Shame

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Lance Armstrong: Narcissism and What Lies Behind It

Part One of Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah.

Public reaction to USADA's reasoned decision and now to the first part of the Oprah Armstrong interview last night have completed the familiar arc of celebrity worship: first we raise our heroes to the pedestal then pull them down, throwing them onto the trash heap. Once disillusionment sets in, idealization gives way to hatred and contempt. In USA Today, Christine Brennan found Armstrong to be "even more unlikable than one might have imagined" during that interview, referring to him as a "cold blooded customer." Follow the comment threads on any of the online articles that analyze last night's interview and you'll feel the hatred. Millions of people who once lavished uncritical love upon Armstrong now despise him without ambivalence. Neither view of the man -- pillar of virtue or contemptible criminal -- holds much nuance.

Given his persistent lying and bullying, his arrogance and indifference to the feelings of others, his ruthless drive to win, it's difficult to feel much compassion for Armstrong, or even to muster any interest in understanding why he behaves the way he does. But let's try.

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"Narcissist" has become a dirty word in popular psychology. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a diagnostic label attached to social pariahs like Bernie Madoff, used more often to vilify than to shed light on the person's psychology. I don't believe much in the value of psychological diagnosis; attaching labels gives us the illusion that we understand more than we actually do, using the disease model of mental illness to define someone as a symptom checklist. So if I say I believe that Lance Armstrong's difficulties lie in the realm of narcissism, it's not quite the same thing as saying he suffers from NPD. If I call him a narcissist, I don't mean to insult him. Rather, I mean that Armstrong's arrogant and grandiose personality works as a kind of a psychological defense mechanism, or a set of defenses meant to ward off unconscious feelings of shame, defect or damage.

I discussed Armstrong's early background and the roots of what I refer to as core or basic shame several weeks ago in this earlier post. Watching him answer Oprah's questions last night, viewing the clips of his old denials and victory speeches, Armstrong's struggle with narcissistic defenses seemed even more apparent. In particular, it seemed clear that he lives in a world inhabited largely by winners and losers; his entire life has been a massive effort to prove himself a triumphant winner rather than a contemptible loser, a dynamic at the heart of narcissism.

Several times during the interview, he talked about his early childhood, how both he and his mother had their "backs against the wall." For PR purposes, I believe he's trying to characterize himself as some kind of scrappy fighter -- he repeatedly described his actions as defending his turf, or repelling a threat to his territory -- but in fact, what's he's trying to defeat is the sense of shame and inferiority that is often the residue of an impoverished childhood such as his, the fear of "being a loser."

"I'm a winner!" Armstrong constantly tells us. Being a "winner" often involves feeling contempt for the "losers," and in Oprah's clip of that victory speech he gave after his seventh Tour de France victory, you can hear it in his voice: “For the people that don't believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics, I’m sorry for you, I’m sorry you can't dream big. And I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.” He might as well have said, I feel sorry for you losers.

Contempt runs deep in Armstrong's character, and as I've described elsewhere, contempt is one of the primary defenses against shame. In earlier interviews where he denied doping, you could hear it when the interviewer pressed too forcefully. You could hear it in his attitude toward Emma O'Reilly, Frankie Andreu and anyone else who contradicted him. You could hear it in the bad joke he made during last night's interview, when he clarified that he had called Betsy Andreu only a "crazy bitch" but not fat.

Blame/righteous indignation is another defense against shame, and Armstrong has repeatedly lashed out against his critics, his former teammates who "betrayed" him, the Department of Justice and officials at USADA for their "personal vendetta" against him. Because Armstrong's shame runs so deep, his defensive indignation can become especially abusive: he reportedly left a taped message on Betsy Andreu's answering machine, saying "I hope someone breaks a baseball bat on your head." 

Because the narcissist is in constant flight from himself, out of touch with many of his more vulnerable emotions, he lacks the capacity to empathize with the feelings of others. Because he lacks empathy, because there is no good higher than "winning," his sense of morality is often skewed: whether an action turns out to be "wrong" depends largely on getting caught. Lance Armstrong now admits that what he did was wrong because he got caught, not because of a moral epiphany. At no point during his interview with Oprah did he express authentic remorse or any real feelings of guilt for the pain he has caused so many people.

It's difficult for most of us to feel any compassion for an unrelenting narcissist like Lance Armstrong: the repellent force of his character is simply too strong. Maybe a true humbling, the complete loss of fame, fortune and the chance to compete will finally crack through the defensive shell. If he can actually face the experience of being a "loser" like the rest of us, maybe then he'll begin to seem more human, and not so much the ruthless competitor who stop at nothing to triumph over his shame.

Joseph Burgo, Ph.D., is a Clinical Psychologist, Psychoanalyst and Author of the Popular Blog "After Psychotherapy."

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