Narcissism and the Meltdown

I don’t know if you saw an Associated Press article in your newspaper last week (10/7/08) about a Los Angeles area married man who killed himself, his wife, his three children and his mother-in-law. He was unemployed, previously worked in the accounting industry and was despondent over his extreme financial difficulties. Apparently he left a suicide note saying he considered two options: just killing himself or killing his whole family. He reportedly chose to kill his whole family, because it was “more honorable.” (San Diego Union-Tribune, 10/7/08, p. A4)

Why would someone do this? And what can we do to help prevent this from happening more widely? Some ideas came together for me yesterday while speaking about high conflict personalities with 230 domestic violence professionals in the Chicago area. They had a powerful display of life-size figures of women who have been killed by their husbands/boyfriends and T-shirts with writing by children whose parents were killed. The danger of domestic violence is on their minds every day and their work is so important. I used the above example to explain ways to work with Narcissists.

First, Recognize Narcissism for what it is: an unconscious human defense mechanism. Narcissists are preoccupied with their public image, because their very shaky self-image is managed by trying to look superior in public. Images of wealth, having honorable status, trophy spouses, children in the best schools, etc. often help narcissists cope with a deep underlying sense of powerlessness and inadequacy. When the public image is shattered, many narcissists cannot cope. Some become violent toward others, often those closest to them, who they blame for their own problems in their distorted and dangerous thinking. Others blame themselves. In either case, violence becomes a much higher risk.

Second, Narcissism is Widespread: Researchers indicate that each younger generation has become more and more self-centered and narcissistic over the past 50 years (and this seems to be worldwide). A very recent national study in the U.S. (Stinson, et al, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, July 2008) determined that over 6% of our population meets the criteria for a narcissistic personality disorder. This means that over 18 million people in the U.S. may appear normal, but are stuck in a self-centered, self-defeating dysfunctional cycle of thinking, feeling and acting.

Third, There Need to be Consequences: Narcissists can’t stop themselves, whether it’s domestic violence or greed. However, when they know that there is a strong enough negative consequence, they will restrain their behavior. That’s what we just learned about Wall Street with insufficient regulations, and that’s what we know about domestic violence reoccurring when there aren’t strong legal consequences, like jail time.

Fourth, Don’t Diss the Narcissists: Taking a chapter title from my new book (“It’s All YOUR Fault!”), it is very important to resist the urge to criticize obviously narcissistic people when their fortunes turn sour. Resist the urge to say I told you so, and resist the urge to say Now look at you, Mr. Big Shot. DON’T tell people you think they are narcissistic. It might hurt you in the long run. Instead, give them your E.A.R.: Your EMPATHY (not sympathy—empathy means you can have similar feelings and frustrations), a little ATTENTION, and RESPECT them for their efforts and positive qualities as a person.

Fifth, You’re Not Alone: One of the surprising things about this financial meltdown is that it is worldwide and will affect everyone. No one individual is solely to blame for this (although those who have significant responsibility should have appropriate legal and financial consequences). We need to stick together. We need to let others know that we care and want them to know that there is more to living than making money. Perhaps the silver lining in all of this is that we will discover that we can care for people more than money after all!
Please check out my new book "Its All Your Fault".