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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. The term narcissistic rage was coined by Heinz Kohut in 1972.
Narcissistic rage occurs on a continuum from instances of aloofness, and expression of mild irritation or annoyance, to serious outbursts, including violent attacks. Narcissistic rage reactions are not limited to personality disorders and may be also seen in catatonic, paranoid delusion and depressive episodes. 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.
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". 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'". 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"; 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".
Freud's concept of what in his very last book he called "early injuries to the self (injuries to narcissism)" 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. Otto Fenichel confirmed the importance of narcissistic injury in depressives and expanded such analyses to include borderline personalities.
Edmund Bergler emphasized the importance of infantile omnipotence in narcissism, and the rage that follows any blow to that sense of narcissistic omnipotence; while Lacanians linked Freud on the narcissistic wound to Lacan on the narcissistic mirror stage.
Kohut explored a wide range of rage experiences in his seminal article 'Thoughts on Narcissism and Narcissistic Rage' (1972). He considered narcissistic rage as one major form among many, contrasting it especially with mature aggression. Because the very structure of the self itself is enfeebled in the narcissist, their rage cannot flower into real assertiveness; and they are left instead prone to oversensitivity to perceived or imagined narcissistic injuries resulting in narcissistic rage.
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". 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.
Alternatively, according to Kohut, rages can be seen as a result of the shame at being faced with failure. 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.
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. 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.
Narcissists are often pseudo-perfectionists and require being the center of attention. They create situations in which they will receive attention. His/her attempts at being perfect are cohesive with the narcissist's grandiose self-image. If a perceived state of perfection is not reached, it can lead to guilt, shame, anger or anxiety because he/she believes that he/she will lose the admiration and love from other people if he/she is not perfect.
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"
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."