I expect everyone has met a narcissist, though, like all personality disorders, there are degrees of severity, from the generally harmless egotistical know-it-all to the megalomaniac, who takes control of an entire nation. In between those extremes is the person who somehow self-destructs while claiming it’s everyone else’s fault. They’re the ones who are captain of the ship and totally in control, even when it runs aground, but suddenly claim it’s no longer their fault. I’m talking metaphorically, but this happened quite literally and spectacularly, a couple of years back, as most of you will remember.
The major problem with narcissists is not their self-aggrandisement and over-inflated opinion of their own worth, but their distorted view of reality.
Narcissists have a tendency to self-destruct, not on purpose, but because their view of reality, based on their overblown sense of self-justification, becomes so distorted that they lose perspective and then control, even though everyone around them can see the truth, but are generally powerless to intervene.
They are particularly disastrous in politics but are likely to rise to power when things are going badly, because they are charismatic and their self-belief becomes contagious. Someone said (I don’t know who) that when things are going badly society turns on itself – they were referring to the European witch hunts, which coincided with economic and environmental tribulations. The recent GFC creates ripe conditions for charismatic leaders to feed a population’s paranoia and promise miracle solutions with no basis in rationality. Look at what happened in Europe following the Great Depression of the 20th Century: World War 2. And who started it? Probably the most famous narcissist in recent history. The key element that they have in common with the aforementioned witch-hunters is that they can find someone to blame and, frighteningly, they are believed.
Narcissists make excellent villains as I’ve demonstrated in my own fiction. But one must be careful of whom we demonise lest we become as spiteful and destructive as those we wish not to emulate. Seriously, we should not take them seriously; then all their self-importance and self-aggrandisement becomes comical. Unfortunately, they tend to divide society between those who see themselves as victims and those who see the purported culprits as the victims. In other words, they divide nations when they should be uniting them.
But there are exceptions. Having read Steve Jobs’ biography (by Walter Isaacson) I would say he had narcissistic tendencies, yet he was eminently successful. Many people have commented on his ‘reality-distortion field’, which I’ve already argued is a narcissistic trait, and he could be very egotistical at times, according to anecdotal evidence. Yet he could form deep relationships despite being very contrary in his dealings with his colleagues – building them up one moment and tearing them down the next. But Jobs was driven to strive for perfection, both aesthetically and functionally, and he sought out people who had the same aspiration. He was, of course, extraordinarily charismatic, intelligent and somewhat eccentric. He was a Buddhist, which may have tempered his narcissistic tendencies; but I’m just speculating – I never met him or worked with him – I just used and admired his products like many others. Anyway, I would cite Jobs as an example of a narcissist who broke the mould – he didn’t self-destruct, quite the opposite, in fact.