Friday, October 10, 2008


This is the sort of misunderstanding that exists out there about narcissism as a psychological trait:

COLUMBUS, Ohio – When a group is without a leader, you can often count on a narcissist to take charge, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that people who score high in narcissism tend to take control of leaderless groups. Narcissism is a trait in which people are self-centered, exaggerate their talents and abilities, and lack empathy for others.

“Not only did narcissists rate themselves as leaders, which you would expect, but other group members also saw them as the people who really run the group,” said Amy Brunell, lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University at Newark.

What many people fail to realize is that narcissism is both a healthy and necessary trait essential for of normal human development. It is responsible for a person's self-esteem; their sense that they have a right to life; their ambitions; as well as for the development of their ideals, their empathy toward others, and their abillity to have healthy relationships.

It is only when the two aspects of narcissism remain unintegrated that individual narcissism turns malignant.

Let me put on my clinical hat for a moment and explain as best I can how this works. It's important because it has a lot of implications for the kind of leader that arises in a society.

In an earlier series of posts on Narcissism (PART I , PART II , and PART III ) I argued, using primarily Heinz Kohut's concepts of the Self, that the development of a healthy, integrated, mature Self required the integration of two separate developmental lines.

At some point, the Self and the Other--once "perfectly" merged--are now two distinct objects. This important process of separation-individuation is facilitated by the normal shortcomings(i.e. imperfections) in maternal care, which spur the child's development as an individual. For example: baby demands food, but mother is unavailable right now and doesn’t feed baby until her schedule permits (but doesn’t let him starve either!). Such natural and normal imperfections of empathy with the child are actually healthy. I won’t go into a full discussion of this, but suffice it to say that the Other must not be too perfect, nor too imperfect, as either extreme carried on for too long will interfere with the developing Self of the child.

It is because of the slow separation of Self from Other--Child from Parent-- that the two developmental lines come into being. The first line Kohut refers to as the “Grandiose Self”(or idealized self image) and the second is referred to as the “Idealized Parent Image”. Both of these images represent psychological attempts to save the original experience of "perfection" by the infant when the Mother (Other) and the infant (Self) were “one”.

The “grandiose self” will develop over time (if not disrupted) into healthy Self-Esteem; and the” idealized other” (or idealized parent image) will eventually lead to the development of ideals that give meaning to the individual’s life; to empathy and healthy interpersonal relationships.

I also argued in that series that from these two emerging parts of the self comes the predeliction for one type of social/political/economic system or another. In particular, the grandiose self prefers to live in those systems that maximize individual liberty and self expression i.e., "life, liberty, and the pursuit happiness." On it's extreme side (without any integration of the idealized self into its functioning), the grandiose self in a social context can lead to excessive ambition, narcissistic grandiosity, indifference to others, and what is commonly referred to as "narcissistic rage" when it is thwarted in its pursuit of satisfaction.

Leaders with this defect in personality development become classic megalomaniac type--or are "self-centered, exaggerate their talents and abilities, and lack empathy for others" as the article above describes. This is the "classic" view of destructive narcissism.

But there is another type of leader that is equally destructive in their narcissistic defect, and that is the leader with a defect in the idealized object side of the self.

Individuals with this narcissistic defect prefer an authoritarian society because it recaptures the primitive--and perfect-- union the infant once had with omnipotent and nurturning mother. Those social/political/economic systems that promise such a union (i.e., most religions, socialism, communism and all their totalitarian variants) are the systems that feel right.

On the idealized object's extreme side are the intense utopian urges that distinguish any cult; the submersion of individual identity and selfhood into the collective; and what I have referred to as the "narcissistic awe" one experiences in contemplating the pursuit of union, or utopia.

On their own, without the attenuating influence of the other line, either side is a distortion of human nature and leads to a particularly malignant form of narcissism.

Each side sees the other as the extreme expression of the opposite pole of the self, thus leading to the polarizing stereotypes that left and right political sides attack each other with. The extreme left (idealized other) sees all members of the right as sociopaths out to get whatever they can from the world at the expense of others; while the right sees all members of the left as the collective mob whose goal is to erase individuality and freedom. But the truth is that at the exreme left AND the extreme right there is a striking convergence of malignancy, grandiosity and totalitarianism.

The malignant grandiose self, left to its own devices with minimal interference from or integration with its counterpart, the idealized object, becomes the prototype of the tyrant--cold, ruthless, and without pity for others. He goes his way wreaking havoc in the world, supressing other individuals to his will and disposing of them without a thought. When thwarted his narcissistic rage and aggression are sights to behold.

With parents and a society both encouraging individuality and social responsibility simultaneously in human development; extreme individuals of this type are generally recognized as sociopaths and held to account for their antisocial and destructive behavior in society at large.

The malignant idealized object side of the self, left to its own devices with minimal interference from or integration with its own grandiose self, becomes the human fodder that acts out the will of the tyrant. Their overwheming desire for union with the perfect god, the perfect mother--i.e, the perfect "other"-- will inevitably lead them to revere the onminpotent grandiose self of others. They see only the "goodness" and perfection of the other; and they actively and single-mindedly pursue "union" with that other; often desiring to drag others with them toward that utopian ideal.

Parents and societies that deliberately try to suppress all individualistic tendencies (as is seen in most totalitarian societies) will encourage the development of a psyche that is ripe for takeover by a strong, grandiose dictator-thug.

It is important to note that the extreme, or "pure", state of either of these developmental lines does not exist in a real, living human being. We can discuss them in this sort of abstract manner; and tease out the implications of one side's development or the other; but both sides exist to some degree in every single human because every single human originates from the same biological starting point and grows within a mother's womb; and is initially helpless and completely dependent on that mother for its existence. (And, no. I am not going to go into some of the exceptions to this at this time--even though they pose some extremely interesting questions from a psychological development standpoint)

Rather, these two processes can be thought of as flip sides of the same coin. Extremes of one side or the other occur because of breakdowns in empathy between the child and the parent or the larger environment. If these breakdowns are not resolved by adulthood, then the adult will continue to act them out, and they will flip back and forth between the two poles of the dialectic.

On the one hand, when the will of the grandiose self is thwarted, the individual will experience narcissistic rage and act out various types of aggression. When the union with the "perfect" object is not perfect (since it never will be), they experience even greater narcissistic idealism/awe and redouble their efforts to submit to the will of Big Br(other). Often they simply alternately cycle between the two extremes.

But both narcissistic poles are dysfunctional by themselves; and both the political expressions of one side or the other are delusional and wreak havoc in the real world--each attempts to compensate for defects in narcissistic development by going to one extreme or the other; and hence do not recognize that human nature requires both poles of this narcissitic polarity for optimal psychological health.

If you are with me so far, then the next thought in this logical sequence is apparant. For the purposes of this essay, I will refer to these two aspects of Narcissisism as the Narcissistic Dialectic.

Somehow, a healthy individual--and a healthy leader-- must find a way to integrate these two opposing parts of the self into their psyche. In other words, they must achieve a true, dialectical synthesis.

In the Narcissism series referred to earlier I wrote:
We have seen that the development of a Cohesive Self is dependent on two separate, equal and parallel developmental lines that arise originally from the biological and psychological fusion of the Infant and Mother early in life. If each of these lines are not interrupted in their normal evolution the Infant will eventually become an Adult with both narcissistic poles adequately developed and be able to function in the world in a healthy way—both in his attitude toward his own physical and psychic self; and in his attitude toward other human beings.

In some ways, the rise of human civilization from the cave to the present day has resulted because of attempts through the Rule of Law and social controls to set limits on the unrestrained Grandiose Self. This is primarily due to the destructiveness of the Narcissistic Rage generally associated with that part of the Self.

Because of this, the Grandiose Self has received a bad reputation philosophically, morally, and politically. The natural development of Governments and Religions (which ultimately are an expression of the Idealized Parent Image/Omnipotent Other side of the Self)have all too often attempted to ruthlessly suppress the Grandiose Self--much to the detriment of the individual AND the success of the particular society or religion.

In fact, despite the obvious truth that governments, nations, and religions are in a much better position to wreak far more systemized misery and death on human populations, it is almost always the Grandiose Self that gets the blame. As Wretchard at The Belmont Club pointed out in a recent post, a review of the 20th century, for example, shows that all the "people's revolutions" supported by the Left and purportedly for the purpose of "freeing" large populations of people; resulted instead in enslaving them and increasing authoritarian rule.

All over the world, on a daily basis we see the horrible results of narcissism gone wrong. We see malignantly narcissistic leaders who murder millions of their own people; or who convince them to kill others for the sake of some utopian fantasy. Individuals and groups; religions and nations act out their narcissistic rage at various insults--real and imagined-- and people suffer and die for the purpose of the grandiosity of the tyrant, or the glory of the religion or the state.

When not pursuing the objects of their narcissistic rage; the same rage-filled and aggressive individuals and groups easily submit to the will of Allah, God, the religion, the government, the collective, or the despot of the day, as they are filled with the desire for a reunification of the perfect 'other.'

It has been said that the 20th century was the “century of the narcissist”, but the 21st is well on its way to outdoing the horrors of the past, as a seemingly never-ending epidemic of malignant narcissistic rage and malignant narcissistic idealism--both caused by a defect in healthy narcissism and both working together to crush the individual human spirit--all for the purpose of serving the self-aggrandizing vision of the few.

We must make sure that the people who "emerge" as our leaders are the kind who have integrated their grandiose ambitions with appropriate ideals and empathy for their fellow humans. Along these lines, let me use John McCain as an example. I am not an overwhelming fan of McCain's because I happen to disagree with him on a lot of policy issues, but he represents exactly the kind of leader who has found a way to seamlessly fuse his grandiosity with his ideals. I was struck by his statement at the Republican Convention where he talked about the transformational experience he had while a 'guest' of the North Vietnamese:
I was in solitary confinement when my captors offered to release me. I knew why. If I went home, they would use it as propaganda to demoralize my fellow prisoners. Our Code said we could only go home in the order of our capture, and there were men who had been shot down before me. I thought about it, though. I wasn’t in great shape, and I missed everything about America. But I turned it down.

A lot of prisoners had it worse than I did. I’d been mistreated before, but not as badly as others. I always liked to strut a little after I’d been roughed up to show the other guys I was tough enough to take it. But after I turned down their offer, they worked me over harder than they ever had before. For a long time. And they broke me.

When they brought me back to my cell, I was hurt and ashamed, and I didn’t know how I could face my fellow prisoners. The good man in the cell next door, my friend, Bob Craner, saved me. Through taps on a wall he told me I had fought as hard as I could. No man can always stand alone. And then he told me to get back up and fight again for our country and for the men I had the honor to serve with. Because every day they fought for me.

I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s. I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency; for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s.

I’m not running for president because I think I’m blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need. My country saved me. My country saved me, and I cannot forget it. And I will fight for her for as long as I draw breath, so help me God.

If you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you’re disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them. Enlist in our Armed Forces. Become a teacher. Enter the ministry. Run for public office. Feed a hungry child. Teach an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed. Our country will be the better, and you will be the happier. Because nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself.

If I may borrow a line from Star Trek (which I suppose starkly reveals what a geek I really am) to illustrate all this: sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one; but never forget that sometimes the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.

Trying to find the optimal balance between the two is the primary goal of a healthy civilization.

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