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Narcissism

How to Deal with an Angry Narcissist

New research on aggression suggests why you should avoid an angry narcissist.

Key points

  • People high in narcissism become enraged when they lose out in a competition.
  • A new method of studying aggression in the lab shows just how spiteful narcissists can become at having to face failure.
  • The best way to protect yourself from an angry narcissist is not to let their punitive tendencies affect your own well-being.
fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Having a narcissist become enraged at you can be both frightening and upsetting. Without realizing it, you've set this person off who now descends into an outpouring of venom. Worse still, you're wondering if you actually deserve this attack on your sense of self-worth and dignity.

Perhaps you posted a photo on social media in which you’ve ventured out, in your new post-pandemic life, with a group of your closest friends. Much to your surprise, one of your pre-pandemic acquaintances sends you an all-caps text full of angry insults, charging you with disloyalty and hypocrisy. This is someone who you never really liked that well due to the person's continuous pattern of self-aggrandizing and attention-seeking behaviors. The pandemic actually gave you somewhat of an excuse for cutting things off. Unfortunately, this person doesn’t see things the same way. You’ve been branded a traitor and an ingrate, and although you try not to take it personally, it’s hard not to feel that a small portion of this anger is justified by your behavior.

Narcissistic people who easily become so infuriated can also make your life miserable in settings that lack the voluntary nature of friendships and other interpersonal relationships. Such individuals could be your boss, your coworker, a client, or a customer. You may have a supervisor who makes outlandish demands, heaping more and more projects on you regardless of the amount of work each entails. In the latest round, the boss tells you to stop going to staff meetings to have time to work on those projects, even though going to those meetings provides you with vital information you need to do your job. You start to wonder if the real reason for being uninvited is that you present somewhat of a threat by your being there, either because of your appearance or the bright ideas you contribute, making your boss look all that much the worse.

What Causes Narcissistic Rage and How Can it be Measured in the Lab?

A well-established body of literature on narcissism distinguishes between the so-called “vulnerable” and “grandiose” subtypes, whose behavior corresponds very clearly to each subtype’s name. People high in narcissism may also show psychopathic and exploitative tendencies, or what’s called the “Dark Triad.” Part and parcel of these characterizations is the tendency for narcissistic individuals to explode in anger when someone gets in their way.

Researchers attempting to study narcissistic aggression in the lab face several distinct challenges. In real-life situations, it’s very easy to watch someone’s aggression unfold, but to create an experimental simulation means that researchers have to invent a task that replicates real life but can still be subject to rigorous control. The study of aggressive behavior, moreover, requires that no one actually gets hurt.

To get to the question of what causes narcissistic rage, then, it’s first necessary to figure out how it can be empirically and systematically measured. Toward this end, Maastricht University’s Jill Lobbestael and colleagues (2021) decided to evaluate a behavioral aggression measure that they believed had the potential to accomplish both goals. They also designed this measure so that other researchers could freely use it for the purpose of that all-important goal of scientific research, which is to put one study’s findings to the test of replication.

The essence of existing behavioral aggression measures, according to the Dutch authors, is that they place participants in the position of being able to negatively affect an imaginary opponent through some form of punishment. Of the available lab-based tactics the authors reviewed, one well-known approach stands out as having the potential to accomplish this goal, setting the situation up so that participants can invoke some type of negative consequence on an imaginary opponent in an experimentally-designed and controlled game.

This experimental approach, known as the Competitive Reaction Time Task (CRTT), pits participants against simulated opponents who seem to be real people but who the participant never sees. At the end of each round of play, the participant has the opportunity to "punish" their opponent for wrong answers by administering an aversive white noise. Participants control the degree of aversiveness of this punishment in terms of its volume and duration. Making the game seem even more convincing, should participants lose the trial, it is they who receive the aversive stimulus. In reality, the entire game is controlled by the experimenter, who sets the schedule of wins and losses according to the specifics of the research design.

As useful as the CRTT can be in quantifying rage in measurable doses, it has a varied history of use in psychological science because it is not consistently structured from experiment to experiment. As Lobbestael and her coauthors point out, even after the experimenters collect the data, they don't have a consistent set of instructions they can use for scoring. Indeed, after reviewing the published literature, the Dutch authors found no less than 157 different analytic strategies, hardly an ideal basis for comparing findings across studies. The purpose of the U. Maastrict study was to provide a computerized algorithm freely available to researchers around the world that could yield consistent findings from study to study.

The Narcissist’s Drastic Reaction to Loss

Apart from this standardization procedure, Lobbestael and her colleagues sought to establish the CRTT’s validity by comparing scores derived from their new measure with performance on personality tests that from a theoretical point of view the authors believed should be relevant. Because narcissists hate to lose, they should become particularly frustrated when their supposed opponent proves to get the better of them. If the research team could establish a relationship between the amount of punishment meted out during the CRTT and narcissism, then they would have solid evidence that the CRTT measures what it's supposed to measure.

The scale used to assess narcissism, the Narcissism Personality Inventory (NPI), contains the four distinct subscales of Leadership/Authority, Self-Absorption/Self-Administration, Superiority/Arrogance, and Exploitativeness/Entitlement. Its primary use is in identifying people who lean toward the grandiose rather than the vulnerable dimension of the trait. As a control, in addition to completing the NPI, participants also responded to a questionnaire measuring their typical levels of aggression.

Drawing from data collected over a 6-year period on both clinical and non-clinical samples (423 non-clinical and 84 forensic patients), the authors used CRTT studies involving the following procedure. Participants believed they would be competing against an opponent who they had to beat by mouse-clicking a rectangle as it changed color from red to yellow. In reality, though, the timing of the color change was preprogrammed (ranging from 1 to 2 seconds), as was the response of the simulated opponent. Although participants were free to administer whatever outcomes they wanted in terms of noise level and duration to their imaginary opponent, the feedback they received from that opponent was preset by the experimenters.

Turning now to the findings, much of the study’s contributions pertained to the measurement properties of the CRTT scoring method, which yielded indications of both provoked (following a loss) and unprovoked (prior to a loss) tendencies to inflict pain on a participant’s competitor. The findings with respect to narcissism yielded the validation information the authors sought to establish. As the authors predicted, people high in the exploitativeness/entitlement factor of the NPI were more punitive when the competitor seemed to have won the trial. Even before being punished, though, the highly exploitative/entitled individuals inflicted more punishment on what they believed to be their losing opponents. Individuals scoring higher on the aggression questionnaire also showed these more hostile tendencies.

Now that the measure seems to work as expected, the authors speculate that the CRTT could have important real-world applications in such areas as criminal and antisocial behavior. In addition to being relatively brief (only 30 trials are required to produce valid results), the CRTT also benefits from its behavioral quality, meaning that it is relatively impermeable to self-report bias in which people try to cover up their antisocial or narcissistic tendencies.

Managing the Narcissist Who Loses

Given that the U. Maastricht’s study was on methodology and not on interventions, there are few recommendations that naturally flow from the study’s findings. However, there are lessons you can gain from understanding the apparent vindictiveness that people high in narcissism showed in the competitive scenario of the CRTT.

Based on their willingness to inflict pain even before losing a trial, it appears that narcissists go into a competition very ready to do battle with their opponents. Once they've lost, their fury becomes even more pronounced and they're willing to inflict pain the next time they have the chance to do so. Their wounded ego leads them to be flooded with a spiteful need for revenge even if the loss was fair and square.

Now return to the examples of the snubbed friend or boss who's unceremoniously kicked you out of staff meetings. It would appear that your best bet in reacting to their rage at being upstaged is to brace yourself for the inevitable blow. You will be attacked, criticized, demeaned, and threatened with loss of something you value. As verbally aversive as their behavior is, though, there's no need for you to give in just to allow them to save face. These are clearly situations that meet the "It's not me, it's you" test.

To sum up, the anger that can spill over from a narcissist’s sense of failure can affect your own well-being if you accept their attempt to make you feel like a loser. Instead, reassure yourself with the knowledge that their accusations and criticisms are meant to make them feel better, but should not define your own feelings of self-worth.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Lobbestael, J., Emmerling, F., Brugman, S., Broers, N., Sack, A. T., Schuhmann, T., Bonnemayer, C., Benning, R., & Arntz, A. (2021). Toward a more valid assessment of behavioral aggression: An open source platform and an empirically derived scoring method for using the Competitive Reaction Time Task (CRTT). Assessment, 28(4), 1065–1079. doi: 10.1177/1073191120959757

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