Solitude as a Rational Choice

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited

“Purebred” schizoids shrug off their disorder: they simply don’t like being around people and they resent the pathologizing of their lifestyle “choice” to remain aloof and alone. They consider the diagnosis of Schizoid Personality Disorder to be spurious, a mere reflection of current social coercive mores, and a culture-bound artefact.

Narcissist, as usual, tend to rationalize and aggrandize their schizoid conduct. They propound the idea that being alone is the only logical choice in today’s hostile, anomic, and atomized world. The concept of “individual” exists only in the human species. Animals flock together or operate in colonies and herds. Each member of these aggregates is an extension of the organic whole. In contradistinction, people band and socialize only for purposes of a goal-oriented cooperation or the seeking of emotional rewards (solace, succor, love, support, etc.)

Yet, in contemporary civilization, the accomplishment of most goals is outsourced to impersonal collectives such as the state or large corporations. Everything from food production and distribution to education is now relegated to faceless, anonymous entities, which require little or no social interaction. Additionally, new technologies empower the individual and render him or her self-sufficient, profoundly independent of others.

As they have grown in complexity and expectations (fed by the mass media) relationships have mutated to being emotionally unrewarding and narcissistically injurious to the point of becoming a perpetual fount of pain and unease. More formalized social interactions present a substantial financial and emotional risk. Close to half of all marriages, for instance, end in a divorce, inflicting enormous pecuniary damage and emotional deprivation on the parties involved. The prevailing ethos of gender wars as reflected in the evolving legal milieu further serves to deter any residual predilection and propensity to team up and bond.

This is a vicious circle that is difficult to break: traumatized by past encounters and liaisons, people tend to avoid future ones. Deeply wounded, they are rendered less tolerant, more hypervigilant, more defensive, and more aggressive – traits which bode ill for their capacity to initiate, sustain, and maintain relationships. The breakdown and dysfunction of societal structures and institutions, communities, and social units is masked by technologies which provide verisimilitudes and confabulations. We all gravitate towards a delusional and fantastic universe of our own making as we find the real one too hurtful to endure.

Modern life is so taxing and onerous and so depletes the individual’s scarce resources that little is left to accommodate the needs of social intercourse. People’s energy, funds, and wherewithal are stretched to the breaking point by the often conflicting demands of mere survival in post-industrial societies. Furthermore, the sublimation of instinctual urges to pair (libido), associate, mingle, and fraternize is both encouraged and rewarded. Substitutes exist for all social functions, including sex (porn) and childrearing (single parenthood) rendering social institutions obsolete and superfluous social give-and-take awkward and inefficient.

The individual “me” has emerged as the organizing principle in human affairs, supplanting the collective. The idolatry of the individual inexorably and ineluctably results in the malignant forms of narcissism that are so prevalent – indeed, all-pervasive – wherever we direct our gaze.

Cold Empathy and Warm Empathy

Empathy is comprised of two components:

I. Cold Empathy: an intersubjective agreement as to the mental content (especially emotions) of two or more human subjects;

II. Warm Empathy: the emotional response to Cold Empathy.

Cold Empathy is an act of taxonomy and an attempt to overcome the barriers posed by the inaccessibility of the private languages of the empathee and the empathor. It entails a comparison of the mental states of the subjects, based on introspection and the classification of said mental states within agreed linguistic and cultural frameworks, vocabularies, and contexts.

Warm Empathy is the emotional arousal engendered by Cold Empathy in the empathor and the panoply of emotional responses it evokes.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica (2011 edition) defines empathy as:

“The ability to imagine oneself in anther’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. It is a term coined in the early 20th century, equivalent to the German Einfühlung and modelled on “sympathy.” The term is used with special (but not exclusive) reference to aesthetic experience. The most obvious example, perhaps, is that of the actor or singer who genuinely feels the part he is performing. With other works of art, a spectator may, by a kind of introjection, feel himself involved in what he observes or contemplates. The use of empathy is an important part of the counselling technique developed by the American psychologist Carl Rogers.”

Empathy is predicated upon and must, therefore, incorporate the following elements:

  1. Imagination which is dependent on the ability to imagine;
  2. The existence of an accessible Self (self-awareness or self-consciousness);
  3. The existence of an available other (other-awareness, recognizing the outside world);
  4. The existence of accessible feelings, desires, ideas and representations of actions or their outcomes both in the empathizing Self (“Empathor”) and in the Other, the object of empathy (“Empathee”);
  5. The availability of an aesthetic frame of reference;
  6. The availability of a moral frame of reference.

While (a) is presumed to be universally available to all agents (though in varying degrees) – the existence of the other components of empathy should not be taken for granted.

Conditions (b) and (c), for instance, are not satisfied by people who suffer from personality disorders, such as the Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Condition (d) is not met in autistic people (e.g., those who suffer from Asperger’s Disorder). Condition (e) is so totally dependent on the specifics of the culture, period and society in which it exists – that it is rather meaningless and ambiguous as a yardstick. Condition (f) suffer from both afflictions: it is both culture-dependent AND is not satisfied in many people (such as those who suffer from the Antisocial Personality Disorder and who are devoid of any conscience or moral sense).

Thus, the very existence of empathy should be questioned. It is often confused with inter-subjectivity. The latter is defined thus by “The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 1995″:

“This term refers to the status of being somehow accessible to at least two (usually all, in principle) minds or ‘subjectivities’. It thus implies that there is some sort of communication between those minds; which in turn implies that each communicating mind is aware not only of the existence of the other but also of its intention to convey information to the other. The idea, for theorists, is that if subjective processes can be brought into agreement, then perhaps that is as good as the (unattainable?) status of being objective – completely independent of subjectivity. The question facing such theorists is whether intersubjectivity is definable without presupposing an objective environment in which communication takes place (the ‘wiring’ from subject A to subject B). At a less fundamental level, however, the need for intersubjective verification of scientific hypotheses has been long recognized”. (page 414).

On the face of it, the difference between intersubjectivity and empathy is double:

  1. Intersubjectivity requires an EXPLICIT, communicated agreement between at least two subjects.
  2. It involves EXTERNAL things (so called “objective” entities).

These “differences” are artificial. This is how empathy is defined in “Psychology – An Introduction (Ninth Edition) by Charles G. Morris, Prentice Hall, 1996″:

“Closely related to the ability to read other people’s emotions is empathy – the arousal of an emotion in an observer that is a vicarious response to the other person’s situation… Empathy depends not only on one’s ability to identify someone else’s emotions but also on one’s capacity to put oneself in the other person’s place and to experience an appropriate emotional response. Just as sensitivity to non-verbal cues increases with age, so does empathy: The cognitive and perceptual abilities required for empathy develop only as a child matures… (page 442)

In empathy training, for example, each member of the couple is taught to share inner feelings and to listen to and understand the partner’s feelings before responding to them. The empathy technique focuses the couple’s attention on feelings and requires that they spend more time listening and less time in rebuttal.” (page 576).

Thus empathy does require the communication of feelings AND an agreement on the appropriate outcome of the communicated emotions (=affective agreement). In the absence of such agreement, we are faced with inappropriate affect (laughing at a funeral, for instance).

Moreover, empathy does relate to external objects and is provoked by them. There is no empathy in the absence of an empathee. Granted, intersubjectivity is intuitively applied to the inanimate while empathy is applied to the living (animals, humans, even plants). But this is a difference in human preferences – not in definition.

Empathy can, thus, be re-defined as a form of intersubjectivity which involves living things as “objects” to which the communicated intersubjective agreement relates. It is wrong to limit our understanding of empathy to the communication of emotion. Rather, it is the intersubjective, concomitant experience of BEING. The empathor empathizes not only with the empathee’s emotions but also with his physical state and other parameters of existence (pain, hunger, thirst, suffocation, sexual pleasure etc.).

This leads to the important (and perhaps intractable) psychophysical question.

Intersubjectivity relates to external objects but the subjects communicate and reach an agreement regarding the way THEY have been affected by the objects.

Empathy relates to external objects (Others) but the subjects communicate and reach an agreement regarding the way THEY would have felt had they BEEN the object.

This is no minor difference, if it, indeed, exists. But does it really exist?

What is it that we feel in empathy? Do we feel OUR emotions/sensations, provoked by an external trigger (classic intersubjectivity) or do we experience a TRANSFER of the object’s feelings/sensations to us?

Such a transfer being physically impossible (as far as we know) – we are forced to adopt the former model. Empathy is the set of reactions – emotional and cognitive – to being triggered by an external object (the Other). It is the equivalent of resonance in the physical sciences. But we have NO WAY of ascertaining that the “wavelength” of such resonance is identical in both subjects.

In other words, we have no way to verify that the feelings or sensations invoked in the two (or more) subjects are the same. What I call “sadness” may not be what you call “sadness”. Colours, for instance, have unique, uniform, independently measurable properties (their energy). Even so, no one can prove that what I see as “red” is what another person (perhaps a Daltonist) would call “red”. If this is true where “objective”, measurable, phenomena, like colors, are concerned – it is infinitely more true in the case of emotions or feelings.

We are, therefore, forced to refine our definition:

Empathy is a form of intersubjectivity which involves living things as “objects” to which the communicated intersubjective agreement relates. It is the intersubjective, concomitant experience of BEING. The empathor empathizes not only with the empathee’s emotions but also with his physical state and other parameters of existence (pain, hunger, thirst, suffocation, sexual pleasure etc.).

BUT

The meaning attributed to the words used by the parties to the intersubjective agreement known as empathy is totally dependent upon each party. The same words are used, the same denotates – but it cannot be proven that the same connotates, the same experiences, emotions and sensations are being discussed or communicated.

Language (and, by extension, art and culture) serve to introduce us to other points of view (“what is it like to be someone else” to paraphrase Thomas Nagle). By providing a bridge between the subjective (inner experience) and the objective (words, images, sounds), language facilitates social exchange and interaction. It is a dictionary which translates one’s subjective private language to the coin of the public medium. Knowledge and language are, thus, the ultimate social glue, though both are based on approximations and guesses (see George Steiner’s “After Babel”).

But, whereas the intersubjective agreement regarding measurements and observations concerning external objects IS verifiable or falsifiable using INDEPENDENT tools (e.g., lab experiments) – the intersubjective agreement which concerns itself with the emotions, sensations and experiences of subjects as communicated by them IS NOT verifiable or falsifiable using INDEPENDENT tools. The interpretation of this second kind of agreement is dependent upon introspection and an assumption that identical words used by different subjects still possess identical meaning. This assumption is not falsifiable (or verifiable). It is neither true nor false. It is a probabilistic statement, but without a probability distribution. It is, in short, a meaningless statement. As a result, empathy itself is meaningless.

In human-speak, if you say that you are sad and I empathize with you it means that we have an agreement. I regard you as my object. You communicate to me a property of yours (“sadness”). This triggers in me a recollection of “what is sadness” or “what is to be sad”. I say that I know what you mean, I have been sad before, I know what it is like to be sad. I empathize with you. We agree about being sad. We have an intersubjective agreement.

Alas, such an agreement is meaningless. We cannot (yet) measure sadness, quantify it, crystallize it, access it in any way from the outside. We are totally and absolutely reliant on your introspection and on my introspection. There is no way anyone can prove that my “sadness” is even remotely similar to your sadness. I may be feeling or experiencing something that you might find hilarious and not sad at all. Still, I call it “sadness” and I empathize with you.

This would not have been that grave if empathy hadn’t been the cornerstone of morality.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1999 Edition:

“Empathy and other forms of social awareness are important in the development of a moral sense. Morality embraces a person’s beliefs about the appropriateness or goodness of what he does, thinks, or feels… Childhood is … the time at which moral standards begin to develop in a process that often extends well into adulthood. The American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg hypothesized that people’s development of moral standards passes through stages that can be grouped into three moral levels…

At the third level, that of postconventional moral reasoning, the adult bases his moral standards on principles that he himself has evaluated and that he accepts as inherently valid, regardless of society’s opinion. He is aware of the arbitrary, subjective nature of social standards and rules, which he regards as relative rather than absolute in authority.

Thus the bases for justifying moral standards pass from avoidance of punishment to avoidance of adult disapproval and rejection to avoidance of internal guilt and self-recrimination. The person’s moral reasoning also moves toward increasingly greater social scope (i.e., including more people and institutions) and greater abstraction (i.e., from reasoning about physical events such as pain or pleasure to reasoning about values, rights, and implicit contracts).”

But, if moral reasoning is based on introspection and empathy – it is, indeed, dangerously relative and not objective in any known sense of the word. Empathy is a unique agreement on the emotional and experiential content of two or more introspective processes in two or more subjects. Such an agreement can never have any meaning, even as far as the parties to it are concerned. They can never be sure that they are discussing the same emotions or experiences. There is no way to compare, measure, observe, falsify or verify (prove) that the “same” emotion is experienced identically by the parties to the empathy agreement. Empathy is meaningless and introspection involves a private language despite what Wittgenstein had to say. Morality is thus reduced to a set of meaningless private languages.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“… Others have argued that because even rather young children are capable of showing empathy with the pain of others, the inhibition of aggressive behaviour arises from this moral affect rather than from the mere anticipation of punishment. Some scientists have found that children differ in their individual capacity for empathy, and, therefore, some children are more sensitive to moral prohibitions than others.

Young children’s growing awareness of their own emotional states, characteristics, and abilities leads to empathy–i.e., the ability to appreciate the feelings and perspectives of others. Empathy and other forms of social awareness are in turn important in the development of a moral sense… Another important aspect of children’s emotional development is the formation of their self-concept, or identity–i.e., their sense of who they are and what their relation to other people is.

According to Lipps’s concept of empathy, a person appreciates another person’s reaction by a projection of the self into the other. In his Ästhetik, 2 vol. (1903-06; ‘Aesthetics’), he made all appreciation of art dependent upon a similar self-projection into the object.”

This may well be the key. Empathy has little to do with the other person (the empathee). It is simply the result of conditioning and socialization. In other words, when we hurt someone – we don’t experience his pain. We experience OUR pain. Hurting somebody – hurts US. The reaction of pain is provoked in US by OUR own actions. We have been taught a learned response of feeling pain when we inflict it upon another. But we have also been taught to feel responsible for our fellow beings (guilt). So, we experience pain whenever another person claims to experience it as well. We feel guilty.

In sum:

To use the example of pain, we experience it in tandem with another person because we feel guilty or somehow responsible for his condition. A learned reaction is activated and we experience (our kind of) pain as well. We communicate it to the other person and an agreement of empathy is struck between us.

We attribute feelings, sensations and experiences to the object of our actions. It is the psychological defence mechanism of projection. Unable to conceive of inflicting pain upon ourselves – we displace the source. It is the other’s pain that we are feeling, we keep telling ourselves, not our own.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“Perhaps the most important aspect of children’s emotional development is a growing awareness of their own emotional states and the ability to discern and interpret the emotions of others. The last half of the second year is a time when children start becoming aware of their own emotional states, characteristics, abilities, and potential for action; this phenomenon is called self-awareness… (coupled with strong narcissistic behaviours and traits – SV)…

This growing awareness of and ability to recall one’s own emotional states leads to empathy, or the ability to appreciate the feelings and perceptions of others. Young children’s dawning awareness of their own potential for action inspires them to try to direct (or otherwise affect) the behaviour of others…

…With age, children acquire the ability to understand the perspective, or point of view, of other people, a development that is closely linked with the empathic sharing of others’ emotions…

One major factor underlying these changes is the child’s increasing cognitive sophistication. For example, in order to feel the emotion of guilt, a child must appreciate the fact that he could have inhibited a particular action of his that violated a moral standard. The awareness that one can impose a restraint on one’s own behaviour requires a certain level of cognitive maturation, and, therefore, the emotion of guilt cannot appear until that competence is attained.”

That empathy is a REACTION to external stimuli that is fully contained within the empathor and then projected onto the empathee is clearly demonstrated by “inborn empathy”. It is the ability to exhibit empathy and altruistic behaviour in response to facial expressions. Newborns react this way to their mother’s facial expression of sadness or distress.

This serves to prove that empathy has very little to do with the feelings, experiences or sensations of the other (the empathee). Surely, the infant has no idea what it is like to feel sad and definitely not what it is like for his mother to feel sad. In this case, it is a complex reflexive reaction. Later on, empathy is still rather reflexive, the result of conditioning.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica quotes fascinating research which dramatically proves the object-independent nature of empathy. Empathy is an internal reaction, an internal process, triggered by external cue provided by animate objects. It is communicated to the empathee-other by the empathor but the communication and the resulting agreement (“I know how you feel therefore we agree on how you feel”) is rendered meaningless by the absence of a monovalent, unambiguous dictionary.

“An extensive series of studies indicated that positive emotion feelings enhance empathy and altruism. It was shown by the American psychologist Alice M. Isen that relatively small favours or bits of good luck (like finding money in a coin telephone or getting an unexpected gift) induced positive emotion in people and that such emotion regularly increased the subjects’ inclination to sympathize or provide help.

Several studies have demonstrated that positive emotion facilitates creative problem solving. One of these studies showed that positive emotion enabled subjects to name more uses for common objects. Another showed that positive emotion enhanced creative problem solving by enabling subjects to see relations among objects (and other people – SV) that would otherwise go unnoticed. A number of studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of positive emotion on thinking, memory, and action in pre-school and older children.”

If empathy increases with positive emotion (a result of good luck, for instance) – then it has little to do with its objects and a lot to do with the person in whom it is provoked.

ADDENDUM – Interview granted to the National Post, Toronto, Canada, July 2003

Q. How important is empathy to proper psychological functioning?

A. Empathy is more important socially than it is psychologically. The absence of empathy – for instance in the Narcissistic and Antisocial personality disorders – predisposes people to exploit and abuse others. Empathy is the bedrock of our sense of morality. Arguably, aggressive behavior is as inhibited by empathy at least as much as it is by anticipated punishment.

But the existence of empathy in a person is also a sign of self-awareness, a healthy identity, a well-regulated sense of self-worth, and self-love (in the positive sense). Its absence denotes emotional and cognitive immaturity, an inability to love, to truly relate to others, to respect their boundaries and accept their needs, feelings, hopes, fears, choices, and preferences as autonomous entities.

Q. How is empathy developed?

A. It may be innate. Even toddlers seem to empathize with the pain – or happiness – of others (such as their caregivers). Empathy increases as the child forms a self-concept (identity). The more aware the infant is of his or her emotional states, the more he explores his limitations and capabilities – the more prone he is to projecting this new found knowledge unto others. By attributing to people around him his new gained insights about himself, the child develop a moral sense and inhibits his anti-social impulses. The development of empathy is, therefore, a part of the process of socialization.

But, as the American psychologist Carl Rogers taught us, empathy is also learned and inculcated. We are coached to feel guilt and pain when we inflict suffering on another person. Empathy is an attempt to avoid our own self-imposed agony by projecting it onto another.

Q. Is there an increasing dearth of empathy in society today? Why do you think so?

A. The social institutions that reified, propagated and administered empathy have imploded. The nuclear family, the closely-knit extended clan, the village, the neighborhood, the Church- have all unraveled. Society is atomized and anomic. The resulting alienation fostered a wave of antisocial behavior, both criminal and “legitimate”. The survival value of empathy is on the decline. It is far wiser to be cunning, to cut corners, to deceive, and to abuse – than to be empathic. Empathy has largely dropped from the contemporary curriculum of socialization.

In a desperate attempt to cope with these inexorable processes, behaviors predicated on a lack of empathy have been pathologized and “medicalized”. The sad truth is that narcissistic or antisocial conduct is both normative and rational. No amount of “diagnosis”, “treatment”, and medication can hide or reverse this fact. Ours is a cultural malaise which permeates every single cell and strand of the social fabric.

Q. Is there any empirical evidence we can point to of a decline in empathy?

Empathy cannot be measured directly – but only through proxies such as criminality, terrorism, charity, violence, antisocial behavior, related mental health disorders, or abuse.

 

Moreover, it is extremely difficult to separate the effects of deterrence from the effects of empathy.

 

If I don’t batter my wife, torture animals, or steal – is it because I am empathetic or because I don’t want to go to jail?

 

Rising litigiousness, zero tolerance, and skyrocketing rates of incarceration – as well as the ageing of the population – have sliced intimate partner violence and other forms of crime across the United States in the last decade. But this benevolent decline had nothing to do with increasing empathy.

The statistics are open to interpretation but it would be safe to say that the last century has been the most violent and least empathetic in human history. Wars and terrorism are on the rise, charity giving on the wane (measured as percentage of national wealth), welfare policies are being abolished, Darwininan models of capitalism are spreading. In the last two decades, mental health disorders were added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association whose hallmark is the lack of empathy. The violence is reflected in our popular culture: movies, video games, and the media.

Empathy – supposedly a spontaneous reaction to the plight of our fellow humans – is now channeled through self-interested and bloated non-government organizations or multilateral outfits. The vibrant world of private empathy has been replaced by faceless state largesse. Pity, mercy, the elation of giving are tax-deductible. It is a sorry sight.

 

ADDENDUM – The I=mcu Theorem

 

I postulate the existence of three basic modes of interpersonal relatedness:

 

(1) I=mcu (pronounced: I am seeing you)

 

(2) I=ucm (pronounced: I am what you see in me)

 

(3) U=icm (pronounced: You is what I see as me)

 

Mode (1) and (3) represent variants of empathy. The ability to “see” the other is indispensable to the development and exercise of empathy. Even more crucial is the capacity to identify with the other, to “see” the other as “me” (i.e., as oneself).

 

Mode (2) is known as pathological narcissism. The narcissist forges a False Self that is designed to elicit external input in order to sustain itself and perform some important ego functions. The narcissists exists merely as a reflection in the eyes of others. In the absence of Narcissistic Supply (attention), the narcissist crumbles and withers.

 

Cold Empathy vs. Warm Empathy and the Concept of “Unacanny Valley”

Click HERE to watch the video

Contrary to widely held views, Narcissists and Psychopaths may actually possess empathy. They may even be hyper-empathic, attuned to the minutest signals emitted by their victims and endowed with a penetrating “X-ray vision”. They tend to abuse their empathic skills by employing them exclusively for personal gain, the extraction of narcissistic supply, or in the pursuit of antisocial and sadistic goals. They regard their ability to empathize as another weapon in their arsenal.

I suggest to label the narcissistic psychopath’s version of empathy: “cold empathy“, akin to the “cold emotions” felt by psychopaths. The cognitive element of empathy is there, but not so its emotional correlate. It is, consequently, a barren, detached, and cerebral kind of intrusive gaze, devoid of compassion and a feeling of affinity with one’s fellow humans.

Narcissists and psychopaths also appear to be “empathizing” with their possessions: objects, pets, and their sources of narcissistic supply or material benefits (often their nearest and dearest, significant others, or “friends” and associates). But this is not real empathy: it is a mere projection of the narcissist’s or psychopath’s own insecurities and fears, needs and wishes, fantasies and priorities. This kind of displayed “empathy” usually vanishes the minute its subject ceases to play a role in the narcissist’s or psychopath’s life and his psychodynamic processes.

Cold Empathy evokes the concept of “Uncanny Valley”, coined in 1970 by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. Mori suggested that people react positively to androids (humanlike robots) for as long as they differ from real humans in meaningful and discernible ways. But the minute these contraptions come to resemble humans uncannily, though imperfectly, human observers tend to experience repulsion, revulsion, and other negative emotions, including fear.

The same applies to psychopathic narcissists: they are near-perfect imitations of humans, but, lacking empathy and emotions, they are not exactly there. Psychopaths and narcissists strike their interlocutors as being some kind of “alien life-forms” or “artificial intelligence”, in short: akin to humanoid robots, or androids. When people come across narcissists or psychopaths the Uncanny Valley reaction kicks in: people feel revolted, scared, and repelled. They can’t put the finger on what it is that provokes these negative reactions, but, after a few initial encounters, they tend to keep their distance.

The Insanity of the Insanity Defense

Aron Levy, who kidnapped, murdered and dismembered 8-year old Leiby Kletzky in Brooklyn now faces a battery of defense-appointed experts in an attempt to plead NGRI (“Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity”). He has a history of “psychiatric disorders” and had been hearing voices, his lawyers claim.

The insanity defense in criminal trials is nothing new. The Babylonian Talmud had this to say 1800 years ago: “It is an ill thing to knock against a deaf-mute, an imbecile, or a minor. He that wounds them is culpable, but if they wound him they are not culpable.”

But even the Talmudic rabbis – renowned for their intellectual acuity – would have been stymied by the modern version of the insanity defense.

To start with, no one seems to be able to define “insanity” unequivocally. Insanity in legalese is not the same as the colloquial expression (“he is nuts”) and is equally distinct from the way psychiatrists use the term (which they rarely do.)

Indeed, when it comes to the antiquated insanity defense, the legal profession is completely at odds with modern psychiatry.

The legal system applies three tests to determine whether an accused should be held not responsible for his criminal actions:

1. Can s/he tell right from wrong? Does s/he lack substantial capacity to “know and appreciate” the criminality or wrongfulness of her/his (mis)conduct (aka “diminished capacity”)?

2. Did s/he intend to act the way s/he did (“mens rea”)?

3. Could s/he not control her/his behavior (“irresistible impulse”)?

But, mental health scholars regard these “tests” as subjective, biased, and ludicrous. A “guilty but insane” verdict is a contradiction in terms, they insist. What matters is whether the defendant’s perception or understanding of reality (his “reality test”) is impaired and not only when he had committed the criminal act.

This rigorous criterion applies only to psychotics, such as Jared Lee Loughner, the Tucson shooter (whose reality test is subverted by bouts of psychosis, i.e., delusions). All others should be deemed both sane and culpable for all intents and purposes, insist most psychiatrists.

Moreover: the “perception and understanding of reality” can co-exist even with the severest forms of mental illness. Even when a criminal is clinically mentally-ill, as long as s/he maintains a perfect reality test, s/he should be held criminally responsible (Jeffrey Dahmer, who was denied the insanity defense, comes to mind).

Consider the cases of the Norway shooter, Anders Breivik or of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber: they both have coherent (albeit reprehensible) worldviews, a consistent internal logic, and rules of right and wrong (their own, personal, overriding ethical codes).

Breivik, for instance, is not delusional or otherwise psychotic. And, yet, his lawyer is seriously considering to use the insanity defense and, under the current, irredeemably flawed legal definition of insanity, may well get away with it!

This is not to say that a defendant’s mental state at the time he had committed the crime is irrelevant: he may have held mistaken (even delusional) beliefs or may have misread the situation, may have been misinformed, may have been under the influence of mind-altering drugs, may have lacked criminal intent, may have been unable to tell right from wrong, or to control his or her urges.

As the scholar Christopher Slobogin argues convincingly in his Virginia Law Review essay titled “An End to Insanity”: mental illness should play a part in and inform the traditional defenses already available in a criminal trial – but, shaky as it is, it should not stand on its own. Indeed, it can’t.

(An edited version was originally published in New-York Daily News)

Psychopathic Narcissists: The Uncanny Valley of Cold Empathy

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited”

Cold Empathy evokes the concept of “Uncanny Valley”, coined in 1970 by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. Mori suggested that people react positively to androids (humanlike robots) for as long as they differ from real humans in meaningful and discernible ways. But the minute these contraptions come to resemble humans uncannily, though imperfectly, human observers tend to experience repulsion, revulsion, and other negative emotions, including fear.

The same applies to psychopathic narcissists: they are near-perfect imitations of humans, but, lacking empathy and emotions, they are not exactly there. Psychopaths and narcissists strike their interlocutors as being some kind of “alien life-forms” or “artificial intelligence”, in short: akin to humanoid robots, or androids. When people come across narcissists or psychopaths the Uncanny Valley reaction kicks in: people feel revolted, scared, and repelled. They can’t put the finger on what it is that provokes these negative reactions, but, after a few initial encounters, they tend to keep their distance.

Contrary to widely held views, Narcissists and Psychopaths may actually possess empathy. They may even be hyper-empathic, attuned to the minutest signals emitted by their victims and endowed with a penetrating “X-ray vision”. They tend to abuse their empathic skills by employing them exclusively for personal gain, the extraction of narcissistic supply, or in the pursuit of antisocial and sadistic goals. They regard their ability to empathize as another weapon in their arsenal.

I suggest to label the narcissistic psychopath’s version of empathy: “cold empathy“, akin to the “cold emotions” felt by psychopaths. The cognitive element of empathy is there, but not so its emotional correlate. It is, consequently, a barren, detached, and cerebral kind of intrusive gaze, devoid of compassion and a feeling of affinity with one’s fellow humans.

Narcissists and psychopaths also appear to be “empathizing” with their possessions: objects, pets, and their sources of narcissistic supply or material benefits (often their nearest and dearest, significant others, or “friends” and associates). But this is not real empathy: it is a mere projection of the narcissist’s or psychopath’s own insecurities and fears, needs and wishes, fantasies and priorities. This kind of displayed “empathy” usually vanishes the minute its subject ceases to play a role in the narcissist’s or psychopath’s life and his psychodynamic processes.

What is Empathy?

 

Normal people use a variety of abstract concepts and psychological constructs to relate to other persons. Emotions are such modes of inter-relatedness. Narcissists and psychopaths are different. Their “equipment” is lacking. They understand only one language: self-interest. Their inner dialog and private language revolve around the constant measurement of utility. They regard others as mere objects, instruments of gratification, and representations of functions.

 

This deficiency renders the narcissist and psychopath rigid and socially dysfunctional. They don’t bond – they become dependent (on narcissistic supply, on drugs, on adrenaline rushes). They seek pleasure by manipulating their dearest and nearest or even by destroying them, the way a child interacts with his toys. Like autists, they fail to grasp cues: their interlocutor’s body language, the subtleties of speech, or social etiquette.

 

Narcissists and psychopaths lack empathy. It is safe to say that the same applies to such patients who are co-diagnosed (co-morbid) with other personality disorders, notably the Schizoid, Paranoid, Borderline, Avoidant, and Schizotypal.

Empathy lubricates the wheels of interpersonal relationships. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (2011 edition) defines empathy as:

“The ability to imagine oneself in anther’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. It is a term coined in the early 20th century, equivalent to the German Einfühlung and modelled on “sympathy.” The term is used with special (but not exclusive) reference to aesthetic experience. The most obvious example, perhaps, is that of the actor or singer who genuinely feels the part he is performing. With other works of art, a spectator may, by a kind of introjection, feel himself involved in what he observes or contemplates. The use of empathy is an important part of the counselling technique developed by the American psychologist Carl Rogers.”

This is how empathy is defined in “Psychology – An Introduction” (Ninth Edition) by Charles G. Morris, Prentice Hall, 1996:

“Closely related to the ability to read other people’s emotions is empathy – the arousal of an emotion in an observer that is a vicarious response to the other person’s situation… Empathy depends not only on one’s ability to identify someone else’s emotions but also on one’s capacity to put oneself in the other person’s place and to experience an appropriate emotional response. Just as sensitivity to non-verbal cues increases with age, so does empathy: The cognitive and perceptual abilities required for empathy develop only as a child matures… (page 442)

In empathy training, for example, each member of the couple is taught to share inner feelings and to listen to and understand the partner’s feelings before responding to them. The empathy technique focuses the couple’s attention on feelings and requires that they spend more time listening and less time in rebuttal.” (page 576).

Empathy is the cornerstone of morality.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011 Edition:

“Empathy and other forms of social awareness are important in the development of a moral sense. Morality embraces a person’s beliefs about the appropriateness or goodness of what he does, thinks, or feels… Childhood is … the time at which moral standards begin to develop in a process that often extends well into adulthood. The American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg hypothesized that people’s development of moral standards passes through stages that can be grouped into three moral levels…

At the third level, that of postconventional moral reasoning, the adult bases his moral standards on principles that he himself has evaluated and that he accepts as inherently valid, regardless of society’s opinion. He is aware of the arbitrary, subjective nature of social standards and rules, which he regards as relative rather than absolute in authority.

Thus the bases for justifying moral standards pass from avoidance of punishment to avoidance of adult disapproval and rejection to avoidance of internal guilt and self-recrimination. The person’s moral reasoning also moves toward increasingly greater social scope (i.e., including more people and institutions) and greater abstraction (i.e., from reasoning about physical events such as pain or pleasure to reasoning about values, rights, and implicit contracts).”

“… Others have argued that because even rather young children are capable of showing empathy with the pain of others, the inhibition of aggressive behaviour arises from this moral affect rather than from the mere anticipation of punishment. Some scientists have found that children differ in their individual capacity for empathy, and, therefore, some children are more sensitive to moral prohibitions than others…”

Young children’s growing awareness of their own emotional states, characteristics, and abilities leads to empathy–i.e., the ability to appreciate the feelings and perspectives of others. Empathy and other forms of social awareness are in turn important in the development of a moral sense… Another important aspect of children’s emotional development is the formation of their self-concept, or identity–i.e., their sense of who they are and what their relation to other people is.

According to Lipps’s concept of empathy, a person appreciates another person’s reaction by a projection of the self into the other. In his Ästhetik, 2 vol. (1903-06; ‘Aesthetics’), he made all appreciation of art dependent upon a similar self-projection into the object.”

Empathy – Social Conditioning or Instinct?

This may well be the key. Empathy has little to do with the person with whom we empathize (the empathee). It may simply be the result of conditioning and socialization. In other words, when we hurt someone, we don’t experience his or her pain. We experience OUR pain. Hurting somebody – hurts US. The reaction of pain is provoked in US by OUR own actions. We have been taught a learned response: to feel pain when we hurt someone.

We attribute feelings, sensations and experiences to the object of our actions. It is the psychological defence mechanism of projection. Unable to conceive of inflicting pain upon ourselves – we displace the source. It is the other’s pain that we are feeling, we keep telling ourselves, not our own.

Additionally, we have been taught to feel responsible for our fellow beings (guilt). So, we also experience pain whenever another person claims to be anguished. We feel guilty owing to his or her condition, we feel somehow accountable even if we had nothing to do with the whole affair.

In sum, to use the example of pain:

When we see someone hurting, we experience pain for two reasons:

1. Because we feel guilty or somehow responsible for his or her condition

2. It is a learned response: we experience our own pain and project it on the empathee.

We communicate our reaction to the other person and agree that we both share the same feeling (of being hurt, of being in pain, in our example). This unwritten and unspoken agreement is what we call empathy.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“Perhaps the most important aspect of children’s emotional development is a growing awareness of their own emotional states and the ability to discern and interpret the emotions of others. The last half of the second year is a time when children start becoming aware of their own emotional states, characteristics, abilities, and potential for action; this phenomenon is called self-awareness… (coupled with strong narcissistic behaviours and traits – SV)…

This growing awareness of and ability to recall one’s own emotional states leads to empathy, or the ability to appreciate the feelings and perceptions of others. Young children’s dawning awareness of their own potential for action inspires them to try to direct (or otherwise affect) the behaviour of others…

…With age, children acquire the ability to understand the perspective, or point of view, of other people, a development that is closely linked with the empathic sharing of others’ emotions…

One major factor underlying these changes is the child’s increasing cognitive sophistication. For example, in order to feel the emotion of guilt, a child must appreciate the fact that he could have inhibited a particular action of his that violated a moral standard. The awareness that one can impose a restraint on one’s own behaviour requires a certain level of cognitive maturation, and, therefore, the emotion of guilt cannot appear until that competence is attained.”

Still, empathy may be an instinctual REACTION to external stimuli that is fully contained within the empathor and then projected onto the empathee. This is clearly demonstrated by “inborn empathy”. It is the ability to exhibit empathy and altruistic behaviour in response to facial expressions. Newborns react this way to their mother’s facial expression of sadness or distress.

This serves to prove that empathy has very little to do with the feelings, experiences or sensations of the other (the empathee). Surely, the infant has no idea what it is like to feel sad and definitely not what it is like for his mother to feel sad. In this case, it is a complex reflexive reaction. Later on, empathy is still rather reflexive, the result of conditioning.

The 1999 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica quoted some fascinating research that supports the model I propose:

“An extensive series of studies indicated that positive emotion feelings enhance empathy and altruism. It was shown by the American psychologist Alice M. Isen that relatively small favours or bits of good luck (like finding money in a coin telephone or getting an unexpected gift) induced positive emotion in people and that such emotion regularly increased the subjects’ inclination to sympathize or provide help.

Several studies have demonstrated that positive emotion facilitates creative problem solving. One of these studies showed that positive emotion enabled subjects to name more uses for common objects. Another showed that positive emotion enhanced creative problem solving by enabling subjects to see relations among objects (and other people – SV) that would otherwise go unnoticed. A number of studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of positive emotion on thinking, memory, and action in pre-school and older children.”

If empathy increases with positive emotion, then it has little to do with the empathee (the recipient or object of empathy) and everything to do with the empathor (the person who does the empathizing).

ADDENDUM – Interview granted to the National Post, Toronto, Canada, July 2003

Q. How important is empathy to proper psychological functioning?

A. Empathy is more important socially than it is psychologically. The absence of empathy – for instance in the Narcissistic and Antisocial personality disorders – predisposes people to exploit and abuse others. Empathy is the bedrock of our sense of morality. Arguably, aggressive behavior is as inhibited by empathy at least as much as it is by anticipated punishment.

But the existence of empathy in a person is also a sign of self-awareness, a healthy identity, a well-regulated sense of self-worth, and self-love (in the positive sense). Its absence denotes emotional and cognitive immaturity, an inability to love, to truly relate to others, to respect their boundaries and accept their needs, feelings, hopes, fears, choices, and preferences as autonomous entities.

Q. How is empathy developed?

A. It may be innate. Even toddlers seem to empathize with the pain – or happiness – of others (such as their caregivers). Empathy increases as the child forms a self-concept (identity). The more aware the infant is of his or her emotional states, the more he explores his limitations and capabilities – the more prone he is to projecting this new found knowledge unto others. By attributing to people around him his new gained insights about himself, the child develop a moral sense and inhibits his anti-social impulses. The development of empathy is, therefore, a part of the process of socialization.

But, as the American psychologist Carl Rogers taught us, empathy is also learned and inculcated. We are coached to feel guilt and pain when we inflict suffering on another person. Empathy is an attempt to avoid our own self-imposed agony by projecting it onto another.

Q. Is there an increasing dearth of empathy in society today? Why do you think so?

A. The social institutions that reified, propagated and administered empathy have imploded. The nuclear family, the closely-knit extended clan, the village, the neighborhood, the Church- have all unraveled. Society is atomized and anomic. The resulting alienation fostered a wave of antisocial behavior, both criminal and “legitimate”. The survival value of empathy is on the decline. It is far wiser to be cunning, to cut corners, to deceive, and to abuse – than to be empathic. Empathy has largely dropped from the contemporary curriculum of socialization.

In a desperate attempt to cope with these inexorable processes, behaviors predicated on a lack of empathy have been pathologized and “medicalized”. The sad truth is that narcissistic or antisocial conduct is both normative and rational. No amount of “diagnosis”, “treatment”, and medication can hide or reverse this fact. Ours is a cultural malaise which permeates every single cell and strand of the social fabric.

Q. Is there any empirical evidence we can point to of a decline in empathy?

Empathy cannot be measured directly – but only through proxies such as criminality, terrorism, charity, violence, antisocial behavior, related mental health disorders, or abuse.

 

Moreover, it is extremely difficult to separate the effects of deterrence from the effects of empathy.

 

If I don’t batter my wife, torture animals, or steal – is it because I am empathetic or because I don’t want to go to jail?

 

Rising litigiousness, zero tolerance, and skyrocketing rates of incarceration – as well as the ageing of the population – have sliced intimate partner violence and other forms of crime across the United States in the last decade. But this benevolent decline had nothing to do with increasing empathy.

The statistics are open to interpretation but it would be safe to say that the last century has been the most violent and least empathetic in human history. Wars and terrorism are on the rise, charity giving on the wane (measured as percentage of national wealth), welfare policies are being abolished, Darwinian models of capitalism are spreading. In the last two decades, mental health disorders were added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association whose hallmark is the lack of empathy. The violence is reflected in our popular culture: movies, video games, and the media.

Empathy – supposedly a spontaneous reaction to the plight of our fellow humans – is now channeled through self-interested and bloated non-government organizations or multilateral outfits. The vibrant world of private empathy has been replaced by faceless state largesse. Pity, mercy, the elation of giving are tax-deductible. It is a sorry sight.

Click on this link to read a detailed analysis of empathy:

http://www.narcissistic-abuse.com/empathy.html

Other People’s Pain – click on this link:

http://samvak.tripod.com/narcissistpain.html

Narcissist’s Reactions to Deficient, Fake, Negative, Low-grade, or Static Narcissistic Supply

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited”

The narcissist presents to the world a facade of invincibility, equanimity, superiority, skilfulness, cool-headedness, invulnerability, and, in short: indifference.

This front is penetrated in times of great crises that threaten the narcissist’s ability to obtain Narcissistic Supply, or when the Narcissistic Supply is spurious (fake or low-grade), negative, or static.

In the majority of cases, narcissists react to deficient narcissistic supply by resorting to several adaptive solutions:

The Delusional Narrative Solution

 

The narcissist constructs a narrative in which he figures as the hero – brilliant, perfect, irresistibly handsome, destined for great things, entitled, powerful, wealthy, the centre of attention, etc. The bigger the strain on this delusional charade – the greater the gap between fantasy and reality – the more the delusion coalesces and solidifies.

 

Finally, if it is sufficiently protracted, it replaces reality and the narcissist’s reality test deteriorates. He withdraws his bridges and may become schizotypal, catatonic, or schizoid.

 

The Antisocial Solution

 

The narcissist renounces reality. To his mind, those who pusillanimously fail to recognize his unbound talents, innate superiority, overarching brilliance, benevolent nature, entitlement, cosmically important mission, perfection, etc. – do not deserve consideration. The narcissist’s natural affinity with the criminal – his lack of empathy and compassion, his deficient social skills, his disregard for social laws and morals – now erupt and blossom. He becomes a full-fledged antisocial (sociopath or psychopath). He ignores the wishes and needs of others, he breaks the law, he violates all rights – natural and legal, he holds people in contempt and disdain, he derides society and its codes, he punishes the ignorant ingrates – that, to his mind, drove him to this state – by acting criminally and by jeopardizing their safety, lives, or property.

 

A variant of this pattern of conduct is the Passive-Aggressive solution.

 

Passive-aggressiveness wears a multitudes of guises: procrastination, malingering, perfectionism, forgetfulness, neglect, truancy, intentional inefficiency, stubbornness, and outright sabotage. This repeated and advertent misconduct has far reaching effects. Consider the Negativist in the workplace: he or she invests time and efforts in obstructing their own chores and in undermining relationships. But, these self-destructive and self-defeating behaviors wreak havoc throughout the workshop or the office.

Despite the obstructive role they play, passive-aggressives feel unappreciated, underpaid, cheated, and misunderstood. They chronically complain, whine, carp, and criticize. They blame their failures and defeats on others, posing as martyrs and victims of a corrupt, inefficient, and heartless system (in other words, they have alloplastic defenses and an external locus of control).

Passive-aggressives sulk and give the “silent treatment” in reaction to real or imagined slights. They suffer from ideas of reference (believe that they are the butt of derision, contempt, and condemnation) and are mildly paranoid (the world is out to get them, which explains their personal misfortune). In the words of the DSM: “They may be sullen, irritable, impatient, argumentative, cynical, skeptical and contrary.” They are also hostile, explosive, lack impulse control, and, sometimes, reckless.

The Paranoid Schizoid Solution

 

When narcissism fails as a defense mechanism, the narcissist develops paranoid narratives: self-directed confabulations which place him at the center of others’ allegedly malign attention. The narcissist becomes his own audience and self-sufficient as his own, sometimes exclusive, source of narcissistic supply.

 

The narcissist develops persecutory delusions. He perceives slights and insults where none were intended. He becomes subject to ideas of reference (people are gossiping about him, mocking him, prying into his affairs, cracking his e-mail, etc.). He is convinced that he is the centre of malign and mal-intentioned attention. People are conspiring to humiliate him, punish him, abscond with his property, delude him, impoverish him, confine him physically or intellectually, censor him, impose on his time, force him to action (or to inaction), frighten him, coerce him, surround and besiege him, change his mind, part with his values, victimize or even murder him, and so on.

 

Some narcissists withdraw completely from a world populated with such minacious and ominous objects (really projections of internal objects and processes). They avoid all social contact, except the most necessary. They refrain from meeting people, falling in love, having sex, talking to others, or even corresponding with them. In short: they become schizoids – not out of social shyness, but out of what they feel to be their choice. “This evil, hopeless world does not deserve me” – goes the inner refrain – “and I shall waste none of my time and resources on it.”

 

The Paranoid Aggressive (Explosive) Solution

 

Other narcissists who develop persecutory delusions, resort to an aggressive stance, a more violent resolution of their internal conflict. They become verbally, psychologically, situationally (and, very rarely, physically) abusive. They insult, castigate, chastise, berate, demean, and deride their nearest and dearest (often well wishers and loved ones). They explode in unprovoked displays of indignation, righteousness, condemnation, and blame. Theirs is an exegetic Bedlam. They interpret everything – even the most innocuous, inadvertent, and innocent comment – as designed to provoke and humiliate them. They sow fear, revulsion, hate, and malignant envy. They flail against the windmills of reality – a pathetic, forlorn, sight. But often they cause real and lasting damage – fortunately, mainly to themselves.

 

The Masochistic Avoidant Solution

 

The narcissist is angered by the lack of narcissistic supply. He directs some of this fury inwards, punishing himself for his “failure”. This masochistic behavior has the added “benefit” of forcing the narcissist’s closest to assume the roles of dismayed spectators or of persecutors and thus, either way, to pay him the attention that he craves.

 

Self-administered punishment often manifests as self-handicapping masochism – a narcissistic cop-out. By undermining his work, his relationships, and his efforts, the increasingly fragile narcissist avoids additional criticism and censure (negative supply). Self-inflicted failure is the narcissist’s doing and thus proves that he is the master of his own fate.

 

Masochistic narcissists keep finding themselves in self-defeating circumstances which render success impossible – and “an objective assessment of their performance improbable” (Millon, 2000). They act carelessly, withdraw in mid-effort, are constantly fatigued, bored, or disaffected and thus passive-aggressively sabotage their lives. Their suffering is defiant and by “deciding to abort” they reassert their omnipotence.

 

The narcissist’s pronounced and public misery and self-pity are compensatory and “reinforce (his) self-esteem against overwhelming convictions of worthlessness” (Millon, 2000). His tribulations and anguish render him, in his eyes, unique, saintly, virtuous, righteous, resilient, and significant. They are, in other words, self-generated narcissistic supply.

 

Thus, paradoxically, the worst his anguish and unhappiness, the more relieved and elated such a narcissist feels!

In extremis, when all these default behaviors and solutions fail, or when only negative, fake, low-grade, and static narcissistic supply is to be had, the narcissist “falls apart” in a process of disintegration known as decompensation (the inability to maintain psychological defenses in the face of mounting stress.) This is accompanied by “acting out”: when an inner conflict (most often, frustration) translates into aggression. It involves acting with little or no insight or reflection and in order to attract attention and disrupt other people’s cosy lives.

The dynamic forces which render the narcissist paralysed and fake – his vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and fears – are starkly exposed as his defences crumble and become dysfunctional. The narcissist’s extreme dependence on his social milieu for the regulation of his sense of self-worth is painfully and pitifully evident as he is reduced to begging and cajoling.

At such times, the narcissist acts out self-destructively and anti-socially. His mask of superior equanimity is pierced by displays of impotent rage, self-loathing, self-pity, passive-aggressiveness, and crass attempts at manipulation of his friends, family, and colleagues. His ostensible benevolence and caring evaporate. He feels caged and threatened and he reacts as any animal would do: by striking back at his perceived tormentors, at his hitherto “nearest” and “dearest”.

“I Can Achieve and Do Anything If I Only Put My Mind to It”

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited”
From an early age we are taught (at least in the USA) that there is no limit to what we can achieve; that if we wish to accomplish something all we need to do is set ourselves goals and then apply ourselves to their attainment. With time and dedication, we are told, positive outcomes are guaranteed and ineluctable no matter how high we set the bar. There are no unrealistic aspirations – only insufficient perspiration and lacking inspiration!
This is a narcissistic and delusional narrative. It is counterproductive because in reality we do have limitations, we suffer defeats, and we make mistakes. No one is infallible, invincible, omnipotent, or omniscient.
But, exposed to this onslaught of propaganda, aimed at boosting our self-esteem and puffing up our self-confidence, when, inevitably, we fail in some of our endeavors – we tend to blame ourselves: “If only I had tried harder”, or “I am such a loser, a lazy good-for-nothing, I never get it right!”
Such inner sadistic voices tend to deplete our energy and discourage us from trying again. In hock to the official line that casts us as absolute masters of our own fate, we’d rather abstain than be proven wrong. By attributing failures to our failings, we become the reification of our own “bad fortune” or “indolence”. We give up on life’s challenges, engulfed by fatalism and defeatism.
Some of us choose another path: “If I botched and bungled it, surely I didn’t want it that badly” (a reaction known as “cognitive dissonance”). This kind of self-deception is equally self-destructive. It teaches us that nothing really matters, everything is fun and games and should not be taken too seriously. Reality and personal history are what you make of them and are subjects to re-writing, reframing, and outright confabulation.
How to avoid these pitfalls?
First, you should develop a realistic gauge of your fortes and weaknesses, talents and shortcomings, skills and limitations. Make a list of your own positive and negative traits. Ask others – family members, friends, co-workers, people who know you well – to commit to paper their observations: your good and bad sides. If they are reluctant to risk your ire find a way to allow them to submit their input anonymously.
Now, compare the lists: the one that you have generated with the ones others have provided. Are they largely in agreement? If they are, it means that you know yourself well and that you evaluate your capabilities or lack thereof courageously and objectively.
If, however, there is an abyss between the way you see yourself and the way others view you, something is wrong with your self-assessment.
Concentrate on the questionnaires of those who know you best, longest, and in a variety of situations. Single out their responses which conflict with yours. Proceed to grade these answers on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being “I completely agree”. Isolate those reactions and descriptions that you have rated most highly. Are you ready to change your mind about some issues? Do you recognize yourself in some of this feedback? Give yourself time to digest all this conflicting information. Think about it hard and long. Can you come up with incidents and events in the past which support your view – or theirs? Try to return to your list and re-do it in light of these new data.
This protracted inner dialog is important. You are bound to emerge from it with a better, more functional appraisal of yourself. You will learn to set goals that are realistic are are unlikely to result in frustration and emotional pain. Getting acquainted with your limitations is the first step towards a balanced, mentally hale life. You and your nearest and dearest will benefit from it immensely.

Loving Gaze, Adulating Gaze

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited”

In the film “The Beaver”, the character played by Mel Gibson suffers from depression. He latches on to a tattered puppet in the shape of a beaver and communicates exclusively through it. The Beaver is everything its ostensible master isn’t: daring, creative, exuberant, omnipotent, and omniscient, gregarious, resourceful, charismatic, and charming; a good father, good CEO, and good company all around. In short: The Beaver is the reification of the protagonist’s False Self.

When his wife (Jodi Foster) confronts him, having exposed his confabulations and the need to let go of the contraption, The Beaver rages at her and asserts its superiority, invincibility, and brilliance. The depressive Walter – the True Self – is derided by The Beaver as a dysfunctional wreck, utterly dependent on the former’s ministrations and the interference it runs on his behalf. The film ends unrealistically with Walter mutilating his body – literally – in order to rid himself of the domineering and all-pervasive appendage. “Unrealistically” because narcissists never succeed in resuscitating their dilapidated and crushed True Self. The narcissist IS his False Self: in real life, Walter should have been devoured and consumed by The Beaver – but then we would not have had a typical, syrupy Happy Ending, now, would we?

Both the True Self and the False Self depend on the gaze of others. The False Self relies on adulation and attention – narcissistic supply – for the maintenance of the precarious, confabulated, fantastic, grandiose, and counterfactual narrative that is the narcissist’s persona, his public face. Without a constant flow of such high-quality input and feedback, without the adulating gaze, the narcissist crumbles like a house of ephemeral cards and resorts to a variety of dysfunctional, self-destructive, and self-defeating behaviors and defense mechanisms.

Similarly and equally, the True Self needs a loving gaze to sustain itself. Another person’s love serves two purposes: it confirms the existence of the True Self as a lovable object and thus lays the groundwork and facilitates the necessary and sufficient conditions for self-love; and it allows the True Self to perceive the existence of a “safe”, loving, and holding other. Such insight is at the very foundation of empathy.

Do the False and True Selves ever fight it out, David vs. Goliath, Good vs. Evil, The Beaver vs. Walter?

Alas, they never do. The False Self is concocted by the narcissist to fend off hurt. It is a perfect, impenetrable, impermeable shield, a cocoon; it rewards the narcissist by flooding him with warm, fuzzy, exhilarating feelings; and it sustains the narcissist’s delusions and fantasies. The False Self is the narcissist’s dreams come true. In other words: as far as the narcissist is concerned, the False Self is adaptive and functional. The narcissist is emotionally invested in the False Self and he despises the True Self for having failed to cope with the exigencies and vicissitudes of the narcissist’s life.

PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist Revised) Test: What’s Wrong with Psychological Tests

The second edition of the PCL-R test, originally designed by the controversial maverick Canadian criminologist Robert Hare in 1980 and again in 1991, contains 20 items designed to rate symptoms which are common among psychopaths in forensic populations (such as prison inmates or child molesters). It is designed to cover the major psychopathic traits and behaviours: callous, selfish, remorseless use of others (Factor 1), chronically unstable and antisocial lifestyle (Factor 2), interpersonal and affective deficits, an impulsive lifestyle and antisocial behaviour.

The twenty traits assessed by the PCL-R score are: glib and superficial charm; grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self; need for stimulation; pathological lying; cunning and manipulativeness; lack of remorse or guilt; shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness); callousness and lack of empathy; parasitic lifestyle; poor behavioral controls; sexual promiscuity; early behavior problems; lack of realistic long-term goals; impulsivity; irresponsibility; failure to accept responsibility for own actions; many short-term marital relationships; juvenile delinquency; revocation of conditional release; and criminal versatility.

Psychopaths score between 30 and 40. Normal people score between 0 and 5. But Hare himself was known to label as psychopaths people with a score as low as 13. The PCL-R is, therefore, an art rather than science and is leaves much to the personal impressions of those who administer it.

The PCL-R is based on a structured interview and collateral data gathered from family, friends, and colleagues and from documents. The questions comprising the structured interview are so transparent and self-evident that it is easy to lie one’s way through the test and completely skew its results. Moreover, scoring by the diagnostician is highly subjective (which is why the DSM and the ICD stick to observable behaviours in its criteria for Antisocial or Dissocial Personality Disorder).

The hope is that information gathered outside the scope of the structured interview will serve to rectify such potential abuse, diagnostic bias, and manipulation by both testee and tester. The PCL-R, in other words, relies on the truthfulness of responses provided by notorious liars (psychopaths) and on the biased memories of multiple witnesses, all of them close to the psychopath and with an axe to grind.

The PCL-R is not the only bad apple in an otherwise healthy crop. Psychological tests are far from scientifically rigorous.

Personality assessment is perhaps more an art form than a science. In an attempt to render it as objective and standardized as possible, generations of clinicians came up with psychological tests and structured interviews. These are administered under similar conditions and use identical stimuli to elicit information from respondents. Thus, any disparity in the responses of the subjects can and is attributed to the idiosyncrasies of their personalities.

Moreover, most tests restrict the repertory of permitted of answers. “True” or “false” are the only allowed reactions to the questions in the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory II (MMPI-2), for instance. Scoring or keying the results is also an automatic process wherein all “true” responses get one or more points on one or more scales and all “false” responses get none.

This limits the involvement of the diagnostician to the interpretation of the test results (the scale scores). Admittedly, interpretation is arguably more important than data gathering. Thus, inevitably biased human input cannot and is not avoided in the process of personality assessment and evaluation. But its pernicious effect is somewhat reined in by the systematic and impartial nature of the underlying instruments (tests).

Still, rather than rely on one questionnaire and its interpretation, most practitioners administer to the same subject a battery of tests and structured interviews. These often vary in important aspects: their response formats, stimuli, procedures of administration, and scoring methodology. Moreover, in order to establish a test’s reliability, many diagnosticians administer it repeatedly over time to the same client. If the interpreted results are more or less the same, the test is said to be reliable.

The outcomes of various tests must fit in with each other. Put together, they must provide a consistent and coherent picture. If one test yields readings that are constantly at odds with the conclusions of other questionnaires or interviews, it may not be valid. In other words, it may not be measuring what it claims to be measuring.

Thus, a test quantifying one’s grandiosity must conform to the scores of tests which measure reluctance to admit failings or propensity to present a socially desirable and inflated facade (“False Self”). If a grandiosity test is positively related to irrelevant, conceptually independent traits, such as intelligence or depression, it does not render it valid.

Most tests are either objective or projective. The psychologist George Kelly offered this tongue-in-cheek definition of both in a 1958 article titled “Man’s construction of his alternatives” (included in the book “The Assessment of Human Motives”, edited by G.Lindzey):

“When the subject is asked to guess what the examiner is thinking, we call it an objective test; when the examiner tries to guess what the subject is thinking, we call it a projective device.”

The scoring of objective tests is computerized (no human input). Examples of such standardized instruments include the MMPI-II, the California Psychological Inventory (CPI), and the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory II. Of course, a human finally gleans the meaning of the data gathered by these questionnaires. Interpretation ultimately depends on the knowledge, training, experience, skills, and natural gifts of the therapist or diagnostician.

Projective tests are far less structured and thus a lot more ambiguous. As L. K.Frank observed in a 1939 article titled “Projective methods for the study of personality”:

“(The patient’s responses to such tests are projections of his) way of seeing life, his meanings, signficances, patterns, and especially his feelings.”

In projective tests, the responses are not constrained and scoring is done exclusively by humans and involves judgment (and, thus, a modicum of bias). Clinicians rarely agree on the same interpretation and often use competing methods of scoring, yielding disparate results. The diagnostician’s personality comes into prominent play. The best known of these “tests” is the Rorschach set of inkblots.

Here are a few examples:

I. MMPI-2 Test

The MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory), composed by Hathaway (a psychologist) and McKinley (a physician) is the outcome of decades of research into personality disorders. The revised version, the MMPI-2 was published in 1989 but was received cautiously. MMPI-2 changed the scoring method and some of the normative data. It was, therefore, hard to compare it to its much hallowed (and oft validated) predecessor.

The MMPI-2 is made of 567 binary (true or false) items (questions). Each item requires the subject to respond: “This is true (or false) as applied to me”. There are no “correct” answers. The test booklet allows the diagnostician to provide a rough assessment of the patient (the “basic scales”) based on the first 370 queries (though it is recommended to administer all of 567 of them).

Based on numerous studies, the items are arranged in scales. The responses are compared to answers provided by “control subjects”. The scales allow the diagnostician to identify traits and mental health problems based on these comparisons. In other words, there are no answers that are “typical to paranoid or narcissistic or antisocial patients”. There are only responses that deviate from an overall statistical pattern and conform to the reaction patterns of other patients with similar scores. The nature of the deviation determines the patient’s traits and tendencies – but not his or her diagnosis!

The interpreted outcomes of the MMPI-2 are phrased thus: “The test results place subject X in this group of patients who, statistically-speaking, reacted similarly. The test results also set subject X apart from these groups of people who, statistically-speaking, responded differently”. The test results would never say: “Subject X suffers from (this or that) mental health problem”.

There are three validity scales and ten clinical ones in the original MMPI-2, but other scholars derived hundreds of additional scales. For instance: to help in diagnosing personality disorders, most diagnosticians use either the MMPI-I with the Morey-Waugh-Blashfield scales in conjunction with the Wiggins content scales – or (more rarely) the MMPI-2 updated to include the Colligan-Morey-Offord scales.

The validity scales indicate whether the patient responded truthfully and accurately or was trying to manipulate the test. They pick up patterns. Some patients want to appear normal (or abnormal) and consistently choose what they believe are the “correct” answers. This kind of behavior triggers the validity scales. These are so sensitive that they can indicate whether the subject lost his or her place on the answer sheet and was responding randomly! The validity scales also alert the diagnostician to problems in reading comprehension and other inconsistencies in response patterns.

The clinical scales are dimensional (though not multiphasic as the test’s misleading name implies). They measure hypochondriasis, depression, hysteria, psychopathic deviation, masculinity-femininity, paranoia, psychasthenia, schizophrenia, hypomania, and social introversion. There are also scales for alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and personality disorders.

The interpretation of the MMPI-2 is now fully computerized. The computer is fed with the patients’ age, sex, educational level, and marital status and does the rest. Still, many scholars have criticized the scoring of the MMPI-2.

II. MCMI-III Test

The third edition of this popular test, the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory (MCMI-III), has been published in 1996. With 175 items, it is much shorter and simpler to administer and to interpret than the MMPI-II. The MCMI-III diagnoses personality disorders and Axis I disorders but not other mental health problems. The inventory is based on Millon’s suggested multiaxial model in which long-term characteristics and traits interact with clinical symptoms.

The questions in the MCMI-III reflect the diagnostic criteria of the DSM. Millon himself gives this example (Millon and Davis, Personality Disorders in Modern Life, 2000, pp. 83-84):

“… (T)he first criterion from the DSM-IV dependent personality disorder reads ‘Has difficulty making everyday decisions without an excessive amount of advice and reassurance from others,’ and its parallel MCMI-III item reads ‘People can easily change my ideas, even if I thought my mind was made up.'”

The MCMI-III consists of 24 clinical scales and 3 modifier scales. The modifier scales serve to identify Disclosure (a tendency to hide a pathology or to exaggerate it), Desirability (a bias towards socially desirable responses), and Debasement (endorsing only responses that are highly suggestive of pathology). Next, the Clinical Personality Patterns (scales) which represent mild to moderate pathologies of personality, are: Schizoid, Avoidant, Depressive, Dependent, Histrionic, Narcissistic, Antisocial, Aggressive (Sadistic), Compulsive, Negativistic, and Masochistic. Millon considers only the Schizotypal, Borderline, and Paranoid to be severe personality pathologies and dedicates the next three scales to them.

The last ten scales are dedicated to Axis I and other clinical syndromes: Anxiety Disorder, Somatoform Disorder, Bipolar Manic Disorder, Dysthymic Disorder, Alcohol Dependence, Drug Dependence, Posttraumatic Stress, Thought Disorder, Major Depression, and Delusional Disorder.

Scoring is easy and runs from 0 to 115 per each scale, with 85 and above signifying a pathology. The configuration of the results of all 24 scales provides serious and reliable insights into the tested subject.

Critics of the MCMI-III point to its oversimplification of complex cognitive and emotional processes, its over-reliance on a model of human psychology and behavior that is far from proven and not in the mainstream (Millon’s multiaxial model), and its susceptibility to bias in the interpretative phase.

III. Rorschach Inkblot Test

The Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach developed a set of inkblots to test subjects in his clinical research. In a 1921 monograph (published in English in 1942 and 1951), Rorschach postulated that the blots evoke consistent and similar responses in groups patients. Only ten of the original inkblots are currently in diagnostic use. It was John Exner who systematized the administration and scoring of the test, combining the best of several systems in use at the time (e.g., Beck, Kloper, Rapaport, Singer).

The Rorschach inkblots are ambiguous forms, printed on 18X24 cm. cards, in both black and white and color. Their very ambiguity provokes free associations in the test subject. The diagnostician stimulates the formation of these flights of fantasy by asking questions such as “What is this? What might this be?”. S/he then proceed to record, verbatim, the patient’s responses as well as the inkblot’s spatial position and orientation. An example of such record would read: “Card V upside down, child sitting on a porch and crying, waiting for his mother to return.”

Having gone through the entire deck, the examiner than proceeds to read aloud the responses while asking the patient to explain, in each and every case, why s/he chose to interpret the card the way s/he did. “What in card V prompted you to think of an abandoned child?”. At this phase, the patient is allowed to add details and expand upon his or her original answer. Again, everything is noted and the subject is asked to explain what is the card or in his previous response gave birth to the added details.

Scoring the Rorschach test is a demanding task. Inevitably, due to its “literary” nature, there is no uniform, automated scoring system.

IV. TAT Diagnostic Test

The Thematic Appreciation Test (TAT) is similar to the Rorschach inkblot test. Subjects are shown pictures and asked to tell a story based on what they see. Both these projective assessment tools elicit important information about underlying psychological fears and needs. The TAT was developed in 1935 by Morgan and Murray. Ironically, it was initially used in a study of normal personalities done at Harvard Psychological Clinic.

The test comprises 31 cards. One card is blank and the other thirty include blurred but emotionally powerful (or even disturbing) photographs and drawings. Originally, Murray came up with only 20 cards which he divided to three groups: B (to be shown to Boys Only), G (Girls Only) and M-or-F (both sexes).

The cards expound on universal themes. Card 2, for instance, depicts a country scene. A man is toiling in the background, tilling the field; a woman partly obscures him, carrying books; an old woman stands idly by and watches them both. Card 3BM is dominated by a couch against which is propped a little boy, his head resting on his right arm, a revolver by his side, on the floor.

Card 6GF again features a sofa. A young woman occupies it. Her attention is riveted by a pipe-smoking older man who is talking to her. She is looking back at him over her shoulder, so we don’t have a clear view of her face. Another generic young woman appears in card 12F. But this time, she is juxtaposed against a mildly menacing, grimacing old woman, whose head is covered with a shawl. Men and boys seem to be permanently stressed and dysphoric in the TAT. Card 13MF, for instance, shows a young lad, his lowered head buried in his arm. A woman is bedridden across the room.

With the advent of objective tests, such as the MMPI and the MCMI, projective tests such as the TAT have lost their clout and luster. Today, the TAT is administered infrequently. Modern examiners use 20 cards or less and select them according to their “intuition” as to the patient’s problem areas. In other words, the diagnostician first decides what may be wrong with the patient and only then chooses which cards will be shown in the test! Administered this way, the TAT tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy and of little diagnostic value.

The patient’s reactions (in the form of brief narratives) are recorded by the tester verbatim. Some examiners prompt the patient to describe the aftermath or outcomes of the stories, but this is a controversial practice.

The TAT is scored and interpreted simultaneously. Murray suggested to identify the hero of each narrative (the figure representing the patient); the inner states and needs of the patient, derived from his or her choices of activities or gratifications; what Murray calls the “press”, the hero’s environment which imposes constraints on the hero’s needs and operations; and the thema, or the motivations developed by the hero in response to all of the above.

Clearly, the TAT is open to almost any interpretative system which emphasizes inner states, motivations, and needs. Indeed, many schools of psychology have their own TAT exegetic schemes. Thus, the TAT may be teaching us more about psychology and psychologists than it does about their patients!

Methodologically, the scorer notes four items for each card:

I. Location – Which parts of the inkblot were singled out or emphasized in the subject’s responses. Did the patient refer to the whole blot, a detail (if so, was it a common or an unusual detail), or the white space.

II. Determinant – Does the blot resemble what the patient saw in it? Which parts of the blot correspond to the subject’s visual fantasy and narrative? Is it the blot’s form, movement, color, texture, dimensionality, shading, or symmetrical pairing?

III. Content – Which of Exner’s 27 content categories was selected by the patient (human figure, animal detail, blood, fire, sex, X-ray, and so on)?

IV. Popularity – The patient’s responses are compared to the overall distribution of answers among people tested hitherto. Statistically, certain cards are linked to specific images and plots. For example: card I often provokes associations of bats or butterflies. The sixth most popular response to card IV is “animal skin or human figure dressed in fur” and so on.

V. Organizational Activity – How coherent and organized is the patient’s narrative and how well does s/he link the various images together?

VI. Form Quality – How well does the patient’s “percept” fit with the blot? There are four grades from superior (+) through ordinary (0) and weak (w) to minus (-). Exner defined minus as:

“(T)he distorted, arbitrary, unrealistic use of form as related to the content offered, where an answer is imposed on the blot area with total, or near total, disregard for the structure of the area.”

The interpretation of the test relies on both the scores obtained and on what we know about mental health disorders. The test teaches the skilled diagnostician how the subject processes information and what is the structure and content of his internal world. These provide meaningful insights into the patient’s defenses, reality test, intelligence, fantasy life, and psychosexual make-up.

Still, the Rorschach test is highly subjective and depends inordinately on the skills and training of the diagnostician. It, therefore, cannot be used to reliably diagnose patients. It merely draws attention to the patients’ defenses and personal style.

V. Structured Interviews

The Structured Clinical Interview (SCID-II) was formulated in 1997 by First, Gibbon, Spitzer, Williams, and Benjamin. It closely follows the language of the DSM-IV Axis II Personality Disorders criteria. Consequently, there are 12 groups of questions corresponding to the 12 personality disorders. The scoring is equally simple: either the trait is absent, subthreshold, true, or there is “inadequate information to code”.

The feature that is unique to the SCID-II is that it can be administered to third parties (a spouse, an informant, a colleague) and still yield a strong diagnostic indication. The test incorporates probes (sort of “control” items) that help verify the presence of certain characteristics and behaviors. Another version of the SCID-II (comprising 119 questions) can also be self-administered. Most practitioners administer both the self-questionnaire and the standard test and use the former to screen for true answers in the latter.

The Structured Interview for Disorders of Personality (SIDP-IV) was composed by Pfohl, Blum and Zimmerman in 1997. Unlike the SCID-II, it also covers the self-defeating personality disorder from the DSM-III. The interview is conversational and the questions are divided into 10 topics such as Emotions or Interests and Activities. Succumbing to “industry” pressure, the authors also came up with a version of the SIDP-IV in which the questions are grouped by personality disorder. Subjects are encouraged to observe the “five year rule”:

“What you are like when you are your usual self … Behaviors. cognitions, and feelings that have predominated for most of the last five years are considered to be representative of your long-term personality functioning …”

The scoring is again simple. Items are either present, subthreshold, present, or strongly present.

VI. Disorder-specific Tests

There are dozens of psychological tests that are disorder-specific: they aim to diagnose specific personality disorders or relationship problems. Example: the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) which is used to diagnose the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

The Borderline Personality Organization Scale (BPO), designed in 1985, sorts the subject’s responses into 30 relevant scales. These indicates the existence of identity diffusion, primitive defenses, and deficient reality testing.

Other much-used tests include the Personality Diagnostic Questionnaire-IV, the Coolidge Axis II Inventory, the Personality Assessment Inventory (1992), the excellent, literature-based, Dimensional assessment of Personality Pathology, and the comprehensive Schedule of Nonadaptive and Adaptive Personality and Wisconsin Personality Disorders Inventory.

Having established the existence of a personality disorder, most diagnosticians proceed to administer other tests intended to reveal how the patient functions in relationships, copes with intimacy, and responds to triggers and life stresses.

The Relationship Styles Questionnaire (RSQ) (1994) contains 30 self-reported items and identifies distinct attachment styles (secure, fearful, preoccupied, and dismissing). The Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) (1979) is a standardized scale of the frequency and intensity of conflict resolution tactics and stratagems (both legitimate and abusive) used by the subject in various settings (usually in a couple).

The Multidimensional Anger Inventory (MAI) (1986) assesses the frequency of angry responses, their duration, magnitude, mode of expression, hostile outlook, and anger-provoking triggers.

Yet, even a complete battery of tests, administered by experienced professionals sometimes fails to identify abusers with personality disorders. Offenders are uncanny in their ability to deceive their evaluators.

APPENDIX: Common Problems with Psychological Laboratory Tests

Psychological laboratory tests suffer from a series of common philosophical, methodological, and design problems.

A. Philosophical and Design Aspects

  1. Ethical – Experiments involve the patient and others. To achieve results, the subjects have to be ignorant of the reasons for the experiments and their aims. Sometimes even the very performance of an experiment has to remain a secret (double blind experiments). Some experiments may involve unpleasant or even traumatic experiences. This is ethically unacceptable.
  1. The Psychological Uncertainty Principle – The initial state of a human subject in an experiment is usually fully established. But both treatment and experimentation influence the subject and render this knowledge irrelevant. The very processes of measurement and observation influence the human subject and transform him or her – as do life’s circumstances and vicissitudes.
  1. Uniqueness – Psychological experiments are, therefore, bound to be unique, unrepeatable, cannot be replicated elsewhere and at other times even when they are conducted with the SAME subjects. This is because the subjects are never the same due to the aforementioned psychological uncertainty principle. Repeating the experiments with other subjects adversely affects the scientific value of the results.
  1. The undergeneration of testable hypotheses – Psychology does not generate a sufficient number of hypotheses, which can be subjected to scientific testing. This has to do with the fabulous (=storytelling) nature of psychology. In a way, psychology has affinity with some private languages. It is a form of art and, as such, is self-sufficient and self-contained. If structural, internal constraints are met – a statement is deemed true even if it does not satisfy external scientific requirements.

B. Methodology

1. Many psychological lab tests are not blind. The experimenter is fully aware who among his subjects has the traits and behaviors that the test is supposed to identify and predict. This foreknowledge may give rise to experimenter effects and biases. Thus, when testing for the prevalence and intensity of fear conditioning among psychopaths (e.g., Birbaumer, 2005), the subjects were first diagnosed with psychopathy (using the PCL-R questionnaire) and only then underwent the experiment. Thus, we are left in the dark as to whether the test results (deficient fear conditioning) can actually predict or retrodict psychopathy (i.e., high PCL-R scores and typical life histories).

2. In many cases, the results can be linked to multiple causes. This gives rise to questionable cause fallacies in the interpretation of test outcomes. In the aforementioned example, the vanishingly low pain aversion of psychopaths may have more to do with peer-posturing  than with a high tolerance of pain: psychopaths may simply be too embarrassed to “succumb” to pain; any admission of vulnerability is perceived by them as a threat to an omnipotent and grandiose self-image that is sang-froid and, therefore, impervious to pain. It may also be connected to inappropriate affect.

3. Most psychological lab tests involve tiny samples (as few as 3 subjects!) and interrupted time series. The fewer the subjects, the more random and less significant are the results. Type III errors and issues pertaining to the processing of data garnered in interrupted time series are common.

4. The interpretation of test results often verges on metaphysics rather than science. Thus, the Birbaumer test established that subjects who scored high on the PCL-R have different patterns of skin conductance (sweating in anticipation of painful stimuli) and brain activity. It did not substantiate, let alone prove, the existence or absence of specific mental states or psychological constructs.

5. Most lab tests deal with tokens of certain types of phenomena. Again: the fear conditioning (anticipatory aversion) test pertains only to reactions in anticipation of an instance (token) of a certain type of pain. It does not necessarily apply to other types of pain or to other tokens of this type or any other type of pain.

6. Many psychological lab tests give rise to the petitio principii (begging the question) logical fallacy. Again, let us revisit Birbaumer’s test. It deals with people whose behavior is designated as “antisocial”. But what constitute antisocial traits and conduct? The answer is culture-bound. Not surprisingly, European psychopaths score far lower on the PCL-R than their American counterparts. The very validity of the construct “psychopath” is, therefore, in question: psychopathy seems to be merely what the PCL-R measures!

7. Finally, the “Clockwork Orange” objection: psychological lab tests have frequently been abused by reprehensible regimes for purposes of social control  and social engineering.

Obama’s Narcissism Made Worse in First Year in Office

Predictably, Barack Obama’s narcissistic behaviours grew worse and more visible during his first year in office. As I noted in a radio interview (an observation later picked up by George F. Will), Obama’s first person “pronoun density” has increased since his inauguration. Properly measured, first person pronoun density reflects the number of times a person substitutes first person pronouns for more appropriate third and other person pronouns. Thus, to say: “My country, right or wrong” is not indicative of a narcissistic self-preoccupation; but the sentence: “The Russians were afraid of me” is improper because, clearly, the Russians are not afraid of any single individual: they are afraid of what he or she represents. Thus, context counts. It is wrong to merely count the times Obama has used “I”, “my”, or “mine” in his speeches and utterances (as George F. Will did).

Obama’s pronoun density has doubled between January 20, 2009 and October 2009. It then subsided, though it is still about 50% over the level exhibited during his election campaign. This would seem to indicate that his pathological narcissism has been exacerbated in office as he was probably basking in media attention and the trappings of power. The backlash, such as it was, against several of his more egregious behaviours and faux-pas led him to modify his conduct and pay closer attention to his syntax and grammar: Obama is now acting modest. False modesty is another hallmark of raging, malignant narcissism.

Obama’s body language has become more pronounced and haughty while in office. For example: I measured the number of times he tilted his head upwards and in an angle during speeches and public appearances (literally gazing skywards and avoiding eye contact with his public). The frequency of this particular gesture increased dramatically (almost threefold!) this past year. It is part and parcel of the narcissist’s “haughty posture” and his attempt to project omniscience, vision, and a cosmic-messianic mission. Similarly telling gestures and postures have proliferated after Obama has assumed office.

Another sign of Obama’s growing malignant narcissism is his lowered Adversity Tolerance Threshold. I compared the number of times he snapped at critics and journalists during the election campaign and after he became President. The frequency of such temper tantrums has increased, though not drastically. Obama is still maintaining thespian self-control when it comes to the media and to his carefully-cultivated public image. Where he doesn’t bother anymore to project benevolence and maturity is with his staff: he is markedly and openly more aggressive and dismissive of his co-workers, underlings, crew, and team, clearly relishing his quasi-sadistic outbursts and their public verbal whipping.

In the following text, titled “Barack Obama – Narcissist or Merely Narcissistic?”, I was the first to suugest that Barack Obama may be suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD):

“Barack Obama appears to be a narcissist. Scroll down for a detailed treatment.

Granted, only a qualified mental health diagnostician can determine whether someone suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and this, following lengthy tests and personal interviews. Read the Disclaimer below. But, in the absence of access to Barack Obama, one has to rely on his overt performance and on testimonies by his closest, nearest and dearest.

Narcissistic leaders are nefarious and their effects pernicious. They are subtle, refined, socially-adept, manipulative, possessed of thespian skills, and convincing. Both types equally lack empathy and are ruthless and relentless or driven.

Perhaps it is time to require each candidate to high office in the USA to submit to a rigorous physical and mental checkup with the results made public.

I. Upbringing and Childhood

Obama’s early life was decidedly chaotic and replete with traumatic and mentally bruising dislocations. Mixed-race marriages were even less common then. His parents went through a divorce when he was an infant (two years old). Obama saw his father only once again, before he died in a car accident. Then, his mother re-married and Obama had to relocate to Indonesia: a foreign land with a radically foreign culture, to be raised by a step-father. At the age of ten, he was whisked off to live with his maternal (white) grandparents. He saw his mother only intermittently in the following few years and then she vanished from his life in 1979. She died of cancer in 1995.

Pathological narcissism is a reaction to prolonged abuse and trauma in early childhood or early adolescence. The source of the abuse or trauma is immaterial: the perpetrators could be dysfunctional or absent parents, teachers, other adults, or peers.

II. Behavior Patterns

The narcissist:

  • Feels grandiose and self-important (e.g., exaggerates accomplishments, talents, skills, contacts, and personality traits to the point of lying, demands to be recognised as superior without commensurate achievements);
  • Is obsessed with fantasies of unlimited success, fame, fearsome power or omnipotence, unequalled brilliance (the cerebral narcissist), bodily beauty or sexual performance (the somatic narcissist), or ideal, everlasting, all-conquering love or passion;
  • Firmly convinced that he or she is unique and, being special, can only be understood by, should only be treated by, or associate with, other special or unique, or high-status people (or institutions);
  • Requires excessive admiration, adulation, attention and affirmation – or, failing that, wishes to be feared and to be notorious (Narcissistic Supply);
  • Feels entitled. Demands automatic and full compliance with his or her unreasonable expectations for special and favourable priority treatment;
  • Is “interpersonally exploitative”, i.e., uses others to achieve his or her own ends;
  • Devoid of empathy. Is unable or unwilling to identify with, acknowledge, or accept the feelings, needs, preferences, priorities, and choices of others;
  • Constantly envious of others and seeks to hurt or destroy the objects of his or her frustration. Suffers from persecutory (paranoid) delusions as he or she believes that they feel the same about him or her and are likely to act similarly;
  • Behaves arrogantly and haughtily. Feels superior, omnipotent, omniscient, invincible, immune, “above the law”, and omnipresent (magical thinking). Rages when frustrated, contradicted, or confronted by people he or she considers inferior to him or her and unworthy.

Narcissism is a defense mechanism whose role is to deflect hurt and trauma from the victim’s “True Self” into a “False Self” which is omnipotent, invulnerable, and omniscient. This False Self is then used by the narcissist to garner narcissistic supply from his human environment. Narcissistic supply is any form of attention, both positive and negative and it is instrumental in the regulation of the narcissist’s labile sense of self-worth.

Perhaps the most immediately evident trait of patients with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is their vulnerability to criticism and disagreement. Subject to negative input, real or imagined, even to a mild rebuke, a constructive suggestion, or an offer to help, they feel injured, humiliated and empty and they react with disdain (devaluation), rage, and defiance.

From my book “Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited”:

“To avoid such intolerable pain, some patients with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) socially withdraw and feign false modesty and humility to mask their underlying grandiosity. Dysthymic and depressive disorders are common reactions to isolation and feelings of shame and inadequacy.”

Owing to their lack of empathy, disregard for others, exploitativeness, sense of entitlement, and constant need for attention (narcissistic supply), narcissists are rarely able to maintain functional and healthy interpersonal relationships.

Many narcissists are over-achievers and ambitious. Some of them are even talented and skilled. But they are incapable of team work because they cannot tolerate setbacks. They are easily frustrated and demoralized and are unable to cope with disagreement and criticism. Though some narcissists have meteoric and inspiring careers, in the long-run, all of them find it difficult to maintain long-term professional achievements and the respect and appreciation of their peers. The narcissist’s fantastic grandiosity, frequently coupled with a hypomanic mood, is typically incommensurate with his or her real accomplishments (the “grandiosity gap”).

An important distinction is between cerebral and somatic narcissists. The cerebrals derive their Narcissistic Supply from their intelligence or academic achievements and the somatics derive their Narcissistic Supply from their physique, exercise, physical or sexual prowess and romantic or physical “conquests”.

Another crucial division within the ranks of patients with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is between the classic variety (those who meet five of the nine diagnostic criteria included in the DSM), and the compensatory kind (their narcissism compensates for deep-set feelings of inferiority and lack of self-worth).

Obama displays the following behaviors, which are among the hallmarks of pathological narcissism:

  • Subtly misrepresents facts and expediently and opportunistically shifts positions, views, opinions, and “ideals” (e.g., about campaign finance, re-districting). These flip-flops do not cause him overt distress and are ego-syntonic (he feels justified in acting this way). Alternatively, refuses to commit to a standpoint and, in the process, evidences a lack of empathy.

    Ignores data that conflict with his fantasy world, or with his inflated and grandiose self-image. This has to do with magical thinking. Obama already sees himself as president because he is firmly convinced that his dreams, thoughts, and wishes affect reality. Additionally, he denies the gap between his fantasies and his modest or limited real-life achievements (for instance, in 12 years of academic career, he hasn’t published a single scholarly paper or book).

    Feels that he is above the law, incl. and especially his own laws.

    Talks about himself in the 3rd person singular or uses the regal “we” and craves to be the exclusive center of attention, even adulation

    Has a messianic-cosmic vision of himself and his life and his “mission”. Consequently, sets unrealistic goals within unrealistic timeframes.

    Sets ever more complex rules in a convoluted world of grandiose fantasies with its own language (jargon)

    Displays false modesty and unctuous “folksiness” but unable to sustain these behaviors (the persona, or mask) for long. It slips and the true Obama is revealed: haughty, aloof, distant, and disdainful of simple folk and their lives.

    Sublimates aggression and holds grudges.

    Behaves as an eternal adolescent (e.g., his choice of language, youthful image he projects, demands indulgence and feels entitled to special treatment, even though his objective accomplishments do not justify it).

III. Body Language

Many complain of the incredible deceptive powers of the narcissist. They find themselves involved with narcissists (emotionally, in business, or otherwise) before they have a chance to discover their true character. Shocked by the later revelation, they mourn their inability to separate from the narcissist and their gullibility.

Narcissists are an elusive breed, hard to spot, harder to pinpoint, impossible to capture. Even an experienced mental health diagnostician with unmitigated access to the record and to the person examined would find it fiendishly difficult to determine with any degree of certainty whether someone suffers from a full fledged Narcissistic Personality Disorder – or merely possesses narcissistic traits, a narcissistic style, a personality structure (“character”), or a narcissistic “overlay” superimposed on another mental health problem.

Moreover, it is important to distinguish between traits and behavior patterns that are independent of the patient’s cultural-social context (i.e., which are inherent, or idiosyncratic) – and reactive patterns, or conformity to cultural and social morals and norms. Reactions to severe life crises or circumstances are also often characterized by transient pathological narcissism, for instance (Ronningstam and Gunderson, 1996). But such reactions do not a narcissist make.

When a person belongs to a society or culture that has often been described as narcissistic by scholars (such as Theodore Millon) and social thinkers (e.g., Christopher Lasch) – how much of his behavior can be attributed to his milieu and which of his traits are really his?

The Narcissistic Personality Disorder is rigorously defined in the DSM IV-TR with a set of strict criteria and differential diagnoses.

Narcissism is regarded by many scholars to be an adaptative strategy (“healthy narcissism“). It is considered pathological in the clinical sense only when it becomes a rigid personality structure replete with a series of primitive defence mechanisms (such as splitting, projection, projective identification, or intellectualization) – and when it leads to dysfunctions in one or more areas of the patient’s life.

Pathological narcissism is the art of deception. The narcissist projects a False Self and manages all his social interactions through this concocted fictional construct.

When the narcissist reveals his true colors, it is usually far too late. His victims are unable to separate from him. They are frustrated by this acquired helplessness and angry at themselves for having they failed to see through the narcissist earlier on.

But the narcissist does emit subtle, almost subliminal, signals (“presenting symptoms”) even in a first or casual encounter. Compare the following list to Barack Obama’s body language during his public appearances.

These are:

“Haughty” body language – The narcissist adopts a physical posture which implies and exudes an air of superiority, seniority, hidden powers, mysteriousness, amused indifference, etc. Though the narcissist usually maintains sustained and piercing eye contact, he often refrains from physical proximity (he is “territorial”).

The narcissist takes part in social interactions – even mere banter – condescendingly, from a position of supremacy and faux “magnanimity and largesse”. But he rarely mingles socially and prefers to remain the “observer”, or the “lone wolf”.

Entitlement markers – The narcissist immediately asks for “special treatment” of some kind. Not to wait his turn, to have a longer or a shorter therapeutic session, to talk directly to authority figures (and not to their assistants or secretaries), to be granted special payment terms, to enjoy custom tailored arrangements – or to get served first.

The narcissist is the one who – vocally and demonstratively – demands the undivided attention of the head waiter in a restaurant, or monopolizes the hostess, or latches on to celebrities in a party. The narcissist reacts with rage and indignantly when denied his wishes and if treated equally with others whom he deems inferior.

Idealization or devaluation – The narcissist instantly idealizes or devalues his interlocutor. This depends on how the narcissist appraises the potential his converser has as a Narcissistic Supply Source. The narcissist flatters, adores, admires and applauds the “target” in an embarrassingly exaggerated and profuse manner – or sulks, abuses, and humiliates her.

Narcissists are polite only in the presence of a potential Supply Source. But they are unable to sustain even perfunctory civility and fast deteriorate to barbs and thinly-veiled hostility, to verbal or other violent displays of abuse, rage attacks, or cold detachment.

The “membership” posture – The narcissist always tries to “belong”. Yet, at the very same time, he maintains his stance as an outsider. The narcissist seeks to be admired for his ability to integrate and ingratiate himself without investing the efforts commensurate with such an undertaking.

For instance: if the narcissist talks to a psychologist, the narcissist first states emphatically that he never studied psychology. He then proceeds to make seemingly effortless use of obscure professional terms, thus demonstrating that he mastered the discipline all the same, as an autodidact – which proves that he is exceptionally intelligent or introspective.

In general, the narcissist always prefers show-off to substance. One of the most effective methods of exposing a narcissist is by trying to delve deeper. The narcissist is shallow, a pond pretending to be an ocean. He likes to think of himself as a Renaissance man, a Jack of all trades. The narcissist never admits to ignorance in any field – yet, typically, he is ignorant of them all. It is surprisingly easy to penetrate the gloss and the veneer of the narcissist’s self-proclaimed omniscience.

Bragging and false autobiographyThe narcissist brags incessantly. His speech is peppered with “I”, “my”, “myself”, and “mine”. He describes himself as intelligent, or rich, or modest, or intuitive, or creative – but always excessively, implausibly, and extraordinarily so.

The narcissist’s biography sounds unusually rich and complex. His achievements – incommensurate with his age, education, or renown. Yet, his actual condition is evidently and demonstrably incompatible with his claims. Very often, the narcissist lies or his fantasies are easily discernible. He always name-drops and appropriates other people’s experiences and accomplishments.

Emotion-free language – The narcissist likes to talk about himself and only about himself. He is not interested in others or what they have to say, unless they constitute potential Sources of Supply and in order to obtain said supply. He acts bored, disdainful, even angry, if he feels that they are intruding on his precious time and, thus, abusing him.

In general, the narcissist is very impatient, easily bored, with strong attention deficits – unless and until he is the topic of discussion. One can publicly dissect all aspects of the intimate life of a narcissist without repercussions, providing the discourse is not “emotionally tinted”.

If asked to relate directly to his emotions, the narcissist intellectualizes, rationalizes, speaks about himself in the third person and in a detached “scientific” tone or composes a narrative with a fictitious character in it, suspiciously autobiographical. Narcissists like to refer to themselves in mechanical terms, as efficient automata or machines.

Seriousness and sense of intrusion and coercion – The narcissist is dead serious about himself. He may possess a subtle, wry, and riotous sense of humor, scathing and cynical, but rarely is he self-deprecating. The narcissist regards himself as being on a constant mission, whose importance is cosmic and whose consequences are global. If a scientist – he is always in the throes of revolutionizing science. If a journalist – he is in the middle of the greatest story ever. If a novelist – he is on his way to a Booker or Nobel prize.

This self-misperception is not amenable to light-headedness or self-effacement. The narcissist is easily hurt and insulted (narcissistic injury). Even the most innocuous remarks or acts are interpreted by him as belittling, intruding, or coercive. His time is more valuable than others’ – therefore, it cannot be wasted on unimportant matters such as mere banter or going out for a walk.

Any suggested help, advice, or concerned inquiry are immediately cast by the narcissist as intentional humiliation, implying that the narcissist is in need of help and counsel and, thus, imperfect and less than omnipotent. Any attempt to set an agenda is, to the narcissist, an intimidating act of enslavement. In this sense, the narcissist is both schizoid and paranoid and often entertains ideas of reference.

These – the lack of empathy, the aloofness, the disdain, the sense of entitlement, the constricted sense of humor, the unequal treatment and the paranoia – render the narcissist a social misfit. The narcissist is able to provoke in his milieu, in his casual acquaintances, even in his psychotherapist, the strongest, most avid and furious hatred and revulsion. To his shock, indignation and consternation, he invariably induces in others unbridled aggression.

He is perceived to be asocial at best and, often, antisocial. This, perhaps, is the strongest presenting symptom. One feels ill at ease in the presence of a narcissist for no apparent reason. No matter how charming, intelligent, thought provoking, outgoing, easy going and social the narcissist is – he fails to secure the sympathy of others, a sympathy he is never ready, willing, or able to reciprocate.

IV. Narcissistic and psychopathic Leaders

The narcissistic or psychopathic leader is the culmination and reification of his period, culture, and civilization. He is likely to rise to prominence in narcissistic societies.

The malignant narcissist invents and then projects a false, fictitious, self for the world to fear, or to admire. He maintains a tenuous grasp on reality to start with and this is further exacerbated by the trappings of power. The narcissist’s grandiose self-delusions and fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience are supported by real life authority and the narcissist’s predilection to surround himself with obsequious sycophants.

The narcissist’s personality is so precariously balanced that he cannot tolerate even a hint of criticism and disagreement. Most narcissists are paranoid and suffer from ideas of reference (the delusion that they are being mocked or discussed when they are not). Thus, narcissists often regard themselves as “victims of persecution”.

The narcissistic leader fosters and encourages a personality cult with all the hallmarks of an institutional religion: priesthood, rites, rituals, temples, worship, catechism, mythology. The leader is this religion’s ascetic saint. He monastically denies himself earthly pleasures (or so he claims) in order to be able to dedicate himself fully to his calling.

The narcissistic leader is a monstrously inverted Jesus, sacrificing his life and denying himself so that his people – or humanity at large – should benefit. By surpassing and suppressing his humanity, the narcissistic leader became a distorted version of Nietzsche’s “superman”.

But being a-human or super-human also means being a-sexual and a-moral.

In this restricted sense, narcissistic leaders are post-modernist and moral relativists. They project to the masses an androgynous figure and enhance it by engendering the adoration of nudity and all things “natural” – or by strongly repressing these feelings. But what they refer to as “nature” is not natural at all.

The narcissistic leader invariably proffers an aesthetic of decadence and evil carefully orchestrated and artificial – though it is not perceived this way by him or by his followers. Narcissistic leadership is about reproduced copies, not about originals. It is about the manipulation of symbols – not about veritable atavism or true conservatism.

In short: narcissistic leadership is about theatre, not about life. To enjoy the spectacle (and be subsumed by it), the leader demands the suspension of judgment, depersonalization, and de-realization. Catharsis is tantamount, in this narcissistic dramaturgy, to self-annulment.

Narcissism is nihilistic not only operationally, or ideologically. Its very language and narratives are nihilistic. Narcissism is conspicuous nihilism – and the cult’s leader serves as a role model, annihilating the Man, only to re-appear as a pre-ordained and irresistible force of nature.

Narcissistic leadership often poses as a rebellion against the “old ways” – against the hegemonic culture, the upper classes, the established religions, the superpowers, the corrupt order. Narcissistic movements are puerile, a reaction to narcissistic injuries inflicted upon a narcissistic (and rather psychopathic) toddler nation-state, or group, or upon the leader.

Minorities or “others” – often arbitrarily selected – constitute a perfect, easily identifiable, embodiment of all that is “wrong”. They are accused of being old, they are eerily disembodied, they are cosmopolitan, they are part of the establishment, they are “decadent”, they are hated on religious and socio-economic grounds, or because of their race, sexual orientation, origin … They are different, they are narcissistic (feel and act as morally superior), they are everywhere, they are defenceless, they are credulous, they are adaptable (and thus can be co-opted to collaborate in their own destruction). They are the perfect hate figure. Narcissists thrive on hatred and pathological envy.

This is precisely the source of the fascination with Hitler, diagnosed by Erich Fromm – together with Stalin – as a malignant narcissist. He was an inverted human. His unconscious was his conscious. He acted out our most repressed drives, fantasies, and wishes. He provides us with a glimpse of the horrors that lie beneath the veneer, the barbarians at our personal gates, and what it was like before we invented civilization. Hitler forced us all through a time warp and many did not emerge. He was not the devil. He was one of us. He was what Arendt aptly called the banality of evil. Just an ordinary, mentally disturbed, failure, a member of a mentally disturbed and failing nation, who lived through disturbed and failing times. He was the perfect mirror, a channel, a voice, and the very depth of our souls.

The narcissistic leader prefers the sparkle and glamour of well-orchestrated illusions to the tedium and method of real accomplishments. His reign is all smoke and mirrors, devoid of substances, consisting of mere appearances and mass delusions. In the aftermath of his regime – the narcissistic leader having died, been deposed, or voted out of office – it all unravels. The tireless and constant prestidigitation ceases and the entire edifice crumbles. What looked like an economic miracle turns out to have been a fraud-laced bubble. Loosely-held empires disintegrate. Laboriously assembled business conglomerates go to pieces. “Earth shattering” and “revolutionary” scientific discoveries and theories are discredited. Social experiments end in mayhem.

It is important to understand that the use of violence must be ego-syntonic. It must accord with the self-image of the narcissist. It must abet and sustain his grandiose fantasies and feed his sense of entitlement. It must conform with the narcissistic narrative.

Thus, a narcissist who regards himself as the benefactor of the poor, a member of the common folk, the representative of the disenfranchised, the champion of the dispossessed against the corrupt elite – is highly unlikely to use violence at first.

The pacific mask crumbles when the narcissist has become convinced that the very people he purported to speak for, his constituency, his grassroots fans, the prime sources of his narcissistic supply – have turned against him. At first, in a desperate effort to maintain the fiction underlying his chaotic personality, the narcissist strives to explain away the sudden reversal of sentiment. “The people are being duped by (the media, big industry, the military, the elite, etc.)”, “they don’t really know what they are doing”, “following a rude awakening, they will revert to form”, etc.

When these flimsy attempts to patch a tattered personal mythology fail – the narcissist is injured. Narcissistic injury inevitably leads to narcissistic rage and to a terrifying display of unbridled aggression. The pent-up frustration and hurt translate into devaluation. That which was previously idealized – is now discarded with contempt and hatred.

This primitive defense mechanism is called “splitting”. To the narcissist, things and people are either entirely bad (evil) or entirely good. He projects onto others his own shortcomings and negative emotions, thus becoming a totally good object. A narcissistic leader is likely to justify the butchering of his own people by claiming that they intended to kill him, undo the revolution, devastate the economy, or the country, etc.

The “small people”, the “rank and file”, the “loyal soldiers” of the narcissist – his flock, his nation, his employees – they pay the price. The disillusionment and disenchantment are agonizing. The process of reconstruction, of rising from the ashes, of overcoming the trauma of having been deceived, exploited and manipulated – is drawn-out. It is difficult to trust again, to have faith, to love, to be led, to collaborate. Feelings of shame and guilt engulf the erstwhile followers of the narcissist. This is his sole legacy: a massive post-traumatic stress disorder.

DISCLAIMER

I am not a mental health professional. Still, I have dedicated the last 12 years to the study of personality disorders in general and the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in particular. I have authored nine (9) books about these topics, one of which is a Barnes and Noble best-seller (“Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited”). My work is widely cited in scholarly tomes and publications and in the media. My books and the content of my Web site are based on correspondence since 1996 with hundreds of people suffering from the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (narcissists) and with thousands of their family members, friends, therapists, and colleagues.

The Narcissist in Therapy

Interview granted to The New Therapist
By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited”

Q. Have you ever been in psychotherapy? If so, was it with a view to managing your narcissism? If not would you consider psychotherapy to be potentially useful to yourself or not?

A. I have attended therapy twice. Once in an attempt to pre-empt the breakdown of the first romantic affair I have had and the second time, I was compelled to by a court order. The first time around, I was not even aware that I had a personality disorder, let alone that I should manage it. The second time around – in the throes of a total meltdown of my world – I finally grasped that something was seriously amiss and was, indeed, in quest for a cure. Alas, psychotherapy proved utterly useless. In my case, it failed to even modify the more egregious forms of misconduct and ill-adaptation. This has to do with the fact that my pathology involves heavy emotional investment (cathexis) in a grandiose, inflated, omnipotent, omniscient, and brilliant False Self. I perceived therapy to be a direct and assaultive challenge to this entrenched self-image.

Q. If forced to choose a therapeutic modality, what would you consider the most potentially valuable for yourself and why?

A. I would opt for CBT (a cognitive-behavioural therapy). It strikes me as cerebral, analytic, and “intellectual”: precisely the traits I admire and which form the dimensions of my self-imputed identity. I feel less threatened when I can avoid directly confronting my emotions. Additionally, CBTs propagate, however subversively and inadvertently, a mechanistic (almost behavioural) view of the psyche. I like it. I often compare myself to a machine or a robot. Positive reinforcements, verbal cues, the emphasis on cognition, inner tapes and narratives (the equivalent of programming) all strike a cord within me.

Q. Pathologically narcissistic clients, it would seem, often end up being forced into therapy more by a difficult context in which they find themselves (a narcissistic wound, the end of a relationship, court-mandated clients, etc.) than as  a result of their soul-searching or awareness that their narcissistic pathology is something that would warrant further understanding. Research also suggests that they are prone to early termination of psychotherapeutic treatments because of the narcissistic wounds they suffer when the therapist will not serve solely as a source of narcissistic supply, but attempts to get beneath this constant need for affirmation. In short, pathological narcissists appear to be difficult to get into therapy and, often, very difficult to keep in therapy. In light of the above, and with reference to the understanding you have of what is of value  to you in preventing your own narcissistic impulses from causing you longer-term difficulties, can you look at a few ideas that you might recommend to therapists who wish to be of as much value as possible to their pathologically narcissistic clients? You have suggested that pathological narcissism cannot be cured. I suspect many therapists might agree in large part with that idea on the basis of their disappointing results with narcissistic clients.  But, as you suggest, therapists might be able to help manage their expressions of narcissism to help moderate the damaging effects of too rampant a narcissistic engagement with other parts of their world. What, if any, are the therapeutic techniques/approaches/ ideas that you think might be most effective in this more humble goal of managing narcissistic pathology.

A. I see most of the problems with the therapist, not with his or her narcissistic client. Therapists must learn to moderate their expectations and control their own narcissistic defences and impulses. Here are a few tips: (1) it is not possible to establish a therapeutic alliance with the narcissist. Equally impossible is to set the agenda. The therapist must learn to let the narcissist win the inevitable power plays and mind games early on, so as to get them out of the way; (2) the therapist should not let the narcissist corrupt him or the therapeutic settings. Narcissists often offer rewards or “bribes” in return for acquiescence and obsequiousness; (3) the aims of the therapy should be modest and infinitesimally incremental. Progress should be marked and attributed to the narcissist, not to the therapist; (4) the therapy should emphasize adaptive behaviour modification, not reinterpretation, reframing, or “healing”. The therapist should let the narcissist identify areas of dysfunction and discomfort zones and, thus, to direct the therapy towards these sore points; (5) The therapist should never take sides (e.g., sympathize with the narcissist’s long-suffering wife), should never challenge the narcissist’s delusions, grandiose fantasies, and False Self, and should never used the reality test as a measure of the narcissist’s accomplishments in therapy. Narcissism is, by definition, a variant of fantastic realism. It is useful to regard the narcissist as an artist, an auteur: his life is his masterpiece. Narcissism is not merely a mental health disorder: it is also an organizing principle and an exegetic framework; Finally (6) Wherever and whenever not detrimental to therapeutic goals, the therapist should provide the narcissist with narcissistic supply in the form of affirmation, acceptance, deserved accolades, sympathy, and appreciation (but not adulation!)

Q. How would you recommend therapists respond most valuably for narcissistic clients when their clients attempt repeatedly to devalue the therapist?

A. The narcissist constantly tests authority figures such as the therapist: are they for real? Are they faking their knowledge, emotions, judgements, opinions, values? Are they reliable: can the narcissist trust their promises and threats? How far will they go? Will they truly punish the narcissist? Are they intelligent as their academic credentials imply? How do they stand in comparison and in relation to the narcissist? This puerile power politics is a part and parcel of the constant, far-reaching, and all-pervasive mind game that the narcissist plays with all his nearest (and dearest). He understands interpersonal interactions in terms of matrices of influence and superiority-inferiority, not as collaborative modes. It is, therefore, very counterproductive to engage in one-upmanship with the narcissist. The therapist should avoid this minefield by conceding defeat immediately when the issue rises. Such “surrender” may “awaken” the narcissist and render him aware of his own pettiness and infantile behaviour. The therapy can then move on to more fertile grounds.

Q. As I read through the tomes you have penned on the subject of narcissism, at least three thoughts occur rather forcefully to me:

1. Your knowledge of the body of professional knowledge on, and insights into, the dynamics of narcissism are so impressive that I feel naturally and ungrudgingly inclined to provide the affirmation you indicate have driven you to become so competent in this field. That is often the case with narcissists in therapy: They are instantly impressive on first meeting but eventually turn out to be insatiably desirous of so much of this mirroring that they overwhelm the therapist. Freud suggested that insight is necessary and sufficient for the cure in therapy.

2. To what extent does your insight on your narcissism moderate or “cure” or help you to manage your pathological expression of it? To what extent do you believe that insight is sufficient for the “cure” in your case?

3. Do you really wish to moderate your narcissistic tendencies or do you feel that they serve you reasonably well in the general cut and thrust of life?

A. Thank you for (1). Yes, the narcissist’s need for narcissistic supply (the mirroring of his perfect, brilliant, omniscient, and omnipotent False Self) is insatiable and overwhelming. He perceives everyone around him – his therapist included and especially – as potential or actual sources of narcissistic supply. It is a delicate balancing act: not giving the narcissist his “due” is likely to alienate and enrage him (he has a strong sense of entitlement, often incommensurate with his real-life achievements), give him too much supply and he clings and extorts. Either way, the therapy is doomed.

Regarding (2): Cognitive understanding of the disorder does not constitute a transforming INSIGHT. In other words, it has no emotional correlate. I did not INTERNALIZE what I have leaned and what I know and understand about my disorder. This new gained knowledge did not become a motivating part of me. It remains an inert and indifferent piece of “wisdom”, with minor influence on my psyche. When I first found out about the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), I really believed that I could change. I fervently wanted to. This was especially true since my whole world was in shambles. Time in prison, a divorce, a bankruptcy, a death of a major source of narcissistic supply are all transforming life crises. I admitted to my problem only having been abandoned, having been rendered destitute, and devastated. I felt that I don’t want any more of this. I wanted to change. And there often were signs that I am changing. And then it faded. I reverted to old form. The “progress” I had made was ephemeral: it evaporated virtually overnight. Many narcissists report the same process of progression followed by recidivist remission and many therapists refuse to treat narcissists because of the Sisyphean frustration involved. I never said that narcissists cannot CHANGE – only that they cannot HEAL. There is a huge difference between behavior modification and a permanent alteration of the psychodynamic landscape. Narcissistic behavior CAN be modified using a cocktail of talk therapy, conditioning, and medication. I have yet to encounter a healed narcissist, though. The emphasis in therapy should thus be placed on accommodating the needs of those closest to the narcissist: spouse, children, colleagues, friends, not on “treating” the narcissist. When the narcissist’s abrasiveness, rage, mood swings, reckless and impulsive behaviors are modified, those around him benefit most. The narcissist’s therapy should devolve into a form of social engineering.

Finally, with respect to your point (3) above:

The narcissist can get better, but rarely does he get well (“heal”). The reason is the narcissist’s enormous life-long, irreplaceable and indispensable emotional investment in his disorder. It serves two critical functions, which together maintain the precariously balanced house of cards called the narcissist’s personality. His disorder endows the narcissist with a sense of uniqueness, of “being special” and it provides him with a rational explanation of his behaviour (an “alibi”). Narcissism is, therefore, a successful adaptive strategy. Thus, paradoxically, the disorder becomes an integral and inseparable part of the narcissist’s inflated self-esteem and vacuous grandiose fantasies.

His False Self (the pivot of his pathological narcissism) is a self-reinforcing mechanism. The narcissist thinks that he is unique BECAUSE he has a False Self. His False Self IS the centre of his “specialness”. Any therapeutic “attack” on the integrity and functioning of the False Self constitutes a threat to the narcissist’s ability to regulate his wildly fluctuating sense of self-worth and an effort to “reduce” him to other people’s mundane and mediocre existence.

The few narcissists that are willing to admit that something is terribly wrong with them, displace their alloplastic defences. Instead of blaming the world, other people, or circumstances beyond their control – they now blame their “disease”. Their disorder become a catch-all, universal explanation for everything that is wrong in their lives and every derided, indefensible and inexcusable behaviour. Their narcissism becomes a “licence to kill”, a liberating force which sets them outside human rules and codes of conduct. Such freedom is so intoxicating and empowering that it is difficult to give up. The narcissist is emotionally attached to only one thing: his disorder. The narcissist loves his disorder, desires it passionately, cultivates it tenderly, is proud of its “achievements” (and in my case, makes a living off it). His emotions are misdirected. Where normal people love others and empathize with them, the narcissist loves his False Self and identifies with it to the exclusion of all else – his True Self included.

Q. If, as you suggest, recidivism is endemic among narcissists and it is a growing problem in the institutions of modern society, do you think there would there be any value in considering more broad-based – even public health-oriented – initiatives that might help to curb the most maladaptive behaviour of pathological narcissists? If so, what would you imagine might be most effective?

A. Governments maintain registries of sex offenders and impose a variety of restrictions on them. Similarly, the authorities should maintain registries of people diagnosed with antisocial, narcissistic, and borderline personality disorders (as well as paranoid-schizophrenics and anyone else whose mental disability may harm society). They should impose limitations on their freedoms. Like sex offenders, albeit owing to different reasons, narcissists and psychopaths are highly recidivistic, lack remorse or empathy, and are predatory. Like sex offenders, they blend well with “normal” people and, like them, they constitute a clear and present danger to their milieu.

The risk of stigmatizing the sick should be offset against concerns of public safety. The risk of driving people away from seeking professional help when they most need it is not great with narcissists and psychopaths: they rarely seek help, or attend therapy. The benefits to society from monitoring these incorrigible misfits and from denying them their “hunting fields” would be immense even in the short-term.

Q. Do you trust the diagnostic systems used to identify pathologically narcissistic people and the medical professionals who use them enough to accurately sort the “bad” narcissists from the “healthy” ones? Is there not a danger of the inherently subjective nature of personality disorder diagnosis prejudicing some people who might fall on the right side of the alleged borderline between pathological and healthy?

A. Narcissists and psychopaths are unlikely to come to the attention of mental health practitioners and be diagnosed unless they have committed some transgression, or have ruined their own lives and the lives of people around them completely. Thus, psychological testing in these cases is likely to be augmented by “anamnetic” case history. More generally, I trust structured interviews and tests such as the MMPI-II to reveal the truth and to be resistant to attempts at manipulation. Don’t forget that narcissists and psychopaths do not feel that they have anything to hide: they are actually proud of their traits and behaviour patterns! They are unlikely to “fake” it for long. Admittedly, pathological narcissism is a spectrum and only the most extreme patients (malignant and psychopathic narcissists), who constitute a clear and present danger to their environment, should be registered and restrained.

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