Managing Anger and Building Self-Esteem After Narcissistic Abuse: A Guide to Emotional Healing
After weeks of researching, reading, questioning, and recognizing that someone’s mental illness, dysfunctional thinking, toxicity, or narcissistic traits have negatively affected you, how do you feel?
If you feel angry, then good for you! That’s exactly what I’d expect! You might even feel so overwhelmed with anger that you’re not exactly sure what’s going on with your emotions. You might feel like you’re angry all the time or at everyone. Maybe you’re feeling a bit annoyed, irritated, resentful, or in a bad mood. Those are all forms of anger too.
Feeling angry, annoyed, in a bad mood, or resentful can make you feel bad about yourself. And because unexamined anger can create issues between you and others, it can cause problems in any or all of your relationships. In addition, it can drain your energy and lower your ability to think clearly or make decisions.
So, let’s talk about why you might feel some form of anger after recognizing how someone’s narcissistic traits have negatively impacted you.
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Uncovering Emotional Triggers: How Narcissistic Behavior Impacts Our Anger and Self-Esteem
Whether someone has a few narcissistic characteristics or full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), they mistreat others (intentionally or not.) The resulting hypervigilance, trauma bonds, and cognitive dissonance created during this time also cause emotional triggers.
If you experience a memory or specific event that causes you to feel angry, it’s because your brain hasn’t fully processed a feeling. These types of knee-jerk reactions are called “emotional triggers.” To identify the triggers (aka “buttons,”) we need to examine our feelings and our responses to those 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, and the cause of my anger might not be what I assume it is. Isolating the cause (the “trigger” or “button”) is what this week is all about. It’s a pretty challenging lesson, so hang in there.
In the previous example, if my interpretation of the offending line-cutter is “they think they’re more important than me,” “they think they’re better 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 a specific meaning relating to myself. That meaning may or may not be accurate. The interpretation I’ve given the behavior might trigger feelings in me like: I don’t matter, I’m not important, or I’m not worthy of respect.
It’s the first emotions that I feel (I don’t matter, I’m not important, I don’t deserve respect) that trigger my anger. These first emotions come from our interpretation of the event.
That’s why anger is called a secondary emotion. A first emotion is always felt before the anger, and it activates the anger.
But what if I stopped and gave the benefit of the doubt? What if I changed my interpretation? Maybe the person is stressed, 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 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 come from us and are a choice. The behavior that results is also a choice. Those are big statements, and they’re backed by research. I’ve included some sources at the end of the article.
When we start this process of self-examination, it’s like peeling an onion. We uncover hidden thoughts, beliefs, limitations, and judgments, and there will be surprises along the way. But, everything we find is an insight that allows us to see ourselves and our world from a larger perspective. This is called personal growth.
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. The list of feelings you might experience here is endless and related to how you feel about yourself. So, your response is to feel angry and you might even want to say something mean or hurtful or hurt them physically.
But let’s stop and take a closer look at what just happened. Upon closer inspection, you see that they didn’t actually SAY anything! They DID something, and you got angry. The meaning of their behavior is an interpretation you gave it. It’s coming from you and causing you to feel something. That first “something” (the primary emotion) activated your anger.
Whoa. Can you see it? 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. But it feels to you, through your interpretation, like that’s what they said or implied. So your interpretation determines what you will feel next.
Interpretation happens in your mind, and most of us do not notice when it happens. That’s because it happens unconsciously. But after today, and when you apply conscious awareness, you will see it. So here’s the thing: when you change your interpretation of a past event (memory) or a present event, either way, the primary emotion you feel, and your resulting behavior will 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.,) and that primary emotion triggered you to feel angry, you can stop right there and question whether your interpretation was realistic or not.
MEMORY OR EVENT >> INTERPRETATION & JUDGMENT >> PRIMARY EMOTION >> ANGER
Try to figure out why you gave the memory or event the particular interpretation you gave it. Why not a different one? Asking and answering this question involves taking a bold look at your less-than-perfect character traits and noticing which ones need improving. This is the opposite of blaming. This is knowing yourself on a deeper level; knowing your buttons and why they exist in the first place. It’s about knowing what the buttons are and how to ignore them, turn them off or shut them down for good.
Here are some primary emotions or “buttons” that might trigger anger. Hint: It would be helpful to examine each of these and journal your thoughts and insights about what you discover.
The 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 could cause you to overreact or lash out at others. That’s because losing control, victimization, and fear are all closely related. So if you notice that you’re overreacting or lashing out, look to see if you’re feeling a loss of control, powerless, or victimized.
Feeling afraid and feeling a loss of control are related. Your amygdalae (memory-creating brain structures) save memories, not as stories, but as chunks and fragments of sensory input. Your memories are preserved as bits and pieces of sounds, sights, smells, touches, and tastes. Any fragments connected to fear can trigger anger because of the vital need to regain control of the situation (see above.) This is especially true for those affected by C-PTSD.
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 (if you are) and experiencing a memory. It’s safe to examine this disturbing feeling a little deeper. When you get a clearer picture of what’s going on behind the scenes in your brain, discovering the root cause of the fear will uncover the primary emotion (trigger.) Once you find the trigger, you can understand it more deeply, which will start you moving forward to remove its power in your life.
Frustration is an emotional response to dealing with conditions 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, they may become aggressive. (For example, a difficult task must be finished before a specific time in order to avoid negative consequences, and that time is getting close.)
When we feel frustrated, we also feel a sense of powerlessness because we’re in a situation where we want to do something and can’t. We may feel like we have no available choices or 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 at your limit for what you can handle, which is 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.
TIRED + FRUSTRATION + EMOTIONAL LIMIT + NO COPING TOOLS = FEAR >> 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. Use the HALT method. Ask yourself other questions like: are you 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 change? 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 other healthier ways you can respond to feeling overwhelmed? (Hint: take a nap, go to bed early, eat something if you’re hungry, create a plan, make a spreadsheet, create a list, call someone, move your body; go for a walk, do something physical, talk to someone, read.)
Grief is an overwhelming emotion and 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. This is why it’s called “Narcissism Awareness Grief.” Feelings of loss can be confusing and painful, and often when going through the process of Narcissism Awareness Grief, we feel that loss and maybe acknowledge it for the first time. We aren’t mourning for what we had, we are grieving for what might have been.
For example, 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, 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 someone we love. It’s natural to feel angry when there’s such a tremendous loss.
When you’re angry and unsure 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, do you feel angry when you see your mother engaging with the Golden Child? Do you feel angry when you’re in public and see a happy couple laughing, playing, and enjoying each other? 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. If you’re involved with someone who has narcissistic traits, learn about the stages of Narcissism Awareness Grief. 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
If we don’t know how to validate and affirm ourselves, we look to others to fulfill those needs for us. This is a symptom of codependency. When we don’t feel good about ourselves or have low self-esteem, we look for validation and approval from others (this is called external validation.) And we may go to incredible lengths to please others to get that validation, affirmation, and some semblance of self-worth. Our anger jumps out in defense when we have a weak sense of worth. When someone doesn’t acknowledge or appreciate what we’ve done for them (even if they haven’t asked for our help,) we feel hurt and resentful, and those can trigger our anger.
Codependency ends when we start feeling “good enough” and can approve of and validate ourselves. Validation is critical. 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 when you were focused on caretaking someone else.
Why do you need this person’s approval? Why is this 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 things?
It may be helpful to revisit week five’s lesson: Recognizing and Eliminating Codependent Coping, or read chapters 6 and 17 in Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism.
7. Betrayal hurt
As we progress through Narcissism Awareness Grief, we may feel betrayed. Feeling betrayed is painful and can affect how we think, feel, and believe. At least temporarily.
It’s hard to understand how and why someone could hurt us so deeply. 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 if someone is narcissistic, they honestly cannot behave any differently. Without a desire or motivation to change, they will not change. Unfair as it feels, 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 our boundaries are 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, you will feel angry or resentful. You may not understand why. It’s because you’re not being validated. Here we are, back to validation again. As I mentioned in number 6 above, when we don’t feel good about ourselves or have low self-esteem or have a weak sense of worth, we will look for validation and approval from others. Validation is a basic human need. If someone’s invalidation triggers your anger, look into self-empowerment and ways of developing a stronger sense of self, self-worth, and self-confidence. 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. This is called “emotional regulation.”
Will all of your triggers eventually 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” to uncover an unknown trigger. Sometimes when I notice a trigger being activated, I think, “I’m being triggered right now.” It’s often enough to shut down a potentially ugly scenario and maintain my emotional control. With some 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.
Learn More: Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism
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.
Tools for healing
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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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