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Narcissism, the public, and the President

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President Bush spoke last week to wounded soldiers at Brooke Army Medical Center and uttered these immortal words indicating a lack of true appreciation for the suffering of the gravely wounded, often permanently disabled soldiers he was speaking to:
"As you can possibly see, I have an injury myself -- not here at the hospital, but in combat with a Cedar. I eventually won. The Cedar gave me a little scratch. As a matter of fact, the Colonel asked if I needed first aid when she first saw me. I was able to avoid any major surgical operations here, but thanks for your compassion, Colonel."

At a time when the number of severely wounded soldiers is rising, this lack of appreciation is disturbing and portends badly for adequate resources being made available to care for damaged soldiers and veterans over the coming months, years, and decades.

This episode was far from the first time Bush uttered bizarre sounding comments in response to the injuries of others. Who can forget his r emarkable message to the hundreds of thousands of people, many poor and black, whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Katrina:

"Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house -- he's lost his entire house -- there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch."

While Bush's comments to wounded GIs were uttered together with the usual platitudes expected on such occasions, these quotes illustrate Bush's greatest strength and also his greatest weakness, his narcissism.

Narcissism

At an observable level, narcissism involves a self-centeredness that makes one oblivious to the emotional existence of others. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (IVth edition: DSM-IV) defines its pathological extreme (narcissistic personality disorder) as:

"A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy."

In the odd DSM manner, this condition is diagnosed by having a threshold number of the following symptoms (5 out of 9), regardless of which five symptoms they are. (To be diagnostic of a clinical condition each symptom should be possessed to the extent that it interferes with functioning or causes distress):
"Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
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"Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

"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)

"Requires excessive admiration

"Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

"Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
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"Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

"Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

"Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes"

I am very leery of making diagnoses via long-distance of people I have never met. Additionally, I am well aware that one must be skeptical of much "information" publicly available about major political leaders as this information is carefully filtered through the lens of PR manipulation designed to create desired images among the public. Furthermore, one must remember that a large degree of narcissism is common, perhaps even necessary in leaders who rise to presidential level. It is certainly hard for someone who is not convinced of their special qualities to have the drive, determination, and desire to undergo all that is required to get the position.

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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)
 

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