When it comes to narcisists of the “grandiose” variety, challenging their perceptions — especially their beliefs about their special status — can land you in a real fight.
We encounter narcissism a great deal these days. There are many reasons for this. For decades, certain aspects of modern culture have not only supported or “enabled” narcissism but also in various ways promoted it. And as anyone who’s been in a relationship with a narcissist knows only too well, dealing with one of these individuals can be really challenging, even painful. This is particularly true when they’re provoked to rage.
Understanding and dealing with narcissistic people is definitely not easy. There are so many ways they can bring pain into your life, even when you’ve done absolutely nothing to provoke them. They’re naturally prone to using you and exploiting you. They’re prone to demeaning you — making you feel small. That’s because in their ego-centrism they don’t care enough about you to refrain from doing such things. But sometimes circumstances have a way of provoking their ire in a big way, and that’s when they can display what has often been called “narcissistic rage.”
Generally speaking, a narcissist’s rage gets triggered when their delusions of grandeur are shattered by realities that are too obvious or too intense to be denied, ignored, or simply wished away. You don’t have to do anything in particular to offend or “wound” them. All that has to happen is for circumstances to reveal the truth about them. Narcissists simply hate being exposed for who they really are.
For a long time, the classical thinking has been that all narcissists have a fragile and inadequate sense of self and that they unconsciously compensate for this by constructing a false and pretentious image. So, when circumstances expose them for the less than superior folks they pretend to be, it’s been assumed they suffer a deep emotional wound. It’s also been assumed that they become intensely uncomfortable and anxious over the vulnerability they feel because their tenuous sense of self has been so badly shaken. It’s that presumed wounding and uneasiness stemming from vulnerability that has been thought to spark their anger and rage.
But as I’ve written about before, (see “Two Types of Narcissism and How to Tell the Difference”), recent research confirms what I and many other clinicians learned long ago from our narcissistic clients: not all narcissists are of the “vulnerable” type. Some narcissists are of a very different type. “Grandiose” narcissists are truly convinced of their own greatness. So they simply will not stand for anyone or anything challenging their view of things. Reality will simply be what they say it is! Challenge their perceptions — especially their beliefs about their special status — and you’ll be in for a real fight. Sometimes, that fight can get very nasty indeed.
Grandiose narcissists also have a massive sense of entitlement. They just know they’re superior to you. As they see it, the rules that might rightfully apply to everyone else simply do not apply to them. They also lack empathy — they simply don’t care how you feel or how you might be affected by what they do — and they lack the capacity to feel shame. For these reasons, they lack compunction in doing hurtful things. If anyone or anything challenges or undermines the position they believe they have the right to occupy, they’ll fight in every way they know how to retake it. For them, it’s always about maintaining the position of advantage, power, and control. In my books and in my professional training workshops I draw an analogy from the world of real estate. There’s a saying among realtors that only 3 things really matter: location, location, and location. For the narcissist (and some other character-impaired personality types) only three things matter: position, position, and position. And they are ready and willing to fight to maintain it.
Narcissistic rage is often at the heart of relational abuse. As long as the narcissist is having their way and getting the adulation they desire and the deference they demand, there’s usually no problem. But challenge their greatness and/or their power and you’ll no doubt have a war on your hands. In their entitlement, lack of shame, and lack of empathy, they’ll do whatever they think they have to do to put you in what they believe is your proper place: beneath them. Sometimes this battle for dominance gets physical. Sometimes, probably because of so many of our traditional notions about why people do the things they do, the victim wonders what they did or said to cause the lashing out. But of course they’re not to blame at all. What’s really to blame is the unfortunate character disturbance we call narcissism and the various factors in our culture and in a person’s upbringing that foster it. So, to prevent episodes of “narcissistic rage,” we need not look to what the victim might have done to “wound” someone’s fragile ego. Rather, we need to take a serious look at the social factors that allow some folks to feel completely okay with beating up anyone or anything that challenges their greatness.
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