NOTE: This article was written with Dan Hanfling, MD, Contributing Scholar, Center for Health Security, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center
The persistence of excessive narcissism from childhood into adulthood reflects failures in early human development and education. Primarily seen as a major societal problem, the origins of which have grown steadily over the last several decades, it has recently surfaced as a contentious issue among politicians. While narcissism in today’s U.S. polity has proved increasingly problematic, the voting public must be aware of the severe consequences of such character traits and why they are unacceptable for political leadership.
The race to the White House has been filled with numerous statements and emphatic declarations about how “smart” each and every candidate is. Donald Trump, for example, has allowed the media to report for years that he is “really smart” and graduated first in his class at the prestigious Wharton School of Finance! But Trump is not alone among the candidates where exaggerations and outright lies have become commonplace, a pattern so common that the public has learned to accept such exaggerations both as a norm and worse, as seemingly acceptable. Being “smart” however is not enough and exaggerations and lies we argue belie more worrisome problems of one’s character and leadership potential.
In childhood and early adolescent development, vanity and excessive narcissism are normal and necessary. These narcissistic characteristics play a vital role in building ones fragile ego that is part and parcel of normal childhood. Educational programs usually tap into these needs by promoting self-esteem and group learning experiences. But, childhood is where narcissism should stay. By the end of young adulthood, society expects that the once accepted concrete black and white narcissistic thinking and actions that often define and express “smartness” in childhood must be tamed. In normal development, the realities, trials and experiences of adolescence and young adulthood must now be honed further by more abstract thinking and processing of one’s life experiences. If not, the continuation of seeing oneself as exceptional, combined with inability to recognize the feelings of others, is problematic for future relationships.
Unfortunately, in the 1980s numerous and often misguided “self-esteem” programs in childhood took shape that cultivated and rewarded continuation of this narcissistic behavior into adolescence and beyond. Parents were encouraged to tell the child that they were “special.” Yet at the same time competitiveness was overly admired and promoted by parents that resulted in children deflating other children’s egos with wise humor or sharp insults that drew uncomfortable laughter from some and admiration from others. Without parental disengagement, honesty and empathy become devalued and the goal of the spoiled child and adolescent becomes “getting what you want.” Many children fail to understand and appreciate the perspectives of others and the recognition that empathy, which is seriously lacking in narcissistic adults, is crucial. If not tamed in adolescence, the narcissistic behaviors risk continuing and will dominate the development and character into adulthood.
The incomplete abandonment of narcissistic behaviors is often concealed by high achievers, and may even contribute to their rapid success in college and graduate school. By their own admission, business, and many military schools focus on skill training that immediately reward such ”smart” behaviors that are too often equated to “leadership qualities.” Many of this ilk find a welcome home in a business career where wealth and backbiting negotiations are quickly rewarded and praised. Empathy and questioning abhorrent values are suppressed as a “bottom line” quality that is neither sought after nor encouraged. In Trump’s case, the persistent claim that he can bring his business savvy into diplomacy to make the country great again has been accepted without debate.
In contrast, for most children and adolescents, the taming of narcissistic impulses is first realized through cherished parental modeling, patient education and encouragement within families, schools and communities. Higher educational programs especially in the humanities and social sciences was seen as an opportunity where any lingering narcissism may be further tamed and humbled with demanding courses
that emphasized debate, multidisciplinary thinking, discourse, team work, logic and consensus building. Colleges and universities in building a foundation for ethics and morality promote critical reflection, perception, observation, intuition, empathy, negotiation, cooperation and reasoning that further advance one’s options in judgment, conceptualization and generalization in thinking and decision making. Political scientist and communications theorist Harold Lasswell and others concerned with aberrant psychological attributes of leaders in both politics and business have always seen qualities among leaders as part and parcel of the development of a healthy and flexible mind where persistent narcissism risks a fixed and stubborn persona.
Sadly, the continuation of narcissistic tendencies and behaviors into adulthood may lead to trouble in relationships. Unbridled narcissism ranges from ”pathological narcissism” that is seen in some of the most deviant of the post-Cold War leaders such as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Idi Amin and Kim Jong-un to more functional but greedy business and technology tycoons and larger than life sports and political figures. Those with an enduring pattern of narcissistic behaviors that deviate continually from the normal expectations of society characteristically and habitually refer in every speech to their exaggerated and vacillated self-esteem. They typically see themselves as exceptional yet unaware, with motivations which often fluctuate as do their interpersonal relationships, an impaired ability to recognize the feelings of others (empathy) and a false intimacy that is largely superficial, with little true interest in others and only based on need for personal gain. Those who society consider “bright” and insightful will often cite those years of transformative education and challenges to self-narcissism as the most fruitful yet demanding time of their adult and professional development. The autonomy and independence from any self-inflicted childhood narcissistic trappings are found in mature adults
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notable statesmen and Nobel laureates alike. They have empowered great societal accomplishments that have led to every life changing concept from social justice, freedom of speech, the Magna Carta, a Papal encyclical on ecumenism and the U.S. Constitution itself. Those political aspirants who are simply being “smart“ and able to greatly impress a crowd with abundant claims based on simple concrete thinking and actions would never accomplish such transformative feats nor properly protect the society one is elected to lead as president. Unfortunately, in those same political aspirants narcissistically driven thinking remains fixed. It is not, nor will it ever be, in their nature or capacity to change.
Once excused during adolescence as normal behavior, the fabrication, plagiarism and lies among adult narcissists about their own records and accomplishments are common. When challenged adult narcissists may rapidly deescalate into derogatory and inflated insults meant to intimidate. Many elected officials, too often touted as rising stars in a political party, have been found to exaggerate their cultural histories, war records and education. While Trump was not first in his class nor does his commencement program list him as receiving honors of any kind, the political temper of too many politicians include similar claims that keep fact-checkers overworked year after year during the debates. For a narcissist, this is not a problem. A flippant excuse can now heal the worst of offenses if society itself is not going to take the time and energy to find out the facts.
Persistent narcissistic entitlements have toppled the careers of many politicians and other public figures that, once elected to an office, experience an unbridled sense of aggrandizement that goads them into personally threatening those they see as obstacles to their power and authority. We have come to uncritically accept and excuse those behaviors among some in Washington and Wall Street as expected behaviors. Here, the political party itself risks becoming ‘operationally narcissistic’ with a camouflage unique to its culture. This can be interpreted where in parties that demand total loyalty, whose members all speak from the same playbook and daily-drilled sound bites, and where disloyalty is severely punished by those on the top of the narcissistic pack who have built for themselves a powerful and self-serving political culture. Many in power truly believe in having god-like powers that absolve whatever faults other humans may be judging them by. Indeed, society is at fault for lavishing praise and creating an unfathomable yet favorable impression while knowing that those actions contribute little or nothing to society itself.
While many politicians are appreciated as being “smart”, too often deduced from a single and catchy sound bite, they are not necessarily either “bright” or “presidential”. This is a crucial distinction that the voting public must assess in each and every potential leader. The failure to make this distinction in American politics over the last two to three decades is palpable, especially to those who recall post- WWII great statesmen whose skill and extraordinary thinking and actions transformed the world order. Current rebellion over ”Washington as usual” political theater has only led the public to find false hope in yet one more politically unimpeded narcissist fighting a larger more powerful, but still vulnerable, narcissistic political culture. The ‘profession’ of politics has been lost to many who had idealistic young adult dreams of public service or were too young when they entered the races to recognize that empathy and cooperation would not get them the votes they needed to survive. The lobbyists they dependently engage with are often prior politicians quick to support the necessity of a self-serving agenda.
Political campaigns in the modern era take place under a global communications microscope. The current presidential political process, in its tedious lengthiness, has had a profound negative impact. The U.S. must understand that national narcissism, excused under the mantle of “exceptionalism”, plays a severely limiting role. Many believed that the U.S., unlike other countries with power, possessed the capacity for self-exploration and painful admission of truth no matter how uncomfortable that might be. As a country we were once applauded as an open book that was exciting and refreshing. Turning off this knowledge-based debate and dialogue only renders ourselves as narcissistically discourteous to the rest of the world, hurting the U. S. by transmitting to the global community that we are above such discussions. Today, one can ask whether the silence from other democratic countries over current U.S. policies brought up by candidates belies the fact that their questioning would knowingly lead to harsh retorts, insults and intimidation focused on their lack of security or weak governance; while we maintain that the U.S as the world’s leader still knows best. They know what we in psychiatry and psychology have known for decades that there is nothing more dangerous than a narcissist with an injured ego. The world expects better from the wide bed of talent and expertise we have and are correct to be perplexed by why the narcissistically driven abhorrent language of a few is being celebrated by the many.
The present system of judging candidates offers little critical thinking and should not be relied upon to decide how candidates will deal with profoundly complex and abstract decisions and dilemmas that threaten our future existence. This will not change until there is a reversal of the influence of misguided “self-esteem” programs and thinking in childhood that cultivated and rewarded narcissistic behaviors that some have labeled today as a “narcissistic epidemic”. Those studies claim higher rates of narcissism among younger generations which in time will invade all professions that seek and reward inflated self-views, not just politics. This is a societal problem not just a political one. It also has clear global implications that must be addressed. Electing any candidate with these traits to any public office will continue to plague society’s progression. Professionals, especially those in child development, along with educators, social scientists and those in civil law have unique responsibilities in reversing what is no longer a trend but a tragic disease for societies. For the immediate future, society must find social media and other mass communication and educational opportunities to strongly assert, affirm and establish that candidates with these established character traits are not acceptable to be leaders.