This post considers the take-no-prisoners quality of narcissistic rage. A narcissist’s rage can feel – and sometimes be – life-threatening to its recipient. First, narcissistic rage will be described and a case example provided. Next, I discuss the role of rage in the narcissist’s psychology. Particular attention gets paid to how rage ensures others comply with the narcissist’s inflated sense of self. Third, I will discuss the impacts of such rage on the child victims.
Last I will discuss the process of recovery from living under the threat of narcissistic rage. Most important for survivors is to identify, value, and respect the ways they survived such rage – especially when survival required submission to the narcissistic parent.
What is narcissistic rage?
When a narcissistic parent explodes in rage at her child, she seeks to destroy and ask questions later. Children who suffered bouts of narcissistic rage from a parent often describe feeling hated by the parent. This is for good reason. The narcissist does in fact hate the object of his rage while in this state. He may even convey a sense of murderousness towards his ‘offender’.
Children who survived such parenting speak of the spine-chilling turn that would happen when the parent grew angry. Mom or Dad seemed possessed by a demon – there was something in and behind their eyes that terrified. Survivors know that there was no pleading or arguing to assuage the parent’s rage once this turn occurred. The only way to respond – and survive – was to submissively freeze until it was over. Showing fear and accepting blame for the narcissist’s rage and hatred is the only hope a child has to survive it.
Perry’s father would explode into screaming tirades at his mother for all of Perry’s childhood. Perry described his father as being suspicious and derisive towards his mother – particularly during their nightly dinners. His father would perceive an offense from his mother and slam his hands down on the table. Then he would tell his mother things like “You are so stupid! How could you have even asked that question?!” or “Just shut up, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about”. Then his father would ratchet up and up to find more reasons why his mother deserved his criticism and hatred in that moment. His mother would endure these bouts of rage until his father determined he had finished with her. Perry remembered knowing that when his father was raging the worst thing to do would be to talk back or walk away. He – and his mother – just had to sit there while his father let loose on her. Freezing in this manner was a very adaptive move on Perry’s part because it minimized the damage from his father.
Why does a narcissistic parent get enraged?
I find it useful to think of the narcissist’s psychology to understand his or her rage reactions. As described in a prior blog post, the narcissist feels a core sense of worthlessness and copes by disowning those feelings and consciously insisting on their specialness, importance, and superiority while coercing others to treat them in kind. This coping mechanism is largely unconscious and requires low empathy and remorselessness. Two deficits most narcissists come by easily.
When this type of fragilely assembled psychology comes into contact with the slightest failure of others to reflect back his artificially inflated sense of self then he may leverage rage to teach that person a lesson about how he should be treated. Any experience where the narcissist feels hindered in his ability to see himself – and/or have others treat him – as superior can set off his rage. An altruistic narcissist, for example may see herself as so supremely caring that her children should only show gratitude and deference towards her. When her son protests that he wants to play with his friends instead of stay home to pick up his room, she can experience this as him treating her in the worthless way she feels about herself. In her mind, any treatment that is not overly compliant with her wishes means that her son thinks she is worthless. In this moment she has to relocate that sense of worthlessness in her son rather than herself. Rage comes in very handy for this. By exploding into a screaming scathing assessment of him for being ‘selfish, disrespectful, inconsiderate and impossible’ she gets to see him as the worthless one instead of herself. Her child will also tend to believe her because her authority as his mother makes him assume she knows him best and it is adaptive for him to accept her accusations because that can make her rage and hatred towards him come to an end – albeit temporarily.
So narcissistic rage can serve to restore the narcissist’s fragile inner equilibrium and serve as a warning to her children. A narcissistic parent who demonstrates a willingness to make her children the focus of her rage lets them know the dire consequences of not complying with her expectations. In short, the parent’s rage is the threat the child must now remain wary of and seek to minimize. It is not just that the narcissistic parent expects special treatment from their children. They often threaten to make the child feel hated and worthless if they do not comply.
One of the most pernicious aspects of a parent’s narcissistic rage is the calculated way she employs it. In most cases, narcissistic parents knew to keep their rages hidden from disapproving others. They were able to know when they could explode in rage and when they could not. Survivors of this treatment learned to expect rage behind closed doors – not in public.
John would get screamed at almost everyday by his narcissistic mother for various ‘offenses’. He vividly recalled her screaming at the top of her lungs at him then the phone ringing. She would pick up the phone, mid-tirade, and sweetly say “Oh, hiiiii, I’m so glad you called. I was just thinking of you…”. At the time he could not make use of her obvious hypocrisy because that would have only enraged her further. Later in therapy he was able to helpfully see how his mother’s duplicitousness reflected her pathological narcissism.
Is there any way for a scapegoated child to avoid the parent’s rage?
The writing above may imply that a child can avoid a narcissist’s rage so long as he reflects back her inflated sense of self. Scapegoated children know different. Sometimes, it is a child’s existence not what he does or does not do that evokes the parent’s sense of worthlessness. As I’ve written elsewhere, when a narcissistic parent sees qualities in her child that she covets then she will often seek to scapegoat that child. Narcissistic scapegoating refers to the systematic blaming and self-worth undermining of a particular member of the family. Usually a child, this person is selected to be the reason for all of the family’s problems. Since the narcissist is never short on grievances she has a convenient receptacle for them in her scapegoated child.
The unfortunate reality for the scapegoated child is that she will have to endure bout after bout of her parent’s narcissistic rage and hatred. The child may be smarter, kinder, more genuine, stronger – whatever it is that evokes a sense of unconscious diminishment in the narcissistic parent. Not unlike the Mother in the fairy tale Snow White, such parents look at the child and realize they are no longer the ‘fairest in the land’ and this enrages them. They don’t need to ask a woodsman to take her into the woods and bring them the child’s heart. Instead the parent leverages her authority and the other family members’ fear of her reprisal to blame and castigate the child until she feels convinced again of her superiority.
Impact of Narcissistic Rage on the Child: Learning to freeze and submit to survive
In the literature on attachment trauma, there are 4 basic ways to respond to a threat. The list below categorizes each response based on the odds of victory for directly confronting the threat and on how permanent the threat is to the person. For example, someone encountering an aggressive stray dog has low odds of victory and low permanence. This person could flee, freeze or try to submit to the threat.
The 4 responses to trauma
1) Fight: Summon anger and aggression to seek and destroy the threat. (Odds of victory=High, Permanence of threat=Low)
2) Flee: Leverage adrenaline to create a safe distance between you and threat. (Odds of victory=Low, Permanence of threat=Low)
3) Freeze: Use fear to stay very still until the threat has passed (Odds of victory=Low, Permanence of threat=Low)
4) Submit: Curry the favor of the threat to take mercy on you. (Odds of victory=Low, Permanence of threat=Low)
A child faced with a raging parent has very low odds of victory and very high permance of the threat. Thus, the child’s only options would be to freeze or submit. As described above, the source of the narcissist’s rage is feeling like someone – often the child – is not reflecting back their superiority. Freezing and submitting communicate the implicit message that the narcissist is in charge. Thus, these modes of response by the victim help the narcissist restore their inflated sense of self-worth. To fight or flee the narcissist would only further enrage him.
So, the tragic – for the moment- reality of the child with a narcissistic parent is having to freeze and/or submit when the parent flies into a rage at her. Being ready to freeze and/or submit does not come naturally. Most children are born with a source of vitality and energy that must be curtailed to be able to submit and/or freeze. This is where self-diminishing beliefs come in.
How shame and self-loathing can be ADAPTIVE in the face of narcissistic rage
One of the very adaptive ways one can ready oneself to freeze in fear and/or offer a submissive countenance is to develop beliefs about oneself that engender such reactions. Janina Fisher – an expert in understanding and coping with the effects of prolonged abusive childhoods – has brilliantly described how self-diminishing beliefs about oneself can serve the function of making it easier to submit and/or freeze. A child who believes he is defective will have a much easier time doing whatever his narcissistic parent tells him to do than a child who believes he is deserving of respectful treatment from others. Thus, he is spared from further rage attacks and more likely to survive his childhood.
In my own practice, I have found this understanding to be a critical reframe for victims of childhood narcissistic abuse. Instead of seeing the self-diminishing beliefs they carry as a noxious holdover from the past, we work to understand how such beliefs allowed them to be here today. For instance, a client who expresses a hatred of his physical appearance may have used this self-hatred to ready himself to accomodate his father’s nightly rages he faced as a child and adolescent. If he hated himself enough – the ingenious logic went – his Dad could not do anything to make himself hurt anymore than he already did. The task, once the threat of narcissistic rage is over, is not to be at odds with such beliefs but to appreciate their role in helping the client survive. That is, the client’s relationship to these beliefs gets changed from adversarial to appreciative. In so doing, the power of such beliefs is diminished and the client’s sense of safety in the present is increased.
I want to mention one further challenge to appreciating how one survived: feeling traumatically triggered. When a survivor had to invoke the freeze or submit response towards a raging narcissistic parent he likely felt small, weak, and endangered. Once the child grows to be an adult, he will likely have many experiences in the world where he knows he is a full-grown adult amongst other adults. Sometimes a thought, cue in the environment, word said by another, etc. can catapult the adult survivor back to that same submitting child that knew how to survive. In these moments, the adult does not feel like the adult he is but rather the child he was. Richard Schwartz uses the term ‘blending’ to describe such moments. The traumatized part of the survivor is evoked and takes over the adult’s sense of himself. When this happens, it can reinforce to the adult survivor that he actually is the way he feels in such triggered states. Such experiences are the legacy of surviving narcissistic rage and are dealt with by cultivating connection to the present reality when in such a triggered state. Next, the survivor can use his awareness of his adult self to attend to the part of them that feels afraid and work to soothe this part. This, in short, is an exercise in deep mindfulness.
Narcissistic rage reflects the narcissist’s efforts to re-assert their inflated self-worth via coercion of others. Facing such rage attacks for the child can feel hateful and murderous. Children must learn to readily submit and/or freeze in the face of such attacks or perish. Recovery from such abuse involves re-framing the use of submit and freeze as survival strategies rather than a sign of weakness. In addition, moments of feeling triggered back into the state of freeze or submit in adult life can happen. Therapy can help one to unpack such moments so that the present does not get lost to the past.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy to recover from narcissistic abuse please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.