Narcissistic Rage and Narcissistic Injury: The Intermittent Explosive Narcissist
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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Narcissists invariably react with narcissistic rage to narcissistic injury.
These two terms bear clarification (also see note):
Any threat (real or imagined) to the narcissist's grandiose and fantastic self-perception (False Self) as perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, and entitled to special treatment and recognition, regardless of his actual accomplishments (or lack thereof). Narcissistic injury can be passive (when the narcissist enviously compares himself to or measures himself against another person) or active (the outcome of the interpretation or misinterpretation of someone else’s act, inaction, or utterance).
The narcissist actively solicits Narcissistic Supply – adulation, compliments, admiration, subservience, attention, being feared – from others in order to sustain his fragile and dysfunctional Ego. Thus, he constantly courts possible rejection, criticism, disagreement, and even mockery.
The narcissist is, therefore, dependent on other people. He is aware of the risks associated with such all-pervasive and essential dependence. He resents his weakness and dreads possible disruptions in the flow of his drug: Narcissistic Supply. He is caught between the rock of his habit and the hard place of his frustration. No wonder he is prone to raging, lashing and acting out, and to pathological, all-consuming envy (all expressions of pent-up aggression).
The narcissist's thinking is magical. In his own mind, the narcissist is brilliant, perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, and unique. Compliments and observations that accord with this inflated self-image ("The False Self") are taken for granted and as a matter of course.
Having anticipated the praise as fully justified and in accordance with (his) "reality", the narcissist feels that his traits, behavior, and "accomplishments" have made the accolades and kudos happen, have generated them, and have brought them into being. He "annexes" positive input and feels, irrationally, that its source is internal, not external; that it is emanating from inside himself, not from outside, independent sources. He, therefore, takes positive narcissistic supply lightly.
The narcissist treats disharmonious input - criticism, or disagreement, or data that negate the his self-perception - completely differently. He accords a far greater weight to these types of countervailing, challenging, and destabilizing information because they are felt by him to be "more real" and coming verily from the outside. Obviously, the narcissist cannot cast himself as the cause and source of opprobrium, castigation, and mockery.
This sourcing and weighing asymmetry is the reason for the narcissist's disproportionate reactions to perceived insults. He simply takes them as more "real" and more "serious". The narcissist is constantly on the lookout for slights. He is hypervigilant. He perceives every disagreement as criticism and every critical remark as complete and humiliating rejection: nothing short of a threat. Gradually, his mind turns into a chaotic battlefield of paranoia and ideas of reference.
Most narcissists react defensively. They become conspicuously indignant, aggressive, and cold. They detach emotionally for fear of yet another (narcissistic) injury. They devalue the person who made the disparaging remark, the critical comment, the unflattering observation, the innocuous joke at the narcissist's expense.
By holding the critic in contempt, by diminishing the stature of the discordant conversant – the narcissist minimises the impact of the disagreement or criticism on himself. This is a defence mechanism known as cognitive dissonance.
Narcissists can be imperturbable, resilient to stress, and sangfroid. Narcissistic rage is not a reaction to stress – it is a reaction to a perceived slight, insult, criticism, or disagreement (in other words, to narcissistic injury). It is intense and disproportional to the "offence", verbally stoked by the narcissist as the episode progresses. The rage is dissociative, fugue-like: the narcissist “wakes up” after the event, often embarrassed and shamefaced and oblivious to many of his misbehaviors. The rage never leads to any real-life consequences: it yields no decisions, alters no long-term behavior patterns or commitments, and affects no pre-rage emotions or cognitions. The narcissist remains curiously untouched by the tantrum.
Raging narcissists usually perceive their reaction to have been triggered by an intentional provocation with a hostile purpose. Their targets, on the other hand, invariably regard raging narcissists as incoherent, unjust, and arbitrary.
Narcissistic rage should not be confused with anger, though they have many things in common.
It is not clear whether action diminishes anger or anger is used up in action – but anger in healthy persons is diminished through action and expression. It is an aversive, unpleasant emotion. It is intended to generate action in order to reduce frustration. Anger is coupled with physiological arousal.
Another enigma is:
Do we become angry because we say that we are angry, thus identifying the anger and capturing it – or do we say that we are angry because we are angry to begin with?
Anger is provoked by adverse treatment, deliberately or unintentionally inflicted. Such treatment must violate either prevailing conventions regarding social interactions or some otherwise a deeply ingrained sense of what is fair and what is just. The judgement of fairness or justice is a cognitive function impaired in the narcissist.
Anger is induced by numerous factors. It is almost a universal reaction. Any threat to one's welfare (physical, emotional, social, financial, or mental) is met with anger. So are threats to one's affiliates, nearest, dearest, nation, favourite football club, pet and so on. The territory of anger includes not only the angry person himself, but also his real and perceived environment and social milieu.
Threats are not the only situations to incite anger. Anger is also the reaction to injustice (perceived or real), to disagreements, and to inconvenience (discomfort) caused by dysfunction.
Still, all manner of angry people – narcissists or not – suffer from a cognitive deficit and are worried and anxious. They are unable to conceptualise, to design effective strategies, and to execute them. They dedicate all their attention to the here and now and ignore the future consequences of their actions. Recent events are judged more relevant and weighted more heavily than any earlier ones. Anger impairs cognition, including the proper perception of time and space.
In all people, narcissists and normal, anger is associated with a suspension of empathy. Irritated people cannot empathise. Actually, "counter-empathy" develops in a state of aggravated anger. The faculties of judgement and risk evaluation are also altered by anger. Later provocative acts are judged to be more serious than earlier ones – just by "virtue" of their chronological position.
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Yet, normal anger results in taking some action regarding the source of frustration (or, at the very least, the planning or contemplation of such action). In contrast, pathological rage is mostly directed at oneself, displaced, or even lacks a target altogether.
Narcissists often vent their anger at "insignificant" people. They yell at a waitress, berate a taxi driver, or publicly chide an underling. Alternatively, they sulk, feel anhedonic or pathologically bored, drink, or do drugs – all forms of self-directed aggression.
From time to time, no longer able to pretend and to suppress their rage, they have it out with the real source of their anger. Then they lose all vestiges of self-control and rave like lunatics. They shout incoherently, make absurd accusations, distort facts, and air long-suppressed grievances, allegations and suspicions.
These episodes are followed by periods of saccharine sentimentality and excessive flattering and submissiveness towards the victim of the latest rage attack. Driven by the mortal fear of being abandoned or ignored, the narcissist repulsively debases and demeans himself.
Most narcissists are prone to be angry. Their anger is always sudden, raging, frightening and without an apparent provocation by an outside agent. It would seem that narcissists are in a CONSTANT state of rage, which is effectively controlled most of the time. It manifests itself only when the narcissist's defences are down, incapacitated, or adversely affected by circumstances, inner or external.
Pathological anger is neither coherent, not externally induced. It emanates from the inside and it is diffuse, directed at the "world" and at "injustice" in general. The narcissist is capable of identifying the IMMEDIATE cause of his fury. Still, upon closer scrutiny, the cause is likely to be found lacking and the anger excessive, disproportionate, and incoherent.
It might be more accurate to say that the narcissist is expressing (and experiencing) TWO layers of anger, simultaneously and always. The first layer, of superficial ire, is indeed directed at an identified target, the alleged cause of the eruption. The second layer, however, incorporates the narcissist's self-aimed wrath.
Narcissistic rage has two forms:
I. Explosive – The narcissist flares up, attacks everyone in his immediate vicinity, causes damage to objects or people, and is verbally and psychologically abusive.
II. Pernicious or Passive-Aggressive (P/A) – The narcissist sulks, gives the silent treatment, and is plotting how to punish the transgressor and put her in her proper place. These narcissists are vindictive and often become stalkers. They harass and haunt the objects of their frustration. They sabotage and damage the work and possessions of people whom they regard to be the sources of their mounting wrath.
In 1939, American psychologist John Dollard and four of his colleagues put forth their famous “frustration-aggression hypothesis.” With minor modifications, it fits well the phenomenon of narcissistic rage:
(i) The narcissists is frustrated in his pursuit of narcissistic supply (he is ignored, ridiculed, doubted, criticized);
(ii) Frustration causes narcissistic injury;
(iii) The narcissist projects the “bad object” onto the source of his frustration: he devalues her/it or attributes to her/it malice and other negative traits and behaviours;
(iv) This causes the narcissist to rage against the perceived “evil entity” that had so injured and frustrated him.
Note: Narcissistic Injury, Narcissistic Wound, and Narcissistic Scar
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An occasional or circumstantial threat (real or imagined) to the narcissist's grandiose and fantastic self-perception (False Self) as perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, and entitled to special treatment and recognition, regardless of his actual accomplishments (or lack thereof).
A repeated or recurrent identical or similar threat (real or imagined) to the narcissist's grandiose and fantastic self-perception (False Self) as perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, and entitled to special treatment and recognition, regardless of his actual accomplishments (or lack thereof).
A repeated or recurrent psychological defence against a narcissistic wound. Such a narcissistic defence is intended to sustain and preserve the narcissist's grandiose and fantastic self-perception (False Self) as perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, and entitled to special treatment and recognition, regardless of his actual accomplishments (or lack thereof).
Impulse Control and Narcissistic Fear of Failure
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Some narcissists rarely fail, but they are no roaring successes, either. They linger in a limbo, somewhere between minimal attainment and mediocrity. They pass, but never quite make it. They seem to fear and avoid failure and success in equal measures. How can this be explained?
We can define “succeeding” as “realizing one’s full potential.”
“Not failing” can be defined as “not realizing one’s full potential, but only some of it.”
So, “not failing” is the opposite, the antonym of “succeeding.” Not failing=not succeeding=failing to succeed. Most people who fear failure try hard to not fail. Since, as we have shown, not failing amounts to failing to succeed, such people equally dread success and, therefore, try to not succeed. They opt for mediocrity.
In order to not succeed, one needs to not apply oneself to one’s tasks, or to not embark on new ventures or undertakings. Often, such avoidant, constricted behaviours are not a matter of choice, but the outcome of inner psychological dynamics that compel them.
Narcissists cannot tell the difference between free-will choices and irresistible compulsions because they regard themselves as omnipotent and, therefore, not subject to any forces, external or internal, greater than their willpower. They tend to claim that both their successes and failures are exclusively the inevitable and predictable outcomes of their choices and decisions.
The preference to not fail is trivial – but, why the propensity to not succeed?
Not succeeding assuages the fear of failure. After all, a one-time success calls for increasingly more unattainable repeat performances. Success just means that one has got more to lose, more ways to fail. Deliberately not succeeding also buttresses the narcissist’s sense of omnipotence: “I – and only I – choose to what extent and whether I succeed or fail.” Similarly, the narcissist’s grandiose conviction that he is perfect is supported by his self-inflicted lack of success. He tells himself: “I could have succeeded had I only chose to and applied myself to it. I am perfect, but I elect to not manifest my perfection via success.”
Indeed, as the philosopher Spinoza observed, perfect beings have no wants or needs. They don’t have to try and prove anything. In an imperfect world, such as ours is, the mere continued existence of a perfect being constitutes its success. “I cannot fail as long as I merely survive” – is the perfect entity’s motto.
Many narcissistic defences, traits, and behaviours revolve around the compulsive need to sustain a grandiose self-image of perfection (“perfectionism”.) Paradoxically, deficient impulse control helps achieve this crucial goal. Impulsive actions and addictive behaviours render failure impossible as they suggest a lack of premeditation and planning.
Moreover: to the narcissistic patient, these kinds of decisions and deeds feel immanent and intuitive, an emanation or his core self, the true expression of his quiddity, haecceity, and being. This association of the patient’s implied uniqueness with the exuberance and elation often involved in impulsive and addictive acts is intoxicating. It also offers support to the patient’s view of himself as superior, invincible, and immune to the consequences of his actions. When he gambles, shops, drives recklessly, or abuses substances he is “godlike” and thoroughly happy, at least for a fraction of a second.
Instant gratification – the infinitesimal delay between volition or desire and fulfilment – enhance this overpowering sense of omnipotence. The patient inhabits a sempiternal present, actively suppressing the reasoned anticipation the future consequences of his choices. Failure is an artefact of a future tense and, in the absence of such a horizon, success is invariably guaranteed or at least implied.
Some patients are ego-dystonic: they loathe their lack of self-control and berate themselves for their self-defeating profligacy and self-destructive immaturity. But even then, their very ability to carry out the impulsive or addictive feat is, by definition, a success: the patient is accomplished at behaving irresponsibly and erratically, his labile self-ruination is his forte as he masterfully navigates his own apocalyptic path. Only by failing to control his irresistible impulses and by succumbing to his addictions, is this kind of narcissistic patient able to act at all. His submission to these internal “higher powers” provides him with a perfect substitute to a constructive, productive, stable, and truly satisfactory engagement with the world.
Thus, even when angry at himself, the patient castigates the ominous success of his dissolute ways, not their failure. His rage is displaced: rather than confront his avoidant misconduct, he tries to cope with the symptoms of his underlying, all-pervasive, and pernicious psychodynamics. Ironically, it is this ineluctable failure of his life as a whole that endows him with a feeling of self-control: he is the one who brings about his own demise, inexorably, but knowingly.
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