Mad, Bad, Blind, or Stupid?

How do we explain to ourselves the motives of others who are self-destructive?

Posted Feb 25, 2013

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, a Viennese Jewish man by the name of Sigmund Freud noticed that some of his patients would engage in the same unproductive behavior over and over again with the same bad results each time.  He called this phenomenon the repetition compulsion, and it has been observed over and over again by psychotherapists from a lot of different theoretical perspectives. Some of them may have called it something else, but they were all observing the same baffling phenomenon. 

Readers may have heard of the oft-told tales of, say, a woman with abusive parents who runs away and marries an abusive man, leaves him and then marries another abusive man, and so on over and over again.  Or another who keeps ending up with alcoholics, but only tries to meet men in bars. Some men have trouble, say, keeping a job because they keep picking a fight with a succession of different bosses.

Einstein said that doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. Are people who repeat the same self-defeating behavior over and over again insane?  Since I'm not talking about people who are psychotic here, presumably they are somewhat sane. So maybe they are just incredibly stupid? 

Alternatively, if what they do hurts other people as well as themselves, maybe they are just evil.  Or last, perhaps they just do not perceive the results of their own actions. Mad, bad, stupid, or blind.  Unfortunately, most theoretical answers to the question of the reasons for the repetition compulsion presume that those who engage in it are one of these four things. 

Interestingly, when the offspring of abusive parents talk about their parents' motives, they usually also attribute the parents' horrid behavior to one of these four factors.  Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Freud thought that people repeated self-defeating behavior patterns because of “unconscious” motives, and were somehow not aware that they were contributing to their own misery. The feelings were too frightening to think about, he opined, and so the feelings and accompanying thoughts were banished to a place in the mind called the Unconscious.

I, on the other hand, always wondered how people could possibly miss the fact that their behavior was repeatedly having the same negative results.  Oh, one might rationalize what happened away the first couple of times, but then?  I would think that these results would make the consequences of specific behavior patterns rather salient, if anything.  Even if it does make you nervous to think about it, but on the other hand, if your behavior repeatedly leads to your being hit over the head with a two by four, I think you would just have to notice.

This issue came up in a recent debate I got into on another blog (the Last Psychiatrist) over the behavior of people labeled with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).  Such people bully, dominate, and control other people, demand to be given special treatment by everyone regardless of anyone else's needs, and are constantly seeking admiration and approval.  Many posters to the blog thought these people were actually trying to get their way all the time, and were constantly striving to gain the admiration of other people.

Here is the DSM description of NPD:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

(3) believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).

(4) requires excessive admiration

(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

Gee, if you are starved for admiration, can you think of a worse way to obtain it than by exploiting people, being completely unempathic for the plight of others, and acting arrogant and unjustifiably self-important?  I can't.  The English language has a word for people that behave like that:  A**holes.

So, are NPD's too blind to notice all the people around them referring to them as a**holes?  Too stupid to see how their behavior contributes to that designation?  Masochists who like to be thought of that way? Wait, I thought they wanted admiration. Well maybe that part shouldn't be part of their description.  Maybe they are just evil folks who want to bully people to get their way because they are selfish and sadistic.

Mad, bad, blind, stupid.  A long time ago, but in this galaxy, and more recently than Freud, I began to wonder how I might be able to explain the repetition compulsion if I assumed that people are neither mad, bad, blind, nor stupid.  What a concept! 

In the case of NPD, that could only lead to one conclusion.  For some reason, NPD's were making themselves look like a**holes on purpose.  Eww.  Masochists, huh?  But how can someone really enjoy pain?  Pain is supposed to be a physiological danger signal that says, "Get your finger away from the hot stove!"  It is supposed to be unpleasant, almost by definition.  Emotional pain serves a similar function. How on earth could people have evolved to be masochists?  That trait should have been killed off, as people who cannot feel pain frequently are killed precisely because they don't have a physiological alert symptom.

What a mystery, huh?  It is also very true that people who engage in self defeating behavior do not seem to understand that their behavior is getting them into trouble. But can they really be that stupid?  Could it be that they are just pretending to be stupid?  But they are so convincing at it!  And why would anyone want to do that?  

I discuss my answer in detail in my first book, A Family Systems Approach to Individual Psychotherapy. The following is a brief version.

We all have a “mask” that we present to the outside world which may or may not reflect the way we are really feeling inside. In fact, we have several, designed for specific social situations and specific relationships.  Obviously, we act very differently when we are in the presence of just our spouse, our children, our buddies, our colleagues at work, and our bosses. We seldom reveal our true opinions about everything to anyone for fear of creating offense or getting ourselves into hot water. 

How many times do we hear a news story in which the neighbors of someone who has committed some horrible crime, say a workplace mass murder, all say, “But he seemed so nice! Everyone loved him! He was so kind to the neighborhood kids. I never imagined that he would ever do something like that!”

We all have aspects of ourselves that we do not like and try to hide at one time or another. Sometimes we even try to hide them from ourselves. Additionally, we often need to mask our true feelings because we know that we must deceive other people in order to get what we need or what we want from them. Primate studies have shown that the ability to deceive fellow members of one’s species has powerful survival value, and would therefore be a trait that is selected for by the forces of evolution.

In order to be effective actors, individuals must pretend that they really are the characters that they are portraying. They must pretend that they really feel and are experiencing all the different ways that their character is supposed to be feeling in the different scenes. This is a fundamental tenet of what is called method acting. Of course, this creates a paradox: At some level even great actors still know who they really are and the way they really feel while they are playing someone else. Yet they are somehow able to forget about this and to “lose themselves in the character.” 

A great example of method acting was seen in a film clip that was taken of Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams interacting while they were between takes of a movie called Awakenings. Even though they were not filming a scene at the time, DeNiro remained in his movie character. Williams was trying to get him to come out of character by trying to get him to crack up. He could not do it. Robin Williams, for heaven’s sake! If he could not get DeNiro to come out of character and laugh, who could?

Sometimes, the mask that people wear in their daily lives is more pervasive. It is one that they never ever take off in public. In psychological terms, people who have psychological problems often present with what is called a false self. Jung termed this the persona. They play a role within their social system which is, in a sense, fake. I described several examples in previous posts on this blog.  They act as if their opinions and desires are other than what they really believe and want inside.

The opinions and desires they do express are instead those they think others in their social system believe and want. They do this compulsively so as not to slip up and give themselves away to the others. Because of the actor’s paradox, this false self feels real to them, while their true self feels phony.

They often give themselves away to therapists, however, precisely because their behavior is so polarized – they act as if they absolutely must act a certain way all the time even when external circumstances would seem to require a bit more flexibility. Old time psychoanalysts referred to this defense mechanism as reaction formation. The behavior that is exactly opposite to the way they actually behave is often the true inclination that they are trying to hide. Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, for example, preached loudly against the sins of the flesh while in secret he was cruising for prostitutes. Lay people are aware of this sort of dynamic, as evidenced by the Shakespearian line, “Methinks he protests too much.”

Some professionals now think that NPD’s have high rather than low self esteem, and that they in truth are just obnoxious bullies. I have seen this argument alluded to in professional publications. 

My take is that the reason this is a bone of contention in the first place is because of the actor’s paradox. NPD’s are so good at acting like obnoxious bullies with an inflated sense of self importance that we may really know for certain what they really feel about themselves inside.