Quite a number of people were revolted watching the manner in which Brett Kavanaugh so self-righteously behaved as though victimized by having to defend himself against allegations made by Christine Blasey-Ford. From all accounts, he went to a prestigious prep school, and seemed groomed to live and work within the upper echelons of society. How outrageous, thought he, that he was placed under scrutiny by the FBI and the Senate Judiciary Committee. How dare he be questioned at all? And then there was the Stanford athlete, Brock Turner, who had been accused of sexual assault on Stanford’s campus. Turner was convicted of three charges of felony sexual assault. Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to six months confinement (of which he served half) and three years probation. Seeing his father so affronted on the news at the prospect of his son being punished was pretty striking.
How is it that a man accused of sexual assault turns into a victim? What is it that allows that process to happen? These are two examples of people who feel very entitled to be given whatever they want, because they seem to have grown up believing they deserve it, and nothing should stand in their way.
Here is an abridged definition of narcissism, as defined by the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual Fifth Edition (DSM V):
Individuals with NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) have a grandiose sense of self-importance. They routinely over- estimate their abilities and inflate their accomplishments, appearing boastful and pretentious. They often under- estimate the contributions of others. They are often preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love. Individuals with NPD believe they are superior, special or unique, and expect others to recognize them as such. Their own self-esteem is enhanced by the idealized value they assign to those with
whom they associate. They require excessive admiration; their self-esteem is almost invariably very fragile. A sense of entitlement is evident in these individuals’ unreasonable expectation of especially favorable treatment. They expect to be catered to and are puzzled or furious when this does not happen. Individuals with NPD generally have a lack of empathy and have difficulty recognizing the desires, subjective experiences, and feelings of others. They are often contemptuous and impatient with others who talk about their own problems or concerns. Arrogant, haughty behaviors characterize these individuals: they often display snobbish, disdainful, or patronizing attitudes. Although they may not show it outwardly, criticism may haunt these individuals and may leave them humiliated, degraded, hollow, and empty. They may react with disdain, rage, or defiant counterattack.
It is interesting to note that those who live and work with them often feel exhausted, exploited, as though they must walk on eggshells, and never authentically connecting.
We know of at least one very obvious example, though I won’t mention his name. He speaks to others in an offensive tone, often blaming someone else, and when confronted with his words, deflects what is asked of him and then retaliates.
According to Freud, it is thought that all human infants pass through a phase of primary narcissism, in which they assume they are the center of the universe. This phase ends when the baby is forced by the realities of life to recognize that it does not control its parents or other caregivers but is in fact entirely dependent on them. Normally, the baby (at between 15-22 months) gives up its fantasy of being all powerful and becomes emotionally attached to its parents rather than itself. What happens for the NPD patient is that the fantasy persists that the world is his oyster and revolves around him. In order to protect this illusion, he must seal off those perceptions of reality that do not fit or resonate with this grandiose self.
The psychiatrist Kernberg views narcissism as a child’s defense against a cold and unempathic parent. Emotionally hungry and angry at the depriving parents, the child withdraws into a part of the self that the parents’ value, whether looks, intellectual ability, or some other skill or talent. This part of the self becomes hyper-inflated or grandiose. Any perceived weaknesses are split off into a hidden part of the self. Splitting gives rise to a lifelong tendency to swing between extremes of grandiosity and feelings of emptiness and worthlessness.
Additionally, a person with NPD frequently externalizes what s/he cannot allow themselves to feel – so others must be wrong, blamed, or the ultimate cause of their distress.
It is not only privileged individuals who display this disorder; I have seen NPD exhibited among people who have lived under harsh socioeconomic circumstances, and somehow believe that the world owes them, that they have suffered through no fault of their own, and subsequently blame others for their plight.
What compels me to write about this topic is that individuals with this presentation exist in all facets of society, in varying degrees. In my own psychotherapy practice, a large percentage of my clients are adult children of narcissists. They come in time and again feeling completely used up, having spent their lives in the service of one or both parents. These are people who don’t know what they want or need, because their own needs have been tucked away for a lifetime. And they also feel guilty for having needs. In terms of healing, it can be a long and painstaking process, but definitely worth it. Through hard work and dogged persistence, clients will say they finally feel “free,” no longer hobbled by the constant needs and wants of those they formerly catered to.
American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013.
Masterson, James F. The Narcissistic and Borderline Disorders: An Integrated Developmental Approach. New York, Brunner/Mazel, Inc. 1981