The Narcissism Spectrum

There is a precise recipe to develop a narcissist. However, where someone with this personality trait falls on the narcissism spectrum depends on whether they utilize their high levels of self-confidence for good or bad. During a book talk on Sat. Jan. 24 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Northwest D.C., the author of “Narcissism and Politics: Dreams of Glory,” Dr. Jerrold Post, shared his knowledge and professional experience on deconstructing narcissistic political leaders. Post began his discussion by illustrating his infatuation with the personality of former Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, admitting he could spend hours analyzing him.

Dr. Jerrold Post (left) signs a copy of his book, “Narcissism and Politics: Dreams of Glory,” for friend and colleague Dr. Brian Crowley (right) at Politics and Prose bookstore. Photo by Bailey Edelstein

To trace the origins of narcissism in an individual and the effects of having this personality trait, Post identifies Hussein as an archetype of the political narcissist. Post utilized Hussein as a vehicle for his conversation, revealing that an individual’s narcissistic qualities derive from their prenatal experiences.

“It’s [Hussein] who remains an interesting example to me, [when addressing] the manner in which one’s earlier psychology shapes one’s political history,” said Post.

Hussein was a victim of the “wounded self,” a necessary element to germinate a narcissistic individual. Post recounted the severe depression Hussein’s mother spiraled into while pregnant with him. Her despair was onset by the death of her husband during the fourth month of her pregnancy and worsened with the death of her first born son during the eighth month. Throughout his talk, Post referred to the “mud hut” structure in which Hussein was born as an architectural motif describing where Hussein’s “wounded self” was formed. The Iraqi leader was born unwanted, impoverished and later abused.

“The most traumatized leader that I have analyzed in my career is Saddam Hussein,” said Post. “Indeed, I rather miss him.”

The audience responded with laughter to the sarcastic remarks that Post peppered throughout his discussion. Post is currently a professor of psychiatry and political psychology at George Washington University and was the founding director of the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior where he worked for 21 years.

“I think [the book is] a culmination of a long career in his field and his studies in political psychology,” said audience member Dr. Brian Crowley, a local D.C. psychiatrist and long-standing colleague and friend of Dr. Post.

Given his proficiency on the psychology of terrorism, Post testified before of Congress about his political psychology profile on Saddam Hussein. His testimonial lent perspective to members of the legislature, emphasizing the powerful advantage of understanding the psychology of the political characters that fill the world arena.

“[Hussein] was a rational calculator who is often miscalculated,” said Post as he recalled his congressional testimony. “He was not the madman of the Middle East that he’s been characterized as.”

Post went on to discuss that a type of disconnect exists between a narcissist and the world around them. They view their surroundings only as reinforcements for their own psychology. He speculates this lack of empathy in an egoist stems from insecurities developed in the “mud hut” days of the more rash narcissistic political leaders of our world’s history.

“I buy in to what [Post is] saying about how leaders act in society due to their upbringing,” said audience member Andrew Overton, 26, a public relations specialist for the British Embassy. “His research could affect U.S. policymakers and they could factor [his findings] in for our own benefit to convince [these narcissistic leaders] that they don’t have to remain dictators forever. It could make the world a little more free and just.”

Narcissists are fragile characters, a quality that hides deep beneath their “grandiose self.” Their appetite for grandeur is demonstrated through the extravagance they surround themselves with in the form of palaces and delicacies. Post transitions his analysis to the self-centered Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. He defines the psychological ammunition we could have if we profile individuals like Gaddafi, detect the weak points beneath their narcissism and anticipate their actions and reactions to experiences of failure and success.

“When he was succeeding, [Gaddafi] could get high and his judgment could really falter, he could almost see himself as invulnerable. When he was failing, he was not in the center of attention and then he could be counted on to have a crisis,” said Post. “He was a crisis-creator in order to be in the center [of attention].”

Narcissistic leaders are fueled by the support of their followers. Post referenced Cuba’s Castro who leached off the energy of his spectators while delivering eight-hour speeches, and Gaddafi’s denial of the hatred expressed by his citizens during the Arab Spring.

“His behavior during the Arab spring was quite remarkable,” said Post. “He found it impossible to believe that people didn’t quite love him.”

Post outlined the two types of charismatic leaders: destructive and reparative. While destructive charismatics such as Castro, Hitler and Osama Bin Laden often made headlines, we must praise the reparative charismatics like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.

“M.L.K is a remarkable example of the reparative charismatic and a constituted leader,” said Post. “Some of the most heroic moments in history came from narcissism in leaders, too. It is indeed a spectrum.”

The author clarified at the end of his speech that not all narcissistic political leaders practice extremism. He assures the audience that traits of confidence in a narcissist can lead that individual to be a constructive contributor to society. However, Post warns we must be wary when a narcissistic leader’s over confidence leads to selfishness, curbing their agenda away from their followers’ best interests.

“In this unstable world where so many of the conflicts have to do with rogue leaders or leaders with malignant narcissism…to not have a nuanced political personality profile of leaders is to be significantly impaired in our leading defense,” said Post. “The only way we can deter individuals is by understanding, in a nuanced way, individuals with malignant narcissism in a personality; this is very, very dangerous indeed.”


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