Narcissistic rage and narcissistic injury

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Narcissistic rage is a reaction to narcissistic injury, which is a perceived threat to a narcissist's self-esteem or self-worth. Narcissistic injury (or narcissistic scar) is a phrase used by Sigmund Freud in the 1920s; narcissistic wound and narcissistic blow are further, almost interchangeable terms.[1] The term narcissistic rage was coined by Heinz Kohut in 1972.

Narcissistic injury occurs when a narcissist feels that their hidden, 'true self' has been revealed. This may be the case when the narcissist has a fall from grace, such as when their hidden behaviors or motivations are revealed, or when their importance is brought into question. Narcissistic injury is a cause of distress and can lead to dysregulation of behaviors as in narcissistic rage.

Narcissistic rage occurs on a continuum from instances of aloofness, and expression of mild irritation or annoyance, to serious outbursts, including violent attacks and murder.[2] Narcissistic rage reactions are not limited to personality disorders and may be also seen in catatonic, paranoid delusion and depressive episodes.[2] It has also been suggested that narcissists have two layers of rage. The first layer of rage can be thought of as a constant anger (towards someone else), with the second layer being a self-aimed wrath.[3]

Freud and narcissist blows

In his 1914 case study of the "Wolfman", Freud identified the cause of the latter's adult neurosis as the moment when "he was forced to realise that his gonorrhoeal infection constituted a serious injury to his body. The blow to his narcissism was too much for him and he went to pieces".[4] A few years later, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, looking at the inevitable setbacks of childhood sexuality, Freud maintained that "loss of love and failure leave behind them a permanent injury to self-regard in the form of a narcissistic scar… reflecting the full extent to which he has been 'scorned'".[5] In 1923 he added that "a child gets the idea of a narcissistic injury through a bodily loss from the experience of losing his mother's breast after sucking, & from the daily surrender of his faeces" – losses that would then feed into the castration complex when "this idea of a loss has been connected with the male genitals";[6] while in 1925 he famously added with respect to penis envy that "after a woman has become aware of the wound to her narcissism, she develops, like a scar, a sense of inferiority".[7]

Further psychoanalytic developments

Freud's concept of what in his very last book he called "early injuries to the self (injuries to narcissism)"[8] was subsequently extended by a wide variety of psychoanalysts. Karl Abraham saw the key to adult depressions in the childhood experience of a blow to narcissism through the loss of narcissistic supply.[9] Otto Fenichel confirmed the importance of narcissistic injury in depressives[10] and expanded such analyses to include borderline personalities.[11]

Edmund Bergler emphasized the importance of infantile omnipotence in narcissism,[12] and the rage that follows any blow to that sense of narcissistic omnipotence;[13] Annie Reich stressed how a feeling of shame fuelled rage, when a blow to narcissism exposed the gap between one's ego ideal and mundane reality;[14] while Lacanians linked Freud on the narcissistic wound to Lacan on the narcissistic mirror stage.[15]

Finally object relations theory highlights rage against early environmental failures that left patients feeling bad about themselves when childhood omnipotence was too abruptly challenged.[16]

Kohut and self psychology

Kohut explored a wide range of rage experiences in his seminal article 'Thoughts on Narcissism and Narcissistic Rage' (1972).[17] He considered narcissistic rage as one major form among many, contrasting it especially with mature aggression.[18] Because the very structure of the self itself is weakened in the narcissist, their rage cannot flower into real assertiveness;[19] and they are left instead prone to oversensitivity to perceived or imagined narcissistic injuries resulting in narcissistic rage.[20]

For Kohut, narcissistic rage is related to narcissists' need for total control of their environment, including "the need for revenge, for righting a wrong, for undoing a hurt by whatever means".[21] It is an attempt by the narcissist to turn from a passive sense of victimization to an active role in giving pain to others, while at the same time attempting to rebuild their own (actually false) sense of self-worth. It may also involve self-protection and preservation, with rage serving to restore a sense of safety and power by destroying that which had threatened the narcissist.[21]

Alternatively, according to Kohut, rages can be seen as a result of the shame at being faced with failure.[22] Narcissistic rage is the uncontrollable and unexpected anger that results from a narcissistic injury – a threat to a narcissist's self-esteem or worth. Rage comes in many forms, but all pertain to the same important thing: revenge. Narcissistic rages are based on fear and will endure even after the threat is gone.[23]

To the narcissist, the rage is directed towards the person that they feel has slighted them; to other people, the rage is incoherent and unjust. This rage impairs their cognition, therefore impairing their judgment. During the rage they are prone to shouting, fact distortion and making groundless accusations.[24] In his book The Analysis of the Self, Kohut explains that expressions caused by a sense of things not going the expected way blossom into rages, and narcissists may even search for conflict to find a way to alleviate pain or suffering.[25]


Narcissists are often pseudo-perfectionists and require being the center of attention. They create situations in which they will receive attention.[citation needed] The narcissist's attempts at being perfect are cohesive with their grandiose self-image. If a perceived state of perfection is not reached, it can lead to guilt, shame, anger or anxiety because the subject believes that they will lose the admiration and love from other people if they are not perfect.[26]

Behind such perfectionism, self psychology would see earlier traumatic injuries to the grandiose self.[27]

In therapy

Adam Phillips has argued that, contrary to what common sense might expect, therapeutic cure involves the patient being encouraged to re-experience "a terrible narcissistic wound" – the child's experience of exclusion by the parental alliance – in order to come to terms with, and learn again, the diminishing loss of omnipotence entailed by the basic "facts of life"[28]


Wide dissemination of Kohut's concepts may at times have led to their trivialization. Neville Symington points out that "You will often hear people say, 'Oh, I'm very narcissistic,' or, 'It was a wound to my narcissism.' Such comments are not a true recognition of the condition; they are throw-away lines. Really to recognise narcissism in oneself is profoundly distressing and often associated with denial."[29]

Cultural references

The lead character of Citizen Kane has been considered as exhibiting narcissistic rage.[30]

See also


  1. Salman Akhtar, Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (London 2009) p. 182
  2. 2.0 2.1 Carl P. Malmquist (2006). Homicide: A Psychiatric Perspective. American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc. pp. 181–182. ISBN 1-58562-204-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Vaknin, Sam, Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited (1999).
  4. Sigmund Freud, Case Histories II (P. F. L. 9) p. 340
  5. Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (P. F. L. 11) p. 291
  6. Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (P. F. L. 7) p. 310n
  7. Freud, On Sexuality p. 337
  8. Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism (Letchworth 1939) p. 120
  9. Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 404
  10. Fenichel, p. 405
  11. Fenichel, p. 451
  12. Arnold M. Cooper, in Arnold M. Cooper ed., Contemporary Psychoanalysis in America (2006) p. 116
  13. Edmund Bergler, in Jon Halliday/Peter Fuller eds., The Psychology of Gambling (London 1974) p. 176 and p. 182
  14. Mark O'Connell, John Banville's Narcissistic Fictions (2013) p. 115
  15. Timothy Murray/Alan K. Smith, Repossessions (1998) p. xiv
  16. Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (London 1996) p. 86 and p. 131-2
  17. Paul H. Ornstein, in Cooper ed., p. 451
  18. Ornstein, in Cooper ed., p. 451-2
  19. Cooper, "Introduction", Cooper, ed., p. xxxiv
  20. Jon Carlson/Len Sperry, The Disordered Couple (1998) p. 218
  21. 21.0 21.1 Ronningstam, Elsa (2005). Identifying and understanding the narcissistic personality. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. pp. 86–87. ISBN 0-19-514873-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Kohut, Heinz (1972). Thoughts on narcissism and narcissistic rage. In The search for the self. International Universities Press. pp. (Vol.2, pp. 615–658).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Golomb, Elan (1992). Trapped in the Mirror: Adult Children of Narcissists in their Struggle for Self. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 0-688-14071-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Thomas, David (2010). Narcissism: Behind the Mask
  25. Kohut, Heinz (1971). The analysis of the self: A systematic approach to the psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personality disorders. Perspectives.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Sorotzkin, Benzion (18 Apr 2006). "The Quest for Perfection: Avoiding Guilt or avoiding shame?". Psychology Today.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. Arnold M. Cooper, "Introduction" in Arnold M. Cooper ed., Contemporary Psychoanalysis in America (2006) p. xxxiv
  28. Adam Phillips, The Beast in the Nursery (1998) p. 99-110
  29. Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 2003) p. 10
  30. Burgo, Joseph. "Narcissistic Rage and the Failure of Empathy: 'Citizen Kane'". After Psychotherapy.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading


  • Cooper J & Maxwell N Narcissistic Wounds: Clinical Perspectives (1995)
  • Levin JD Slings and Arrows: Narcissistic Injury and Its Treatment (1995)

Academic papers

  • Horowitz MJ & Arthur RJ Narcissistic Rage in Leaders: the Intersection of Individual Dynamics and Group Process - International Journal of Social Psychiatry 1988 Summer;34(2) Pages 135-41
  • Terman DM Aggression and Narcissistic Rage: A Clinical Elaboration - Annual of Psychoanalysis 3:239-255 (1975)

External links