In the current series, we’ve been discussing why individuals with characteristics predisposing them to aggressive and egoistic personality styles have a hard time forming a sound conscience. And last week’s post (see: Conscience Development in the Aggressive Character) included a vignette of a young man whose tendencies to do first and consider things later as well as to self-direct in the absence of guidance and direction made it difficult for him to internalize the controls necessary to function in a healthy manner. But while folks with aggressive personality predispositions probably have the greatest difficulty developing a healthy conscience, those with egoistic traits have similar problems. Rather than being “at war” with a governing “higher power”as the aggressive personalities are, egoistic individuals tend to see themselves as “above” the need for such a power. They simply don’t recognize or respect the various entities in their lives capable of providing authoritative guidance, much to their own detriment and especially to the detriment to those involved with them. In today’s post, I’ll be presenting a vignette (observing the same caveats I outlined for the vignette in last week’s post) that will hopefully illustrate these points.
Brent, the Golden Child
Brent was a strikingly handsome young man. He was rather tall, had deep-blue eyes, and an award-winning smile. And he was as smart and quick-witted as he was good-looking. He was also good at a lot of things. But most of all, he knew how to wrap folks around his finger. “A real charmer” – that’s what everybody said about Brent.
The fact that Brent’s mother found it necessary to admit him to the adolescent treatment unit at the local psychiatric hospital was disheartening. She always knew her son could do just about anything he set his mind to. He was so talented. And she knew he could make straight A s in school if he really tried, especially if his classes weren’t so “boring.” But he’d been cutting class more and more lately, and had recently gotten into some trouble with the law when drugs, which he insisted belonged to a friend, were found in his car. As part of the conditions of his probation, he was required to get treatment. And while she wasn’t sure he really needed inpatient psychiatric care, she hoped his stint in the hospital might prove of some benefit.
The first time I encountered Brent, I was sitting behind him in one of the treatment unit’s “community meetings.” I observed him flicking his finger at the ear of a young man seated in front of him. The other young man was clearly annoyed, but Brent seemed to be clearly enjoying himself. After the meeting, and after introducing myself, I addressed this with Brent. It wasn’t so much what he said when he insisted he was “only having some fun” (clearly, at someone else’s expense) that impressed me so much as the casual manner in which he said it. And it would not be the last time that I observed behavior on his part that showed a lack of empathy for others or concern for the impact on others of his behavior.
As I got to know Brent and his mother, I learned a lot of things about dynamics in the family that raised a lot of red flags. Brent’s father passed away when he was fairly young. And as the only child and dearly beloved son, he was in fact the only man in his household. And to say that his mother had always put him on a pedestal would be a definite understatement. She knew how smart and talented he was. And she knew how well-liked he was. He had everything going for him. She knew that, and it made her proud. But perhaps more germane to their situation than the fact that she knew how smart, engaging, and good-looking Brent was, was the fact that he also knew it, and knew it well. Not only did he know it, but he really enjoyed flaunting it. And the more I got to know Brent the more I realized not only how he relished others fawning over him (which, unfortunately they did quite often), but also how, underneath it all, he had a fair degree of contempt for those he knew he could so easily wrap around his finger.
Brent tried to charm me, too, at least at first. And it bothered him a lot that his efforts at “impression-management” didn’t go so well. We talked a lot about recognition and respect and I made it a point to emphasize how important I thought it was to recognize only someone’s willful efforts toward pro-social behavior and my belief that respect was one of those very valuable commodities in life that rightfully needed to be earned. When Brent couldn’t get me to put him on the same pedestal others had just for being who he was, he tried to at least even the playing field by “leveling” me in status (“leveling” is one of the manipulation tactics I mention in both In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance). He attempted several times to deal with me on a first name basis (a tactic unfortunately reinforced by some members of the treatment team who, aligned with more traditional perspectives, thought it more therapeutic to engage with their clients in that manner). And he made it clear that he didn’t see the need for authoritative guidance of any kind. After all, it had always been just him and his mother for many years, and things, as he saw it, were going just fine. Besides, he already knew what he needed to do to get ahead in life and secure the things he wanted. Like his mother always said, he could do whatever he put his mind to and he just wasn’t sure just yet what he wanted to put his mind to doing. He didn’t mind failing in school because the “silly stuff” they taught there was not what he cared about anyway. He was even old enough to drop out if he wished. He did want his mother to love him but he simply wouldn’t be “lectured” by her or anyone else. He was the ultimate authority in his life and had been for a long time. And he wanted it to stay that way.
Brent’s probation requirements didn’t mandate a lengthy stay in treatment, and as soon as discharge became a possibility, he was advocating strongly for it with his mother. I cautioned his mother that only in a situation where there was some degree of power over him would the staff have the “leverage” to really confront the crucial issues. It would take a lot of time and effort, given how long certain things had probably been going on to lead Brent to the point he was at now in his character development. The lack of empathy and degree of narcissism he’d displayed on so many occasions were red flags for some big future problems. And he was nearing the age when it wouldn’t be possible to force the issue of confinement, except in extreme and probably unlikely circumstances. But Brent’s charm, persistence, and promises of great things if set free, led his somewhat unsure mother to relent and discharge him.
It would be many years before I would run into Brent again. And it happened as I was walking down a wide corridor of one of the correctional institutions I was consulting to. “Dr. Simon, Dr. Simon!,” I heard a voice echo from a distance. Then I saw someone whose face seemed familiar, waving as he approached. “Bet you remember me, don’t you?,” he said, sporting his characteristic, charming smile. After he gave his name, and his face fully registered with me, I replied: Yes, Brent, I certainly do remember you.” Then, with just a hint of sadness in his eyes but not quite enough sadness to completely negate the grin still present but slowly fading on his face, he added: “Guess I should have listened way back then, huh?”, and went his way.
Kids who have a lot going for themselves and know it well can easily get a swelled head. And, if their parents and others make the all-too-common but almost always fatal mistake of heaping recognition and praise upon them for their God-given (or, if you prefer, nature-endowed) gifts instead of the conscientious exercise of their will, they’re quite likely to end up thinking far too much of themselves. They’re also likely to have difficulty feeling empathy toward those whom they are predisposed to see as inferior to them. And they can’t form the kind of conscience we want them to form because they can barely conceive of yet alone “internalize” (i.e. incorporate into their self-image) a “higher power” or authority to govern their attitudes, thinking, and most especially, their behavior. That’s why in Character Disturbance, I stress so strongly how important it is to recognize and reinforce the only thing a child can legitimately claim credit for: the right exercise of their will. Forget the blue eyes, the smarts, the innate ability to charm. All these “gifts” come from someplace else other than the person’s heart. And it’s really unfortunate that in our culture of narcissism, these are the things that draw so much attention and adulation from others. Besides, whenever a person is willing to claim credit for things given to them, it already speaks volumes about important aspects of their character. What matters reflects the state of a person’s character development is what they will themselves to do with the gifts they’ve been given. And if, as a society, we did a better job of recognizing and reinforcing a person’s efforts toward responsible, pro-social behavior, especially during their formative years, perhaps our prisons would not be bursting at the seams with folks just like Brent.
29 thoughts on “Egotists: “Above” the Need for a Governing “Higher Power””
Very timely. Some leaders today were poisoned by that false praise.
And some of their lackeys and followers are now poisoned by taking the easy way out because it felt good at the time to believe those pretty lies.
This is a very good description of someone who was socialized to be an N.
A book called “Nurture Shock” urges parents to course-correct as you did, by praising correct use of the child’s will, instead of praising the child’s innate traits.
As far as i can tell……this is a description of what Spathtard’s upbringing was and still is about. His mother indulges his sense of entitlement. It’s disgusting and it’s child abuse in my opinion *only he is 48* LOL!! She actually told me that her (and her deceased husband’s) house IS his house because he helped build it!! LOLOLOL!!!!! So, does that mean that someone who is in the construction business has partial ownership of every house they build?? Nevermind the fact that he lived there for free, was fed for free, was enabled to live the life of a teenager for free………Right…..it’s his house. Well how special.
With my kids, I think I do OK with this. But I could do better. One thing that bugs me: My kids are pretty high achievers. And they mostly know it arises from their hard work and the amount of reading and thinking and discussing they’ve done over time. But to hear my daughter speak with disdain about her classmates who don’t similarly excel or contribute to their project groups unsettles me a bit. I think it bugs me because I have some compassion for these kids who have not necessarily been supported to apply their abilities to achieve as my kids have. On the other hand, perhaps it would be a good opportunity to make the point of Dr. Simon’s post with my daughter: “that your fellow students are variously able/talented to contribute but if they don’t apply themselves then they will not achieve, will not enjoy their achievements, and will not contribute to the various school, workplace, or other groups to which they belong.”
I wonder how other parents here might approach this with their children?
How old is she?
Chris, the other thing you might enlighten her about, maybe with an appropriate movie or book, is that some people are late bloomers, some people have difficulties in school because of unseen dynamics in their family home life, undiagnosed learning or emotional issues, etc…… Basically,,,,,,,you can’t a book by it’s cover. there are just so many things that can work against a child/ student that someone on the outside of their life could never know.
–good suggestion, Puddle. Thanks.
Hi Chris, my daughter is 11. It sometimes irks her when she is doing most of the work, too. I don’t know if this is possible for you..but I often have kids over to our house for group projects. This helps! Then we can all really see what’s going on. Would love to hear more from you on your parenting in the context of all of this. How do we raise hard-working, humble, responsible, loving, caring, genuine kids? I think that first and foremost, we just try to model the best possible behavior for them… It feels like a giant job sometimes!
I had wonderful college counselor who hammered this lesson into me: that I had to *do* school, not just passively be *smart*. I did not break the law, but I did not understand why my natural smarts did not result in good grades.
The counselor was bold and persistent with me, and halfway through a quarter my grades took a U-turn, and went back up, way up, something had clicked inside of me. (“If you want good grades, it’s hard-a** work!” He repeated it over the course of a few sessions.)
With NPD parents, everything had to be “positive”. So if you had to slow down and do homework, that was seen as “dull” or “negative” and they treated you with disdain. NPD parents even suggested it meant you were not smart if you had to study so hard. There was very little patience for employing the steps necessary to bring these wonderful results they expected.
Jeeeez Claire, between a rock and a hard place! That sounds terrible for a child. It never ceases to amaze me…….how insensitive parents can be and how clueless they are to how much damage their insensitivity is causing.
Bad or good, it just is. Many children of NPD parents can make it to age 18 in one piece. But they may stumble from there.
Many kids suffered worse, many suffered less. It is a unique affliction, it creates a lot of “stuck”ness in the adult child of NPD parents. In adult life the person may experience windows where their life starts to work correctly, and things flow, but if they do not realize that emotional abuse is abuse, and they need to keep a distance from their (seemingly loving) NPD parents, they will live very frustrating lives.
Claire………I don’t know what my parents are/ were……probably both had a serious degree of N but in different ways. My father was very self absorbed and detached emotionally and a drinker but a fun and responsible man. My mother was a domineering controlling perfectionist who tried to sculpt the entire family unit to reflect well on her. We were all props and needed to be dressed right and act right………none of us fulfilled her expectations. She led a very sad life of disappointment and shame……very lonely.
The main point of that post was positive, that I found a wonderful college counselor who taught me the message Dr. Simon emphasize in this post.
Claire, that was very fortunate for you to have that guidance and early in your life…..actually at a very important stage for your future! We need councilors like that cloned! And Dr. Simon!!
mmm. –interesting observation. I knew some students in the classroom like this. If they had to work hard it threatened their view of themselves as being innately intelligent and capable.
I remember someone telling me a LONG time ago…..I don’t remember who or when……
School is not just about what you learn (ideally) but is also about learning to do things you don’t “like” to do, basically self discipline, aka building character!!
Same with sports, there are hidden lessons when you are on a team and being led and disciplined by a coach. I had never thought about any of that and the message was pretty much lost on me until I was older and thought about it with a little more maturity under my belt.
Kind of like what we were talking about a while back with house work and chores……what used to be mundane tasks that were easily blown off in favor of something funner or more exciting (there was always SOMETHING!). But now I take satisfaction in doing those same chores and challenging myself to keep up with things like that knowing that it makes my world and environment a better place to live and seeing how it helps my brain to live in a more ordered environment.
You’ve talked before about not just avoiding the truth, but being “at war with the truth”.
My CA parent used to boast about how proud they were that “you’re responsible for creating your own reality.” CA parent would just *will* things to be true, such as “everything will be ready on time” even though things were drastically behind schedule.
Every once in a while the *real* reality would catch up with CA parent. But not often! CA parent had spent a lifetime building up a protective buffer of people the CA parent could shift responsibility to and blame to.
I wonder if you’ve seen this willful reality combined with Egotists combined with the lack of internal brakes? And could you write more about it?
Seeing your sentence “at war with the truth” explained so much to me. CA parent would insist a red door was *not* red, just to exercise that *will* muscle of creating CA parent’s own reality. It was bizarre, and a difficult condition to grow up with.
Thanks very much for the suggestion, Claire. I will definitely craft something more in depth about this.
Another thing is, these CA people cannot pass up a short-term “win” even if it means they’ll ruin their lives in the (not very) long run.
I see it again and again, people abandon them because they’re not treated well, teh CA is once again really lonely. But they do NOT modify their behavior. They just cannot pass up the opportunity to score a short-term win.
For what I know of these kinds of people by having met a few, seen some in action and read about them, I get the impression that they can dwell on self-pity, because it helps them avoid the “vile, torturous, soul-crushingly icky” task of taking responsibility.
(not quoting anyone in specific; just my impressions; I also am not sure if irony would work here, so that’s why I put it in quotes)
I think we just need to encourage them to embrace God. Some do not feel sorry for themselves, they just feel entitled. The end. They take advantage of people because they can. Not because of self-pity, but because they just feel like it.
Yes Claire, I think their self pity is just another act….like their supposed “anger”. Just another tool in their manipulation tool box.
you know, Spathtardx’s anger was like someone who picked up a rifle to shoot a prize buck. He didn’t just grab the gun and fire a shot off into the air, he picked up the gun , looked through the scope, regulated his breathing and then slowly and carefully squeezed the trigger. BULLSEYE!
I’m not trying to say they’d be any better people if they didn’t engage in hard-luck thinking. It’s just another way of telling themselves “they don’t need to take responsibility for their actions”.
J, What I observed with Spathtard was that he really didn’t feel sorry for himself, he simply felt entitled to do or not to do at his choosing. I know he was very intelligent and I remember him telling me that he was always “in trouble” with one of his math teachers because he never did his homework. but she liked him and i’m sure he charmed her into allowing him to get away with things. Intelligent…….so what. Sure it helps a person succeed in life and makes certain things in life easier but to me character is the most important thing a person has going for them and someone who toys with and manipulates and uses a woman sure doesn’t have much character and never will.
You can count on him…….to screw you over.
I think they simply never feel compelled to take responsibility in the first place. So they never need to rationalize it away, because there is nothing there to rationalize away.
Perhaps when they actually face some consequences for their actions, they may pity themselves for the embarrassment of being found out. Some may more readily shrug it off, but still feel very sour that they might be on the losing end very soon.
Reading the opening comments by Dr. Simon brought my mind to this particular story http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/9221947/Jewellers-son-boasted-he-could-kill-girlfriend-and-still-come-out-of-jail-a-millionaire.html, which made big news in the UK at the time. Not only did this particular ‘Brent’ suffer as a result of his actions……so did his parents.
A very useful reminder. I have always tried to encouraged my children to understand and make a distinction between the gifts or talents they were born with (of which one should assign the right level of respect)…..as well as those they will have to work hard to achieve. It can be difficult because we are living amongst a tidal wave of messages reminding us that children will do better when they receive encouragement. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, the determination should not be to go overboard and encourage, or worse still reward, mediocrity or even bad/poor behaviour. Sadly, I see many parents who get this hideously wrong.