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The Insanity of Narcissism

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A piece written shortly before the election of 2016

Mental health practitioners generally agree that it is not appropriate to offer psychoanalytic diagnoses of public figures we've never actually interviewed or treated. However, many of us, myself included, are champing at the bit these days. It's especially tempting for me, since I've been writing and thinking about narcissism for quite a while " and one sees so much of what looks just like it these days, the minute one turns on the news.

Perhaps I could speak a bit about narcissism in general, without naming names " especially about the kind of narcissistic person that seeks and attracts followers to form some kind of big religious or political movement, with him or her as its supreme leader.

Erich Fromm, famous in the 1960s for "The Art of Loving," published his first bestseller, "Escape From Freedom," in the '40s, when he witnessed the popularity and the horror of Fascism in Europe. He was a keen observer of the personalities of dictators, whom he saw as narcissistic to the point of psychosis. This kind of narcissist, and Fromm mentions some of the most conspicuous 20th Century dictators as well as Nero and Caligula, has made himself God and the world, to himself. He has made of himself an Idol, and expects and demands total submission and compliance.

His delusion of infallible omnipotence, however, is his way of completely denying how profoundly unstable his mind really is. To sustain the extraordinary level of denial he needs to hold the profoundly distorted, self-serving belief that he is always right and never wrong, greater than all others and far above the law and the truth, he needs followers --- millions of them, if possible --- who join him in his delusion. Followers, and observers " for example, journalists - must keep him more and more hyper-inflated, reflecting back to him, like the Evil Queen's mirror in the Snow White story, that he is the greatest of them all. Failure to reflect his absolute perfection means banishment from his kingdom, accompanied by excoriating character assassination --- or, in today's vernacular, smears, threats and lawsuits.

These leaders, sometimes called demagogues, are very similar to the people who lead cults. A part of my psychoanalytic practice has always been dedicated to working with cult survivors, since I began my training in the mental health field shortly after leaving a religious group that was led by a guru whom I came to recognize as an abusive, traumatizing narcissist. When these clients describe the leaders of their various cultic groups to me, I hear again and again of the same characteristics and the same behaviors: The guru is infinitely entitled and grateful to no one; he rewrites history to create a biography that leaves out any trace of his significant misdeeds and failures; he never hesitates to lie for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, and to blame others for his own errors and failures; he is erratic, thin-skinned, belligerent, and constantly involved in attacking and belittling perceived enemies; he persuades followers to see their lives before joining his group as wretched, and he claims exclusive possession of the power to transform follower's lives in miraculous ways.

Fromm called such people "malignant narcissists," people out of touch with reality, who exhibit more and more extreme behaviors as the pressures of living up to their delusion of perfection mount, and as they inevitably become exposed to scrutiny and criticism. All too often, enraged by challenges to their fantasy of omnipotence, they lead their followers on to acts of violence, against others or even against themselves. In cults, we have the examples of this horrific violence in the Manson Family, Heaven's Gate, Jim Jones, and many, many others. When it comes to political leaders, the history of the 20th century, the extreme nationalistic narcissism that proclaims the exclusive validity of one nation and the right to deny life and freedom to members of another; the mass murders perpetrated by its dictators --- this horrific, tragic history is still being written, and still being perpetrated.

Compelled not to name names by my understanding of professional ethics, I will say this: the kind of narcissist I am describing is alive and very unwell today. The racist, homophobic, deeply deceptive and terrifyingly inflammatory rhetoric these people employ is an assault on rational, ethical people in this country and around the world, and it is happening right now, every day. Fans of strongmen like Vladimir Putin, Mafia dons, Mussolini, etc., may find this sort of thing exciting and entertaining. But malignant, traumatizing narcissists are capable of untold destructiveness, the likes of which we have not seen from a political leader in the United States of America --- not yet. Current events, crowds of adherents shouting slogans of death and destruction, are telling us: it can happen here.

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Daniel Shaw, LCSW, is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City and in Nyack, New York. Originally trained as an actor at Northwestern University and with the renowned teacher Uta Hagen in New York City, Dan later worked as a missionary (more...)
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