The shame rage spiral of the narcissist
The need for revenge; for righting a wrong; for undoing a hurt by whatever means; and a deeply anchored unrelenting compulsion in pursuit of all of these aims are the characteristics of narcissistic rage in all its forms. (Heinz Kohut)
Let me give you a little tip. If you ever come across anyone who feels the need to say that they are the “sweetest person that you’ll ever meet”, chances are they are not. Chances are they are the exact opposite and trying to convince you and themselves that they are not full of shame and rage. Let me go further and hypothesise that if you come across anyone trying to convince you of their sweetness yet you witness how they don’t treat anyone with sweetness, chances are you’re in the presence of a narcissist. If you question a narcissist or unwittingly do something that triggers them, boy do they bite back. The sweetness disappears and you realise that the sweet act was smoke and mirrors. In psychological terms, it is a construct; a false self and an ego-centric concept of reality carefully curated to protect them from their broken sense of self and self-esteem.
Today, I want to talk about the shame rage spiral of narcissists, inspired by real-life events. Long story short, I witnessed this spiral in someone who was close to me. The rage and hatred that spewed out might have left me questioning myself but for the fact that I have witnessed the same cycle from the same person towards several other people several times already. I had escaped the cycle until I mentioned some personal plans, which unleashed a fury in them so venomous and insidious, that the relationship became irrevocably broken. Did I spot this pathology previously? Short answer, not entirely. Covert narcissists are harder to spot and beyond this, finding character flaws in others is not how I want to live my life. Who wants to be at work 24/7? Being a psychotherapist does not make you immune to narcissists or their behaviour but once the mask slips, knowledge and experience helped me to process what had happened and detach from the rage and hate that poured out everywhere, like fire from a dragon’s mouth. It appeared that I had unwittingly triggered their shame rage cycle.
So what is the shame and rage cycle? It is when a narcissist becomes activated by something that someone says, or if someone does better than them, has something that they want or simply refuses to be used, the narcissist experiences two emotions; shame and then rage. The rage manifests as vindictiveness, retaliation and punishment because they want their perceived perpetrator to feel as bad as them.
Shame is a universal emotion, which you do not have to be a narcissist to experience. Shame is a public emotion, based on the fear that we will be “seen” if the uncomfortable parts of ourselves are exposed to the world and consequently rejected for our deficits and vulnerabilities. When we don’t process our shame (some of which is carried from early childhood), it turns into negative emotional states that can plague us throughout our lives. Shame harms us from the outside in as well as the inside out. Narcissists get into a cycle of anger when their shame is triggered and instead of dealing with the feelings, they just get angry at the person who evoked the feelings in them. They blame the other person and project the feelings that they cannot tolerate onto the other or they fully discard them. Why? They want to get ahead of being discarded themselves now that their shameful parts are public. Interestingly enough, shame does not always elicit rage in narcissists. In the more covert subtype, shame will result in a passive-aggressive rumination and planning on the revenge and punishment of the person who they feel has wronged them so greatly, whether or not the other person meant to offend them or not. Whether it is traditional in-your-face rage or the passive-aggressive sullen, resentful, obsessive kind, the reaction is still rage.
Over time, the narcissistic person chronically starts to rage at those who evoke their feelings of shame. Rage isn’t good, and for the most part, people do not react well to being raged at or on the receiving end of vile and disproportionate behaviour. So now the narcissist gets stuck in a cycle of feeling shame, lashing out with rage, which results in feeling more shame, which results in lashing out with more rage…do you see where this is going? Nowhere good, that’s for sure.
Most narcissistic rage has a shame-based origin and because of this, the whole world can feel like one big, shame-inducing threat. Therefore, narcissists employ a range of approaches to defend against this, such as grandiosity and entitlement, but these do not always work. In other words, the narcissist’s fear of being found out means that they are constantly at risk of shame. Inevitably, the shame gets triggered and then they rage. This is why so many people with narcissism as partners, best friends, and family get stuck in an eggshell walking cycle around them. Nobody wants to trigger them but often are not cognisant of what they are trying not to trigger isn’t the rage, it is the shame.
It is impossible to have a healthy, authentic relationship in the long term with the narcissist because you never know what will trigger their shame. In most cases, what will trigger them has nothing to do with you. They just take it out on you. For example, it may happen if you succeed where they cannot. It may happen because not enough people liked their Instagram posts. It may happen because you called them out on a lie they told, brought a bigger house than them, or because you have something they covet. As you can see, all of these experiences in the course of living your life may reveal the vulnerabilities or deficiencies of the narcissist and they trigger the shame cycle. Shame sets off rage, sets off shame, sets off rage. You get the picture.
Without understanding this, most people in any kind of relationship with a narcissist will spend most of their days hoping that things go okay. This only works if you are the only person in the narcissist’s life. What happens when they go to work; to the shops; scroll through their social media, or meet others? Something might happen that is outside of your control and then when they return, the rage is unleashed upon you because they need a target onto whom to project. When experiences occur in a narcissist’s life that uncover what they perceive as their deficiencies, the pattern of behaviour is as follows. They will rage at other people, blame other people, become vindictive towards other people and then feel more shame when people push back on them for behaving like jerks.
So what do we do when the narcissist in our lives unleashes this rage upon us? In all honesty, there is little to be done other than moving out of the way and assessing whether this is the sort of behaviour that you want or need to be dealing with. It is an opportunity to get really honest with yourself about what this individual is bringing to your life besides anxiety and narcissistic abuse. My guess is, not much. As a psychotherapist, I work with clients who are narcissistic as well as clients who experience narcissistic abuse. The work that needs to be done is centred upon shame and it is one of the hardest types of work to do. The work centres upon teaching the narcissistic clients the appropriate ways to address the moments where they feel shame without raging at people. It is a tough gig because the defences are usually so reinforced that the shame sequence can get activated in a split second when they perceive that they are going to get “found out”.
The shame rage cycle is why, all too often, these relationships are impossible to fix. The type of therapy required here is hard work, a long-term commitment, and a very skilled and robust clinician. It is not the job of the partner or the best friend to fix this aetiology. I hope that when we understand the shame rage cycle, we will no longer personalise the behaviour. To me, there is something very self-destructive and tragic about this dynamic. That paralysing fear of what might happen if someone saw your faults is such a destabilising place to live in, psychologically. Whilst you might feel compassion towards this, it is such a delicate balancing act to feel compassionate but prioritise self-care and self-preservation. This is especially tough with the narcissist in your life because you want to be there for them and not contribute to their cycle of shame, but to stick around and be a punching bag for their rage helps no one. How has it worked out so far? Probably not very well, especially for your mental health.
Shame does its best in the dark and it is likely that, for the narcissist who was shamed as a child for not being good enough and for their victims who were also shamed for not being good enough, a whole system of oppression and victimisation is established and left to ground spread; of those who rage and of those who endure the rage. We cannot change what we do not acknowledge, so if you are stuck in this cycle in your own life, acknowledgement is the first step towards a healthier life.