America Depressed and Distressed

It is remarkable that the popular media has properly identified President Trump as a person with a narcissistic personality disorder. Sadly, this is certainly an accurate diagnosis for Mr. Trump although I prefer avoiding all such diagnoses because they just look at what is “wrong” with someone, which is never helpful. Instead of identifying someone with some kind of psychological diagnosis it is more valuable to understand the mechanisms with which someone operates and possibly the causes of these operations. Then it is important to know how to relate to those people. Diagnosing someone does not help us understand how to relate to people. Diagnoses only tell us what is supposedly wrong with someone. Let me propose to identify the psychological mechanisms that Mr. Trump uses in life, how they affect us as Americans, and how we might survive and thrive over the next four years.

President Trump most certainly fits the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, or we might say he is “narcissistic.” Ultimately, we should be thinking about how we might be affected by what he says and does instead of simply calling him names and giving him a diagnosis. People with so-called narcissistic tendencies seem to act in selfish ways, and they seem very self-centered. But this is only their surface functioning. Inside such people is a much different operation. Selfish self-centered people do not have a sense of “self” inside. They are focused on external things, i.e. outside of themselves, instead of internal things that are inside of themselves. Sometimes we say that people with a narcissistic personality disorder, or any of the other personality disorders, lack a “core” of what it means to be a person. Lacking this “core” or “self”, people who act selfishly need these more from the external world because they don’t have a solid internal world. There is a deep psychological hunger inside people who are selfish. Because they feel “empty” inside, they need to “fill” up with as much external “food” as possible. Their hunger is insatiable; they are rarely satisfied. Furthermore, when they don’t get constant refreshment from the outside, they feel this deep hunger and become afraid. In a way, they are afraid of dying. They feel like they need to be “fed” by external rewards to keep them alive.

Narcissistic people, or more accurately selfish self-centered people, feed on many things that are “external,” mostly other people’s approval. Because they do not approve of themselves at a deep psychological level, they need almost constant approval from other people. The result of this constant seeking others’ approval works when everyone approves of them, but it doesn’t work when even one person disapproves of them. This constant demand for 100% approval from all people is what we see with people like President Trump. It is painful to see such a brilliant and successful person as he obviously is find it impossible to admit that everyone didn’t vote for him. His recent ludicrous assertion that there was some kind of conspiracy of “voter fraud” with millions of illegal immigrants voting against him is almost delusional. I think that if there had been only one person who voted against him, he still would be upset because he is not capable of managing the disapproval of anyone. He is deeply “hungry” inside and craves constant external rewards of some kind.

There are other ways that typify people who are narcissistic, but they all have the element of being external to oneself. People find different ways of attempting to satisfy their deep hunger. Hoarders are people who have found a way to feel satisfied only when they keep everything, whether of practical use or not. Many obese people have found excessive food to satisfy this deep psychological hunger, but only briefly. Extraverted people with this lack of inner core tend to talk too much and demand constant social engagement hoping to keep from feeling this internal hunger, while introverted people feel marginally satisfied only when they say nothing and keep to themselves. Working and dreaming are both good elements of life but if people are deeply “hungry” inside, they might work all the time to avoid feeling this hunger, and dreamers might dream all the time for the same reason. All addictions are essentially outgrowths of narcissism and the accompanying feeling of emptiness. Addictions include chemical (alcohol and drugs) as well as behavioral (sex, gambling, buying, exercise). All of these addictive elements are natural and useful, but when they are used to satisfy deep inner emptiness, they fail. An important aspect of an addiction is that the individual needs more of the substance or behavior to reach the same level of satisfaction.

Allow me to describe the cause of narcissism, that deep seated hunger that many people, like President Trump, suffer. Simply put, selfish narcissism in adults derives from natural narcissism in early childhood. Think of it this way: when I am an infant, or approximately until I am about two years old, I get most of what I want. It is a challenge to take care of infants’ demands and needs but infants get most of what they want because they don’t want much more than food, clean diapers and a bit of physical contact. But from about the age of two, things are very different. Because they can now talk, walk, and run, they see that the world is much bigger and there is much more interesting. Their wants now multiply by a hundredfold. They want more than they can have. If children of the ages two through about six receive good parenting, these children are routinely limited. They should hear “no” a hundred times more than “yes” because they simply want 100 times more than they can have. If children are not given their basic needs, they remain deeply hungry, sometimes for the rest of their lives. More common, however, is that children in these toddler years are given too much, and given to, rather than limited. This creates the 4-8-12 child that I have discussed elsewhere.

Narcissism is natural for children of the ages two through six: they want everything and feel “hungry” for everything. The task for parents during these years is go give to their children what they need but not much of what they want. Parents and children who have migrated these challenging years well lead to these children understanding that they do not get everything they want. If they learn this important lesson during the toddler years, they are then prepared to engage the social world during the elementary school years where they learn how deal with other people. They learn the importance of sharing, and the intrinsic value of giving. Most importantly, they learn to care about other people because they have been cared for and they care about themselves. If they do not adequately get through the toddler years, they lack self-care and certainly care for others.

No one gets through the early childhood years of natural narcissism unscathed. As a result we all suffer some remaining narcissism, i.e. wanting more than we can have. This adult narcissism shows itself in undue anger when we don’t get what we want, selfishness, and jealousy of what others have. It is very important to understand that we all have at least some of this leftover childhood narcissism if we are to deal with the narcissistic self-less people in our lives. It is not just President Trump who is narcissistic. We also are all narcissistic to some degree. And we know plenty people who suffer from the same lack of development. Being around anyone who is narcissistic is a challenge. Children who are psychologically undeveloped are a challenge because they throw fits when they don’t get what they want. Adults throw different kinds of fits. You can deal with a four-year old’s natural narcissistic demands by saying “no” and taking the consequences: he hates you. But it is much harder to deal with the adult who wants everything, whether your time, your property, your money…or your vote.

Mr. Trump wanted my vote. And he is angry that he didn’t get it. He is throwing a temper tantrum because he didn’t get what he wanted: everyone’s vote. He will continue to be angry. He will continue to be demanding. He will continue to be selfish and self-centered because he does not have a good sense of self and personal core. We will hear him whining about one thing and another, all of which amount to the fact that he can’t have everything and he can’t have everyone like him. There will be more tweets and public statements, the substance of which will be how he isn’t getting everything that he thinks he deserves. He is not capable of accepting loss, disappointment, mistakes, and people’s disapproval. And he will be in our faces about it. He is a man of 70 who has a brain and life experience that is certainly well beyond those years. But he has the emotional structure, and hence the social ability, of a four-year old. We need to accept this phenomenon, which I called the 4-8-12 phenomenon in another blog. But the real task is how to feel, what to think, and what to do over the next four years dealing with his four-year old temper tantrums without being angry or afraid. This is no easy task. It will be distressing. It already is distressing. It could easily be depressing.

If we are to avoid the anger that is the essence of depression, and the fear that is the essence of anxiety, we need to attend to how we really feel. That feeling is sadness. Narcissism, like its cousins anxiety and depression, is contagious. When I am around a depressed or anxious person, I will tend to become depressed or anxious. When I am around a narcissistic person, I will tend to become narcissistic. It is something like, “He is getting everything he wants. I want to have everything I want.” This is real dangerous. It is dangerous enough to be angry at him all the time; it is more dangerous to be afraid all the time of what he might do; but it is much more dangerous to become narcissistic, i.e. become more selfish, self-centered, and self-less. We can do better.

My suggestions for your mental health, your social health, and your physical health:

  • Note the incipient narcissism that occurs in you when you are confronted by Trump’s narcissism. I could say, “Don’t stoop to Trump’s level,” but that would be wrong because it would suggest that you are superior to Trump.
  • I prefer to say, “Be mature in the face of immaturity,” “Be honest in the face of dishonesty,” “Be generous in the face of selfishness,” and “Be yourself. Don’t let yourself be dragged into thinking and feeling that is childish.” You are a mature, honest, and generous person. Be that way. Stand tall.
  • Be sad. It is sad that Mr. Trump has been elected. It is sad for me. It is sad for many people. It is sad for the country. It is sad for the world. If you can continue to feel sad, you will avoid the tendency to be angry and anxious, which are simply the result of repressing the feeling of sadness.
  • If you are a person of faith and prayer, do as Jesus said: pray for your leader. If you have a different philosophical perspective, you may profit from meditation and personal reflection. If you are a person of wit, use it carefully and constructively. If you are one who writes, write. If you write poetry, write. If you sing, sing. If you dance, dance. Be yourself. You will be well. Stay well.

Further reading:

  • “Narcissism as Evil” by R. Johnson and D. Brock. In the three volume set on Evil edited by J. Harold Ellens published by Praeger
  • The Power of Positive Sadness by R. Johnson and D. Brock to be published in March, also by Praeger
  • The 4-8-12 blog, and the forthcoming book