myself.) What if they’re asking a quick question and don’t actually require service? (Not a nice thing to do, but still understandable and totally unrelated to me personally.) There are many other interpretations or reasons for someone’s behavior besides the limited ones that we can think of.
Let’s go deeper
Did you know that no one can “make” you feel angry? No one can “make” you feel anything, really. Our feelings are a choice. The behavior that results is also a choice. Those are big statements, and they’re backed by research. I’ve included the citations at the end of the article.
When you start this process of self-examination, it’s like peeling an onion. You’ll uncover hidden thoughts, beliefs, limitations, and judgments, and there will be surprises along the way. Everything that you uncover is an insight that will allow you to see yourself, and your world, from a larger perspective. This is called personal growth.
Example of a trigger
Let’s say someone does something, and the first thing that pops into your mind is that they think you’re not important! That you don’t matter! That you should be ashamed! Or that you’re stupid, don’t belong, or that they don’t like you. You immediately feel angry and want to say something mean or hurtful, or maybe you want to physically hurt them.
But let’s stop and take a closer look at what just took place. Upon closer inspection, you see that they didn’t actually SAY anything. The meaning for their behavior is coming from you and it’s causing you to feel an emotion! That first (primary) emotion is what’s causing your anger.
Whoa. Can you see that? Your interpretation of what they did may be correct or incorrect. The person has not actually said that you’re not important, that you don’t matter, that you should be ashamed, that you’re stupid, etc. It feels to you, through your interpretation, like that’s what they said or implied. Your interpretation determines what you will feel next. Do you see how your interpretation can drastically affect what you feel and what happens next?
Interpretation happens in your mind, and most of us, when we haven’t yet become aware, do not notice when it happens. That’s because it happens unconsciously. But after today, and when you start to apply conscious awareness, you will become aware of it. And when you change your interpretation of a memory or a present event, your primary emotion(s)and your resulting behavior also change. But what does that mean for you?
After you acknowledge that you’ve interpreted a memory (or a present event,) and that the meaning caused you to feel a primary emotion (shame, dismissed, unimportant, disrespected, mocked, etc.,) that triggered anger, you can stop right there and question whether your interpretation was accurate or not.
Try to find out why you gave the memory or event that particular interpretation. Why not a different one? Asking and answering this question involves taking a fearless look at our less-than-perfect character traits and noticing which ones need improving. This is the opposite of blaming. This is knowing ourselves on a deeper level; knowing our buttons and why they exist in the first place. It’s about not only knowing what the buttons are but how to turn them off and shut them down for good.
Here are some primary emotions, or “buttons” that might trigger anger when pushed. Hint: It would be helpful to examine each one of these and journal your thoughts and insights about what you discover.
Primary emotional buttons that trigger anger:
1. Loss of control, powerlessness, victimization
If feelings of victimhood or loss of control are the primary emotion, you’ll be triggered to feel anger because you want to regain control over what’s happening, or what’s perceived to be happening. (Remember, a lot of this is your own interpretation.) These feelings, in particular, could cause you to overreact or lash out at others who triggered them. That’s because the loss of control, victimization, and fear are closely related. If you notice that you’re over-reacting or lashing out, take a look to see if you’re feeling powerless, victimized, or afraid.
Feeling afraid and feeling a loss of control are related, because the amygdala (a memory-creating brain structure) saves memories, not as stories, but as chunks and fragments of sensory input. Your memories are saved as bits and chunks of sounds, sights, smells, touches, and tastes. For those who have C-PTSD, any of these fragments that are also connected to fear can also trigger anger because of the strong need to regain control of the situation. (See number1.)
Our minds use fear as a method of keeping us safe. Even though fear is uncomfortable, it is a natural response, not a sign of weakness. When a memory causes you to re-experience feelings of fear, it’s OK to remind yourself that you’re in a safe place and that you’re experiencing a memory. It’s safe to examine this disturbing feeling a little deeper. When you begin to get a clearer picture of what’s really going on behind the scenes in your brain, by discovering the root cause of the fear, you’ll start to uncover the actual primary emotion trigger. Once you find the trigger, you can begin to understand it better, which will start you moving forward to remove its power in your life.
Frustration is an emotional response to dealing with conditions that are outside of our realm of control. Being blocked from the desired outcome, or being challenged by a difficult task, are examples of events that can cause frustration. When someone feels frustrated, and it’s combined with fear, (for example, there is a difficult task that must be completed before a certain date to avoid negative consequences, and that date is drawing near) they may become aggressive. Often, when we feel frustrated, there is also a sense of powerlessness because you’re in a situation where you want to do something and you can’t. You feel like you have no available choices, or you don’t know what those choices are.
Focusing on a solution, rather than the problem, is always helpful. If you’re feeling frustrated about something, here are some questions to ask yourself that could change your perspective, and uncover a solution-
- What is it that I’m trying to achieve?
- Am I feeling blocked in the way I’m going about getting it?
- What are some other ways I can get it? Think of at least two.
- What steps can I take right now?
- Do I need to start working on accepting that I can’t change this situation?
- Do I need to change my goal, rather than give it up?
- Am I allowing fear to control my responses? How can I change that?
4. Feeling tired or overwhelmed
Feeling worn-out or exhausted impacts our ability to cope with challenging situations. When we’re tired, our minds can’t work at full capacity, and we may find ourselves misperceiving, misunderstanding, or making poor decisions. When we need rest, our patience and emotional resilience are low. You may feel like you’re at your limit for what you can handle, and that’s also connected to feeling frustrated. When you’re at your limit, feeling like you have no more ability to cope can feel scary and may cause you to feel afraid. Being pushed over that limit can trigger anger.
Are you beginning to see how fear keeps coming up in these scenarios? Fear is connected to many of our triggers.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, stop and see if you can find the cause. Are you tired? Under more stress than usual? Are you in pain? Have you experienced a loss? Have your responsibilities increased? Have you lost a support system? Had a financial loss? What else has changed in your life recently?
Break the cause into smaller chunks and see where it becomes unmanageable. Do you need to ask for help with this unmanageable piece?
What are some healthy ways that you can start to respond to feeling overwhelmed? (Hint: take a nap, go to bed early, eat something if you’re hungry, call someone, move your body; go for a walk, do something physical, talk to someone, read.)
Grief is an overwhelming emotion, and it’s one of the hardest to deal with. Part of the dawning awareness that someone’s narcissistic behavior has negatively affected us, is noticing a strong feeling of loss. Feelings of loss can be confusing and painful, and often when going through the process of Narcissism Awareness Grief, we feel that sense of loss. We aren’t mourning for what we had. We are mourning for what we didn’t have; we are mourning for what could have been.
We mourn our lost sense of self. We mourn the love and acceptance we never got to experience, especially if we’re an invisible or scapegoat child. We grieve our lost sense of security because we were gaslighted. We mourn all the lost time, the time spent believing lies and engaging in people-pleasing. We mourn the loss of a soul connection. It’s natural to feel angry when there’s such a huge amount of loss.
When you’re angry, and you’re not sure why, ask yourself if grief could be the cause. Does the current situation remind you of something you’ve lost, could have had, or desired? If your anger is indeed grief-related, that’s an indication that you need to start working through the grief. Learn about the stages of grief and Narcissism Awareness Grief in particular. Get into a support group or find a therapist. Please don’t let being stuck in grief rob you of a happier future.
6. Codependent coping
When we’re codependent, we likely don’t know how to validate and affirm ourselves, and we look to others to fulfill those needs. When we don’t feel good about ourselves, have low self-esteem or have low self-confidence, we look for validation and approval from others. And we may go to incredible lengths to please others in order to get that validation, affirmation, and some semblance of self-worth. When we have a weak sense of worth, our anger jumps out in defense. When someone doesn’t acknowledge or appreciate what we’ve done for them (even if they didn’t ask for our help), we feel hurt and resentful, and those can trigger anger.
Codependency ends when we start feeling “good enough” and can approve and validate ourselves. Validation is incredibly important. Once you’re able to validate yourself, you‘ll be less likely to seek out others to do it for you. You won’t need to step in and do things for others when they haven’t asked you to. You’ll begin to know yourself more deeply than you did when you were focused on care-taking someone else.
Why do you need this person’s approval? Why is the approval so important to you? What will their approval change about you? What will happen if you don’t get it? If you don’t get it, would that change anything, really? What beliefs about yourself would it change? Is their approval the only thing that will cause this change? What can you do to start feeling better about yourself regardless of how they respond to you? What else might improve your self-esteem? What might increase your self-confidence? When will you start doing those?
7. Betrayal hurt
When we go through Narcissism Awareness Grief, we often feel betrayed. Betrayal hurts our hearts and can affect how we think and feel, and what we believe. At least temporarily.
It’s hard to understand how and why someone could hurt us so deeply. These underlying hurt feelings, along with those of disappointment and betrayal can all trigger anger. Acknowledge the feelings of pain, betrayal, and disappointment. Work on accepting that the narcissist in your life truly cannot behave any differently. Without a desire or motivation to change, there will be no change. The changes in how you feel must come from you.
8. Weak boundaries
If we have weak boundaries or don’t enforce the boundaries we have, the more likely we are to react in anger when they’re challenged or violated.
You are worthy of love and respect simply because you exist. If you’re in a situation where you’re treated unlovingly or disrespectfully, that may cause you to feel angry or resentful. You may not understand why you feel that way. You feel that way because that person is not validating you. Being validated is a basic human need. If someone’s invalidation triggers your anger, you may want to look into self-empowerment and ways of developing a stronger sense of self-worth. When you value yourself and can validate yourself, it’s less likely that another’s lack of validation will trigger you.
By taking the time to understand where your anger comes from, you’ll learn a lot about yourself and begin to heal your triggers. You’ll begin feeling a new sense of peace and calm. When someone or something triggers you, you’ll consciously understand what’s happening and be able to deal with it accordingly. You’ll feel in control of your feelings instead of like your feelings are controlling you.
Will all of your triggers ever be healed? Probably not. I say this because you’re alive, having new experiences, and developing new triggers throughout life. Discovering and healing triggers is a life-long process. It’s just part of good self-care.
Sometimes all it takes is awareness of what’s happening “behind the scenes” in your brain to uncover an unknown trigger. Sometimes when I notice a trigger being activated I say to myself, “I’m being triggered right now,” and it’s often enough to shut down a potentially ugly scenario and maintain my emotional control. With a little practice, you’ll begin noticing your triggers and responding to them in a different, healthier way. You’ll begin seeing your anger as a tool for deeper self-understanding.
Beck, A.T. (2008). The evolution of the cognitive model of depression and its neurobiological correlates. American Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 969-977.
Gross J.J (2014). Handbook of Emotion Regulation. 2nd ed. New York: Guilford Press.
Metcalf, D. (2020) Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism
Plassmann, H., O’Doherty, J., Shiv, B., & Rangel, A. (2008). Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA),105(3), 1050–1054.
Solomon, R.C. (2007). True to our feelings: What our emotions are really telling us. New York: Oxford University Press.
More tools for healing:
Learn about dysfunctional family roles
Learn about codependency
Learn coping skills for the holidays and family visits
Learn why what you tell yourself matters
Learn why verbal abuse hurts us
Learn how to protect yourself with boundaries
Learn about the narcissistic abuse cycle
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About the Author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, author Diane Metcalf developed strong coping skills and healing strategies. She happily shares those with others who want to learn and grow.
Diane is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on family dysfunction, and narcissism. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology. She has worked in numerous human service fields, including domestic violence and partner abuse.
She has authored four transformational books about healing and moving forward, including the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series. This emotionally supportive collection explains maternal narcissistic traits and teaches how to reconcile past hurts to begin self-nurturing, healing and moving forward.
The Lemon Moms series, as well as her other books and articles, are an aggregation of education, insight, and personal growth resulting from childhood experiences and her subsequent recovery work.
She writes about strategies for recovering and moving on from hurtful people and painful, dysfunctional, or toxic relationships on The Toolbox blog.
See what’s happening on her author’s site: DianeMetcalf.com
Learn about the Lemon Moms series: Lemon Moms
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.