Narcissists are famous for exploding in a rage for the slightest reason, and when you’re confronted with one of their outbursts, it can be very frightening. It’s a relatively frequent occurrence and of considerable concern for anyone around the narcissist. It can seem like there’s nothing you can do when this happens, but there are some very effective strategies you can use to defuse narcissistic rage.
Of course, you need to keep yourself safe and should create distance to do that, but other strategies include staying calm, empathizing, and taking a break when necessary. It’s also important to establish firm boundaries and enforce any violations. You also have to remember who is at fault.
To know the best way to respond to narcissistic rage, it’s important to know what it is, how to identify it versus other anger responses, and the typical causes. Then, you can implement the appropriate strategies to defuse the anger.
What is Narcissistic Rage?
The term narcissistic rage was first coined by psychologist Heinz Kohut in the 1970s. He defined it as a powerful outburst that might include anger, aggression, and also violence. When a narcissist receives any feedback that makes them fear their damaged true self might be exposed, certain defense mechanisms are activated.
Whenever a narcissist feels as though they are being criticized, they experience what is known as a narcissistic injury. They also feel injured when they feel as though they are being judged. It’s possible that you might not even realize you have caused a narcissistic injury because a narcissist can sometimes distort something you have said into criticism or judgment.
The narcissist might, in fact, experience a narcissistic injury from the mere fact that you have established and are enforcing a boundary. In their mind, they might think that by doing that, you’re criticizing or judging them. They might also think you’re someone who doesn’t have a right to do that.
Narcissists tend to think of the people they are closest to as merely being extensions of themselves, and as such, you have no right to impose boundaries on them. They also might think that such an action is an indication that you are considering abandoning them.
When the narcissist experiences this injury, they react with sudden and explosive hostility, and they also tend to hold grudges. Since they don’t have the ability to experience empathy the way a healthy person does, they have little awareness of the responses the people around them have to this outburst.
For that reason, they don’t feel remorse for anyone they hurt when this happens, and if you dare to confront them with your own anger or pain, they experience another injury all over again.
What Does Narcissistic Rage Look Like?
At the heart of their outburst is deep-seated insecurity and fear, and in fact, their rage is almost like a trapped animal making itself look bigger out of fear. This rage ranges from being as mild as irritation to as violent as a physical attack.
When triggered, the narcissist may react in a number of different ways. They might disengage, gaslight, lie, deflect, project, or verbally or physically assault their victim. They can become incredibly dangerous if they are prone to the latter.
If you react in kind to the narcissist, they recognize that you are exposing their false identity directly, and that’s why they will typically blow up in a dramatic fashion to deflect from that possible exposure. Narcissistic rage often involves such an extreme reaction to not only distract but also discourage their victim from ever trying to pursue the issue again.
During a rageful response, the narcissist may project their own feelings of inadequacy and their own bad behavior onto you, their victim. They will do this to refocus the conversation onto you so that they can feel safe again.
What are the Signs of Narcissistic Rage?
While narcissistic rage can take a variety of forms, it is often very different from other sudden, angry outbursts by healthier people. There are some typical patterns to the rage that make these kinds of outbursts distinct.
The most common signs of narcissistic rage include the following:
- The rage is disproportionate to the trigger. Even the slightest perceived criticism can trigger a violent outburst;
- Narcissistic rage can end very quickly without any discussion. In fact, the narcissist may never discuss it again;
- Narcissistic rage includes verbal and/or physical aggression that can be directed at a person or property. Many narcissists will put holes in the wall or damage vehicles when in a rage, and while they are not hitting a person, this is still physical aggression;
- Narcissistic rage can include acts of self-harm. A narcissist could hurt themselves directly or they may engage in less obvious acts of self-destruction like drinking and driving, for example;
- Narcissistic rage is often triggered by the narcissist not getting their way, or not being the center of attention, or receiving enough praise. It can also be triggered by being caught doing something wrong or if they feel out of control;
- Victims and other observers of narcissistic rage often cannot identify a connection between a trigger and the rageful response.
With healthy people, there is usually an identifiable trigger that prompts an angry response, and they are not nearly as rageful as what happens with a narcissist. They will also typically be willing to discuss their anger and resolve the situation. Finally, healthy individuals are not likely to harm themselves when they feel wronged.
Typical Triggers of Narcissistic Rage
While a number of things can trigger narcissistic rage, there are also usually some patterns to the most common triggers. As mentioned, these involve what the narcissist perceives as threats to their carefully constructed false image.
It’s important to remember that narcissists live in almost constant fear that they will be exposed as what they feel is their true self; that is, a worthless fraud. To prevent that, they are hypervigilant to any threats and hypersensitive to any criticism or judgment. That’s why the following are common triggers:
- They are denied what they want;
- They feel criticized no matter how gently or kindly the criticism was delivered;
- They aren’t the center of attention;
- They get caught doing something they shouldn’t;
- You try to hold them accountable;
- You call out their manipulation which triggers their shame;
- They feel like they’re not in control;
- They believe their false self-image has been damaged.
It’s important to note that you don’t have to do these things purposefully to trigger the narcissist’s rage. In fact, most of the time, you didn’t realize you were doing them at all. It can help to see some examples of how these triggers are experienced in normal life.
Some Examples of Narcissistic Rage
Narcissists are often perfectionists, and if you don’t live up to their expectations of perfection (i.e., they’re not getting what they want and they feel out of control), they can respond ragefully. If you’re the spouse of a narcissist and don’t clean the house the way they think it should be cleaned, you might be on the receiving end of hours of verbal abuse.
If you’re the child of a narcissist, and you don’t measure up to their expectations (i.e., you’re denying them the accolades they expect from other parents), you might see their rage. For example, you didn’t win the science contest, and your narcissistic parent proceeds to punch a hole in the wall.
If you work with a narcissist, and you get the promotion instead of them (i.e., they didn’t get what they wanted), you might find the tires of your car slashed. Perhaps you were praised by the boss and your other coworkers, and the narcissist tries to sabotage your new project because they weren’t the center of attention.
Even strangers can trigger the narcissist’s rage. For example, someone writes “clean me” in the dirt of the narcissist’s car (criticism) and they respond by ragefully destroying a public restroom.
If you criticize them or make them feel embarrassed (either on purpose or accidentally), you can expect a dose of their rage. For example, a spouse who makes a joke about how her narcissistic husband never picks up his socks off the floor in front of his coworkers (criticism) may be on the receiving end of his abuse after they have left the party.
All of these examples show you just how subtle the triggers of narcissistic rage can be. You may not even be aware you’ve done anything that has upset them.
How Should You Respond to Narcissistic Rage?
Dealing with a narcissist in any situation is tricky at best, but when they’re in a rage it can be a terrifying situation. You’re not going to make any headway with them when they’re in that state, and so the first thing to do is stop engaging with them, but depending on the situation, that may or may not be possible. Let’s explore some strategies to use to help defuse the situation.
Setting and enforcing boundaries is always important when dealing with a narcissist, but it’s particularly vital when they’re in a rageful state to ensure you enforce them. You want to disengage entirely from trying to argue with the narcissist, and then, create as much physical distance between you and them as possible.
Tell the narcissist that this is a violation of your boundaries and that you’re willing to talk with them more once they have calmed down. Let them know that both of you are not able to have a positive discussion when they’re in that state.
You want to do this consistently every time they get in a rage because if you do not, the narcissist will perceive that as weakness on your part. That will be enough for them to continue their abuse in the future.
Always Stay Calm
Be sure that you stay calm because if you do not, it will only fuel their rage. Narcissists enjoy seeing that they are getting to you, and if you let them know that their rage is bothering you, they will just keep going.
You can try meditating or using some breathing techniques to help yourself stay calm. It’s also helpful to try to emotionally detach yourself as much as possible from the drama created by the narcissist’s outburst.
Other techniques include counting down from ten and focusing on your happy place. Do whatever you have to do to stay calm since that is going to help contain the rage.
It’s easy to become overly angry yourself when a narcissist is directing their rage at you. They will often say the most absurd or irritating things that can make your blood boil.
If you react with the same intensity, however, it will only make the situation worse. First, the narcissist will feel triggered anew, and second, they will see that they are getting to you. When they can get that kind of reaction out of you, they feel powerful.
When they see how angry you’re getting, this is also when they will ramp up their attempts to manipulate and control you. They are adept at this kind of manipulation, so don’t give them the ammunition they need.
Try a Little Empathy
If you can empathize with the narcissist, it can both calm them down and model good behavior for them too. If you do it consistently, they might even be able to reduce their narcissistic tendencies a little.
When you can agree with the narcissist without compromising your own principles, you validate them, and that makes them calmer. It might help to avoid sharing your own point of view until a time they (and you) are calmer.
It’s also key to avoid a condescending tone of voice or raising your voice. Those can easily trigger the narcissist all over again. You don’t want to challenge them in any way if you’re hoping to reduce their rage.
It’s Them, Not You
It’s helpful to remember that what is happening is not your fault. It’s not really about you at all. The narcissist is feeling vulnerable, and that’s something they can’t tolerate.
Vulnerability triggers the narcissist’s deep-seated shame and their fear of being exposed. The more you can reassure them, the calmer they will be. If you can let them know that you appreciate their point of view and that both of you need to work at better communication, that can help to calm them.
Once they realize you’re not placing the blame on them, they can settle down, but you shouldn’t blame yourself either. Their personality disorder has absolutely nothing to do with you. You didn’t cause it, you’re not making it worse, and there’s really nothing you can do to make it better. You could stop everything else in your life and focus solely on their needs, and it still wouldn’t be enough to prevent their pain and their occasional rageful outbursts.
Be Bold but Not Aggressive
Narcissists pay careful attention to your actions, and more so than your words. In fact, they tend to pay little mind to your words, but they do watch very carefully what you do. That’s why following through on enforcing your boundaries is so important, but it’s also important to be assertive when interacting with them.
Be calm, but honest and firm in how you express your viewpoint. If a narcissist sees weakness in you, they will exploit that. If you stay firm, focused, and bold in your actions, you can successfully temper their rage and put an end to the abuse.
This doesn’t mean being aggressive, just resolute. Remind yourself that you have a right to be treated respectfully and that you can always leave the situation if the narcissist refuses to calm down.
Take a Break
Taking a break is always an option when dealing with an enraged narcissist. In fact, sometimes, it’s the best option. The narcissist won’t be able to hear your words or appreciate your side of the discussion, particularly while they’re enraged.
Walking away lets the narcissist know you’re resolute in enforcing your boundaries, but it also lets them know that you can only be pushed so far. They will recognize that, and often, they will adjust their behavior as a result.
In fact, by simply walking away, you can let the narcissist know that there is a limit, and once they realize that, you can effectively begin to essentially train them to treat you better. This can lead to improvements in the narcissist’s worst tendencies.
Finally, it’s helpful for you to get support either from loving family members or friends or even from a professional. It’s easy to become codependent when dealing with a narcissist, particularly if you’ve had some trauma in your own childhood.
Many people who deal with narcissists on a regular basis would just like to keep the peace, and they will often give in just so they don’t have to endure another fight. That’s called enabling, and once you go down that road, you’re on your way to becoming codependent.
It’s vital to take care of your own psychological needs, and so, seeking support from trusted friends or family or an objective professional is important. There are people who care about you and what you’re going through, and you deserve to have someone who is on your side.
It’s also important to know that if you’re dealing with a rageful narcissist at work, you have the right to a peaceful, productive workplace. A rageful narcissistic boss or coworker can easily create a hostile work environment, and there are laws that protect you from that kind of environment.
That’s why it’s vital to know your rights and seek support and help from the appropriate professionals to protect them. Talk to your human resources department or a lawyer if the situation becomes unbearable.
Narcissists use narcissistic rage like they use other tools of manipulation. They want to control your behavior and disproportionate rageful responses is one way they can do that. If you let them manipulate you, the abuse will never stop. It’s vital you institute the proper strategies to let the narcissist know their manipulation won’t work with you.
While narcissistic rage is a particularly shocking and frightening manipulation tactic, there are effective strategies for defusing the anger. You need to employ these to help keep your life peaceful and happy. You have a right to that, and by using these techniques, you can even ‘train’ the narcissist to behave better.
You know that narcissists can be rageful, but it’s important to understand the full range of their emotional responses. You’ll want to read this post to learn more about whether they like to be close to the people they love. It has some important insights into their emotional intelligence.
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