Essay

Transforming the Psychopath and Narcissist Within

By Duff McDuffee on July 27th, 2011 1

Babies are neither born innocent creatures nor sinful ones, but both, or perhaps neither. Any honest parent will agree upon observing their child go from hugging and kissing a sibling to slapping them unprovoked in seconds. Certainly by the age of two children are both sweet little angels and skillful manipulators, hence the “terrible twos.” It’s surprising to me that such romantic notions still exist about children’s innocence since this view can be so easily removed by babysitting a couple toddlers for a few hours.

Kids’ board games often emphasize the enjoyment found in other people’s misery. Take the game Sorry! in which one pretends to be sorry when landing on an opponent’s piece, thus sending it back to the start and gaining a competitive advantage. Sorry! encapsulates a universal human experience—delight in causing another misery coupled with pretending to not feel such delight. This experience is so common that the apology in the game of Sorry! is obvious in its insincerity to the point of sarcasm. It’s a “sorry! (ha ha)” that recognizes one’s gain at another’s loss.

Another common human experience is to delight in causing others misery and then feeling guilt in response to one’s delight. Some sensitive modern kids feel bad when playing Sorry! with their parents or friends. They will first say “sorry” in the sarcastic way, but then quickly switch to a more sincere-sounding “sorry” and an explanation of how it is “only a game” or “you’ll probably win next time,” thus all players will eventually get to feel the pleasure of causing others’ pain!

Some parents and teachers also attempt to move away from such competitive zero-sum games that emphasize joy in winning at the expense of another’s agony of defeat. One commonly criticized way of doing so is to keep the rules of game the same, say softball, but to reward all participants for something. For instance a poorly behaved player with low skills may receive an award for “most improved.” As a middle-schooler I was an uncoordinated softball player and distinctly remember winning an award at the end of the season for “most bubble gum chewed.” I’m not sure which is worse—simply being an uncoordinated loser, or being singled out from all players on the team for one’s quantity of gum-chewing…even more so because my friend won the award for “best bubble blower”—I wasn’t even good enough at blowing bubbles with my gum, something that we frequently competed over.

No doubt the adult coaches found themselves in a similar dilemma as the sensitive child playing Sorry! with their parents. On the one hand I was a terrible player (in part due to a rapid growth spurt), was mostly made fun of and bullied by the other kids, and had major authority issues to boot, so I spent most of my time chewing the gum that was always available when we played. But on the other hand I was a likeable enough kid and the adults wanted to be nice and supportive so that all the kids would thrive. The attempt to be nice and focus on something positive in each player was in conflict with the irritation the adults no doubt felt with me and the fact that I was by far the worst player on the team. I can imagine that they took pleasure in presenting me with their facetious award for “most bubble gum chewed” in a similar way that someone feels pleasure when saying “sorry” in the board game of the same name. But since it was technically an “award,” they could assuage their guilt in the pleasure they took in giving me the insulting award.

Rewarding all kids for participating and saying things like “everyone’s a winner” is frequently cited as causing narcissism and inflated self-concept in children. I certainly was not fooled into thinking I was a great softball player or a valuable member of the team upon receiving my award for gum consumption. However, I do remember feeling surprised by receiving something, some acknowledgement of my existence from adults, even if it was a joke at my expense. While I sucked at sports and social interaction, at least I was good at gum chewing! At the time it was difficult for me to see anything positive about myself at all besides a talent in math, which mostly got me made fun of and beat up. The fact that some adults were willing to see something positive about me—even if faked—was genuinely helpful.

On the one hand, competitive zero-sum games like Sorry! or even softball encourage taking delight in causing misery, but on the other hand they allow this universal human experience a safe and relatively harmless outlet. Delight in causing harm to others is the basis for what makes someone a psychopath, but it’s a matter of “to what extent.” If you’ve read Beyond Growth in the past, for many months I was negatively fascinated (i.e. disgusted and compelled) with psychopaths and narcissists and wrote numerous articles about this topic. It is obvious in hindsight that this repetition compulsion was due to having internalized abuse from some young psychopaths/narcissists in my own past combined with not dealing with my own psychopath or narcissist within.

Core Transformation has been the most helpful technique I’ve encountered in not only getting to know such inner parts of my experience, but also actually transforming them. It’s not good enough in my opinion to simply get to know parts of me that delight in causing harm, for I absolutely do not want to abuse others in the way I was abused. But it is also not enough to simply call others psychopaths and narcissists and not recognize the pleasure I experience in having power over or harming others. Just as saying “I’m not a racist but…” is nearly always a lie, so in the same way is saying “so-and-so is a psychopath” and not acknowledging one’s own pleasure in another’s pain. For example, I and many others have taken pleasure in seeing James Arthur Ray convicted of homicide. Some have gone further and and secretly (or not so secretly) taken pleasure in imagining him to be subject to the abuse of prison rape (as many comments online have joked about). We should be careful not to confuse justice with vengeance.

Recently I’ve begun exploring more parts of myself with Core Transformation that delight in the misery of others. It’s a dark and disturbing thing to look at, very difficult to face within myself as I’ve always had an identity of being a “good person.” One part of me had something like the following desires (each one more important than the previous):

  • to control others
  • to make or force people to do what I want
  • to have all my desires fulfilled
  • Peace

Obviously going about it in this order is a problem for multiple reasons. One is the harm involved in controlling and forcing others to do what I want, which even if that worked wouldn’t necessarily fulfill all my desires, and desires are endless thus fulfilling them isn’t such a good strategy for reaching peace. Much better is to just live from a state of being of Peace, and by doing so I don’t have to fulfill all my desires, controlling others doesn’t make sense and in fact compassion for others spontaneously arises (and sadness that I desired to control others).

Granted, I didn’t live out this part of me in a gross and harmful fashion like James Arthur Ray at his deadly sweat lodge. But even so, these dark desires are part of our human experience too—they do not only belong to those “other” people who are psychopaths and narcissists, racists and bigots. We are all these things to some extent (and yes, extent matters), so we can all do better by really diving deep into understanding the root causes of these experiences and desires, thus transforming the psychopath and narcissist within. Note too that the outcome “to have all my desires fulfilled” is a common theme both in personal development marketing and amongst narcissists!

So should we stop playing zero-sum games like Sorry! and softball? I don’t think so. Competitive games bring out what’s already there, the psychopathic anti-social aspects of ourselves. But it’s also true that competitive games have cooperative aspects, both within a team and even between opponents, bringing out the best of each player. It doesn’t hurt to also play some cooperative, non-zero-sum games too like painting, building something together, playing music, discussing literature or movies, etc. But these cooperative games can become competitive at times too as in music auditions. Ultimately if we are to be whole human beings, we must embrace all the aspects of ourselves and our shared humanity.

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22 responses to “Transforming the Psychopath and Narcissist Within”

  1. @Mjausson says:

    "Ultimately if we are to be whole human beings, we must embrace all the aspects of ourselves and our shared humanity."

    I've been listening to Tara Brach's Radical Self Acceptance lately and she makes the same point. She sees striving for perfection as an old paradigm that is better replaced with striving toward wholeness. I agree wholeheartedly. There is actually a chance for peace with that strategy. If we're striving for perfection, we'll always fall short, in my experience.

  2. Greg Linster says:

    Your closing remark is about the best and most important of all non-zero sum games, i.e., life (not the board game).

  3. David says:

    Talking of Tara Brach and striving for wholeness … check out her itunes podcast – there's about 100 hours worth of talks for free there that I'm moving through.

  4. 32000days says:

    It's important to recognize and embrace the shadow side.

    A lot of personal development technologies are very effective at working with the positive and "motivational" sphere of things. Perhaps since much fewer people are willing to work with their dark side, except as something to fight with, avoid, and push away, there's a smaller amount of PD material available about this important area.

    However, working with, making peace with, and leveraging your less-admirable qualities is a great spiritual and psychological practice. When a person is able to make peace with these "weaknesses" he's often able to turn them around to strengths, and make valuable use of them.

    Call it psychological alchemy. The alternative to this isn't so great – denial, alienation, living inauthentically. It's better to recognize where you're out of integrity with your professed values and ideals, observe where these unwanted thoughts and behaviors are coming from, and turn them around into something useful and beneficial.

    Just before I read this posting, I had acquired the Tara Brach Radical Acceptance audio program, and have now begun listening to it. Good material so far… looking forward to listening again, more deeply.

    My recent post The power of minimalism

    • Everybody is on to Tara Brach! That's great, as I found that program really helpful too especially for that first step included in Core Transformation—turning towards and welcoming the things we have been pushing away, those dark aspects of our minds and hearts.

      Psychological alchemy is right. I think there is a lot of information about this, but it is less talked about or blogged about nowadays, whereas there are lots of people in church basements talking about such things (in AA for example), or in psychotherapy sessions. But these are confidential settings for good reason.

  5. Duff, you have probably read (or at least heard of) "The Guru Papers" by Alstad and Kramer – it wasn't really a "library" read (too complex, is on my list to buy) but there were a couple of interesting things I took from it, one of which was the section about addictions (I don't remember if they compared it to bipolar disorder or if that was my observation!)

    Anyways their point was that "bad behaviour" happens because that part of you is separated from the rest, not because the part is inherently bad. They use the terms "goodself" and "badself", where more "bad" behaviour by the badself justifies further control by the goodself, which (due to the separation) leads to even worse behaviour by the badself when it does reach the boiling point and escape the goodself's control, justifying even further control…you get the idea. They were talking about addictions but I was thinking, this basically describes anybody.

    (cont'd)
    My recent post Criteria for Evaluating Service Providers

    • Yes, that's an extremely common dynamic especially in addictions. Often a step forward is for the addict to release excessive feelings of guilt. Guilt's positive purpose is to get us back on track, but excessive guilt in the context of addiction (i.e. the superego in Freudian terms) becomes the reason to then indulge in the addictive behavior, to get away from the feelings of guilt.

  6. They also say that the Freudian division between superego/ego/id is actually more a product of repressive Victorian morality of the time the theory was created than the nature of the human mind.

    So here is my theory. It is influenced by a few things I've read and my own experience. "Growth" is a process of maintaining (or returning to) homeostasis and equilibrium despite new energies and influences coming into the system. "Trauma" occurs when too much new energy/stimulus comes in (metaphor: a twig of wood can bend, but bend it too far and it snaps).

    The child's nervous system cannot handle swinging quite as far out of homeostasis temporarily as the mature (read: someone who's done their healing work) adult. "Bad" behaviour occurs when one is on the brink of going too far out of homeostasis/equilibrium, to prevent one from doing so.
    My recent post Criteria for Evaluating Service Providers

    • My model is less about trauma and blocked physical energies and more about "learnings"—how we resourceful, adaptable creatures learned successfully to deal with our difficult situations growing up in imperfect environments. This way of looking at things sees that people aren't broken but actually function quite well, but often come up with strategies (usually at a young age) that don't work so well. Luckily, those same learnings can be useful if applied in a different context or in a different way.

  7. And it is the mature adult's job to sort of smooth out the route back to equilibrium for the child when the child is behaving "badly". Of course that's in an ideal state, which is often not the case for numerous reasons that I'm sure you can think of.

    So those of us who didn't have that kind of help (or had it inconsistently, or didn't have it at a crucial moment) can experience that energy that we don't know how to move (in my belief and experience) literally get stuck in the body as physical tension. For example there's a type of therapy called Somatic Experiencing – the website has a convincing explanation of how this happens.
    My recent post Criteria for Evaluating Service Providers

    • Somatic psychotherapies tend (unsurprisingly) to explain everything somatically, whereas when I'm working with a client, people will tell you how they create their problem: either visually, auditorily, or kinesthetically. For instance it is quite common that people experience traumatic memories visually, as in remembering a visual memory of something horrible happening, then feeling bad about it. A simple process from NLP can literally give a different perspective on the situation by watching a small, black and white movie from 3rd person (or even watching yourself watching yourself watching a movie of yourself, called "double-dissociation"). Some then add a step where you rewind the movie quickly. This simple technique can be very effective in clearing up traumatic visual flashbacks in the context of a counseling or coaching session.

    • That said, somatic psychotherapies are very effective, especially if the client already experiences their problem somatically, like a "pain in the neck" or having "heartbreak."

  8. And without a doubt, that part is absolutely seen as "bad", something you feel you have to hide or can't acknowledge!! I know I did and still do sometimes! However, what I'm saying is that it's kind of unfortunate that we think it's bad or describe it as bad at all – it leads a lot of people to be reluctant to do their healing work until a crisis forces them to.
    My recent post Criteria for Evaluating Service Providers

    • I completely agree that it is unfortunate (and even incorrect!) that we think of parts of us as wrong or bad. All parts of us have positive intentions for the behaviors they engage in, even if it isn't obvious at first.

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