Analysis: Narcissism in the Boardroom-II

By SAM VAKNIN, UPI Senior Business Correspondent   |   Oct. 21, 2002 at 10:38 AM
share with facebook
share with twitter

SKOPJE, Macedonia, Oct. 21 (UPI) -- Narcissistic immunity is the (erroneous) feeling, harbored by the narcissist, that he is impervious to the consequences of his actions, that he is above reproach and punishment, that, magically, he is protected and will be saved at the last moment.

Hence the audacity, simplicity and transparency of some of the fraud and corporate looting in the 1990s. Narcissists rarely bother to cover their traces, so great is their disdain and conviction that they are above mortal laws and wherewithal.

What are the sources of this unrealistic appraisal of situations and events?

The false self is a childish response to abuse and trauma. Abuse is not limited to sexual molestation or beatings. Smothering, pampering, over-indulgence, treating the child as an extension of the parent, not respecting the child's boundaries, and burdening the child with excessive expectations are also forms of abuse.

The child reacts by constructing a false self that has everything it needs to prevail: unlimited and instantaneously available Harry Potter-like powers and wisdom. The false self, this Superman, is indifferent to abuse and punishment. This way, the child's true self is shielded from its harsh reality.

This artificial, maladaptive separation between a vulnerable (but not punishable) true self and a punishable (but invulnerable) false self is an effective mechanism. It isolates the child from the unjust, capricious, emotionally dangerous world that he occupies. But, at the same time, it fosters in him a false sense of "nothing can happen to me, because I am not here, I am not available to be punished, hence I am immune to punishment."

The comfort of false immunity is also yielded by the narcissist's sense of entitlement. In his grandiose delusions, the narcissist is sui generis, a gift to humanity, a precious, fragile, object. Moreover, the narcissist is convinced both that this uniqueness is immediately discernible, and that it gives him special rights. The narcissist feels some cosmological law pertaining to "endangered species" protects him.

He is convinced his future contribution to others -- his firm, his country, humanity -- should and does exempt him from the mundane: chores, boredom, routine effort, laws and regulations, social conventions, and so on.

The narcissist is entitled to a "special treatment": high living standards, constant and immediate catering to his needs, an all-engulfing absolution of his sins, fast track privileges (to higher education, or in his encounters with bureaucracies, for instance). Punishment, trusts the narcissist, is for ordinary people, where no great loss to humanity is involved.

Narcissists have inordinate abilities to charm, to convince, to seduce, and to persuade. Many of them are gifted orators and intellectually endowed.

By virtue of their standing in the community, their charisma, or their ability to find willing scapegoats, narcissists get exempted many times. Having recurrently "got away with it," they develop a theory of personal immunity, founded upon some kind of societal and even cosmic "order" in which certain people are above punishment.

But there is a simpler explanation. The narcissist lacks self-awareness. Divorced from his true self, unable to empathize, unwilling to constrain his actions to cater to the feelings and needs of others -- the narcissist is in a constant dreamlike state.

To the narcissist, his life is unreal, like watching an autonomously unfolding movie. The narcissist is a mere spectator, mildly interested, greatly entertained at times. He does not "own" his actions. He, therefore, cannot understand why he should be punished and when he is, he feels grossly wronged.

So convinced is the narcissist that he is destined to great things, he refuses to accept setbacks, failures and punishments. He regards them as temporary, as the outcomes of someone else's errors, as part of the future mythology of his rise to power/brilliance/wealth/ideal love, etc. Being punished is a diversion of his precious energy and resources from the all-important task of fulfilling his mission in life.

The narcissist is pathologically envious of people and he believes they are equally envious of him. He is paranoid, on guard, ready to fend off an imminent attack. A punishment to the narcissist is a major surprise and a nuisance but it also validates his suspicion that he is being persecuted. It proves to him that strong forces are arrayed against him.

He tells himself that people, envious of his achievements and humiliated by them, are out to get him. He constitutes a threat to the accepted order. When required to pay for his misdeeds, the narcissist is always disdainful and bitter and feels misunderstood by his inferiors.

Cooked books, corporate fraud, bending the (accounting or other) rules, sweeping problems under the carpet, over-promising, making grandiose claims -- are hallmarks of a narcissist in action. When social norms encourage such behavior rather than inhibit it -- the pattern is reinforced and become entrenched. Even when circumstances change, the narcissist finds it difficult to adapt, shed his routines, and replace them with new ones. He is trapped in his past success. He becomes a swindler.

But pathological narcissism is not an isolated phenomenon. It is embedded in our contemporary culture. The West's is a narcissistic civilization. It upholds narcissistic values and penalizes alternative value-systems. From an early age, children are taught to avoid self-criticism, to deceive themselves regarding their capacities and attainments, to feel entitled, and to exploit others.

As Lilian Katz observed in her important paper, "Distinctions between Self-Esteem and Narcissism: Implications for Practice," published by the Educational Resources Information Center, the line between enhancing self-esteem and fostering narcissism is often blurred by educators and parents.

Both Christopher Lasch in "The Culture of Narcissism" and Theodore Millon in his books about personality disorders, singled out American society as narcissistic. Litigiousness may be the flip side of an inane sense of entitlement. Consumerism is built on this common and communal lie of "I can do anything I want and possess everything I desire if I only apply myself to it" and on the pathological envy it fosters.

Not surprisingly, narcissistic disorders are more common among men than among women. This may be because narcissism conforms to masculine social mores and to the prevailing ethos of capitalism. Ambition, achievements, hierarchy, ruthlessness, drive -- all are both social values and narcissistic male traits. Social thinkers like the aforementioned Lasch speculated that modern self-centered American culture increases the rate of incidence of the narcissistic personality disorder.

Otto Kernberg, a notable scholar of personality disorders, confirmed Lasch's intuition: "Society can make serious psychological abnormalities, which already exist in some percentage of the population, seem to be at least superficially appropriate."

In their book "Personality Disorders in Modern Life," Theodore Millon and Roger Davis state, as a matter of fact, that pathological narcissism was once the preserve of "the royal and the wealthy" and that it "seems to have gained prominence only in the late twentieth century." Narcissism, according to them, may be associated with "higher levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs ... Individuals in less advantaged nations .. are too busy trying (to survive) ... to be arrogant and grandiose."

They, like Lasch before them, attribute pathological narcissism to "a society that stresses individualism and self-gratification at the expense of community, namely the United States." They assert the disorder is more prevalent among certain professions with "star power" or respect. "In an individualistic culture, the narcissist is 'God's gift to the world.' In a collectivist society, the narcissist is 'God's gift to the collective.'"

Millon quotes Warren and Caponi's "The Role of Culture in the Development of Narcissistic Personality Disorders in America, Japan and Denmark": "Individualistic narcissistic structures of self-regard (in individualistic societies) ... are rather self-contained and independent ... (In collectivist cultures) narcissistic configurations of the we-self ... denote self-esteem derived from strong identification with the reputation and honor of the family, groups, and others in hierarchical relationships."

Still, there are malignant narcissists among subsistence farmers in Africa, nomads in the Sinai desert, day laborers in east Europe, and intellectuals and socialites in Manhattan. Malignant narcissism is all-pervasive and independent of culture and society. It is true, though, the way pathological narcissism manifests and is experienced is dependent on the particulars of societies and cultures.

In some cultures, it is encouraged, in others suppressed. In some societies it is channeled against minorities, in others it is tainted with paranoia. In collectivist societies, it may be projected onto the collective, in individualistic societies, it is an individual's trait.

Yet, can families, organizations, ethnic groups, churches, and even whole nations be safely described as "narcissistic" or "pathologically self-absorbed?" Can we talk about a "corporate culture of narcissism?"

Human collectives -- states, firms, households, institutions, political parties, cliques, bands -- acquire a life and a character all their own. The longer the association or affiliation of the members, the more cohesive and conformist the inner dynamics of the group, the more persecutory or numerous its adversaries, the more intensive the physical and emotional experiences of the individuals of which it is comprised, the stronger the bonds of locale, language, and history -- the more rigorous might an assertion of a common pathology be.

Such an all-pervasive and extensive pathology manifests itself in the behavior of each and every member. It is a defining -- though often implicit or underlying -- mental structure. It has explanatory and predictive powers. It is recurrent and invariable -- a pattern of conduct melding distorted cognition and stunted emotions. And it is often vehemently denied.


Part 1 of this analysis appeared Friday. Send your comments to: svaknin@upi.com. Sam Vaknin is author of "Malignant Self Love -- Narcissism Revisited" (ISBN 8023833847)

Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories