Joseph Burgo Ph.D.


The Joys of Indignation

How outrage makes us feel better about ourselves

Posted Feb 05, 2019

Throughout my work, and especially in my book, The Narcissist You Know, I've described self-righteous indignation as one of the three primary defenses against core shame. Along with blame and contempt, it erects a barrier against unconscious feelings of defect, damage, or ugliness by offloading (that is, projecting) those feelings onto somebody else who must then carry them.

  •      "I did absolutely nothing wrong. You're the one to blame!"
  •      "How dare you criticize me! It's an outrage that you'd presume to find fault with me!"
  •      "You're loathsome, contemptible, and barely human."

These three traits—blame, contempt, and indignation—dominate the personality of every Extreme Narcissist and shore up the well-known "inflated sense of self" they display. It's unnecessary for me to identify the most prominent public examples.

To a lesser degree, most of us occasionally make use of these defenses on a temporary basis. I invite you think back on your last relationship squabble when a spouse, friend, or partner complained about your behavior. Did you become indignant and defensive, at least at first? Did you make excuses for yourself and try to turn tables, blaming her or him for some other crime? Did you sneer and express contempt, if not with words then by that look on your face? In the heat of an argument, such reactions are normal and not pathological, provided we eventually relent, apologize, and take delivery of the criticism when it's merited.

Likewise, many of us frequently express contempt or righteous indignation in ways that don't reflect an underlying personality disorder and might even be considered "normal." Especially in the realm of political affiliation, we regularly puff up with rage and point accusing fingers at people across the divide. How dare they hold such a view! Their position is beneath contempt and betrays a total lack of humanity, not to mention an absence of empathy! It's obvious—they deserve to be hated and vilified! This type of reaction describes many posts that show up every day on my Facebook feed.

In the process of expressing such righteous indignation, we pump up our own self-esteem, inflating our sense of self-worth by defining ourselves as nothing like them. If those other people hold an incorrect, despicable view, by implication ours is superior. While they lack empathy, we truly care... which must mean we're really good people, right? And since they're primitive and contemptible, the fact that we can see it so clearly makes us... well, enlightened. Looking down from our pedestal, we feel good about ourselves because we're so much better than they are.


None of this is pathological. In fact, it's so widespread as to be commonplace, well within the range of "normal." Unfortunately, too many people remain stuck in that position, like the indignant wife or husband who never backs down after a fight, refuses to take criticism, and gives the offending spouse the silent treatment for days. You're such a contemptible person for addressing me that way you don't even deserve to be spoken to!

As the research of Dr. John Gottman has shown, contempt in a marriage is the single greatest predictor of future divorce. What does that say about where we're heading today in the United States of America?