Have you ever witnessed someone’s narcissistic rage? Speaking from experience, I’m guessing that it’s something you will not easily forget.
In my book Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism, I talk about the fact that narcissists are opinionated, argumentative, and defensive, and have no problem confronting, criticizing, shaming, or mocking anyone who challenges or disagrees with them.
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You see, narcissists don’t entertain differences of opinion or perspectives. Instead, they gain (or re-gain) control of a conversation or a situation by gaslighting, humiliating, insulting, and discrediting others, or by having a type of emotional meltdown known as a narcissistic rage. Narcissistic rages happen when we do anything that causes a narcissistic injury or wound; anything perceived as a threat to their self-importance, dominance, or ‘false face.’
Narcissistic anger is similar to an adult temper tantrum, except that it can be dangerous for us to witness, or worse, become the target. These highly emotional episodes are meant to unbalance, scare, intimidate and unnerve us. They are used as threatening displays of power and control. They consist of unexpected and uncontrollable outrage triggered by some type of narcissistic injury or wounding. For example, if a narcissist’s self-esteem or self-worth has been hurt, rage will probably ensue.
When a narcissist is caught up in this type of outburst, they are unreasonable and unforgiving. Their main objective at this point is to hurt and take revenge. They want to seriously punish the “offender,” even if it means losing a relationship or irrevocably damaging one. They want to “win” at any cost. They won’t feel regret, remorse, or any need to apologize for their volatile, hurtful, damaging, embarrassing, and attention-seeking eruption. (See How to Recognize a Narcissist.)
Narcissistic rages are fear-based and can persist even after the perceived threat is gone. Often, these rages are not warranted, and a narcissist will hang onto the memory of our perceived transgression for weeks and months at a time. They will continue exacting revenge and punishing. When are they done? When they decide to be done. Those on the narcissism spectrum can be champion grudge holders. Holding grudges vindicates their hurtful behavior. Grudges give them a reason to feel victimized. A narcissist will bring up your “wrongdoings” as frequently as they can while playing the injured “poor me” to get sympathy and narcissistic supply. The message is that they didn’t hurt you. YOU hurt them!
Why They Rage
“Slamming and banging” is a type of narcissistic rage and a scenario I regularly experienced while growing up. When my mother was angry, she wouldn’t (couldn’t?) express her feelings. Instead, she would slam and bang things—usually cupboard doors, pots, pans, shoes, car doors, and room doors, but really it could be any object within reach. This was how she demonstrated feelings of annoyance, disappointment, irritation, or frustration. She didn’t use words to express these feelings, and on the rare occasion that she did, they were shouted, hurtful, and inappropriate.
When I was a child, too naive to appreciate the danger of doing so, I asked, “Is something wrong, Mommy?” and she routinely and furiously shouted “No!” -a confusing mixed message. Clearly, something was very wrong, and even a child could see it. If I worriedly kept pressing, (wanting her to re-gain emotional control, and wanting to feel safe myself,) I paid the price by being shouted at, called hurtful names, humiliated, shamed, or punished. It was not good to ask questions during the rages, even as an act of kindness or concern. Her rages were some of the most traumatizing events of my childhood
As I matured, my question changed from “Is something wrong?” to “What is wrong?” I’d slowly become aware that something was very amiss at home, and I refused to continue playing “let’s pretend” everything’s fine. I could clearly see that something was upsetting her, and I called it out. Of course, the results were the same as before. Here’s the thing: when you live with a dysfunctional person, you understand that “reality” is never “real” because everyone involved is playing a form of “let’s pretend.” You play let’s pretend to keep them calm, and so that you can feel safe. But everyone involved is pretending something different.
Passive Aggressive Rage
Sometimes narcissistic rages don’t actually look like rages. These are the passive-aggressive kinds of rage, meaning that they feel aggressive even though they appear docile. They involve sulking, giving backhanded compliments, procrastinating, making sarcastic remarks, withdrawing, sabotaging and undermining, and even include “the silent treatment.” These passive-aggressive behaviors are subtle and discreet, but they’re narcissistic rages nonetheless. My narcissist vacillated between loud, intimidating, furious outbursts and using passive aggression. At times she shouted; hurling obscenities so loudly and fiercely that she turned purple, her eyes bulged, and spittle flew. It was terrifying to see her like that, not only because she looked horrifically ugly, but because she was emotionally out of control. It’s scary and traumatizing to witness the parent you depend on losing self-control. At times like these, I never knew what to expect, so I was on high alert and prepared for pretty much anything; I might be backhanded across the face or hauled into a bedroom and left, or ignored for hours. I might be called names that shredded my developing self-worth and crushed my spirit. I might be struck with an object, deprived of meals or activities, or threatened with having bones broken, or being murdered or abandoned. Or she could simply and completely withdraw from my life, not speaking to me for as long as she felt necessary. When she was passive-aggressive she often made sarcastic, hurtful comments in a sweet, caring, and kind voice. Talk about crazy-making environments!
What Triggers a Rage?
More than four decades after their divorce, my mother routinely called the Social Security Administration to confirm that her ex-husband, my father, was still alive. She was motivated by a firm determination to receive survivor benefits when he passed.
One morning, she made the usual call and discovered that my father had passed six months prior. She called me at work to tell me that my father was dead, and she was livid that no one had contacted her. She was outraged that she’d missed out on several months of financial benefits, and was extremely distraught. She wanted me to come to her home when my workday was finished.
When I got there, she wanted me to drive her to the post office. She’d written a letter to my father’s widow, his wife of more than forty years, and intended to send it by certified mail. She knew their address because she’d stalked them for years. When I warily asked about the letter’s contents, I learned that it was a hurtful, scathing chastisement for not personally informing my mother, or his children, of my father’s death.
I didn’t take her to the post office, and I don’t know if the letter was ever sent.
So, what caused this tumultuous disturbance? This day-long narcissistic rage was triggered by the enormous sense of injustice and entitlement that my mother felt. She had been “wronged”; she had been slighted. She had been overlooked as the first wife. She had been temporarily denied her rightful financial due. All of those were narcissistic injuries.
Within hours, she busily began informing family, friends, and neighbors that she’d become a “widow,” readily accepting condolences and sympathy. The rage had passed; she was a victim again.
Narcissistic injuries that may trigger rage in a narcissist:
- Someone criticized them.
- They were not the center of attention.
- They were embarrassed.
- They were confronted.
- Someone pointed out a character flaw.
- Someone noticed that they’d made an error.
- They were caught lying, cheating, stealing, or breaking a rule of acceptable behavior.
- They felt like they were losing control.
- Their authority was challenged or threatened.
- Someone made a decision without their input.
- Someone took the initiative without their permission.
- Someone was appreciated (or more highly regarded) than they.
- Someone didn’t take their advice.
- They were asked to be accountable for their actions.
- They did not get the special treatment they thought they deserved.
- They were reminded of their inadequacy.
- They were shamed.
The Consequences of Rage
It’s interesting to know that narcissists may pay a heavy price for their rages.
In “Understanding Narcissism’s Destructive Impact on Relationships,” Preston Ni (2018), talks about the consequences a narcissist may suffer as a result of ongoing, vindictive, narcissistic anger. Some of these include:
- Family Estrangement: Research shows that narcissistic rages hurt family relationships.
- Lost romantic relationships and divorce: Research shows that rages hurt romantic relationships and marriages.
- Isolation: Narcissists use people for personal gain. Eventually, acquaintances, family, and friends recognize this and distance themselves or go “no contact.”
- Loneliness: Narcissists have few healthy or lasting relationships.
- Missed Opportunities: Because of the lack of personal connection, opportunities may disappear or don’t appear in the first place.
- Legal, Financial, or Career issues: Rule-breaking, irresponsibility, and carelessness are found to have legal and financial repercussions.
- Damaged Reputation: A lack of personal or professional integrity, trustworthiness, or dependability can negatively impact others’ perceptions.
How to Handle a Narcissistic Rage
There are several actions you can take beforehand to protect yourself from a narcissist’s rage:
- Set and enforce boundaries
- Limit the amount of contact you have with the narcissist
- Don’t engage. Walk away
- Use the Gray Rock technique
- Use the communication strategies outlined in the “Talking with Your Mother” chapter, book 1, Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism
- Talk to a mental health professional or therapist
Understand that narcissistic rage has nothing to do with you. Narcissism is a mental illness and a spectrum disorder caused by events that you did not influence. You didn’t cause the narcissism, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it. You can ONLY control how you respond to it.
Could you be feeling the effects of Narcissism Awareness Grief? Download the free chapter to find out:
from Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism
Tools for Healing
Understand the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
Learn about Narcissism Awareness Grief
Learn to set boundaries
Learn about dysfunctional family roles
Find out what trauma does to your brain
Learn about codependency and other maladaptive coping skills
Understand Cognitive Dissonance
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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, Diane Metcalf developed strong coping and healing strategies. She happily shares those with those who want to learn and grow in their own recovery journies.
Diane is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on narcissism, family dysfunction, and abuse. She draws from her personal childhood experiences, as well as her work in human service fields like domestic violence and partner abuse. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Her transformational books about healing and moving forward include the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series. This emotionally supportive collection explains narcissistic traits and teaches how to reconcile past hurts to begin self-nurturing, healing, and moving forward.
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Learn about the Lemon Moms series: Lemon Moms
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.