A few days ago, I wrote a post for my Facebook friends about my personal experience dealing with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) in my family, and how I view the president-elect as a result. Unexpectedly, the post traveled widely, and it became clear that many people are also struggling with how to understand and deal with this kind of behavior in a position of power. Although several writers, including a few professionals, have publicly offered their thoughts on a diagnosis, I am not a professional and this is not a diagnosis. My post is not intended to persuade anyone or provide a comprehensive description of NPD. I am speaking purely from decades of dealing with NPD and sharing strategies that were helpful for me in coping and predicting behavior. The text below is adapted from my original Facebook post.
I want to talk a little about narcissistic personality disorder. I’ve unfortunately had a great deal of experience with it, and I’m feeling badly for those of you who are trying to grapple with it for the first time because of our president-elect, who almost certainly suffers from it or a similar disorder. If I am correct, it has some very particular implications for the office. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
1) It’s not curable and it’s barely treatable. He is who he is. There is no getting better, or learning, or adapting. He’s not going to “rise to the occasion” for more than maybe a couple hours. So just put that out of your mind.
2) He will say whatever feels most comfortable or good to him at any given time. He will lie a lot, and say totally different things to different people. Stop being surprised by this. While it’s important to pretend “good faith” and remind him of promises, as Bernie Sanders and others are doing, that’s for his supporters, so they can see the inconsistency as it comes. He won’t care. So if you’re trying to reconcile or analyze his words, don’t. It’s 100% not worth your time. Only pay attention to and address his actions.
3) You can influence him by making him feel good. There are already people like Steve Bannon who appear ready to use him for their own ends. The GOP is excited to try. Watch them, not him. President Obama, in his wisdom, may be treating him well in hopes of influencing him and averting the worst. But don’t count on it.
4) Entitlement is a key aspect of the disorder. As we are already seeing, he will likely not observe traditional boundaries of the office. He has already stated that rules don’t apply to him. This particular attribute has huge implications for the presidency and it will be important for everyone who can to hold him to the same standards as previous presidents.
5) We should expect that he only cares about himself and those he views as extensions of himself, like his children. (People with NPD often can’t understand others as fully human or distinct.) He desires accumulation of wealth and power because it fills a hole. (Melania is probably an acquired item, not an extension.) He will have no qualms at all about stealing everything he can from the country, and he’ll be happy to help others do so, if they make him feel good. He won’t view it as stealing but rather as something he’s entitled to do. This is likely the only thing he will intentionally accomplish.
6) It’s very, very confusing for non-disordered people to experience a disordered person with NPD. While often intelligent, charismatic, and charming, they do not reliably observe social conventions or demonstrate basic human empathy. It’s very common for non-disordered people to lower their own expectations and try to normalize the behavior. Do not do this and do not allow others, especially the media, to do this. If you start to feel foggy or unclear about why, step away until you recalibrate.
7) People with NPD often recruit helpers. These are referred to as “enablers” in the literature when they allow or cover for bad behavior, and “flying monkeys” when they perpetrate bad behavior on behalf of the narcissist. Although it’s easiest to prey on malicious people, good and vulnerable people can be unwittingly recruited. It will be important to support the good people around him if and when they attempt to stay clear or break away.
8) People with NPD often foster competition in people they control. Expect lots of chaos, firings, and recriminations. He will probably behave worst toward those closest to him, but that doesn’t mean (obviously) that his actions won’t have consequences for the rest of us. He will punish enemies. He may start out, as he has with the New York Times, with a confusing combination of punishment and reward, which is a classic abuse tactic for control. If you see your media cooperating or facilitating this behavior in order to r rewards, call them on it.
9) Gaslighting—where someone tries to convince you that the reality you’ve experienced isn’t true—is real and torturous. He will gaslight, his followers will gaslight. Many of our politicians and media figures already gaslight, so it will be hard to distinguish his amplified version from what has already been normalized. Learn the signs and find ways to stay focused on what you know to be true. Note: it is typically not helpful to argue with people who are attempting to gaslight. You will only confuse yourself. Just walk away.
10) Whenever possible, do not focus on the narcissist or give him attention. Unfortunately we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the president, but don’t circulate his tweets or laugh at him—you are enabling him and getting his word out. (I’ve done this, of course, we all have… just try to be aware.) Pay attention to your own emotions: Do you sort of enjoy his clowning? Do you enjoy the outrage? Is this kind of fun and dramatic, in a sick way? You are adding to his energy. Focus on what you can change and how you can resist, where you are. We are all called to be leaders now, in the absence of leadership.