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Narcissism, Rage, and Murder

Is there a link?

July 11, 2019: In the penalty phase after Scott Nelson was convicted of the murder of Jennifer Fulford, prosecutors argued Nelson was a “narcissist” who wanted an opportunity to “rail against the world,” so he murdered Fulford with a plan to get caught.

July 17, 2019: During the testimony in the trial of Nakisha Bramble, who was convicted in the death of her two children, defense expert and retired sociology professor Janja Lalich placed the blame for the murders on the leader of Bramble’s religious group, describing him as a “traumatizing narcissist.”

July 1, 2019: Defending their murdered friend Mackenzie Lueck from the victim-blaming they have seen on social media since her tragic death, three friends describe the accused, Ayoola A. Ajayi, as a “psychopath” and a “narcissist.”

Narcissism Revisited

The term "narcissist" has become quite the buzzword lately, and not in a good way. In fact, it’s been used to describe everything from a person enamored with selfies to a sleazy politician to a man whose wife has left him for another man. It’s even more common the legal arena, where the term “narcissist” is synonymous with a scumbag (and guilty) defendant.

But, in reality, it has a lot of different meanings. Most of us think of a narcissist as someone who is self-centered, grandiose, exploitive, and entitled. This is a person who has an unrealistically high view of himself and expects others to do the same.

This definition is true, but narcissism is something we all have. At its core, it’s a pervasive, universal human drive to feel special, exceptional, unique. But narcissism also has an element that contributes to the success of certain confident, charismatic, extraordinary leaders. A certain amount of narcissism helps us reach for the stars, believe in ourselves, motivate others, and meet our own needs while we are taking care of others; it is the core of healthy self-esteem.

Like all personality features, however, narcissism exists along a continuum and can be healthy or maladaptive. Taken to its extreme, it is a personality disorder. People with a narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, are so addicted to feeling special that they lie, steal, cheat, and do whatever it takes in order to get their high. In response to early injuries, s/he has buried feelings of unworthiness and powerlessness and replaced them with a rigid, compensatory false self. Inevitably, because all their energy is invested in maintaining and fueling their grandiose and entitled self-image, their relationships derail and their capacity for psychological growth is stunted. Its pathological extreme can lead to various forms of violence, such as stalking, battering, or murder.

The Pathological Narcissist

Individuals with a pathological degree of narcissism have a psychological disconnect between an unconscious sense of inadequacy and a conscious feeling of superiority. Yes, they think they are better than everyone else, but this belief is fragile. These individuals are more vulnerable to any events (interpersonal rejection, negative feedback, criticism) that might threaten their exaggerated view of themselves and, as a result, are more likely to react with anger and hostility to any perceived or real challenge to their ego.

So how does this relate to violence? I’ve evaluated more than my share of narcissistic individuals and I’ve talked to their former partners. Not surprisingly, ex-partners of individuals diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder typically describe their former lovers as having many of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors we associate with this personality disorder. They also tend to describe their former partner as becoming angry or violent in situations we might predict given their constant need to protect themselves from any hint of criticism or rejection, i.e., in response to threats to their ego or self-esteem, typically when demands of entitlement, admiration and perceived authority were not met.

But, when it comes to violence, the picture is more complicated. When threatened with a relationship breakup, for instance, some narcissists were described as reacting vulnerably (i.e., "You can’t leave me") rather than grandiosely (i.e., "You aren’t worth the dirt I’m walking on and I’ll make sure all of our friends know it"). Ironically, the same person who used the threat of abandonment to control his or her partner in the relationship reacted with the fear of being abandoned when the shoe was on the other foot. In these cases, the violence was through an act of clinging rather than throwing away.

This suggests that relationships with some, perhaps more vulnerable, narcissists may be manipulative and one-sided—but not abusive—until they experience the fear of rejection or abandonment. Facing loss, the threat to his or her grandiose sense of self-worth is overwhelming and, without the motivation or the ability to handle these situations calmly, she/he may launch into an uncontrollable rage. At the moment, explosive narcissistic rage can be completely unprovoked and unprecedented. Statistics tell us that one-fifth of the women killed by an ex-partner after a relationship breakup were never hit by their significant other until the actual murder. I wonder how many of these were the result of narcissistic rage.

Violence Risk is Complicated

As I know from my violence risk assessments, the presence or diagnosis of a personality disorder alone is not sufficient to predict violence. An individual’s psychological makeup—the interplay between his thoughts, feelings, fantasies, and impulses—will have influence as well. Other factors—a legacy of childhood abuse or trauma, intense situational stress, a history of violent or suicidal ideation, recent humiliating or rejecting experiences—will usually be in the mix for a “perfect storm” leading to violence.

Still, when it comes to predicting violence after a breakup, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Never underestimate the power of strong emotions to influence behavior and never ignore your gut instincts. And never open your door to an angry ex.


If you are interested in forensic psychology topics, check out Johnston's forensic psychology radio show and true crime YouTube channel.

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