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Narcissistic rage: 'term coined by Heinz Kohut (1972)...Narcissistic scar: phrase used by Sigmund Freud (1920g)'[1].

Self psychology has explored the concept of narcissistic rage as a reaction to narcissistic injury, a perceived threat to a narcissist’s self-esteem or self-worth. Both concepts - rage and injury - have (like self psychology itself) deep roots in the previous half-century of psychoanalytic exploration.

Freud and narcissism: wounds, blows, injuries and scars

In his 1914 case study of the "Wolfman", Freud identified the cause of his 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'[2]. Freud was careful to stress that thereby 'he was repeating a mechanism that he had already brought into play once before...when he found himself faced by the fact that such a thing as castration was possible'[3]. A few years later, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, looking at the close of 'the early efflorescence of infantile sexual life', 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 '[4]. 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', but insisted that 'one ought not to speak of a castration complex until this idea of a loss has been connected with the male genitals'[5]; and in "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes" (1925) he famously (or infamously) stated re penis envy that 'after a woman has become aware of the wound to her narcissism, she develops, like a scar, a sense of inferiority'[6].

Further psychoanalytic developments

Freud's concept of narcissistic injury was subsequently extended by a wide variety of psychoanalysts. Karl Abraham saw the key to depression in '"a severe injury to infantile narcissism through a combination of disappointments in love" experienced as a "loss of essential narcissistic supplies"'[7]. Otto Fenichel confirmed the importance of 'the decisive narcissistic shocks...narcissistic injuries'[8], and, building on Freud's concept of 'a narcissistic "frustration"'[9], expanded such analyses to 'borderline cases...Their narcissistic regression is a reaction to narcissistic injuries; if they are shown this fact and given time to face the real injuries and to develop other types of reaction, they may be helped enormously'[10].

Edmund Bergler took a different approach. 'Bergler assumed that the preservation of infantile megalomania or infantile omnipotence (we today would say narcissism) is of prime importance...The infant responds with fury to [any] offense to his omnipotent self'[11]. Thus for Bergler, 'as Freud and Sandor Ferenczi have shown, the child lives in a sort of megalomania for a long period...confronted with some refusal...regardless of its justifications, the refusal automatically provokes fury, since it offends his sense of omnipotence'[12].

In another line of development, we find Lacanians 'linking Freud's stress on the narcissistic wound to Lacan's theory of the narcissistic mirror stage'[13]; while in yet another perspective object relations theory highlights 'patients who have suffered narcissistic injury, having been made to feel bad about themselves in realtions to their primary object(s)...the narcissistic shell'; as well as 'rage...against failures in the early holding environement'[14] when childhood omnipotence is challenged too abruptly. If instead 'the mother gives time for her infant to acquire all sorts of ways of dealing with the shock of recognising a world that is outside his or her magical control...then the child becomes able to be destructive..instead of magically annihilating that world. In this way actual aggression is seen to be an achievement, as compared with magical destruction'[15].

Kohut and self psychology

'Kohut's (1972) "Thoughts on Narcissism and Narcissistic Rage" has long been considered one of his most brilliant contributions'[16]. In it 'Kohut constructed a whole spectrum of rage experiences....Kohut viewed narcissistic rage as just one specific band in this whole spectrum, but..he designated the entire spectrum narcissistic rage. This has created some ambiguity'[17]. However 'Kohut properly contrasted narcissistic rage with mature aggression'[18].

Such narcissistic rage 'cannot progress to self-assertiveness because it is the self structure that is enfeebled and vulnerable'[19]. Weakness in the self structure leads to the 'development of a narcissistic vulnerability: increased sensitivity to disappointments and extreme difficulty in dealing with real or imagined slights and failures. Narcissistic injury follows such experiences and culminates in narcissistic rage '[20].

Self psychology and narcissistic rage

Kohut's explanation of narcissistic rage and depression stated, “depressions are interrupted by rages because things are not going their way, because responses are not forthcoming in the way they expected and needed”. He went further to say that narcissists may even search for conflict to find a way to alleviate pain or suffering in his book “The Analysis of the Self[21].

When the narcissist's grandiose sense of self-worth is perceived as being attacked by another person (typically in the form of criticism), the narcissist's natural reaction is to rage and pull down the self-worth of others (to make the narcissist feel superior to them). It is an attempt by the narcissist to soothe their internal pain and hostility, while at the same time rebuilding their own self-worth. Narcissistic rage should not be confused with anger (although the two are similar), and is not necessarily caused by a situation that would typically provoke anger in an individual.[22] Narcissistic rage also occurs when the narcissist is perceivably being prevented from accomplishing their grandiose fantasies.[23]

Alternatively, according to Kohut,[24] 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.[25] 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.

It is believed that narcissists have two layers of rage. The first layer of rage can be thought of as a constant anger (towards someone else), and the second layer being a self-aimed wrath[citation needed].

Types of narcissistic rage

The two types of narcissistic rage are:[26]

Narcissists can become enraged to the point of being homicidal especially if he/she has the need to seek revenge.[27]


Narcissism can be considered as a self-perceived form of perfectionism - 'an insistence on perfection in the idealized self-object and the limitless power of the grandiose self. These are rooted in traumatic injuries to the grandiose self'[28].

Narcissists often are pseudo-perfectionists and require being the center of attention and create situations where they will receive attention.[27] This attempt at being perfect is cohesive with the grandiose self-image that the narcissist has of him-/herself. If a perceived state of perfection isn’t reached it can lead to guilt, shame, anger or anxiety because he/she believes that he/she will lose the imagined love and admiration from other people if he/she isn’t perfect.[29]

Narcissistic injury v narcissistic wound v narcissistic scar

Vaknin differentiates between these three expressions as follows:[26]

  • Narcissistic injury: An occasional or circumstantial threat (real or imagined) to the narcissist's grandiose and fantastic self-perception (False Self) as perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, and entitled to special treatment and recognition, regardless of his actual accomplishments (or lack thereof).
  • Narcissistic wound: A repeated or recurrent identical or similar threat (real or imagined) to the narcissist's grandiose and fantastic self-perception (False Self) as perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, and entitled to special treatment and recognition, regardless of his actual accomplishments (or lack thereof).
  • Narcissistic scar: A repeated or recurrent psychological defence against a narcissistic wound. Such a narcissistic defence is intended to sustain and preserve the narcissist's grandiose and fantastic self-perception (False Self) as perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, and entitled to special treatment and recognition, regardless of his actual accomplishments (or lack thereof).


Wide dissemination of Kohut's concepts may at times have led to their trivialization. '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'[30].

See also


  1. Salman Akhtar, Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (London 2009) p. 182
  2. Sigmund Freud, Case Histories II (P. F. L. 9) p. 340
  3. Freud, Histories p. 340
  4. Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (P. F. L. 11) p. 291
  5. Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (P. F. L. 7) p. 310n
  6. Freud, On Sexuality p. 337
  7. Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 404
  8. Fenichel, p. 405
  9. Freud, Case Histories II p. 361
  10. Fenichel, p. 451
  11. Arnold M. Cooper, in Arnold M. Cooper ed., Contemporary Psychoanalysis in America (2006) p. 116
  12. Edmund Bergler, in Jon Halliday/Peter Fuller eds., The Psychology of Gambling (London 1974) p. 176 and p. 182
  13. Timothy Murray/Alan K. Smith, Repossessions (1998) p. xiv
  14. Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (London 1996) p. 131-2 and p. 86
  15. D. W. Winnicott, The Child, the Family, and the Outside World (Penguin 1973) p. 239
  16. Paul H. Ornstein, in Cooper ed., p. 451
  17. Ornstein, in Cooper ed., p. 451-2
  18. Ornstein, in Cooper ed., p. 452
  19. Cooper, "Introduction", Cooper, ed., p. xxxiv
  20. Jon Carlson/Len Sperry, The Disordered Couple (1998) p. 218
  21. Kohut, Heinz (1971). The analysis of the self: A systematic approach to the psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personality disorders.. Perspectives.
  22. Vaknin S Narcissists, Disagreement and Criticism
  23. "Son gets life for killing parents". BBC News. June 29, 2005. Retrieved May 19, 2010.
  24. Kohut, Heinz (1972). Thoughts on narcissism and narcissistic rage. In The search for the self. International Universities Press. pp. (Vol.2, pp. 615–658).
  25. Golomb, Elan (1992). Trapped in the Mirror: Adult Children of Narcissists in their Struggle for Self.. Canada: Harper Collins.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Vaknin S Narcissistic Rage and Narcissistic Injury - The Intermittent Explosive Narcissist
  27. 27.0 27.1 Stephens, Laura (June 2005). "Narcissistic Personality Disorder". Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin.
  28. Cooper, "Introduction" p. xxxiv
  29. Sorotzkin, Benzion (18 Apr 2006). "The Quest for Perfection: Avoiding Guilt or avoiding shame?". Psychology Today.
  30. Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 2003) p. 10

Further reading


  • Cooper J & Maxwell N Narcissistic Wounds: Clinical Perspectives (1995)
  • Levin JD Slings and Arrows: Narcissistic Injury and Its Treatment (1995)

Academic papers

  • Horowitz MJ & Arthur RJ Narcissistic Rage in Leaders: the Intersection of Individual Dynamics and Group Process - International Journal of Social Psychiatry 1988 Summer;34(2) Pages 135-41
  • Terman DM Aggression and Narcissistic Rage: A Clinical Elaboration - Annual of Psychoanalysis 3:239-255 (1975)
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