Stephen White, Ph.D.
Fall 2016 Newsletter
In the run-up to the recent presidential election, the term “narcissistic” was bandied about aplenty. In everyday language narcissism connotes excessive self-centeredness and personal entitlement, a more or less grandiose, over-the-top view of one’s abilities, an inordinate need for admiration, and especially a big, but easily punctured “ego.” It is associated with celebrities and actors, some public and political figures, and for all of us – some of the people we know who can be tiring with their unprompted recitations of their “wonderfulness.” It is also an element contributing to the success of certain charismatic, “extraordinary” leaders or CEOs – the “productive” but non-destructive narcissist. Abetting these manifestations is our continuing slide into a “Kardashian Culture.” But – “narcissism”, i.e., its pathological extreme, is a known risk factor for various forms of targeted violence, and for stalking. So what’s the story and where are the lines of distinction?
A Continuum from Trait to Disorder
Narcissism is both a personality trait and a personality disorder, clinically speaking. Pronounced traits can exist in the absence of a personality disorder. The latter implies, by definition, an enduring pattern of maladaptive behavior and is characterized by, among other aspects, a seriously hindered or limited capacity for psychological growth.
Narcissism, like many personality traits, may best be viewed as falling along a continuum, and like blood pressure, too little or too much is the problem. Ronningstam, a psychoanalytic researcher, describes healthy narcissism as “normal entitlement” (2005, p.32), demonstrated by “…a sense of the right to one’s own life, striving for the best in life, appreciation of health and beauty, and ability to compete as well as to protect and defend oneself…healthy narcissism plays a crucial role in the human capacity to manage challenges, successes, and changes; to overcome defeats, illnesses, trauma, and losses; to love and be productive and creative; and to experience happiness, satisfaction, and acceptance of the course of one’s life…It is the core of normal healthy self-esteem, affects, and relationships” (p. 31). Healthy narcissism balances self-love and ambition with concern and empathy for others. (I hope that you can see your own self in this description above, or at least enough of yourself to feel heartened.)
Ronningstam next describes the extraordinary narcissist, an individual with heightened self-confidence and exceptional ideals and capacities, e.g., for leadership and risk taking in tumultuous times. This description is similar to Maccoby’s, author of The Productive Narcissist (2003), who points out that narcissistic leaders are very effective at inspiring and motivating others to align with them, in part because, “When they win, they win big” (p. xiv). They are passionate and create a vision to “change the world.” But, he adds, “…along with these tremendous assets come enormous liabilities…They are oversensitive to criticism, don’t listen to anyone, have a tendency to exaggerate to the point of lying, are quick to anger at put-downs, are isolated, paranoid, and grandiose” (p. xv). Think Enron. Given its contribution to normal striving and accomplishment, individuals with narcissistic traits are common in workplaces and especially in academia. The more impaired narcissistic individual is one who exaggerates his or her real talents and achievements. Because of nagging envy and destructive competitiveness, interpersonal difficulties with colleagues are common, even conscious lying and deception.
Ronningstam’s schema next includes the pathological narcissist, one with a greater degree of inflated and vulnerable self-esteem, inner sense of superiority, hypersensitive to humiliation, strong feelings of anger, shame, and envy. The arrogant-oblivious type, is the more commonly encountered individual in this range, but there is also the shy-hypervigilant type who is inhibited from actual self-appraisal and developing his capabilities due to feelings of shame associated with ambition (Gabbard, 1989). He appears humble, and is often quiet, but is hypersensitive to criticism and humiliation and suffers from strong feelings of envy. This “quieter” variation should be noted in the practice of threat assessment: someone with pathological narcissistic dynamics may not necessarily be “in your face” or obvious as a subject of concern.
Ronningstam’s last category is the more severe pathological or psychopathic variety (frankly immoral, entitled exploitiveness, predominance of envy and rage, sadistic and vengeful, and violent). This individual evidences more extreme pathological grandiosity and a callous, cold disdain for others. Don’t be misled by their charm, which they can turn on or off to suit their immediate circumstances or intentions. Although financial stressors may be a contributing factor in individual cases, socio-economic level is otherwise irrelevant. The individual could be a big shot, or a little shot with a stupendous view of himself.
Pathological Envy and Entitlement
Envy – desiring what another possesses and feeling diminished as a consequence – is a normal human emotion that is not often destructive. It is related to but goes beyond admiration – for example, admiring a wonderful pianist versus the wish to possess his skills. Severe envy is a key aspect of pathological states of narcissism and important to understand for its role, often hidden, in destructiveness and violence. Here the thought is to cut off the pianist’s hands. The individual is aware that others have, and especially enjoy what he does not have, or is unable to experience with genuine satisfaction (Klein, 1975; Hyatt-Williams, 1998; Knoll, 2012). These are not necessarily material things, but personal attributes that lead to success and fulfillment. As self-loathing is projected, feelings of inferiority and emptiness are diminished by damaging or destroying others who possess yearned-for qualities, accomplishments, and social recognition. Envy-generated hatreds may fester and motivate deceitful, manipulative, or vindictive behavior. The narcissist’s preoccupation with actual or felt personal insults and injustices creates grudges, tightly held; hence the terms, “workplace grudge violence” and “injustice collectors.” Slights and disappointments become magnified far beyond their objective level of setback or injury.
Violence may be contemplated. It may be the ultimate choice. For instance, the Virginia Tech mass murderer expressed in his self-videotaped manifesto how his bullets were meant for those students with money, social lives, and especially futures – the very elements absent in his marginalized, mentally troubled life with its dim outlook. If the context is targeting a rejecting partner or lover, she is both punished and denied a life of love with anyone else, the capacity for which – both giving and receiving mature love – is one of the murderer’s humiliating defects. In relationships he can only behave in a controlling manner toward his partner (Gilligan, 2003; Lanksy, 1991). Most often the narcissist keeps his envious feelings to himself. To admit them openly as such would add to his sense of humiliation and uncover his feelings of inferiority. He simply expresses blame and contempt for the “haves.” His sensitivity to deflation creates despair and a sense of worthlessness kindled with anger, or a narcissistic injury, which then will be transformed into rage. The rage is felt in the moment or moments, and can result in an affective, impulsive outburst. But it can also be converted into the cold motivation and channeled energy to carry out a predatory act of violence. Humiliation – being “disrespected” – is intolerable to the extent one is weighted down with narcissistic tendencies, pathological envy and entitlement. As noted by Gilligan (2003), among others, violence serves to replace feelings of humiliation with feelings of pride.
Accompanying envy is the narcissist’s often striking sense of entitlement. This may be obvious as strident, rigid self-centeredness. A show of concern for others is superficial, since closer examination reveals such behavior to be motivated by an excessive need for admiration or other selfish reasons. Entitlement may be less overtly expressed, yet deeply felt and extremely hostile. An entitled individual has unreasonable expectations of special treatment. This is seen in certain “difficult employee” scenarios, individuals who prolong and amplify disputes with unreasonable litigious pursuits. Since his or her demands are unlikely to be granted – if they are it usually only increases the entitlement – it can lead to more embittered feelings and manipulative behavior. As with other aspects of narcissism, there are extremes of entitlement, dangerously so. Meloy, Hempel, Mohandie, Shiva, Gray, & Richards (2004) described their sample of mass murderers, many of whom had severe narcissistic traits, as believing they had “a right to kill others” (p. 304). By definition, mature emotions that inhibit aggression and violent impulses are absent or seriously diminished: empathy, guilt, love, sympathy, gratitude, or concern for what happens to others, let alone oneself. These more “tender” emotions are learned and emanate from positive, loving early attachment experiences, resulting in normal, healthy self-love (Dutton, 2007; Garbarino, 1999; Gilligan, 2003; Ronningstam, 2005).
And remember – you don’t have to be depressed to be suicidal. Suicide in severely narcissistic individuals may serve several purposes, all in an effort to protect or raise the individual’s extremely vulnerable self-esteem, and transform passive humiliation into triumph. Suicide may create an illusion of mastery (“I fear nothing, not even death”); shield against anticipated injuries in the service of remaining “perfect”; or as an act of revenge may demonstrate total control over others.
Risk Assessment is Always about Multiple, Interacting Factors
As we know from our threat assessment principles and practice, the presence or diagnosis of a personality disorder alone is not sufficient to foretell or suggest violent tendencies. An individual’s psychodynamics – the interplay between his thoughts, feelings, fantasies, and impulses – will have influence as well. Other factors will usually be in the mix for a “perfect storm” leading to violence. For example, the legacy of childhood abuse or trauma, violent or suicidal ideation or intent, current intense stress, a history of or endorsement of violence, or current triggering events that amplify humiliation. The subject of a workplace or campus violence concern often presents as very demanding, defensive, and intimidating in the eyes of managers and other officials. This rigidity raises anxieties about volatility as the individual continues to distort events, and inevitably is never satisfied. Most of these situations (and they are common) are “false positives” – the vast majority of difficult and even intimidating subjects do not pose a violence risk. But these troublesome traits should be considered among the warning signs. We are looking for extremes – the inflexibility, hyper-sensitivity, and a belief in “death before dishonor.” As we quoted Balthasar Gracián in our third edition of the WAVR-21, “Never contend with a man who has nothing to lose.” Well – in actuality, we must contend with him.
So now, think of a continuum of this fascinating, ubiquitous and influential human attribute, that envy ranges from stimulating to deadly, and that more often than not, as noted by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “Character is destiny.”
In conclusion, may you feel reaffirmed in recognizing your own healthy self-regard and ambition, and your capacity for empathy for your fellow human beings. And may you be better at recognizing early on the tiresome blowhards in your life and work who drain you of your energy (but tolerating them with necessary grace at your Thanksgiving family dinner). May you be a more informed threat assessor who understands the nuances in our sometimes confusing psychological popular lexicon. And finally, may you have the wisdom in the voting booth to understand the implications of character for the preservation of the republic. Next time, anyway.
Parts of this feature are based on content in the WAVR-21 Third Edition (2016).
Dutton, D. G. (2006). The abusive personality: Violence and control in intimate relationships. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Gabbard, G. (1989). Two subtypes of narcissistic personality disorder. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 53, 527-532.
Garbarino, J. (1999). The lost boys: Why our sons turn violent and how we can save them. New York, NY: The Free Press
Gilligan, J. (2003). Shame, guilt, and violence. Social Research, 70(4), 1149-1180.
Hyatt-Williams, A. (1998). Violence, cruelty and murder. London, England: Karnac.
Klein, M. (1975). The writings of Melanie Klein, Vol. 3: Envy, gratitude and other works. London, England: Hogarth.
Knoll, J. L. (2012). Mass murder: Causes, classification, and prevention. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 35(4), 757-780.
Lansky, M. (1991). Shame and the problem of suicide: A family systems perspective. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 7(3), 230-242.
Maccoby, M. (2003) The Productive Narcissist: The promise and peril of visionary leadership. Broadway Books.
Meloy, J. R., Hempel, A. G., Gray, B. T., Mohandie, K., Shiva, A., & Richards, T. C. (2004). A comparative analysis of North American adolescent and adult mass murderers. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 22(3), 291-309.
Ronningstam, E. F. (2005). Identifying and understanding the narcissistic personality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.