Rage Against the Externalized Self


Summary. Inabilities to accept (and therefore recognize) our dark feelings are leading us to externalize our shadow (as Jungians would say) to others, for example to a therefor loved partner. Especially vulnerable narcissists defend themselves against shameful helplessness in cases of separation with a partner (and therefore with a part of themselves) by negating their helplessness. To avoid frustration, rage, and violent defenses in case of uncontrollable separation it is, therefore, to some extent, essential to learning to live with (learned) helplessness.

Helplessness is one factor of demoralization [1] and it involves the inability to hope as well as the capacity to notice one’s own and others’ emotions, as it is, for example, the case for the lack of empathy in the burnout syndrome [2]. The inability to accept (and therefore recognize) our dark feelings leads us to outsource our shadow (as Jung would say) to others, which is the reason for why we love them for completing us or hate them for abandoning us [3]. It can be a traumatic and threatening experience to lose somebody to whom a part of oneself was externalized [4]. Such a loss of self produces shame as one is forced to face the dark side directly and not through a mirror anymore [5].

Living with fears with which we don’t learn to live is creating helplessness. Shame as a result of helplessness is causing rage that leads to defense mechanisms learned from family and culture [6]. Rage and violent defenses have to be seen as a battle against the shameful and unwanted dark sides that, due to the partners leave, cannot be kept outward-projected anymore and therefore needs to be destroyed inside oneself [7]. To avoid violence it is, therefore, essential to learning to live with (learned) helplessness [8], unless this leads to apathy against injustice. Interventions on collective and individual levels should foster experiences of power in place of helplessness to decrease rage [9].

An extreme opposite of learned helplessness could be seen as narcissism. A narcissist would be convinced that he has the influential power to make the world turn around him no matter how desperate the situation may look like to others [10]. Certain (all maladaptive) types of narcissism can root in a shamed and helpless identity [11] that defends itself through blatancy [12], [10]. A conventional explanation for rage suggests that rage develops from early experiences of humiliation and helplessness [13]. Indeed, studies found that humiliation is associated with anger and depression [14]. In the last 50 years, anxiety, depression, emotions of helplessness, and narcissism became more widespread in young people, which could be correlated to the gradual loss of this generations’ opportunities for free play with other children. The link makes sense as free play allows the learning of decision making, problem-solving, and exertion of own control [15].

The relatively recently evolved field of despair research could be a promising avenue to further study the psychological interplay of shame, fear, helplessness, and rage [16]. Also, researchers developed a dedicated process of eye-opening and reality-checked feedback in a safe environment of trust that is fostering socialization to address helpless-hostile behavior as it is often found in lonely patients with a background of abuse [17]. And finally, as simple that it may sound, the capacity to actively listen and enable dialogues is probably still the most effective tool everybody can employ to make a positive contribution [13].


[1] Kissane, D. W., Wein, S., Love, A., Lee, X. Q., Kee, P. L., & Clarke, D. M. (2004). The Demoralization Scale: a report of its development and preliminary validation. Journal Of Palliative Care, 20(4), 269-276.

[2] Dessy, E. (2009). Effective communication in difficult situations: Preventing stress and burnout in the NICU. Early Human Development, 85(Supplement), S39-S41. doi:10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2009.08.012

[3] Blumenthal, M. (2016). Light and Dark. Legal Studies Forum, 40(1), 26.

[4] Shukla, R. (2014). Love and Rage: Role of Splitting, Projection and Narcissism. International Journal Of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 11(3), 274-277. doi:10.1002/aps.1394

[5] Wurmser, L. (2004). Review of Disappearing Persons: Shame And Appearance.  (4 Journal Of The American Psychoanalytic Association, 52), 1262-1267. doi:10.1177/00030651040520042201

[6] Nagel, J. (2012). Fear, Helplessness, and Rage. Satir Journal, 5(1), 65-69.

[7] Snyder, J., & Rogers, K. (2002). The violent adolescent: the urge to destroy versus the urge to feel alive. American Journal Of Psychoanalysis, 62(3), 237-253.

[8] Helplessness and the exercise of power in the analytic session. (2011). INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PSYCHOANALYSIS, 92(1), 135-147.

[9] Wolf, E. (2009). Group Helplessness and Rage. Group Analysis, 42(2), 177-184. doi:10.1177/0533316409104364

[10] Roberts, D. (2014). In defense of defenselessness: Kierkegaard’s critique of an accepted narcissism. Heythrop Journal, 55(5), 827.

[11] Bouizegarene, N., & Lecours, S. (2017). Verbal elaboration of distinct affect categories and narcissistic personality disorder features. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 34(3), 279-289. doi:10.1037/pap0000066

[12] Van Buren, B. R., & Meehan, K. B. (2015). Child maltreatment and vulnerable narcissism: The roles of shame and disavowed need. Journal Of The American Psychoanalytic Association, 63(3), 555-561. doi:10.1177/0003065115593058

[13] Blackwell, D. (2009). Locating helplessness and rage in the matrix of political violence: A commentary on Ernest Wolf’s `Group helplessness and rage.’. Group Analysis, 42(2), 185-192. doi:10.1177/0533316409104365

[14] Harter, S., Low, S., & Whitesell, N. (2003). What have we learned from Columbine: the impact of the self-system on suicidal and violent ideation among adolescents. Journal Of School Violence, 2(3), 3-26.

[15] Gray, P. (2011). The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents. American Journal Of Play, 3(4), 443-463.

[16] Bürgy, M. (2007). [A introduction to despair as a psychopathological phenomenon]. Der Nervenarzt, 78(5), 521.

[17] Loboprabhu, S., Molinari, V., & Asghar-Ali, A. A. (2015). Castaways: addressing hostility and helplessness in severely lonely adults. Journal Of Psychiatric Practice, 21(2), 93-106. doi:10.1097/01.pra.0000462602.94853.2f

  • I prefer the concept of embracing negative emotions and not fearing them. By facing them in this way they lose power over us and eventually disappear. This is a way toward peace, in my opinion.

    Thanks for an interesting article, my friend. ?

  • I am afraid it’s spreading also between the not so young… or maybe it’s because we talk more about that than we did before, when we dealt with this without putting a name on it..?

    • Hi, and thank you very much for your comment. You are right, the phenomenon described applies regardless of age/generation. The mentioned tendency in more narcissism, besides some possible real increases, may indeed have to do with the ‘popularity’ of the term too. And, many things just manifest differently today, while they were present in more covert ways already before. Good point, thanks for bringing it up. All the best!

  • Fantastic article again. I think it is not simple at all, and absolutely key to ‘actively listen’. Not simple as in, it is harder as most people are aware of to really listen, in a non-judgmental way, in stead of given immediately (unasked) advice.