Have you ever met a narcissist? The chances that you have are high. The epidemiology for prevalence estimates between 0% to 6.2% of community samples (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013). Narcissistic personality disorder affects more males than females, and it often begins in the teens or early adulthood. Male diagnosed with this disorder land at 50% to 75% (APA, 2013). A narcissistic personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy (APA, 2013). At the surface, these individuals display a sense of charming arrogance, extreme confidence, and entitlement. Behind this mask of self-assurance lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism which produces feelings of insecurity, humiliation, vulnerability, and shame. Without the fundamental skills needed to manage their emotions, overt, covert, and malignant complications are associated with this disorder. Poor management of one’s emotions is the bases of most of the narcissist’s conflicts that subsequently prompt anger. The angry cycle of a narcissist instigates problems in many areas of life, such as work, school, intimate relationships, family interactions, or managing financial affairs. This writing discusses the cycle of anger for the narcissist and for their love-ones dealing with their symptoms. This writing closes with a suggestion for treatment.
People who have a narcissistic personality disorder may be high functioning and relatable. Through their mock self-confidence, they present themselves as enchanting, dependable, and affectionate individuals, but in moments where they are not the center of attention, they can be challenging and aggressive. Through their anger the narcissists punish everyone around them for their lack of self-confidence. The person’s aggression typically indicates the severity of the disorder and could serve as an indicator for treatment.
We all experience anger, much like sadness, fear, joy, or happiness. Anger is a healthy and normal feeling that provides useful survival information. Anger can serve as motivation, creativity, and passion. On the other hand, mismanagement of this emotion can fuel hostility. Dr. Spielberger, a psychologist who specializes in the study of anger, defines it as “an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage”. He noted “anger is caused by two basic things:
- Frustration: Not getting what we want, especially if we are expecting to get it;
- Feeling that others do not respect us or care how we feel.”
People with narcissistic personality disorder are generally unhappy and experience frustration when they’re not given the favor or admiration they expect or believe they deserve. They often encounter disappointment when they find their relationships to be unfulfilling, and when others do not enjoy being around them or cater to their feelings.
The angry cycle of a narcissist does not begin with anger but delight. The individual is pleasant to be around until triggered. Once they are activated the narcissist spins in a cone shaped loop or cycle. This can also be considered as an episode. The person may notice that there are spinning in a loop and may struggle to get out. The narcissistic disorder takes over the individual’s higher functioning and pulls them away from their true sense of self while in the episode. The angry cycle of a narcissist can be explained by the arousal cycle of anger developed by Alistair Moes. The arousal cycle has five phases: trigger, escalation, crisis, recovery, and depression. Understanding this sequence helps us to recognize the loops of angry cycle endured by the narcissist. This knowledge may help to encourage treatment thus cutting down on the severity of this diagnosis. More importantly this may greatly decrease the suffering of the individual diagnose with this disorder.
The Trigger Phase
The trigger phase sparks the angry cycle within the narcissist. This could be an argument, feeling embarrassed, not being acknowledged, or the receipt of displeasing information that activates feelings of threat. This event or situation engages their physiological system, and the individual prepares to meet that threat. Example: “I feel disrespected”.
The Escalation Phase
The escalation phase is met with negative and irrational thoughts. Destructive thoughts move the body from a thinking state to a feeling state (Golden, 2016). In preparation for crisis respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure are all increased. The muscles tense for action while the voice, pitch, and delivery of speech are altered to be louder and more pronounced. In some, eyes change shape and color, with enlarged pupils, and fallen brows. In some others, their bodies unconsciously take on a fight stance. Example: “I am a bad parent” (negative thought) / Rapid breathing (physical symptom).
The Crisis Phase
The crisis phase represents the narcissist’s need to survive the perceived danger, which activates the fight or flight response. Negative thoughts propel negative/irrational sensations, and the body is set in motion to react. Here the prefrontal cortex loses primacy, and the quality of judgment or reasoning is diminished. Example: Feeling blamed or punished (negative feeling) / clenched fists (behavioral response).
The Recovery Phase
The recovery phase takes place after some intervention occurs between this phase and the crisis. The intervention can be as simple as self-talk, going for a walk or talking to a friend. During this time, the body starts to recover from the extreme stress and expenditure of energy (Muir, et al. 2021). The adrenaline in the blood leaves gradually and the quality of judgment returns as reasoning begins to replace the survival response (Muir, et al. 2021). Example: Feeling puzzled and unsure of why the fight occurred.
The Post-Crisis Depression Phase
The Post-crisis depression phase is the point when the body enters a short period in which the heart rate slips below normal so the body can regain its balance (Muir, et al. 2021). The situational awareness, coupled with an increase of energy allows the narcissist to assess what just happened. At this point there is an unwillingness from the narcissist to identify with the feelings and needs of others (ACA, 2013). This showcases itself in a selfish manner and it is all about them. The experienced sadness is normally directed inward, with a lack of empathy for others. The narcissist becomes interpersonally exploitative and without treatment, this is the narcissist’s only way out of the angry cycle. Struggling to break out of the sequence the narcissist begins to feel guilt, regret, or depression about what is happening to them. Example: Feeling sad and weepy / “I hate how I am being treated here”
Experiencing The Angry Cycle of a Narcissist
The individual experiencing the angry cycle of a narcissist can feel helpless looking at their family member, friend, or partner express such offensive behaviors. Correspondingly, the individual may feel inadequate and as if their voice is being stifled. The two components of anger, noted above by Dr. Spielberger, are similarly felt by the non-diagnosed individual, so-much-so that there is no clear differentiation between fighting with the person that they know or fighting with the person’s disorder. It is frustrating to experience the narcissist as the villain and the victim at the same time. Over time the anger wins. Not only does it control the narcissist, but it also begins to control other people around them as well. The non-diagnosed individual cultivates anger of their own, resulting from the intensity of negative reaction of the narcissist. The non-diagnosed individual becomes cognitively trained to adapt to the angry cycle and learn ways to survive each phase. For example, unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment are met; excessive admiration is offered frequently to avoid arguing; or automatic compliance with his or her expectations is granted to pause the anger and stop the fighting (ACA, 2013). This can be arresting and when the non-diagnosed individual no longer trust that the narcissist will speak to them calmly and rationally, they often respond with withdrawal and avoidance. Noticing this, the narcissist responds in ways to secure their strong-hold on the other person. Even in the rare cases where an apology was issued, the non-diagnosed individual may feel like the narcissist’s intention does not negate impact. In return, the narcissist becomes amiable and begins vying for positive attention again, but their anger is triggered once their needs are not met, thus resetting the pervasive cycle.
The Non-diagnosed Cycle
Breaking the angry cycle can be extremely difficult. The non- diagnosed, layperson is challenged to identify the disorder and distinguish it from others. Most narcissists hide their cyclical episodes to void shame or embarrassment (Spielberger, Butcher, & Spielberger, 2013). The non-diagnosed individual struggle to understand their own emotions and their feelings concerning the narcissist. Since the non-diagnosed individual is not plagued with the same disorder, they recognize the narcissist’s battle and may feel overwhelmed with empathy and compassion. Subsequently, the non-diagnosed individual feels a desire to protect the narcissist from themselves and others. Due to the narcissist’s inability to grasp the concept of these feelings, the non-diagnosed individual feels unseen, not validated, misunderstood, not accepted or valued. The narcissist sees this as a vulnerability and takes advantage to achieve his or her ends (ACA, 2013). This is often done through gaslighting or other emotional manipulation tactics, such as withholding sex (inadvertently squashing their partner’s true sexual essence), crying spells and/or playing the victim. The non-diagnosed individual often feels helpless and hopeless, so they just swallow it and tolerate the intolerable.
There are no known causes or preventive measure of narcissistic personality disorder. The best and most effective treatment for this disorder is psychotherapy. It is recommended for the person diagnosed with this disorder and their loved ones to attend therapy, beginning with individual, couple, and then family therapy. It is common for this disorder to be misdiagnose. People with narcissistic personality disorder are unlikely to seek treatment because they do not believe anything is wrong with them. If they do receive treatment, it’s more likely for symptoms of depression, anxiety, or another mental health problem. Treatment would be used to increase the awareness of narcissistic behaviors with the goal of solidifying self and managing the anger.
The diagnosed person’s perceived insults to self-esteem may make it difficult for them to enter and remain in treatment. Interventions based on cognitive or cognitive-behavioral therapy, mentalization-based therapy, transference-focused psychotherapy, schema-focused psychotherapy, and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) for significant self-destructive behaviors are used to help recognize the mental and intensely physical experiences of anger while in the crisis phase (APA, 2012). Techniques, such as, challenging confrontation and mirroring are suggested. However, for higher functioning narcissistic personalities or maintenance therapy skills training, psychodynamic (or psychoanalytic), and supportive psychotherapy were found be of benefit.
These approaches address the destructive thinking and replace them with mental discipline that encourages healthy and constructive behavior. Change becomes evident when the narcissist accepts responsibility for their erroneous thoughts and functioning. Also, when there is an increase in W.A.R (the acronym stands for willingness, ability, and readiness) to understand and regulate their feelings. With this understanding their perception of self and others becomes realistic (Langelier & Connell, 2005). They can recognize and accept their accurate potential or competence. By replacing the irrational ways of thinking and being, the narcissist receives help to tolerate criticisms or failures. Ongoing or maintenance therapy will help the narcissist understand issues related to their self-esteem and develop skills to recognize the emotions of others as non- threatening. Through this means they will learn to release themselves from unattainable goals, perfectionism, and grandiosity. With this progress, real personal relationships are developed and maintained. The relationships become mutually rewarding and enjoyable for all involved.
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American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA.
American Psychological Association. (2012, January 1). How to recognize and deal with anger. https://www.apa.org/topics/anger/recognize
Spielberger, C. D., Butcher, J. N., & Spielberger, C. D. (2013). Advances in Personality Assessment: Volume 5. Routledge.
Golden, B (2016) Overcoming Destructive Anger: Strategies That Work. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Muir, O., Weinfeld, J. N., Ruiz, D., Ostrovsky, D., Fiolhais, M., & MacMillan, C. (2021). Mental health clinicians’ attitudes toward narcissistic personality disorder. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 12(5), 389.
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DSM-5. 5th ed. Arlington, Va.: American Psychiatric Association; 2013. http://dsm.psychiatryonline.org. Accessed August. 20, 2022.
Langelier, C. A., & Connell, J. D. (2005). Emotions and learning: Where brain-based research and cognitive-behavioral counseling strategies meet the road. River College Online Academic Journal, 1(1), 1-13.
Lenzenweger, M. F. (1999). Stability and change in personality disorder features: The Longitudinal Study of Personality Disorders. Archives of general psychiatry, 56(11), 1009-1015.
The entire section on The Anger Arousal Cycle is quoted from Understanding Anger, Karen Smith found at https://adm.viu.ca/workplace-conflict/acknowledgements#xi Accessed August. 25, 2022.