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When Narcissists Fail, Anger Follows

How injury turns to rage.

We’ve long known that people with high levels of narcissism are more likely to get angry. Some of that stems from qualities that narcissists have that we know are tied to anger. Narcissists tend to be competitive, for instance, and competitiveness often leads to frustration.

Some of this might be deeper, though. For instance, let’s imagine that someone is engaged in a really important contest. He has been bragging for years about his abilities and talents, has claimed many times that no one can defeat him, and has all but guaranteed a victory. And then he loses.

Now, many of us would react to losing such a contest with grief or sadness. But what you need to remember about why we get mad is that our anger is not usually a response to what actually happened, but a response to our interpretation of what happened. When we experience things, we decide what they mean to us and whether we can cope with them.

This means that it is remarkably easy for a narcissist to construct an interpretation of an event that leads to anger instead of sadness or grief.

Because narcissists have an inflated sense of self-worth, they see themselves as flawless and incapable of failure. So when they do fail, it is a particularly strong shock to their system. It feels especially impossible to cope because it means acknowledging that they might not be as perfect as they thought. It’s easier to lie to themselves and everyone else about what happened than it is to be honest and suffer the reality of having failed.

Instead of feeling the very reasonable sadness and grief that most of us would feel from a major loss, a narcissist needs to interpret the loss differently. Instead of acknowledging it as a failure, he may shift his interpretation of the event to something easier for him to stomach. Instead of saying, "I wasn’t good enough," he says “I was cheated” and “It wasn’t fair.”

And what may ensue is the narcissistic rage that often follows this sort of injury. Once this new worldview is built, it can become an impenetrable wall that barricades him from further attacks on his esteem and allows him to interpret all related threats in a way that won’t lead to additional injury.


Kohut, H. (1972). Thoughts on narcissism and narcissistic rage. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 27, 360–400.