Uncovering Emotional Triggers: How Narcissistic Behavior Impacts Our Anger and Self-Esteem
Are you feeling angry after recognizing someone’s toxicity, dysfunction or narcissism and how it might have hurt or negatively affected you?
Do you find your angry feelings so overwhelming that you’re not exactly sure what you’re angry about? Maybe it feels like you’re angry all the time, at just about everyone.
It can be frustrating to feel such a powerful emotion and not understand why it’s so strong, or not be able to control it. It can make you feel bad about yourself and contribute to low self-esteem. Additionally, anger can create issues between you and others; creating problems in your relationships, or draining away your productivity and energy. So, let’s talk about why you might be feeling so angry after recognizing how someone’s toxicity has negatively impacted you.
When you feel angry if a particular event happens or when you recall a certain memory, it’s because your brain hasn’t fully processed the situation before reacting. These are the knee-jerk reactions known as “triggers.” To identify our particular triggers, we need to examine our angry feelings in deeper detail.
What’s going on here?
When we stop and take a closer look, anger can provide us with important information. When you understand what is triggering your anger, you can heal those triggers. When your triggers are healed, you’ll be able to feel angry without overreacting. You’ll be able to feel angry and still be in control of what you say and do. Learning to control anger and its triggers is a step in learning “emotional regulation,” something that you may not have gotten a chance to do as a child.
Anger is actually a secondary emotion. When you get angry, it feels like it’s the first and only emotion you feel, but that’s not what’s really happening. What actually happens is that you feel something else first, before the anger, and THAT emotion is what triggers the anger. In all likelihood, you have a memory or experience of an event, and your mind interprets it so quickly that you don’t even notice it, but you feel something. That “something” triggers the anger.
“Emotions” are feelings that have thoughts connected to them. Understanding this, you will see the importance of your interpretation of that first fleeting feeling (and trigger) that ignites the anger. It’s that first thought, that interpretation, that gives meaning to the event or memory and sparks the anger.
For those of us healing from the effects of someone’s probable or diagnosed narcissism or chronic toxicity, our anger is most likely associated with painful past experiences. If you haven’t dealt with those traumatic experiences, your anger will be triggered more easily. You may feel angry much of the time.
Feeling anger is also a way of protecting ourselves. Have you ever thought of that? Sometimes we use anger to keep others at a distance, so we don’t get hurt again. This can become an internal conflict: we don’t want to feel angry, but we don’t want to be hurt again, either.
In my childhood family of origin, the rules were that it was OK for my mother to openly display anger at whomever she chose, for any reason, but I was not allowed to express anger without risking punishment. If we grew up with a mother who was intolerant of anyone’s anger but her own, then as adults, we have some specific challenges that need to be dealt with. If we were not allowed to express all of our emotions, including anger, because they were judged or punished, we may have learned that anger is bad, frightening, useless, unfair, and should be avoided, denied, or held inside.
When you grow up believing these things about anger and enter adulthood holding these beliefs, you’ll likely behave in ways that demonstrate that you believe your anger is useless or irrelevant (victimhood), or you may not know how to express anger in a healthy manner. You may even feel guilty for having angry feelings. Guilt on top of anger. Great!
These are aspects of “Childhood Emotional Neglect,” which occurs when parents don’t notice, respond to, or validate their child’s feelings, including anger.
Essentially, if we’ve been emotionally neglected, we’ll have no coping mechanisms for dealing with anger, and we may become passive-aggressive. (This means that we’ll act out our anger by doing things that don’t look like they’re done in anger but are the result of feeling angry. Passive aggression includes behaviors like making intentional “mistakes,” procrastinating something that’s important to someone else, disguising criticism as compliments, feeling resentful, sabotaging, ignoring, slamming and banging objects, and saying “nothing’s wrong” when your behavior or body language clearly says there is.
Let’s unpack it
Our reactions are what’s important, not the memory or event itself. A memory or an event doesn’t really have any meaning until we give it one. Think about that.
We give the memory or event a meaning with our interpretation of it. We interpret memories and events so that we know how to think about and deal with them. And while you’re interpreting, you’re also making judgments (whether you’re conscious of it or not) about whether that memory or event is “good,” “bad,” or “neutral.” That decision is based on how you’re emotionally feeling at the time. Here’s an example I use in the book “Lemon Moms”:
Can the weather cause you to feel an emotion? If you’re inside today, cozy and warm, with nothing planned, and it begins to storm, do you feel any emotion about it? What emotion would you feel? Would others feel the same way about it as you do? Why or why not? If you’re getting married today, and it begins to rain, you’ll probably experience some feelings about it that might be different than how you’d usually feel about rain. You might be disappointed, angry, or sad. What else might you feel? Is the rain causing those feelings, or is your interpretation of it causing your feelings? Do you see the difference?
If you’re a farmer anticipating the end of a long, detrimental drought, you’d probably be ecstatically happy about the rain. It would mean that you wouldn’t lose your crops, and you’d have some income to pay your bills, replenish your supplies, and pay your employees.
In each example, the meaning or “interpretation” given to “rain” is very different, and the resulting emotions will align with that meaning.
If I ask ten people about how they feel about it the next time it rains, I’d get ten different answers. That’s important to remember. Our reactions are all about our interpretation and the judgment we give to the initial feeling.
So, why is that?
Our interpretations and judgments have to do with our expectations and our emotional state.
As we know, emotions are not data; they’re not factual. Emotions are driven by chemicals in our bodies called hormones. They are also affected by other variables such as our environment, physical health, age, worldview, self-talk, sleep quality and quantity, stress levels, food choices, beliefs, memories, thoughts, and much more. All of these, and more, can and do affect our emotional state.
If you have a particular memory or an event that causes you to feel angry, you need to unpack that angry reaction step-by-step and look at all of the pieces involved. Right before the anger, what do you feel? Maybe you feel belittled? Humiliated? Shamed? Unimportant? Ignored? Not mattering to someone? Slighted? Insulted? Mocked? Dismissed? There’s a pretty good chance that you feel one of those or something closely related.
Those primary feelings triggered the anger, NOT the memory or the event. NOT what the person said or didn’t say, did, or didn’t do. Yep, you heard that right. The first fleeting, almost imperceptible feeling that you felt (insulted, dismissed, unimportant, etc.) came from your interpretation and judgment of the memory or event and is what triggered your anger.
Let’s say someone just did or said something, and you felt that they were saying (or thinking) that you’re not important, that you don’t matter, that you should be ashamed, that you’re stupid, etc., and you immediately felt angry. But upon closer inspection, you see that they didn’t actually SAY it. That was your interpretation of what they said. The meaning of what was said is coming from you! Can you see that? Your interpretation 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 just feels to you, through your interpretation, like that’s what they said or implied. Do you see how your interpretation can drastically affect what happens next?
This interpretation happens quickly, and you’re probably not aware of it when it happens. That’s because it happens unconsciously. But after today, if you start to apply conscious awareness, you will become more and more aware of it.
You’ll see that the meaning and judgment cause you to feel some primary emotions; shame, feeling unimportant, dismissed, disrespected, mocked, etc. That primary emotion triggers your anger. Once you’re aware of this process, you can stop right there and question whether your interpretation is accurate or not.
Why are you giving the memory or event that particular interpretation? Why not a different one? Look deeper to see what else is happening that could be impacting your perception and judgment.
Primary emotions that may trigger anger
1. Loss of control/powerlessness/feeling like a victim
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 overreacting or lashing out, take a look to see if you’re feeling powerless, victimized, or afraid.
As I mentioned, feeling afraid and feeling a loss of control are related. That’s because the amygdala (a structure in our brains that encodes and stores memories) saves memories, not as stories, but as chunks and fragments of sensory input. So, your memories are saved as bits of sounds, sights, smells, touches, and tastes. For those who have C-PTSD, any of these fragments that are also connected to fear can trigger anger. There is a strong need to regain control of the situation.
Our minds use fear as a method to keep 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 would be 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, you’ll start to uncover the actual trigger. Once you find the trigger, you can begin to understand it better, which will start you moving forward.
I’ve mentioned that frustration can trigger anger, so let’s take a deeper dive into that.
Frustration is the emotional response to having to deal with conditions that are outside of an individual’s 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, they may become aggressive. Often, when we feel frustrated, there is also a sense of powerlessness. That’s 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 on the problem is a helpful thing to do. 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 these triggers.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, stop, and see if you can dig out 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 of your overwhelm 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 our dawning awareness that our mother’s undiagnosed narcissism 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 don’t mourn for what we had. We mourn for what we didn’t have; we mourn for what could have been.
We mourn the loving, caring mother we never had and the innocent, unburdened childhood we never got to experience. We mourn our lost sense of self. We mourn the love and acceptance we never got to experience as daughters, 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 to our mothers. 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? For example, when you see your mother engaging with the Golden Child, do you feel angry? When you see a mother out in public, laughing, playing with, and enjoying her child, do you feel angry? Ask yourself if what you’re experiencing is unresolved grief. 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 don’t feel good about ourselves, if we have low self-esteem or low self-confidence, we look for validation and approval from others. If we don’t know how to validate and affirm ourselves, we look to others to fulfill those needs. When we’re codependent, we may go to incredible lengths to please others, 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 caretaking someone else.
Ask yourself, why do you need this person’s approval? Why is it 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, how we feel, and what we believe. At least temporarily.
It’s hard to understand how and why our mother could hurt us so deeply. These underlying hurt feelings, along with those of disappointment and betrayal, can all trigger anger. Acknowledge these feelings of pain, betrayal, and disappointment. Work on accepting that if your mother is a narcissist, she truly cannot behave any differently without making a conscious change. Without a desire or motivation to change, she will not change. The changes 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 those triggers. You’ll begin feeling a new sense of peace and calm. When someone or something triggers you, you’ll understand what’s happening and be able to deal with it. Sometimes all it takes is awareness of what’s happening “behind the scenes” in your brain. With a little practice, you’ll begin responding to your triggers in a different, healthier way. You’ll begin seeing your anger as a tool that you control rather than as an emotion that controls you.
Any time you feel angry, whether it’s slightly ticked-off, annoyed, or full-blown furious, get in the habit of asking yourself, “Why am I angry right now? What was the primary emotion I felt?” “What interpretation have I given it?” “Why am I giving it that interpretation instead of some other?” It’ll bring you a step closer to learning how to regulate your emotions, and that’s something many of us didn’t get to learn if we grew up in an emotionally neglectful home.
Tools for healing
Conscious awareness: Be aware and make conscious choices before acting. Self-awareness releases us from making impulsive and potentially damaging decisions. Practice mindfulness.
Understand the abuse cycle
Learn about letting go of what you can’t control by using loving-detachment
Learn about expectations
Learn about setting boundaries
Self-care: We can only choose to focus on and be responsible for ourselves, our own thoughts, actions, and behavior. We can take responsibility for getting our needs met, instead of waiting for someone to change or meet our needs for us. We are in control of ourselves and no one is responsible for us but us. We can change ourselves with patience, persistence, and practice.
Learn about codependency and maladaptive coping skills
Take the Adverse Childhood Experiences quiz
Learn about Narcissism Awareness Grief
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About the Author
Drawing from her personal experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional household, Diane Metcalf has developed effective coping and healing strategies. With the assistance of professional therapists and mindful personal growth, she has honed her skills and now happily shares them with others who are interested in learning and growing.
As an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer, Diane is well-versed in topics such as narcissism, family dysfunction, abuse, and recognizing warning signs. Her extensive knowledge is drawn not only from her personal experiences, but also from her work in human service fields, including domestic violence, partner abuse, and court advocacy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Diane’s transformational books on healing and personal growth, such as the highly acclaimed “Lemon Moms” series, offer emotional support and guidance in understanding narcissistic traits and healing past wounds. Her approach emphasizes self-awareness, intention, self-care, and establishing healthy boundaries as essential components in the healing process.
Learn more about the Lemon Moms series: Lemon Moms
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This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.