Hitting out at the world: Trump’s narcissism

Is Trump’s narcissism severe enough to be classed as a personality disorder?    

What is it with Donald Trump?  Why has he adopted this petulant, belligerent, accusatory style of governing?

The explanation offered by a growing range of commentators is narcissism.  They don’t mean simply extreme self-absorption. They mean narcissism in its more stubborn, malevolent state: as a personality disorder.

What exactly does it mean to say that someone has Narcissistic Personality Disorder?  And what are the implications if the President of the United States is mentally deranged?

I think the answers to these questions can be most easily addressed if we understand that all human beings seek a sense of emotional safety.  All of us are driven by a biological imperative for acceptance and belonging.  Narcissistic Personality Disorder is one of the psychiatric conditions that arises out of a dramatic failure to have those needs met early in life (especially when combined with the genes that put a person at greater risk of personality disorder).

It’s a perfectly plausible possibility.  Narcissism and psychopathy are more common than is generally realised.  Within the general population, the frequency is estimated at between 1% and 6%.  For CEOs in the corporate world, the rate is probably four times higher.   And it was, of course, his success in the corporate world that gave Trump his presidential victory.

What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

So, what is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?  Most articles discussing it start with a description of symptoms.  As summarised by Preston Ni, author of the book How to Successfully Handle Narcissists, ten key signs are:

  1. Grandiose personality
  2. Charmer
  3. Rule breaker
  4. Incites negative emotions, especially through tantrums
  5. False image projection
  6. Conversation hoarder
  7. Conversation interrupter
  8. Sense of entitlement
  9. Boundary violator
  10. Manipulates others by using them as an extension of the self

Each of us can use those symptoms to make a judgment as to whether we think it possible that Trump might have a diagnosable mental disorder.  I use the world ‘possible’ because it is technically impossible to know Trump’s mental health status without examination by a psychiatrist.  The fact that no clinical professional has been given a chance to interview him is one of the reasons we didn’t heard more about Narcissistic Personality Disorder during the election period.  All psychiatrists are prevented by the 1973 Goldwater Rule from diagnosing celebrities whom they have not actually examined.  Bodies like the American Psychiatric Association and the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists require that their members abide by it, due to the inaccuracy inherently at risk in ‘armchair diagnoses’.

Critics, though, argue that the stakes with Trump are now too high.  What if the President of the United States is pathologically mentally unfit?  Their worry is reasonable, because when it comes to Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the people who end up suffering most are not narcissists themselves.  Instead, it is the people affected by their behaviour.  That would be us, ordinary citizens in countries across the world.  I believe we deserve access to ideas and information that can assist us in interpreting extremely unsettling behaviour from the President of the United States.  We need to reduce the fear and anxiety floating in the world.

So, here’s how I think it is easiest to make sense of Trump’s behaviour: understand what’s driving it.  The answer is: human attachment needs.  At a fundamental level, Trump is driven by the same needs as all the rest of us, even if his desire for acceptance and belonging has acquired a pathological character.

Two reasons Trump is like just the rest of us

  1. We’re all driven by attachment needs.

Love.  Belonging.  Emotional safety.  Human beings have a craving for these things.  They lie at the core of the attachment system.  When I say ‘core’, I really mean that.  These are biological needs.

All mammals seek connection, but it is especially intense for humans.  Our large skulls cause our offspring to be born extra-early, extra-vulnerable and ultra-dependent.  It is our biological attachment system that keeps us alive as babies and that continues to frame our relationships as we grow up.  When our attachment system is placed under threat, our brains and bodies panic, because we move toward overwhelm.  When the overwhelm gets too intense, it starts to feels like we’re at risk of dying.  Our sense of self is tied up with the strategies we use to manage that rising panic.

People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder live with a lot of unconscious panic. Their sense of self is fragile, as a consequence of emotional injuries they suffered early in life.  Their way of coping with that panic is to develop a false self that they can present to the world.  The more grandiose and exalted, the better.  That idealised self-image, projected to the world, keeps them from feeling the overwhelming emotional wounds that gave birth to the inauthentic self in the first place. As the author Preston Ni puts it, deep down, pathological narcissists feel like the ‘ugly duckling’.  They worry they aren’t good enough, but they don’t want anyone, including themselves, to know it.  A lot of psychological energy must go into keeping up the front.  Phew! It’s exhausting just describing it!

So, at a deep human level, the rest of us are just like Donald Trump, and vice versa.  We all want to be loved.

2.  We’re all seeking a sense of safety. Control gives us that safety.

We all seek emotional safety.  That’s the aim of our attachment system.  It is always on the look-out for relationship threats that can be spotted on the horizon.  That monitoring is crucial to us as babies, because our immature stress management system renders us totally dependent on summoning people to rescue us from overwhelm.  Overwhelm is frequent in babies’ lives; it rears its head hundreds of times a day.  And it’s not fun.  Remember: once it gets intense, overwhelm feels like impending death.

We gain a sense of safety through having enough control over our environment and other people.  We are our best selves when we feel in control.  If the threat risk has dropped, there is no need to stay on high-alert.  Control = emotional safety = relief = relaxation.

You can see that pattern in Trump’s behaviour.  When he’s at home at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, he is described as relaxed and calm.  At the 2016 New Year’s Eve party he held there, Trump was described by the New York Times as “comfortable in his own skin”.  He was reported by attendees as “holding court” at the party: “totally at ease, very positive, very gregarious”.  Sure, he’s at home.  He’s in control.  He can be his charming best self.

His Cabinet picks?  He has chosen people he feels safe with.  They may not all be the best people for the job, but they feel trustworthy to him. Integrating family members into his political activities, despite the conflicts that risks?  Yes, his family members certainly make him feel safe.  Rude to reporters at a press conference?  Well, since he doesn’t generally like the media and he doesn’t know what questions reporters are going to ask him, it can’t feel a safe environment for him, can it?  That would easily send his self-regulatory system into overdrive.  Reluctant even to travel in the Presidential plane, Air Force One?  Okay, his suggestion that he hire out his private jet to the government for his Presidential travel would indeed make him money, but I reckon that what’s more pertinent is a feeling of familiarity and relief when travelling inside his own personal plane.

Donald Trump is no different from the rest of us.  He is seeking a sense of emotional safety.  And, if he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, then that internal sense of safety is fragile.  A person inevitably exerts more control on their external environment when they can’t find that sense of control internally.

The problem for Trump is that he is now President of the United States.  That role risks putting him constantly outside of his comfort zone.  He cannot control the courts; he cannot control the press; he cannot control other countries; he cannot control what his critics say of him.  All of that uncertainty would easily keep him on constant high-alert.  That would explain why he so often hits out on Twitter and in interviews.  Punching someone – whether with your words or your fists — is a way of exerting control.  All bullies instinctively get that.

Moreover, they feel better after punching.  Lashing out is a tonic.  Their cortisol levels drop once they’ve discharged all their pent-up anxiety.

The problem for us ordinary folk is that a leader who feels constantly threatened becomes even more erratic, more authoritarian, more dependent on intimidation and tantrums as a stress management strategy.  That is a serious problem for the globe.

In understanding Trump’s narcissism, we better understand ourselves

My aim in writing this piece isn’t only to understand the enigma that is Donald Trump.  It is to help us better understand ourselves.

America got itself (and the rest of the world) into this situation when they elected a man who may be seriously mentally disturbed, because too many people felt unheard.  The misery of poverty and anxiety about uncertain futures went unsolved by their politicians.  It is in times of fear that we look to someone else to save us.  As I wrote about during the American election, our own attachment needs place us at most risk when we feel most vulnerable.  It is at times of vulnerability that we are most likely to be tricked by people who tell us they will be our saviour, that they will be the one to make our lives great again.  All they have to do is make us feel heard.

The best way for each of us to make sure we aren’t being conned is to get better at listening to our own vulnerabilities.  Along the way, we also get better at listening to others’ vulnerabilities.  That compassion is invaluable because…if we are to heal ourselves from the division that Trump’s election has created, we will need to get very, very good at listening to each other.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

This piece has been extracted from a longer article published by the author on her own blog site and edited by herself.

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