Narcissistic rage is an explosive outburst designed to distract you from the current conversation or activity. It also happens when a narcissist feels triggered, which is something called narcissistic injury. If you’ve ever been exposed to narcissistic rage, it can be very upsetting. It turns the person you thought you knew into a raging maniac. It’s the result of an exaggerated sense of self-importance coupled with a fragile self-esteem.
There are numerous triggers of narcissistic rage, including both things you say and things you do. Here are 7 common categories of triggers of narcissistic rage:
- Not Getting What They Want
- Feeling Criticized
- No One’s Paying Attention to Them
- They Get Caught
- You Hold Them Accountable
- Narcissistic Injury
- The Narcissist Feels Out of Control
Let’s take a look at these 7 trigger categories for narcissistic rage, and then I’ll discuss some examples of triggers of narcissistic rage and how it looks, as well as effective strategies you can use for responding to a narcissist’s temper tantrum.
7 Important Triggers of Narcissistic Rage You Need to Know
What triggers a narcissist’s rage can sometimes be something you would never have thought about. You might not have been thinking anything critical at all about them when you say or do something that sparks an explosive outburst. It leaves you shocked, which is really the purpose behind it. To give you an idea about the kinds of things that trigger the narcissist, here are 7 triggers you’ll want to know about.
1. Not Getting What They Want
Narcissistic rage is the go-to response of the narcissist when they don’t get exactly what they want. It doesn’t matter if their expectations are unrealistic; if they are not met, they will often explode in a fit of rage.
Narcissists are known for the unreasonably high expectations of people and circumstances. I remember my mother telling my father that people would “have to” do something or say something. My father would respond by saying that they don’t have to do that, and there had been many examples of people simply not doing what my mother expected.
Yet, regardless of how many times someone had not met her expectations, myself included, she continued to have those unrealistic ideas. It’s not a matter of having high standards for the narcissist.
They expect things that are simply not possible, and when they don’t get them, it triggers them. They have told themselves and everyone else that they are special and superior, and when they don’t get their way, that threatens to undermine that image they have of themselves. That stimulates an extreme fear response, and the rage comes pouring out.
2. Feeling Criticized
When healthy people feel criticized, they will employ healthy coping strategies to examine the situation, make changes as necessary, and internally soothe and boost their self-esteem. The narcissist, however, isn’t able to internally soothe themselves or boost their own self-esteem.
When they buried their true sense of self as a child, the narcissist needed to create something they could use to interact with the world around them. They constructed a false self-image and infused it with grandiose ideas of superiority, omniscience, and omnipotence. That sounds great, except that the narcissist has no internal identity that can support those ideas and prop up their self-esteem.
That’s why they need other people to boost their self-esteem for them. When they feel criticized, they are filled with a familiar sense of shame. It’s the same shame and self-loathing that led them to bury their true sense of self in the first place.
Moreover, the criticism threatens to expose the truth about them; that they aren’t the superior, omniscient, or omnipotent person they have tried so hard to believe they are. The threat of that exposure is more than the narcissist can bear. They fear an emotional collapse, and in fact, that can happen. It’s called a narcissistic collapse, and it involves a complete mental breakdown.
This is why they respond very forcefully to criticism; even the slightest and most gentle critique will send them into a mad rage. It’s a forceful explosion designed to protect their fragile false sense of self. It’s often irrational and uncontrollable.
3. No One’s Paying Attention to Them
Narcissists need to stay in the spotlight to maintain that flow of narcissistic supply that props up their self-esteem. It’s what they use to support their grandiose ideals they’ve infused into their false sense of self.
Even covert narcissists work, albeit more subtly, to stay in the limelight at all times. They want people to recognize them even if they aren’t openly bragging about their good deeds. They expect that people will notice their contribution.
With grandiose narcissists, they take obvious steps to keep everyone looking at them. Even if it means making a fool out of themselves, they will do whatever it takes to keep everyone looking at them.
What’s more, they want everyone to be complimenting them and showing them the love. If people aren’t looking at them, or worse yet, if they’re criticizing what they’ve done, it’s a strong trigger for that narcissistic rage.
When in the grips of their rage, a narcissist can be very unpredictable and even dangerous. They don’t think in rational terms as a healthy person would. Instead, they will do things that someone with a healthy self-esteem would never think of doing. It makes no sense to you, but in the narcissist’s mind, this will get them what they need and crave – attention.
4. They Get Caught
When a narcissist gets caught doing or saying something wrong, it also triggers their rage. Initially, they may respond with lies and denial, but if you have incontrovertible proof that they did or said something wrong, they will fly into a rage.
This happens for two reasons: first, they want to distract you from the error they have made, and second, they fear the exposure of their flawed true sense of self. That’s a combination that makes their rage more intense.
Even if they truly believe they didn’t do anything wrong – or rather, they’ve convinced themselves they did no wrong – they will still fly into a rage. They cannot afford to let you or anyone else criticize them and show the world that they are not the superior being they have always claimed to be.
It’s a way of getting you to look away from the mistake or to regret ever pointing out their error. It can often be very effective since most people don’t want to stir the pot, as it were. Once the narcissist knows it’s an effective technique, which they learn very early on in life, they will use their rage again and again to distract and deny.
It’s also true that many people will see their very strong emotional reaction and immediately think that they must truly believe what they are saying. That can cause them to support the narcissist instead of their accuser. It can create a lose-lose situation for you if you’re the one pointing out their mistake.
5. You Hold Them Accountable
When you’ve finally had enough of their antics and hold a narcissist accountable for their actions, they will fly into a rage to make you back off and distract from your accusations. It’s much like a child throwing a temper tantrum, and in fact, the mentality that learned this tactic was that of a child.
When you think of how a child responds when they are held accountable for their actions, you’re seeing much the same thing with the narcissist’s rage as an adult. What’s happened is that a part of their brain, their amygdala, has stimulated an exaggerated response to their perceived threat.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that scientists have discovered is responsible for regulating both our perceptions of aggression and fear and our responses as well. It stimulates the body’s fight or flight system to gear you up for either fighting off a threat or running away from it.
The amygdala also helps you learn from those situations where you were afraid. It helps you remember the details of any situation where you were afraid so that you can avoid that problem in the future. While that’s great if you have to worry about being eaten by a lion on a daily basis as our ancestors did, in our modern world, it can create problems with inappropriately aggressive responses to perceived threats.
For the narcissist, who has an unhealthy sense of identity and little control over their aggressive tendencies because of a less active prefrontal cortex, when the amygdala is stimulated by a perceived threat, the response is often exaggerated in the extreme. In fact, murderers and death row inmates have been found to have a less active cerebral cortex which leads to a failure or inability to regulate their emotions.
6. Narcissistic Injury
When a narcissist’s fragile false self-image is threatened, this creates a narcissistic injury. When their self-esteem or self-worth is threatened, they fear the exposure of what they consider to be their worthless true self. That causes significant emotional distress.
It is related to their original emotional abuse that created their narcissistic personality disorder in childhood. This usually stems from emotionally or abusive parents who told the child they were worthless. It can also result from overly protective parents who unwittingly send the same message by preventing the child from trying and failing.
The child never learns that they can do things for themselves, and they never learn how to soothe themselves when they fail. In both of these cases, the child experiences the original narcissistic injury where they are filled with self-loathing and shame.
As an adult, when they feel threatened, it recreates that original narcissistic injury, and they react with an exaggerated emotional response. What threatens them is anything that highlights their inadequacies and displays their delusions of grandeur.
7. The Narcissist Feels Out of Control
Another situation that stimulates narcissistic rage is when the narcissist feels they are not in control of the people and circumstances around them. For the narcissist to get the narcissistic supply of adoration they need on an almost constant basis, they need to feel as though they are in control of everything and everyone around them.
Narcissists use manipulation in numerous ways to control the people in their life. They lie, gaslight, and triangulate, among other manipulative techniques, to stay in the spotlight and make people believe they are superior.
They will take credit for other people’s work and good deeds, they will play both ends against the middle to create drama in their family and at work, and they will lie about their abilities and accomplishments. The end goal is to have everyone thinking all the grandiose things they have told themselves for so long.
Because they have no internal mechanisms to soothe themselves and boost their own self-esteem, they need an almost constant supply of adoration. They can’t go for very long with their narcissistic supply, and when things spin out of their control, that’s a direct threat to the supply line.
When they finally realize that they can’t control what’s going on around them, their only play left is that of narcissistic rage. To bring everything to a standstill and try to regain control, their rageful response is often incredibly intense. They must seize the spotlight and get everything back under their control.
Though you might think the response to their rage will be negative, they aren’t thinking rationally at that point. It’s a fear response, plain and simple.
What does Narcissistic Rage Look Like?
Narcissistic rage can take several different forms. It can come in the form of a stunning display of intense rage, complete with yelling and screaming. In this form, it looks very much like a child’s out-of-control temper tantrum.
But full-blown rage is not the only form of narcissistic rage. It can also take the form of passive-aggressive actions of indirect vengeance. Additionally, you might also experience selective silence.
Even in the silent form of the narcissist’s rage, you are often stunned by the difference in their personality. They often display this rage after they’ve charmed you into believing they are an amazing person. Most people who meet a narcissist find them to be incredibly charming, and for those who remain casual acquaintances, they only see the good side.
But in the privacy of your home, you experience their personality disorder in all its dysfunction. You see their rage, and because it’s such a stark contrast to their charming side, it is painful to experience.
Like anything else, narcissistic rage exists on a continuum. At one end of that spectrum, the narcissist may be very withdrawn. They expect their absence to convey their rage to the people around them. They may even disappear for days at a time.
On the other end of the spectrum are the explosive outbursts. This can also involve physical abuse. Of course, it’s possible for someone to have an outburst of rage even though they don’t have a personality disorder. It’s a pattern of behavior for the narcissist, however, and the first time won’t be the last time you’ll see this kind of outburst.
What are Some Examples of Triggers of Narcissistic Rage?
There are several things you might say or do to trigger narcissistic rage. This is certainly not a comprehensive list of triggers. Narcissists think in a convoluted way that makes it impossible to predict what might trigger their rage, but in general, the following are examples of some things you might say or do that act as triggers.
Compliment Someone Else
For the narcissist, if you give a compliment to someone else, it’s a criticism against the narcissist. First, that’s how they perceive it in their mind, but also, your compliment takes the spotlight off of the narcissist.
This is even more true if you say in comparison to the narcissist’s ability. Narcissists are extremely jealous people because of their underlying insecurity. That’s what bothers them if you give someone else a compliment.
Even if the way you do it is subtle and benign with no criticism intended, the narcissist will twist it around in their mind until they perceive it as a direct insult. As already mentioned, they think of themselves as superior, and anything or anyone that threatens them is a target for their rage.
Criticize Something They Chose
Let’s imagine your narcissistic partner chose a restaurant for both of you to try. It turns out that you don’t like the food so much, so you say, “You usually pick restaurants that I love, but I really didn’t care for this one. It just isn’t the kind of food I like.” The narcissist will perceive a statement like this as a criticism of their ability or knowledge. Even if you don’t talk about how something was their choice, they will make that connection.
What’s more, it doesn’t even have to be that direct of a criticism. If a narcissist likes something and you don’t, they can perceive that as a criticism of their taste or talent. They typically will become very defensive after a statement like this, and from there, the situation escalates very quickly.
You may not even realize you’ve just said something they will take as offensive, and in fact, most victims are blindsided by the sudden anger or sullen withdrawal they experience. It can be difficult to even trace the problem back to such an innocent statement of your own personal taste.
In the narcissist’s mind, however, you’ve just told them that they are completely inept and tasteless. Remember, their rage is not rational, and you can’t combat it with logic.
Expressing a Need
As far as a narcissist is concerned, you are nothing more than an extension of them, a part of their own identity. Your job is to focus on them and prop up their self-esteem. If you express a need of your own, it can easily trigger the narcissist’s rage.
They will likely respond by telling you that you’re always just thinking about yourself. You’re selfish, and if you really cared about them, you’d ignore anything you might need and focus on what they need.
Narcissists don’t have any empathy for anything you’re going through, and so they don’t understand any need you might have. They can only see the needs they have, and if you’re focused on something else, you’re just selfish.
The only time they might show that they care about your needs is if it benefits them in some way. If they are trying to impress someone else, for example, or if they will derive some benefit from you getting what you need.
Call Them Out
If you ever make the mistake of calling out a narcissist on their victim act, you’ll likely come to regret it. It’s easy to say something like, “Wow, aren’t you always the victim” because that’s how they act, but if you do, you will never hear the end of it. They will waste no time in telling you about how bad they have had it and how nothing you’ve experienced could ever compare.
They will make it seem as though no one has ever had it as bad as they have. I remember a narcissistic boyfriend I once had who would always default to the poverty he experienced in his own childhood. He would tell me how I had never experienced such a need, and in fact, how no one I knew had.
The reality was that he didn’t take enough interest in me as a person to even learn my history, but he was certain that nothing I had experienced could possibly be as bad as what he had gone through.
This is typical narcissistic rage. It was full of condescension and blame. It became clear to me that he expected me to experience a kind of shame that I had not experienced that kind of poverty. He also made it clear that nothing I could say or nothing that had ever happened to me could ever be as bad or difficult as what he had experienced.
He would also never fail to tell everyone we knew how much I had hurt him. It was another way he could devalue me in front of people we both knew. Moreover, he did it in such a way that he did make me look like a complete elitist even though I knew I was not.
Calling Them Selfish
Calling out a narcissist’s selfish behavior will get you a heaping helping of rage in return. In the narcissist’s mind, it is truly all about them. To someone who is healthy, they can’t understand why the narcissist can’t seem to care about other people. To the narcissist, everyone should want to focus on them.
When the narcissist does something that finally makes you call out their selfishness, they may wait until the worst possible moment to exact their revenge. They may withdraw or even renege on promises they made.
Their rageful response really knows no limits. As an example, when I was getting married, my mother absolutely wanted a cake that I didn’t want. I finally told her that it was my wedding and I wanted the cake I liked. I added that it was not all about her.
That was a big mistake. She proceeded to make my life a living hell. She began to whine about how unfair I was being and question everything I did. She threatened not to come to my wedding, and when that didn’t work, she tried to make a scene on the actual day.
Not only are narcissists full of narcissistic rage, but they also hold a grudge. They won’t stop trying to get their revenge until they feel some kind of satisfaction or until you finally tell them you don’t want to be in contact with them anymore.
How Should You Respond to Narcissistic Rage?
Because narcissistic rage can be so incredibly intense and even involve physical abuse, you simply can’t tolerate it. There are a number of ways you can respond depending on the situation and the nature of your relationship with the narcissist.
- Set Boundaries: One thing you can do is set boundaries with the narcissist. Tell them that you won’t accept their narcissistic rage, and inform them of the consequences if they fly into a rage in the future. Then enforce those consequences every time they violate those boundaries.
- Walk Away: One effective way to deal with narcissistic rage is just to walk away. Engaging with the narcissist will have little effect given that they won’t see or accept your point of view. You have to understand that you cannot win the argument either. The narcissist will talk in circles until you are left confused and frustrated.
- Ignore the Silence: When the narcissist is giving you the silent rageful treatment, the first thing to do is ignore their silence. If you engage, you won’t get them to talk to you in a thoughtful manner. They will only respond from a place of anger. That’s why ignoring them is the better strategy.
- Leave the Premises: If they pursue you through the house or wherever you are, it’s time to leave. The best thing you can do for them and yourself is to give both of you some space. Let them know that you will be willing to talk to them, but only if they can get themselves under control and speak with you in a respectful manner. Attempting to talk to them when they’re in a rage is a futile endeavor.
- Make a List: Take advantage of the time apart to write down what you want to say so that when you do talk to them, you will remember everything and can keep the conversation on track.
- Don’t Explain and Don’t Justify: Additionally, you should never explain your actions to them. Tell them that you don’t have to explain yourself to them. If you try to justify what you’ve done, they will see that as an admission of weakness or wrongdoing and find a way to use that against you. They will bring it up again and again to manipulate you with guilt and other tactics they are experts at employing.
- Stay on Track: Keep the conversation on track. The narcissist will use their rage to bring up other topics and distract you from the main problem at the moment. Ignore those attempts to change the focus and stay on track with the current conversation.
- More Rage? Leave Again: Remember that if, at any time during your conversation, the rage resurfaces, you need to shut the conversation down and leave again. If you simply don’t engage in their drama, they will be left with no choice but to stop using that tactic.
- Go No Contact: Sometimes, the only thing you can do with a rageful narcissist is to leave and never come back. Going no contact has to always be an option because you need to stop that rageful type of abuse. If you go no contact, you need to be aware that the narcissist will not give up so easily. They will try many times to come back into your life.
These strategies are all part of taking control of your own life. When you first met the narcissist, you might have thought they were charming and had your best interests at heart, but the truth is that they see you only as someone who should give them what they need. Take back the control and refuse to do what they want when it comes from a rageful place.
Narcissistic rage is an intense display of emotion that can catch you completely off guard. It can frighten you and make you feel very insecure. That’s what it’s designed to do. The narcissist wants to use it to manipulate you into never questioning them or calling them out on their bad behavior. They will do anything to keep you under their thumb.
If you’re dealing with a narcissist and their rageful outbursts, you’ll quickly see how they try to use your emotional triggers to make you acquiesce to their demands. They hope that their rage will trigger your fearful emotions, and if you don’t have your own emotional triggers under control, this tactic can work. My 5 Step Roadmap to Heal Emotional Triggers, however, can help. It has great strategies you can use to identify and heal your emotional triggers. You can stop the rage and the manipulation forever. Just click here and I’ll send it directly to your inbox for free!
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