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- Narcissists struggle with having positive feelings about someone while they are mad at them.
- For many people, the best thing to do is to leave a narcissist and cut them out of their life.
- If this isn’t possible there are some tactics you can use to stop the argument escalating.
When a narcissist flies into a rage, it can be terrifying.
Narcissists tend to be incapable of something called “object constancy,” which means they struggle to have positive feelings at the same time as negative ones.
Once they are fired up for a fight, they can be incredibly cruel, because all they can comprehend in the moment are feelings of resentment and anger.
As a result, an argument about the smallest of issues can escalate quickly and fiercely. Something you may have thought of as unimportant, or even irrelevant, has been blown into a relationship-ending showdown. They’ve spent your entire relationship working out how to push your buttons, and they will use everything in their power to make you feel insignificant and small.
Narcissists can be very delicate, depending on what sub-type they are. Alena Scigliano, a psychotherapist and clinical expert in narcissistic abuse, told Insider they are often deeply insecure underneath all the bravado, so they easily mistake other people’s comments and actions for “attacks on themselves.”
“They also have poor self-awareness, so they aren’t able to internally perceive when they begin to escalate, and poor social awareness means that they don’t consider how their behavior is impacting those around them,” she said. “They often struggle to regulate their emotions, so reacting calmly isn’t within their purview.”
Narcissists when offended accuse their partner of being “disrespectful” or “selfish.” The world should revolve around them in their eyes, so focusing on anything else is taken as a direct attack.
Here’s what you can expect from an argument with a narcissist and what you can do to keep things from spiraling out of control, according to experts.
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Scigliano said when you’re familiar with the narcissist in your life, you’ll learn their patterns. But some common signs a narcissist is gearing up for an argument include “physical agitation, facial expressions becoming sinister, darkened eyes, and a change in their posture to become more imposing or intimidating. Their voice may also suddenly get deeper or sterner, she said.
“Whatever the signs may be, they will reflect the narcissist’s desire to regain control of the situation or reestablish their authority,” Scigliano said.
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Elinor Greenberg, a therapist who wrote the book “Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety,” told Insider that fighting with a narcissist is a completely different experience to regular relationship quarrels.
They are wired to be abusive because they’re hypersensitive and lack empathy, so they are primed to take offense and misunderstand someone else’s needs and points of view. Some of her clients have screamed at her for minor things, such as the mail arriving during their session.
“If they’re going to yell at me over the UPS man, you can see just how hard it is for them to have a relationship without getting nasty,” she said.
Narcissistic rage ranges from direct confrontation with name-calling and hurtful slurs, to calculated, closed-down reactions like giving their partner the silent treatment for hours at a time.
“They give you the cold shoulder, or they walk out and they find another partner,” Greenberg said. “But it’s all done silently and coolly and coldly — you know what you did.”
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You can expect to be belittled and hurt by the insults thrown by an angry narcissist, and also feel frustrated with how the argument seems to be going nowhere.
“Because narcissists are fantastic at spinning others around in their webs of manipulation, you can easily become disoriented as to how the argument even began, frustrated over their circular arguments, and hopeless with regard to resolving anything,” Scigliano told Insider. “Oftentimes, people give up and give in just for the sake of ending the argument and reestablishing a modicum of peace.”
There’s no point trying to figure out who is “to blame” for something, as narcissists will never admit fault. They want to blame you for any negative emotions they are feeling, because they rely on the image they are portraying of being faultless.
Divorce attorney Derek Jacques of The Mitten Law Firm told Insider it’s “hard to bite your tongue” when a narcissist is “spewing insults your way.”
“However, it is best to avoid engaging with them on their level,” he said. “Be aware that narcissists don’t argue to prove a point. They argue to feel a rush of satisfaction of putting you down and belittling you. An innocuous statement can provide the narcissist all the ammo they need to launch a verbal assault. Take those opportunities away from them and you remove their power.”
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According to Terrell Strayhorn, a professor and director of higher education and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Illinois State University, narcissists become “visibly disappointed, frustrated, angry, and at times, violent when they don’t receive the feedback, praise, and admiration they expect, especially from partners.”
“Their superiority complex compels them to lash out — verbally, emotionally, psychologically, and physically — against those who disappoint them,” he said.
So rather than trying to argue, it may be better to empathize. After all, there is a debate over whether narcissists really mean to cause the harm they do or not.
If you are with a narcissist in the first place, you may already have a lot of empathy. But even the most caring people struggle to see the sense of having it for someone who is hurling insult after insult at them.
However, if you find yourself backed into a corner, one way to sooth a narcissist’s rage is to empathize with their feelings, Greenberg said. She suggested saying something like: “You must have felt very hurt by what I did, I can understand why you are feeling that way.”
By saying “we” rather than “I” or “you,” you include yourself in the behaviour, Greenberg said. The narcissist is probably so angry at you because you dared to defend yourself, so to try and stop the argument escalating further you can try and remind them you’re in this together, and it’ll be better for everyone to stop.
Scigliano also recommended maintaining calm, and not sharing your feelings, sticking only to the facts of the matter.
“Expressing emotions makes it easier for the narcissist to twist the conversation around and work you into a tizzy,” she said.
Narcissists love talking about themselves, or expressing just how much more they know about something than you do.
So, in a similar way you might distract a baby with a set of keys, you can dangle a new topic in front of their face to veer the conversation away from conflict. This might not be that effective in the midst of a fierce row, but if you do it after some time has passed, the narcissist will probably take the bait.
Another similar solution is to ask for advice. This may look like a slightly less transparent way of changing the subject, because it’ll make the narcissist feel like they are the only person you can go to, and make them feel superior.
As the narcissist believes you have hurt them severely by whatever they think you did, they’ll want to do the same to you. This means they’ll proverbially throw everything at you, from that one time you misbehaved a year ago, to how you’re acting selfishly right now.
Essentially, they are trying to get the maximum response out of you they can. Greenberg said that by ignoring the insult, you can often avoid the pointless fight. If you rise to it, things are likely to escalate, and you’re giving the narcissist exactly what they want — your pain.
There’s also no chance of the narcissist admitting to any wrongdoing or apologising. This includes asking them to process what really happened.
According to Greenberg, a narcissist will not be comfortable with the idea that they started an argument over something trivial, so it’s best to just move on.
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Most experts believe being in a romantic relationship with a narcissist is an emotionally draining, damaging process. Ultimately, it’s up to you if you think the tedious ego-stroking and hard work is worth it or not.
In all likelihood, you’ll probably realise it isn’t, and you’ll one day be able to move on with your life without the narcissist holding you back. But in the meantime, using these methods to de-escalate a narcissist who is on a roll can help get you out of upsetting, and potentially dangerous, situations.
For most people, breaking things off with a narcissist and being free from them is the only option. The very nature of being a narcissist means they don’t see anything wrong with themselves, so they are unlikely to ever change or seek help. Ultimately, your energy is better off being used elsewhere.
This article was first published in February 2018, but was updated in April 2023 to include more information and experts.