Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

The Double-Edged Sword of Narcissism

A case study that explains the strength and weakness of narcissism

The Wolf of Wall Street!

This movie is outstanding - not just because it’s so well made but because it follows such an interesting (obviously and amusingly narcissistic) character, Jordan Belfort (played in outstanding fashion by Leonardo DiCaprio).

That’s two “outstanding’s” in the first sentence, which accurately reflects the fact that this movie is as entertaining as all the critics are saying it is, and that this movie is likely to snag at least some of the academy awards for which it will surely be nominated.

Jordan Belfort possesses some very noticeable strengths and weaknesses. He has some real talents that cause his marvelous ascent to fame and fortune, and he has some real personality-based flaws that cause an equally marvelous collapse (caveat: perhaps this is arguable but I’m interpreting his ‘collapse’ to be exclusively self-inflicted).

One scene, in particular, illustrates a central strength and weakness of his, and the way in which (as is so often the case) the strength and weakness are complexly intertwined.

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This scene, which occurs in the first third of the film, shows Jordan in full-blown sales mode. As a young, ambitious stock broker, in-between jobs and eager to regain strong financial footing, he joins the equivalent of a ‘Mom & Pop’ stock brokerage. Immediately following the job interview, he sits at his new desk, and sells his first “penny stock” to his very first “sucker.” In the subsequent five minute sequence that unfolds the tiny, but chaotic office halts abruptly to notice the tongue-to-the-floor awe-inspiring performance that Jordan is displaying.

Jordan is conducting his masterpiece; he’s doing the very thing that eventually helped him to become a ridiculously wealthy multi-millionaire by his mid-twenties. He’s oozing confidence, and spinning  a seemingly brilliant and coherent story of dreams fulfilled, of unending profits…and he’s slowly but surely ‘reeling in and hooking’ the reluctant stranger on the other end of the phone.  Jordan is so convincingly logical about his observations of the marketplace, so passionate about the notion of success, and so assured in his belief that nothing bad could possibly happen…that I found myself reaching for my wallet.

Jordan is able to be so fantastic at this craft, not just because he shows recognizable strengths like eloquence and charisma, but because he knows what people want. He can paint such a vivid picture of success, and make someone else feel like that success is within his or her grasp.

It’s a remarkable, rare and worthy strength to know so vividly what everyone wants, and to make them feel like they’re going to get it…but the reason it’s also a weakness….and this speaks to the difference between manipulation and earnest altruism…is because he can act like he really wants to give other people what they want, while simultaneously not caring one lick about the fact that the ‘other people’ are never going to get it….in fact, they’re going to lose.

Jordan passionately commits himself to the very immoral goal of convincing masses of people to throw their hard-earned money at bad bets that he knows aren’t full understood, and will inevitably implode.

Like the most narcissistic of salesman, Jordan see’s people as pawns to be manipulated out of self-interest, which is a dramatically darker and more superficial image of ‘others’ than what most people have in their heads.

This superficial view of others’ is what provides Jordan’s mind with the freedom and motivation to create and follow-through on crucial and impressive sales pitches that propel him toward more money than can be counted…but it’s also what leads to his mis-reading FBI agents, and alienating himself from his family.

The explanation of Jordan’s personality is on full and complete display in this one “outstanding” sales scene.

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

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