What Is Narcissistic Rage?

angry couple

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"Narcissistic rage" is a term that was first coined by author Heinz Kohut in 1972 to refer to the tendency for people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) to fly into a rage with what might seem like the slightest provocation or no obvious provocation at all.

Individuals with NPD require that others give them consistent admiration and positive feedback; when this does not happen it elicits underlying feelings of shame that trigger an instant angry response and lashing out without care for how it impacts the recipient.

It is the narcissist’s thin skin and sensitivity that leads to this rage, because of a deep-seated fear of being “found out” for not being the person they portray themselves to be.

Signs

Are you wondering if someone you know might be exhibiting signs of narcissistic rage? Or are you somewhat aware that you may have this tendency yourself? If you’re not sure, take a look at this list of the signs and symptoms of narcissistic rage. While it might feel as though the narcissist has calculated this attack, most often narcissistic rage is reactive in nature.

Remember that narcissistic rage is different from other forms of anger in that narcissistic rage is unreasonable in relation to the perceived slight that has happened; it’s as though the person has a hair-trigger response. It’s completely out of proportion to what provoked it and often takes the other person by surprise.

Narcissistic rage can also be active or passive with corresponding outward or inward signs of the problem. Below are the signs and symptoms to watch out for.

Outward Signs

  • Bouts of rage when not given the attention they feel deserve
  • Screaming and yelling
  • Angry or explosive outbursts
  • Intense anger
  • Sudden fits of anger
  • Becoming verbally or physically aggressive
  • Inability to control the rage
  • Intentionally trying to inflict pain (emotional or physical) on others

Inward Signs

  • Passive aggression
  • Giving the “silent treatment
  • Withdrawing or being aloof
  • Avoiding someone
  • Hidden resentment
  • Neglecting to do things
  • Using sarcasm to cut people down
  • Righteous indignation
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Becoming hostile or bitter
  • Cutting people off as a means to protect one’s self-esteem
  • Dissociation or feeling disconnected from reality

Causes

If you suspect someone you know has problems with narcissistic rage or that you may have this problem yourself, you might also be curious as to the cause. While we don’t know precisely what causes narcissistic personality disorder, which is often an underlying factor in narcissistic rage, it’s likely that a combination of genetics, upbringing, and life experiences plays a role.

If you’re confused about whether someone you know might have NPD, it’s helpful to learn more about this disorder. NPD tends to disrupt all areas of a person’s life and can be overt (obvious), covert (hidden), or even high functioning (the person is successful in life despite the disorder, such as a high-powered business person who is known for flying into fits of rage).

The criteria for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder requires a pervasive and long-term pattern of certain personality traits, including:

People may struggle with these types of narcissistic vulnerabilities without meeting full criteria for narcissistic personality disorder.

In addition, there are a number of specific factors or causes that can be identified when it comes to NPD and narcissistic rage in particular. We know that narcissistic rage happens when a person experiences “narcissistic injury,” which equates to the sense of self being threatened.

Below are some things to consider:

  • Early childhood trauma such as abuse or neglect and invalidation of one’s emotions, which causes the person to bury their true self and instead become a shell of a person who is hiding internal injuries behind a false or alternate persona built on lies
  • A highly sensitive temperament that is very reactive to feelings of shame
  • Failure to develop critical emotion regulation skills, resulting in a childlike way of reacting to situations
  • An unstable sense of self-esteem that makes them feel as though they are at risk of being “found out”
  • Facing a setback or disappointment that triggers shame and shatters one’s self-image, which then triggers anger
  • Being envious of someone else having something that they don’t have (i.e., material things, relationships, status)
  • Memories of early experiences of shame being triggered by current events
  • “Splitting” (also known as black-or-white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking) or viewing other people as good or bad (i.e., narcissists shift between idealizing someone and then degrading them; seeing someone as all good and then all bad)
  • Having a sense of self that is split into two parts (true self and false self)
  • A fragmented sense of self that requires the adoration of other people (narcissistic supply); the entire sense of self is based on what other people think of them rather than a true internal self

Types

As mentioned above, there are two different types of narcissistic rage: outward or explosive and inward or passive.

  • Explosive rage: The person hurls insults, screams and yells, and may even threaten other people or to harm themselves.
  • Passive rage: The person retreats into a period of sulking and refusing to engage with you.

In fact, a narcissist can engage in both types of narcissistic rage rather than being solely outward or inward in their actions and behaviors.

Stages

Unlike typical anger, narcissistic rage does not go through a series of stages. For example, psychiatrist Adam Blatner identified the following seven stages or levels of typical anger:

  1. Stress: Feelings of anger under the surface that are not consciously acknowledged or acted upon
  2. Anxiety: Anger starting to leak through with subtle signs
  3. Agitation: Outward signs of being displeased without any blame assigned
  4. Irritation: Showing more displeasure to get others to respond and change
  5. Frustration: Showing anger with an angry face or using harsh words
  6. Anger: Increasing how loudly you speak and being more expressive
  7. Rage: Losing one’s temper and flying into fits of aggression

In contrast, in the case of narcissistic rage, there is no progression through a similar series of steps. Rather, their rage is child-like in nature and goes straight from the feeling of stress to a full-blown outward or inward expression of rage.

Examples

Still not sure if what you are experiencing is narcissistic rage? Below are some examples to try and paint more of a picture for you.

Not Getting Their Way

Your boss might make an unreasonable request such as asking you to work long hours over the weekend on a project at the last minute. If you refuse this unreasonable requisition, they may lash out with narcissistic rage.

Not Getting Enough Attention

A friend might always direct the conversation back to talking about himself, even in the case when someone has shared something important and listening would be more appropriate. They might even become jealous if everyone is giving attention to someone else’s problem and ignoring them and sulk or lash out.

Feel Like They Are Losing Control of People/Situation

Someone might lash out at you if they feel as though they have lost control of your or the situation. 

Reacting to Criticism

Narcissistic rage can result from even the most gentle of criticism because of the unstable sense of self-esteem

Getting Caught Doing Something

If you point out that someone is lying or cheating, and they react by turning the tables and making you feel as though you are in the wrong or mistaken, that could be a sign of narcissistic rage. 

Outcomes

What are the outcomes of narcissistic rage and why is it such a problem? The truth is that narcissistic rage has negative effects in terms of the person who has the problem as well as everyone else who is affected by the rage.

Below is a list of some of the possible negative outcomes that you may experience:

  • Rifts in families
  • Breakups of relationships
  • Other people not wanting to be around you
  • Having success but at the cost of friendships
  • Financial difficulties
  • Problems sustaining employment or attending school
  • Problems with the law
  • Physical harm (e.g., to others with outward violence and to the self with self-harm such as cutting, burning, head banging, etc.)
  • Feelings of guilt, loss, and being worthless
  • Inability to adapt to change
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Problems with physical health
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Coping

If you are the person who has a problem controlling narcissistic rage, you may or may not be aware of what is happening internally. Hopefully, if you’ve read this far you have a better sense and are interested in ways to interact with the world in a healthier and more fulfilling way.

While narcissistic rage might feel good in the moment, as it helps to relieve the feelings of fear and shame, in the long term it only serves to drive good people away from you, interfere with your success, and leave you fragile and at-risk.

While treatment of narcissistic conditions can be challenging, here are some things to try if you want to get a handle on your narcissistic rage.

Therapy

See a therapist to better understand your behavior, reduce the inner turmoil that you experience, address underlying causes, and prepare better coping strategies to deal with future situations. A therapist could help you with some or all of the following:

  • Become willing to go through a process of understanding yourself and moving toward your true self through therapy
  • Decide that the costs of staying the same are greater than the costs of making a change
  • Develop a more resilient sense of self and feeling good with who you are regardless of external sources of validation
  • Dealing with past traumatic memories or experiences of shame that are triggered when your narcissistic rage becomes a problem
  • Support you as you deal with life without using your old strategies of self-inflation and manipulation
  • Understanding that your rage is driven by fear of rejection, and that this is actually a vicious cycle that creates actual rejection
  • Developing your own sense of individuality, being a whole person, and feeling empowered
  • Learning how to have healthy relationships both with yourself and with other people
  • Working through the pain of confronting your own feelings of inadequacy and fragile self image

Dealing With Someone’s Narcissistic Rage

Are you actually the person on the receiving end of someone else’s narcissistic rage, and you’d like to know how to better handle the situation? If so, below are some tips for dealing with bouts of narcissistic rage whether it’s from a family member, partner, friend, coworker, or stranger.

General Advice

  • Become familiar with narcissistic personality disorder so that you can recognize triggers and outcomes
  • Seek therapy for yourself when warranted based on past events
  • Avoid giving direct criticism or feedback that may trigger a narcissistic reaction
  • Don’t escalate conflicts that could lead to personal harm
  • Don't take things personally or seek out revenge
  • Avoid sharing too much personal information that could be used against you
  • If you feel as though the person is a threat to themselves or anyone else (including you), call 911 or the emergency number in your area
  • Recognize that you are not to blame and are not responsible for their moods or behaviors
  • Recognize that they are not behaving or acting in a rational manner, their judgment is impaired, and they are not thinking straight
  • Don’t try to use logic or get into a debate with the person or try to argue that they are overreacting
  • Do not apologize or accept their behavior, which may just lead to more abuse
  • Do not become angry yourself; rather, try to stay calm, cool, and collected
  • If you are given the silent treatment, do your best to ignore it
  • If their anger becomes explosive, leave the situation to protect your own safety
  • Validate their feelings without going along with bad behavior; for example, say “you are entitled to feel that way”
  • Set personal boundaries to be clear about what is acceptable behavior for you
  • Find support for yourself such as a support group or person whom you can confide in
  • If you feel like you might be being gaslighted, find an outside perspective
  • Protect your self-esteem and self-worth from being affected by the narcissist
  • Recognize your qualities that may make you a target for narcissists (e.g., being overly agreeable and accepting)
  • Rage will tend to show up when the narcissist is stressed by circumstances, so it’s best to avoid them during these times as a form of self-protection

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Stranger

  • In the case of a stranger, walk away from them and do not engage further
  • Recognize that the interaction is not your fault and you are not obligated to stay and argue

Coworker

  • In the case of a coworker, verify things that they tell you to make sure you are getting the full story
  • If your work is being affected, speak to your manager or the Human Resources director to share what has happened
  • Report any instances of harassment at the workplace immediately
  • Keep records of your interaction with the person so that you can argue your case
  • Avoid being alone with the person at all times

Spouse/Partner/Family

  • Attend couples therapy when warranted to work on communication skills
  • Set personal boundaries as to what behavior is acceptable to you in your relationship
  • End the relationship if you feel threatened physically, mentally, or emotionally
  • Put space between you and family members who engage in narcissistic rage; give them time to cool off and consider whether their reaction is warranted
  • Attend family therapy to get at root causes of issues and help the narcissist understand themselves better

A Word From Verywell

If you know a narcissist or feel you are one yourself and are having a problem with narcissistic rage, the best options are usually self-reflection and awareness, understanding the problem, recognizing triggering situations, and developing coping skills. It’s only when the person who has a problem with narcissistic rage wants to change that change will happen.

Often this will only come when there has been a breaking point of some sort, such as the development of another mental health issue. However, you don’t have to wait to hit a breaking point before there can be meaningful change.

Whatever your circumstances, reach out for help and take the first step toward making a change for the better. It will benefit those around you as well as your own life circumstances.

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