Narcissists need not only to be in control – they feel entitled to dominate others and every situation. Lacking control threatens their sense of self and their grandiose façade, and their reaction to a perceived loss of control will be extreme.
Not being in control may elicit feelings of shame and embarrassment, which are converted into anger or narcissistic rage. Thus, the outcome of losing control is narcissistic rage in its various forms.
Because narcissists believe they are inherently superior, they tend to acquire the status and control they want and need through arrogance and self-promotion (e.g., showing off or being overly extroverted).
If self-promotion does not work, they will establish or reestablish control through derogating others. They might put others down, lie, bully, or resort to other forms of verbal and physical aggression (narcissistic rage).
Narcissistic rage is a malicious, out-of-control, and disproportionate type of anger that seeks revenge and destruction by any means possible. It is the result of a narcissist feeling their entitled and grandiose self-image (including their position of power) has been challenged.
Here’s how narcissistic rage can manifest as a result of losing control:
The outrage a narcissist may experience when they feel they no longer have control over you may spark a furious outburst. They attempt to reestablish their control through aggression and force.
Narcissistic rage is an intense, aggressive reaction to a perceived threat to a narcissist’s self-esteem or self-worth. Often triggered by criticism or perceived slights, it can manifest as sudden outbursts, passive-aggression, or vindictive behavior.
For example, if you do not admire their new outfit, do not seem excited by their stories, or do not rise to their attempts at provoking you, they might feel like their power is slipping away. In response, they might launch a verbal attack on you like shouting, insulting, and threatening you.
Another example is, if you tell them you are leaving the relationship (which they would perceive as a challenge to their dominance), they might throw and break things or physically attack you.
A smear campaign is a calculated attack on your reputation, image, self-esteem, and sense of reality. The narcissist spreads rumors and lies and spills your secrets to make you look bad and get other people on their side.
If you in some way challenge their dominance or they feel you are no longer under their control (e.g., if you question or confront them), they feel entitled to “destroy” you. They want to destroy your confidence, status, and support network because doing so gives them a sense of control, like they have the power to ruin or save your life.
They also want to get an emotional reaction out of you – see you cry, shout, and beg them to stop. Being able to elicit emotions out of other people, regardless of whether they are positive or negative, makes them feel powerful and in control.
Narcissistic baiting refers to a narcissist provoking or triggering you to get a reaction and feel powerful. Some of the tactics they use include creating fear or panic, accusing or blaming you, awakening your curiosity, guilt-tripping, or stonewalling.
For example, if you are not responding to their calls, they might message you saying they will damage your car – causing you to experience fear. They might accuse you of cheating on them in the hope that you will defend and justify yourself.
If they sense you are no longer interested, they might tell you they have news to share with you to awaken your curiosity. Or they might blame you for making them feel anxious and depressed, causing you to feel guilty.
Narcissistic individuals will try anything to get your attention and feel they have power over your emotions. At first, they might try to use “bait” as described above but if that does not work, they might resort to more extreme measures, such as verbal abuse or smear campaigning.
Another way a narcissist may try to reestablish control is by “hoovering” – a manipulation tactic aimed at “sucking” someone back into their life and under their control.
Hoovering can include romantic gestures, making grand statements about their love for you, telling you exactly what you want to hear, and expressing remorse and sorrow. This would likely cause an emotional reaction in you especially if you had/ have big feelings for them.
This is exactly what they want because now they have your full attention which makes them feel in control.
Playing the Victim
To reverse the roles and make you look like the perpetrator, the narcissist may play the victim. For example, they might accuse you of abusing or lying to them, blame you for their poor mental health, or threaten to commit suicide “because of you”.
Playing the victim is often a form of gaslighting because they turn everything around on you and make you question yourself and your sense of reality. Gaslighting and confusing other people make narcissistic people feel powerful.
In some cases, a narcissist may discard you if they feel they are losing control. For example, if they no longer see value in your relationship, feel you are not providing narcissistic supply, or they have found someone else.
They may initially attack you (e.g., call you ugly and stupid) as a last attempt at hurting your self-esteem and to feel like the winner, and then discard you. You may never hear from them again, or they might message you weeks or months later if they are bored or in need of supply.
If a narcissist discards you, as much as it may hurt your feelings, it is the best-case scenario for your mental and physical well-being.
Why Do Narcissists Need to Feel in Control?
An extreme need for control is a core feature of narcissism. Narcissists need control as well as excessive amounts of attention and admiration to get their “narcissistic supply”.
Narcissistic supply is the fuel that allows narcissists to continue living in a fantasy of superiority, power, and brilliance. This fantasy or façade of grandiosity allows them to hide their insecurities and failures from the world and even themselves.
The only way to uphold it is to get their narcissistic supply (control, admiration, and attention) from other people. That means, their sense of self is fragile because it is primarily based on external validation.
Being in control is therefore a protective mechanism because narcissists cannot psychologically survive without their narcissistic supply. When they sense they are losing control over a person or situation it threatens their sense of self and they will stop at nothing to ensure their grandiose fantasy is upheld.
Narcissism is thought to develop from growing up in an invalidating or overindulgent environment. They may have felt powerless, which may lead to an excessive desire for power – to make up for the lack of control in early life.
Alternatively, they may have been put on a pedestal and overindulged by their caregivers, which gave them a strong belief in their specialness and superiority. Consequently, they go through life expecting the same treatment and submission from other people.
They may have grown up in an environment in which the need to have control and power was strongly reinforced. They may have been taught that it’s a “dog-eat-dog world” and that if they are not in a dominant position, they are worthless.
The bottom line is that narcissists want to remain in a position of power and avoid feeling submissive or out of control at all costs.
Alexander, M. & Gore, J. & Estep, C. (2020). How Need for Power Explains Why Narcissists Are Antisocial. Psychological Reports. 124.
Grapsas, S., Brummelman, E., Back, M.D. & Denissen, J.J.A. (2020). The “Why” and “How” of Narcissism: A Process Model of Narcissistic Status Pursuit. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 15(1), 150-172.
Zeigler-Hill, V. & Dehaghi, A.M.B (2023). Narcissism and psychological needs for social status, power, and belonging. Personality and Individual Differences, 210, 112231.