Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How to Cure Narcissism, Hubris, and Arrogance

In one sense narcissism, hubris, and arrogance are just different names for the same thing. They come to us from different worlds, but they all refer to an excessive love of self.

Despite the fact that narcissism comes from the myth of Narcissus, it is generally considered to be a psychiatric disorder. It has its own personality disorder, and is occasionally called pathological and malignant.

Some clinicians have said that there is a good kind of narcissism, but people who have one of the bad kinds are clearly being labeled as sick. If the culture decides that your problems fall within the category of illness, then you will require medical or paramedical treatment.

Before he gave his name to an illness, Narcissus starred in his own myth. Enthralled by the image he saw in a pond he tried to get too close to it and drowned. His was not a happy ending.

Before Freud pronounced narcissism a psychological condition, the term was used by psychiatrists to refer to a special kind of sexual perversion. Narcissists were people who took their own bodies as the objects of their sexual interest.

For further detail consult Richard Krafft-Ebing's: Psychopathia Sexualis.

Naturally, Freud would have been comfortable with the notion that narcissism contains a libidinal component. It's not just that narcissists love their image; they are sexually attracted to it.

As far as treatment goes, psychiatrists and therapists have always had a great deal of difficulty making progress against the ravages of narcissistic personality disorder.

This should not be too much of a surprise. The disorder comes from a story that has an unhappy ending. There is almost a narrative pull toward a bad result.

Hubris comes to us from Greek tragedy, or, more precisely, from Aristotle's: Poetics. The tragic hero finds himself at the pinnacle of society until his excessive pride (hubris) leads him to self-destruct.

Like narcissism, hubris brings a narrative with it. Clearly, the tragic hero is not enthralled by his mirror image, but he too suffers from excessive love of self. As with the narcissist, he is condemned by his narrative.

To me this says that if you insist on seeing people as characters in a narrative that ends badly, you should not be too optimistic about your ability to help people.

Arrogance differs from both narcissism and hubris because it has its place in ethics, not narrative. Thus, does not refer to a persona, but is a human being's character flaw.

If we understand and analyze them correctly, character flaws can be corrected.

So says John Baldoni in his column about the way he works to cure overconfident executives. Link here.

Baldoni does label their problem as "hubris," but clearly he is not working within the worlds of fiction, myth, and tragedy.

Baldoni begins by identifying the behaviors that characterize an arrogant executive. Then, he proceeds to show how they can be replaced by more constructive behaviors.

Many therapists would consider arrogant behavior to be the expression of an underlying mental defect or unresolved issue. Baldoni is treating these behaviors as bad habits that can be corrected by being replaced by good habits.

Is he thereby ignoring the underlying cause? Not at all, because, there is no underlying cause.

A person who has enjoyed great success in business might well become overly confident in his judgment or decisions. And he might also believe that the instincts that serve him so well in business will also serve him well in bringing up his children or conducting his marriage.

I would not say that his arrogance is enacting some childhood problem. I would say that he has simply made a mistake, an error of judgment, an error of self-evaluation.

He is a human being. He possesses free will. He has the right to make a mistake without having anyone think that his decision was determined by his drunken father, his abusive mother, his nasty sister, or the Devil himself.

His arrogance is not a meaningful symptom and it will not be resolved by making it into one.

So, Baldoni begins by identify the bad habits that arrogant executives develop. First, he counts the propensity to rely too much on one's own judgment, to refuse to take others into his counsel, and to fail to seek anyone else's advice.

Next, an arrogant executive will wall himself off from his customers and clients. He will only interact with a few of his closest associates, the ones who will tell him exactly what he wants to hear, and will ignore the rest.

It is easy to surround yourself with people who never criticize you, and it is just as easy to identify that attitude in your staff once you have been alerted to it.

Finally, an arrogant executive will be more interested in placing blame than in solving problems. He directs his energy toward the care and maintenance of his persona, not toward dealing with real world problems.

Once you have identified the bad behaviors that constitute your arrogance, you are ready to take the next step: to correct them ... by seeking out the advice of others, by getting out of your office and meeting the staff, by arranging lunches with different people, by encouraging everyone to speak openly and forthrightly about their concerns, and by ridding yourself of sycophants and flatterers.

I will leave the next question for another day, but let's at least raise it. Do these same principles apply to someone whose arrogance does not manifest itself in his behavior as an executive? If so, how?


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Anonymous said...

As someone who has suffered from "mild narcissism" I would note that attempts to escape it can induce a degree of depression. The narcissist often does things (not necessarily bad things) so as to maintain narcissistic supply and this tendency will often have been present for many years. Resisting it can leave a sense of lack of purpose and emptiness.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for the comment. Isn't it more like this: when someone has engaged in a set of habits, narcissistic as they may be, for a long period of time, breaking them will induce feelings of emptiness, as though one has lost a best friend. I would imagine that the feeling of emptiness will continue until one develops some better habits, to the point where they feel familiar.

Anonymous said...

What you write could be so - old habits do take time to break. My only slight reservation is that it isn't just "habits" but also attitudes which also need to readjust somehow. And, of course, it has to be a genuine readjustment rather than one which is forced. Whichever it is, my experience is that recovery is slow.
Thank you for your response.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good point... I am wondering whether the attitudes follow the habits or the habits follow the attitudes.

Anonymous said...

I suspect that the attitudes come first and habits accumulate later as time passes. What I vaguely referred to as attitudes are really the symptoms of an underlying psychological condition which could have been formed during childhood. Such conditions could include, for example, a feeling of inadequacy leading one to exaggerate one's achievements so as to gain the acceptance and admiration of others. This sort of condition would be hard to get rid of later in life. But it is probably better to be aware of it, as that might lead to some relief from its effects.

Anonymous said...

The trouble with dealing with a narcissist is the almost impossible task of convincing them that they even have a problem. My brother, on a scale of 1-10 was a twelve. He died with no living relative speaking to him, including five adult children, three siblings, and three ex-wives. Two ex-cons were his only friends. Everyone in his circle had problems except himself and he would gladly tell those people he cold fix them: by being like him!

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