If you have a narcissistic parent, you’ve experienced narcissistic rage. But because narcissists are as individual as anyone else, you may have experienced it without recognizing it for what is really is.
When someone says “rage” we tend to think of someone screaming and yelling and waving their arms and being loud and angry. We are probably also familiar with the quiet rage…the seething but controlled anger that manifests as clenched fists and jaws, giving the fear that the person could burst into some kind of physical fury at any moment.
But with narcissists there can be yet another kind of rage…the silent, subterranean rage that simmers, often for years, before being released…and the release can be in a long-planned and carefully executed manner.
What provokes a narcissist to rage? On the surface it may look like a lot of different things provoke a narcissist, but the fact is, only one thing does it: narcissistic injury.
Freud defined narcissistic injury as occurring when “…a narcissistic individual is confronted with a situation that counter-argues their firmly held beliefs about themselves.” Narcissist injury leads to narcissistic rage: “This wound or blow that threatens their firmly held set of beliefs is likely to elicit a violent outburst of anger, known as narcissistic rage. The rage has a variety of forms and can be very mild or severely extreme.”
So what constitutes narcissistic injury? The short answer is “virtually anything.” This is the reason that living with a narcissist feels like walking on eggshells…you just never know when something you innocently do or say will set the narcissist off. That is because what is innocent and innocuous to you the narcissist may perceive as challenging or defiant or even intentionally attacking. Why that perception? Because whatever it was you did or said the narcissist finds it threatening to the delicately balanced house of grandiose cards she has built as her perception of herself.
You can know that certain things are guaranteed to set off your narcissist…you will have gained experience over time that certain behaviours or opinions or words will light the fuse. But there is always, always something else…something you don’t know about that will start things. You may think that always agreeing with the narcissist will guarantee peace but not only will this make you feel like a fraud, at some point the narcissist is liable to tip to it and say “Wait a minute…are you just humouring me, like I was some kind of senile old goat?” and then the rage game is on.
The narcissist will tell you that you have no one but yourself to blame for her rages because you provoke them with your contrariness, your defiance, your insensitivity, your cruelty. And for a long time, we may believe this because the fact is, you did do something the narcissist found provoking. But analysed from a greater distance, you have to acknowledge that the narcissist has no right to hold you, your feelings, your actions hostage to her perceptions, she has no right to deny you your autonomy by using rage and hurt feelings as a weapon to beat you into submission and back into control. You may have provoked the outburst, but you were no more in the wrong that the concentration camp inmate who, attempting to escape, provokes a guard into shooting at him.
Narcissistic rage, then is both a reaction on the part of the narcissist, and a tool used to control and manipulate others. I can remember saying to my brother “Don’t do that…it will make Mommy mad.” Mommy’s anger was a palpable, fearsome thing to be avoided at all costs and it was a weapon she consciously used “Are you trying to make me mad?” she would ask. Her rage was unpredictable in terms of what she would do with it, but predictable in its being a response to anyone doing anything that she did not like…and I mean anyone and anything.
Interestingly, her rage was often expressed differently, depending on who was the target. The more power a person had, the less overt and explosive her rage, and the more manipulative, subtle and vindictive…as if, by denying her a temper outburst, you earned a deeper, more lasting expression of her rage. When I was a child she would scream at me until her voice was raw, and hit me with anything handy until her rage was purged. This often left me sobbing and curled into a defensive little ball which, curiously, could act as yet another narcissistic injury: the reality that a beaten child will cry and cower away from her abuser was not acceptable to her and her response to my perfectly normal reaction would be to tell me to shut up or she would give me a real reason to cry. And any time I cringed or flinched in her presence was enough to set her off as she did not want other people to see it as it would give them the “wrong impression” of her.
She would not, however, use such overt means to rage at people who had more power than a child. She was capable of long-term planning and incredible spite. And, like so many other narcissists, she was glib and charming enough on the surface to convince others that her treachery was actually a good thing.
She would never rage at her mother or father…but she behaved in such a way, from her teens onward, as to cause a scandal in their tiny rural town such that the reputation of the entire family was damaged. Then, when it was clear that nobody found her cute or amusing anymore, just so shameful they didn’t want to soil their skirts by even walking past her on the streets, she packed up her children and moved 1000 miles away.
She had visions of an upper middle class lifestyle and convinced herself that the little Eichler-style house she nagged my father into buying was the first step on that ladder. So secure was her vision that she couldn’t see the impact of the dirt road, cesspool that backed up into the bathtub with high tides at the nearby bay, chronic cockroach infestation, lack of sidewalks or even trash collection tarnished the vision. No, the thing that brought down her property values and was the scourge of the neighbourhood was the next door neighbour who, as a war widow, had no husband to maintain the house and, as a nurse working night shift, kept “suspicious” hours. When NM’s demands that the woman spruce up her house and front yard fell on deaf ears, she took on a narcissistic rage that consumed her. In the end, NM convinced the neighbours that the woman’s job as a nurse was a convenient cover, that she was really a prostitute using the hours of her nursing job (where NM claims she stole drugs and was an addict) as a cover, that she beat and starved her children and kept a filthy, unsanitary house. The woman almost lost her job and custody of her children over NM’s accusations and ultimately sold her house and moved away. NM got what she wanted: a quiet English couple with a penchant for gardening bought the house and fixed it up. Throughout this campaign, NM’s family heard the towering rages about the woman next door, the woman who dared defy my NM and refuse to give her what she wanted. Superficially it was only a small thing…most lower middle class neighbourhoods have a shabby house or two, but NM took it as a personal affront that she lived next door to one (even though it was in that condition when NM bought our house) and the owner would not succumb to her demands to clean it up. Living next door to the shabby house damaged NM’s grandiose vision of herself living a genteel suburban lifestyle, which was her narcissistic injury, and she quite determinedly retaliated against the woman. Rather than go to the house and have a screaming fit in the woman’s face…which would make her the “bad guy” instead of the offending homeowner, NM undertook a campaign of undermining and sullying the woman’s reputation and creating an environment so hostile that the woman had to move away or lose her job and her children. That was one form of narcissistic rage at work.
“Symptoms of rage may be mild and non-violent, such as displaying visible irritation, vocal disagreement with the situation or head-shaking. More severe symptoms of narcissistic rage include outburst of physical violence, directed at both objects and people, and vocal outrage. In general, a person that frequently displays narcissistic rage symptoms is often labeled as selfish, spoiled and a sore loser by their peers. Unlike regular anger, narcissistic rage is unwarranted and is caused by neutral events that will not provoke reactions in non-narcissists. Persistent episodes of narcissistic rage may result in the perpetuation of rage cycles: patterns of rage behavior that frequently repeat day after day.”
The key to identifying a narcissistic rage is ascertaining if a non-narcissistic person would be outraged by the same thing that triggered the narcissist. If you tell your mother you are going on a two week vacation to Greece and she flips out, you are dealing with a narcissistic rage. A non-narcissist might ask a few practical questions like “do you have travel insurance?” and “has the political situation calmed down there?” whereas the narcissist could do anything from scream at you about wasting your money or traumatizing your dog by putting him in a kennel to inviting herself along to actively sabotaging your trip by falling “ill” or even causing something costly to happen to your house or your car so that you can’t afford to go. Narcissistic rage is not confined to temper outbursts and overt expressions of rage…narcissists are perfectly capable of the “slow burn” kind of rage that manifests in an extended period of retaliation, and that retaliation can be small and childish, like calling and hanging up the phone to big and devastating, like blackening your name among family, friends, and neighbours and making herself look like your victim.
It all starts with that narcissistic insult, that little injury that most people would not even perceive as an injury or insult. You have a choice of living your life walking on eggshells in an attempt to avoid causing that injury or you can decide that if you N gets his/her nose out of joint by something you do or say, that’s not your problem. If you decide you won’t be controlled by a narcissist’s tantrums or your own misplaced guilt, then you are prepared to set and enforce boundaries with your Ns, including getting restraining orders against them if nothing else works. You cannot control them but you can control yourself and what influences you allow in your life.
I read a line the other day that said when it comes to narcissists, you must weigh their influence on your life: if they bring you more joy than difficulty, then find ways to live with them but if they bring you more pain than joy, then you must let them go. It didn’t make exceptions for elderly narcissistic relatives or mothers or even narcissistic adult children: it simply said that if they bring you more pain than joy, then you must let them go.
Sounds like good advice to me.