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On the Malignant Nature of Narcissism

What is the relationship between narcissism, sociopathy, and politics?

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In this summer's already heavily overheated presidential contest in this country, talk among pundits, surrogates, political commentators, and the contestants themselves has recently taken an appropriate yet troubling turn toward questioning the mental health of the candidates. I refer to this development as troubling not because the matter of mental health is irrelevant to presidential politics--it clearly is relevant and must be considered--but because the vast majority of those currently doing the "analyzing" and "diagnosing" of these public figures are not trained mental health professionals, but rather partisan laypersons. Nonetheless, now everyone, from news anchors to political analysts, seems to feel they are qualified to intelligently discuss subjects such as "psychosis," "sociopathy," "psychopathy," and, most notably, "narcissism." Suddenly, they are all armchair psychologists when it comes to analyzing various candidates and their confusing or questionable behavior. (Much the same can be said regarding the public discussion of our runaway epidemic of mass violence.) (See my prior post.)

I find this phenomenon awfully ironic, given the fact that the publicly perceived expertise and professional valuation of, and confidence in clinical psychologists especially, has been severely eroded in recent years, at a time when we obviously need psychology more than ever--not only here in America but around the world. One irony is that clinical psychologists (or psychiatrists) are ethically restrained from formally diagnosing and analyzing public figures, whereas non-professionals are free to speculate wildly about such issues as they wish, despite their total incompetence to do so. But if we are going to be discussing the psychology of our current presidential nominees, it is essential that we do so in a clinically well-informed, sophisticated, and compassionate way. Toward that end, let me contribute to this seemingly inevitable and absolutely necessary national conversation some of my perspective and experience as a seasoned clinical and forensic psychologist on the thorny subject of narcissism specifically.

Narcissism is a pervasive, endemic aspect of contemporary life, and exists to varying degrees in each and every one of us. We all need some measure of healthy narcissism to get on in the world, which is related to self-esteem, confidence, sense of significance, etc. And most of us suffer to some extent from some pathological or neurotic narcissism as well. For example, a great deal of the destructive anger, rage and violence, the animosity between the sexes, and the hypersensitivity to any and all perceived political incorrectness besetting the collective American psyche, springs from pathological narcissism. We live increasingly, as sociologist Christopher Lasch said four decades ago, in a "culture of narcissism," one in which narcissism is idealized, worshiped, emulated and rewarded, whether in the world of business, the entertainment industry, or the political arena.

Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, who modified and expanded Freud's original ideas on narcissism, suggests that pathological narcissism is an arrest or distortion of normal, pre-Oedipal development, during which the infant's natural, healthy, primitive or "primary narcissism" is deficiently dealt with or unempathically "mirrored" by the primary caretakers--in most cases, the parents, but particularly, the mother. This so-called "narcissistic wounding" or frustration results in the neurotic perseveration of unresolved infantile narcissism into childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Thus, narcissism in adults may represent a form of "healthy" narcissism either never allowed adequate expression or gratification during childhood or overindulged and insufficiently moderated and socialized, and hence, never outgrown. It is in this sense that the pathologically narcissistic person's often petulant behavior is akin to that of a spoiled or rejected little boy or girl who insists upon having everything their own way, even if that means lying and cheating to get it. Or to the profound dread of being hurt, rejected or abandoned again. Indeed, the fatal self-absorption of the mythic young man Narcissus, from whom the clinical term narcissism was derived, is designed to fend off potential rejection via the hostile or aggressive rejection of others. Such neurotic narcissism may manifest somewhat differently in men and women. For instance, a similar depiction of a more passive, subtle yet equally defensive neurotic narcissism can be found in the Grimm's fairy tale Little Briar Rose, better known to most Americans as the female adolescent, Sleeping Beauty.

Face-saving is another central aspect of pathological narcissism: the concerted, sometimes frantic effort to preserve one's public persona at all costs. As C.G. Jung observed, we all need a persona, a sort of mask or costume or role we play, in order to participate in society. But problems occur when we become overidentified with our persona, when it becomes too one-sided, imbalanced and rigid. In pathological narcissism, this is precisely what has happened: the persona--which has to do not only with what we try to project outwardly to the world but, even more fundamentally, with how we wish to see ourselves--has become a shallow "false self," one which conceals and compensates for what Jung called the shadow. (See my prior post.) We all have a shadow, a dark side consisting of those "negative" (or sometimes even repressed positive) parts of our personality we reject, disown, and deem socially or morally unacceptable, reprehensible, evil or dangerous: sexuality, aggression, inferiority feelings, vulnerability, love, healthy narcissism, and the desire for power, for example. In pathological narcissism, this grandiose persona compensates for repressed feelings of inferiority, vulnerability, weakness, smallness, neediness, and must be maintained, preserved and vigorously defended against all challenges. Such compulsive face-saving takes the form of exaggeration, manipulation, or careful parsing of the truth, fibbing, fabrication, or outright lying when the narcissistic persona is somehow threatened from without or within. In some cases, such elaborate fabrication, lying, and self-deception can attain delusional, and, therefore, psychotic proportions, with the person being utterly convinced of the veracity and reality of his or her falsification. (See my prior post.) In individuals whose severe pathological narcissism eventually leads to engaging in criminal behavior, the lying becomes at least as much about avoiding assuming responsibility and evading the legal consequences for their evil deeds, believing themselves to be "above the law."

Let us briefly look to forensic psychology for clarification. Consider, for example, the high-profile criminal cases involving Casey Anthony, Joran van der Sloot, and Jodi Arias. (See my prior posts.) It was difficult not to note certain similarities in the demeanor (if not alleged crimes) of these three attractive young murder defendants. How can we make sense of their seeming lack of profoundly human, universal feelings like empathy, guilt, remorse or shame? Though, as with public figures such as politicians, I (nor any other mental health professional) cannot provide a detailed and accurate psychological evaluation of defendants (or since convicted former defendants) without having first formally examined them myself, there is clearly much to learn from observing these tragic cases. So let us sum up what little we do know and consider what these murder cases might have in common and what they can tell us about the malignant nature of narcissism and its vicissitudes.

Most importantly, for the sake of this present discussion, is the strong correlation between the problems of narcissism, sociopathy, and evil. Perhaps most frightening to face is the fact that such evil deeds could potentially be committed by anyone, given the right or wrong set of circumstances. (Recall, for example, the classic psychology experiments by both Milgram and Zimbardo demonstrating this sobering fact, as well as the atrocities ignored and committed by ordinary German citizens during the Holocaust, a phenomenon Hannah Arendt has called the "banality of evil." ) Each of us harbors the innate capacity for evil. This includes, of course, our current presidential candidates. Yet we prefer for obvious reasons to deny that disturbing reality, choosing instead to unconsciously project that potentiality for evil behavior, the so-called shadow, onto others--the Devil, political opponents, parties, movements, groups, foreign governments, terrorists, immigrants, minorities, religions--rather than consciously acknowledging it in ourselves. For some politicians, a consciously chosen moral, religious or spiritual persona can serve to mask an unconscious and dangerous dark side, capable of expressing itself destructively in various forms, such as sexual indiscretions or political dirty tricks which must be covered up and denied when discovered.

When does pathological narcissism become sociopathic? To begin with, it is important to note that, by definition, sociopathy or Antisocial Personality Disorder is a pervasive, pronounced pattern of disregard for and deliberate violation of the rights of others occurring regularly since at least the age of fifteen (DSM-5). Moreover, current diagnostic criteria includes "failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest," "deceitfulness," "reckless disregard for safety of self or others," and, maybe most tellingly, "lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another." A sense of conscience is missing. Moreover, the sociopath or psychopath can be disarmingly charming, "excessively opinionated, self-assured, or cocky." There is often a marked history of irritability, anger, and verbal or physical aggressiveness. Whenever we see some chronic pattern of illegal or destructive behaviors combined with the absence of remorse and appropriate affect, we are likely witnessing, at the very least, what we psychologists refer to as "antisocial traits."

So, there can be a fine line dividing narcissism and sociopathy, a line which can be crossed over at any time. The sociopath lives on the far side of this line, having bitterly turned against society, repeatedly and often impulsively engaging in illegal activity, lying, manipulating, conning, deceiving, and aggressive, vindictive behavior aimed at undoing or repaying a hurt and avoiding being "pushed around" by others, particularly by legitimate authority figures. The narcissist, on the other hand, is better adapted to the culture, functions at a higher level, successfully chooses to work within the system, accepting rather than rejecting society, yet still plays by his or her own self-serving and rebellious rules, and may be no less vindictive and persistent, albeit sometimes more subtle, in getting even for the smallest of perceived slights. Criminal defendants like Casey Anthony (now acquitted), Joran van der Sloot (now convicted), and Jodi Arias (now convicted) typically tend to be so detached and dissociated from their own humanity that they are clueless as to what they really feel and how their inappropriate and selfish behavior is perceived by others. They appear to be heartless, depraved monsters devoid of all human caring and decency. Bad seeds. But behind their extremely effective facade, mask or persona, hides a hurt and angry little girl or boy running destructively amok in the world. Sociopaths, like narcissists, are, as I have elsewhere argued, primarily made, not born.

Another striking similarity between Jodi, Joran and Casey is their extraordinary cunning and native intelligence. We saw this clearly demonstrated, for example, in Casey's creatively elaborate lying behavior to police, her parents and others. (According to veteran prosecutor Jeff Ashton, "she was the best liar I`ve ever seen.") We also saw this in her possible conning of a forensic psychologist (see my prior post). And in Joran's impressive talent for telling conflicting tales designed to confuse, control and manipulate others. According to the prosecution, and a jury of her peers, much the same may be said about Jodi Arias, who told police at least three different versions of her boyfriend's death, initially totally denying any involvement, then claiming that they were attacked by two ski-masked men who killed Travis, and, finally, admitting to the grotesque crime but claiming self-defense. In the case of Joran van der Sloot, it is precisely his cunning, coupled with a barely controlled rage, that makes him such a dangerous person. The ability to deceive and manipulate others toward one's own self-serving ends is one of the hallmarks of sociopathy, and an expression of the profound pathological narcissism underlying it.

As Joran van der Sloot's now public psychological evaluation from prison suggests, the person suffering from, and cruelly causing others to suffer from what I call psychopathic narcissism, is fundamentally an immature, selfish, self-centered, resentful and raging child inside a powerful adult body. (See my prior post.) They are angry with their parents, angry with authority, angry with God, angry with life. They have been hurt, abused, emotionally wounded, deprived, overindulged, spoiled, abandoned or neglected in various ways--some grossly and some much more subtly--and are still bitterly lashing out against life and others. Against society. Against authority. When you have a pissed-off five or ten-year-old with poor impulse control living in an adult body, with the freedom and power and resources to do just as he or she pleases, you have an extraordinarily dangerous person capable of the most heinous, and, in the case of world leaders, catastrophic evil deeds. Such angry, vindictive, embittered, opportunistic, impulsive and sometimes predatory people see the world as their personal playground, and for some, everyone in it as their next potential victim or conquest. To quote convicted mass murderer Charles Manson, the poster boy for such evil or antisocial tendencies : "I'm still a little five-year-old kid."

Finally, a sense of "narcissistic entitlement" is characteristic of both narcissistic and antisocial personality disorder. A feeling of guilt and conscience is typically lacking, especially in sociopathy. And both share in common a distinct lack of empathy with their fellow man, being unwilling or unable to feel compassion toward, nor identify with, the emotions and needs of others. Such grossly inhumane attitudes and behaviors stem mainly from a combination of compensatory grandiosity and a schizoid-like detachment from their own feelings.The immense narcissism of criminal defendants like Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias, Joran van der Sloot, O.J. Simpson, Drew Peterson, and so many others, convinces them that they can ultimately outsmart the system. This narcissistic grandiosity can be seen in Jodi's seemingly arrogant and haughty pre-trial proclamation that "no jury will ever convict me." In the same way that van der Sloot's reported compulsive gambling reflected a grandiose, narcissistic overconfidence that he could beat the casino system.

If violent offenders like Jodi Arias or Joran van der Sloot are the spoiled brats, the self-centered, manipulative, narcissistic individuals many make them out to be, and the bloody killers they both eventually admitted to being, what might have made them so? In the case of van der Sloot, could his privileged, protected and permissive upbringing have been the primary root of his psychological problems? Extremely negative, traumatic childhood experiences are typically part of the psychopathic narcissist's family history. The severe childhood neglect, abandonment and abuse of Charles Manson is one textbook example. Yet, we must remember, as Sigmund Freud made clear, that during the most crucial phases of personality development in childhood, profound damage or "fixation" can be done not only by getting too little love, attention, gratification of needs, but equally by receiving too much of these necessary positive influences. Children naturally need love, affection, support, attention and recognition. But they also need firm limit-setting, boundaries, appropriate and consistent consequences for bad behavior, discipline, and what developmental psychologists call "optimal frustration." Optimal frustration is how children learn to delay gratification, persevere at tasks, develop inner strength and independence, and adapt to what Freud referred to as the "reality principle." When such structure, limit-setting and discipline is lacking, the seeds of psychopathic narcissism find fertile ground in which to grow.

As noted earlier, we all manifest some measure of narcissistic traits, since none of us have had perfect parents or upbringing. A great deal of what neurotic narcissism disguises--and few if any of us are fully free from it--is our unresolved childhood anger, resentment or rage. But when narcissistic tendencies take over and permeate the entire personality, becoming an enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the world and oneself, and exhibited in a wide range of social and personal contexts since early adulthood that deviate significantly from the cultural norm, we are dealing with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Unfortunately, as we Americans are now living in an increasingly narcissistic culture, pathological narcissism is becoming more the acceptable and even envied norm rather than a deviation. While narcissistic personality disorder is different from, say, a psychotic disorder or "mental illness" such as schizophrenia, or a mood disorder such as major depression or bipolar depression, it can be seen as frequently underlying, informing or co-occurring with these and many other psychiatric disorders, including sociopathy or Antisocial Personality Disorder, which can be understood as an expression of pathological narcissism in extremis. It could be argued that the primary distinction between narcissistic and antisocial personality disorder is primarily one of degree. When antisocial attitudes and behavior become a prominent feature of pathological narcissism, I describe this dangerous and sometimes violently destructive state of mind as "psychopathic narcissism." (See my prior posts.)

Diagnosing well-known political leaders like Hitler, celebrities such as O.J. Simpson, or infamous criminals like Charles Manson from afar is a dubious business, even for experts. Obviously, analyzing or profiling the personality of such a shadowy, enigmatic and elusive figure as Osama bin Laden (now deceased) is an equally difficult task. Nevertheless, in a paper presented at the 25th Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology in 2002, Dr. Aubrey Immelman, associate professor of psychology at Minnesota's St. John's University, did just that. Plugging bin Laden's known biographical data into a personality profile using the second edition of the Millon Inventory of Diagnostic Criteria (MIDC), Immelman concluded that "Bin Laden's blend of Ambitious and Dauntless personality patterns suggests the presence of Millon's ‘unprincipled narcissist' syndrome. This composite character complex combines the narcissist's arrogant sense of self-worth, exploitative indifference to the welfare of others, and grandiose expectation of special recognition with the antisocial personality's self-aggrandizement, deficient social conscience, and disregard for the rights of others." Elsewhere, Immelman diagnosed Osama bin Laden--as did psychiatrist Dr. Jerrold Post, the renowned CIA political profiler-- a "malignant narcissist" : a term based on psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg's (1992) conception of malignant narcissism, the core components of which are pathological narcissism, antisocial features, paranoid traits, and destructive aggression. A similar psychological profile could also be arguably attributed to Adolf Hitler and cult leaders like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charles Manson and others.

Presumably, most individuals who seek to lead others and to partake in the power and status of doing so, are partly motivated by their need for "narcissistic supplies." But the crucial question we must ask is always one of degree: Is this person's narcissism neurotic, and, if so, to what extent? Does it veer over into the realm of the sociopath? Or the psychotic? Does his or her narcissistic vulnerability, hypersensitivity and resulting reactive rage tend to drive the person to impulsive, vindictive, petty, retaliative speech or acts? Or to suffer (and make others suffer) from a fundamental lack of empathy? An unwillingness or inability to recognize or identify with the feelings or reality of others? Is he or she overly arrogant, grandiose, self-centered, or interpersonally exploitative, taking advantage of others in order to achieve her or his own desires? And perhaps most importantly for a potential leader of a powerful nation like the United States: Does it impair his or her capacity for mature, measured, rational judgment and decision-making? Under stress or in response to slight, insult or emotional injury, will the person remain a rational adult or will he or she be temporarily taken over or possessed by a narcissistically wounded, frustrated, furious, irrational little boy or girl, lashing out against the perceived perpetrator in a fit of primitive, vengeful, raging retribution. Narcissistic grandiosity, impulsivity, feelings of entitlement, lack of empathy, inadequate conscience, combined with the susceptibility toward narcissistic rage in reaction to perceived insults or threats and an unrelenting need for revenge or retaliation leading to a paranoid worldview. Each by itself can impair rational judgment significantly. Cumulatively, they can cause a leader to make fatefully calamitous and disastrously irreversible decisions.

No presidential candidate will ever be perfect. None of us are, though we naively tend to seek such perfection in our leaders. We are all capable of cruel, destructive, evil behavior. But the psychology and personality style or character of our presidential candidates must always be carefully considered when deciding whether to turn over to them the awesome power and responsibility of the Oval Office. Should we demand that political candidates for our highest offices submit first to a formal psychological evaluation? For instance, we routinely psychologically screen and evaluate those individuals who wish to serve as police officers in this country. Can we afford not to do so with our presidential candidates? While this solution is probably impractical, it appears that we instinctively understand the need for such assessment, and that there fortunately is a similar vetting process already prudently built-in to our political system, in the form of the intense scrutiny and thorough investigation of a candidate's background and behavior throughout the prolonged pre-election campaign process. Such extreme exposure and scrutiny is designed to reveal, not unlike a standardized personality test, each candidate's character, especially when seen under duress or stress. This gives all Americans, and observers around the globe, ample opportunity to at least superficially assess each candidate's character, and mental health in general, prior to voting or not voting for him or her. No task could be more important during this or any electoral process. Which is why the American people can benefit from more knowledge about the psychology of narcissism, sociopathy, and other mental health issues. For we are responsible for collectively choosing, for better or worse, the next leader of the free world. Our future, and our destiny, is in our own hands. Let us choose wisely.