- Unhealthy narcissism is associated with anger.
- Vulerable narcissism is more strongly associated with anger and aggression.
- Appropriate treatment requires accurate identification of variables associated with the form of narcissism being addressed.
Healthy narcissism entails a healthy self-focus and sufficient self-regard that allows and supports the pursuit of our dreams and self-care including self-compassion. As psychologist Rick Hanson indicates, “Humans have need for recognition that includes mirroring, attunement and prizing” (2014). Healthy narcissism can inform the resilience we need in order to listen to our inner authority rather than be overly dependent on the demands or expectations of others.
By contrast, unhealthy narcissism entails a preoccupation with the self, driven by an unhealthy sense of self. These narcissists have an intense need to be admired, a sense of entitlement, and an ever-present preoccupation about seeing themselves as better than others. This is most often a defensive stance adopted in an effort to compensate for a deeper sense of inadequacy, powerlessness, shame, and ineffectiveness.
While narcissism may be reflected in a variety of ways, it tends to fall into two broad categories—grandiose and vulnerable. A third category is narcissistic personality disorder, a recognized mental health disorder.
Three forms of narcissism
Grandiose narcissism. Individuals with grandiose narcissism possess an attitude of being better than others, coupled with ambition, charm, and charisma. They can be likable, possess high self-esteem, and a tendency to overestimate their abilities and intelligence. They may spend a major portion of their lives striving to be healthier and more successful, and can be friendly, warm, and persuasive. Or, they may exploit others and be driven by feelings of entitlement.
Vulnerable narcissism. By contrast, vulnerable narcissists are insecure, have low self-esteem, and feel entitled to special treatment. At the same time, they may be passive in trying to get their needs met. Their tendency toward introversion makes them less available to satisfy their desires.
Narcissistic personality disorder. Those who exhibit narcissistic qualities to a more pathological degree are classified as having narcissistic personality disorder. They are intensely and pervasively self-absorbed, manipulative, and exploitative in relationships. They lack empathy and compassion, while harboring fantasies about being better than others. They have an intense need for flattery and admiration, as well as feelings of entitlement and arrogance that fuel their taking advantage of others. And yet, underneath this façade they possess highly fragile self-esteem.
The weak self-esteem associated with narcissism leads to a vulnerability to anger arousal. And yet, each of these different types of narcissist may vary in the quickness to become angry, its intensity, pervasiveness, and duration. This is reflected in the research regarding narcissism and anger.
Narcissism and anger
A comprehensive study of narcissism and anger involved a meta-analysis of 437 independent studies that included 123,043 participants (Kjaervik and Bushman, 2021). While previous meta-analytic reviews had been made, this one was more comprehensive–including more studies, research that examined normal and pathological narcissism, different forms of aggression, and other variables.
It found that narcissism was related to both aggression and violence—stronger under provocation, but significant even without provocation. Both “normal” and “pathological” narcissism were related to a heightened propensity for aggression. Narcissism was found to be related to different forms of aggression—indirect, direct, displaced, physical, verbal, and bullying—and to both reactive and proactive functions of aggression. The relationship between narcissism and aggression was found to be significant for males and females, for individuals of all ages, for students and non-students, and for people from individualistic and collectivistic countries.
One study found that the grandiose and vulnerable dimensions of narcissism are associated with different forms of aggression (Bryce, et. al., 2021). This research surveyed 1883 individuals and found that, while grandiose narcissism is associated with aggression, vulnerable narcissism is more greatly associated with a variety of forms of aggression.
Another study explored the associations of three emotional patterns with narcissism (Sauls and Zeigler-Hill, 2020). Specifically, it evaluated emotional patterns of assertive/extraverted, antagonistic/disagreeable, and vulnerable/neurotic aspects of narcissism, and found that the assertive/extraverted aspect of narcissism was characterized by the presence of anger and positive emotions along with the absence of fear and sadness. In contrast, the antagonistic/disagreeable aspect of narcissism was characterized by the presence of anger, and the absence of positive emotions and fear. The vulnerable/neurotic aspect of narcissism was characterized by the presence of negative emotions and the relative absence of positive emotions. Anger was associated with all three patterns.
One investigation found a higher correlation between trait anger and vulnerable narcissism than with grandiose narcissism (Maciantowicz and Zajenkowski, 2020). It also concluded that neuroticism was more highly associated with vulnerable narcissism.
One comprehensive inquiry conducted four separate studies in an effort to better identify the nature and sources of underlying rage (Krizan and Johar, 2015). All of the studies found that narcissistic vulnerability (rather than grandiosity) was associated with rage, hostility, and aggressive behavior. More specifically, the research team concluded that suspiciousness, dejection, and angry rumination fueled these tendencies. Vulnerable (but not grandiose) narcissism predicted more anger internalization and externalization, as well as weaker anger control.
Additionally, vulnerable narcissism was associated with shame and aggression. One of this team's studies concluded that distrust of others and angry rumination were key contributing factors for vulnerable narcissists’ reactive and displaced aggression. Finally, one study revealed that vulnerable narcissism heightened reaction and displaced aggression in the face of provocation. Overall, the results implicate deficient self-esteem as an important factor in promoting aggressive behavior.
An earlier study found that narcissistic anger is related to threats to one’s heightened sense of entitlement (Witte, et. al., 2002). This study involved 120 male undergraduate students who responded to the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and the Novaco Anger Scale. It also found the association based on the tendency of entitlement and not necessarily the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
A very recent study evaluated provoked narcissistic aggression and how it might be impacted by de-escalated and escalated provocations (Hart, et. al., 2021). Participants (680) first completed measures of grandiose narcissism (normal and pathological) and vulnerable narcissism. They then participated in imagining scenarios, some of which depicted the provocateur as escalating or de-escalating the provocation. Additionally, they rated anger and humiliation, perceived “narcissistic injury," goals, and aggression.
Those evidencing grandiose narcissism more frequently shared expressions of aggression following escalated provocation. Perceived narcissistic injury and narcissistic goals were more strongly associated with pathological grandiose narcissists following escalated provocation. Revenge goals and narcissistic identity goals were associated with “normal” narcissists. In contrast, vulnerable narcissism was more strongly associated with anger, perceived narcissistic injury, and narcissistic identity goals following de-escalated provocation.
Healthy narcissism is an aspect of positive well-being. By contrast, those who are high in narcissism are more prone to anger and aggression when they feel provoked. As such, they are more susceptible to the harmful emotional, social, and physical impact of frequent anger. Additionally, they are more disposed to difficulty with the law as a consequence of their aggression.
With appropriate psychotherapy, those with unhealthy narcissism can be helped to understand, recognize, and respond to, rather than react to, triggers of their anger. Additionally, they can be assisted in developing a sense of self that is less dependent upon a perceived need to protect their ego. This work takes time and commitment with a skilled therapist.
Most importantly, such therapy needs to address those variables that account for anger with each of the three types of narcissism—vulnerable, grandiose, and pathological types.
Hanson, Rick (2014) The Foundations for Well-Being: https://devfwb.rickhanson.net/
Kjaervik, S., and Bushman, B., (2021) The link between narcissism and aggression: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 147, No. 5, 477-503.
Bryce, C. J. C., Skvarc, D. R., King, R. M., & Hyder, S. (2021). Don't set me off—grandiose and vulnerable dimensions of narcissism are associated with different forms of aggression: A multivariate regression analysis. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-021-02318-x
Sauls, D. and Zeigler-Hill, V. (2020). Basic emotional systems and narcissistic personality features: What is the emotional core of narcissism? Personality and Individual Differences, Vol. 162, (1),
Krizan, A. and Johar, O., (2015) Narcissistic Rage Revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 108, No. 5, 784-801
Hart, W., Tortoriello, G. and Richardson, K., (2021) Provoked narcissistic aggression: Examining the role of de-escalated and escalated provocations. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 36(9-10): 4832-4853.