The Psychopath’s Absolute Narcissism

Psychopaths suffer from the most extreme form of narcissism. Narcissists put others down, or dominate them, in order to get validation as superior to them. Usually such individuals seem to be exactly as they are: smug, snobby, self-absorbed to the point of being ridiculous. Since psychopaths wear a mask of sanity, however, their narcissism is better camouflaged, at least initially. It’s also far more acute and dangerous. Psychopaths put others down in order to crush them. No matter how charming and modest they may seem in superficial contact, their ego feeds upon the victimization of others, including–or rather, especially–their family members, spouses, lovers and children. They aren’t satisfied with simply proving their superiority. They need to also humiliate and harm those around them in order to feel empowered and superior to them.

Clinically speaking, narcissism constitutes what Hervey Cleckley calls in The Mask of Sanity a “pathological egocentricity and incapacity for love.” Narcissists are so self-absorbed that they can’t envision the needs and reactions of others. They regard others as mirrors whose main role is to reflect–and magnify–the image of their own greatness. Although psychopaths are narcissistic to an extreme, they’re also far worse than most narcissists. At least most narcissists—excluding perhaps “malignant narcissists”–can experience self-doubt. They also need love and validation from other individuals.

Psychopaths embody narcissism with a grotesque twist. They lack the depth to experience or need a personal, individuated kind of love. As Cleckley observes, “The psychopath is always distinguished by egocentricity. This is usually of a degree not seen in ordinary people and often is little short of astonishing.” (The Mask of Sanity, 347) Furthermore, unlike narcissists, who, as mentioned, often show themselves to be vain to the point of self-caricature, psychopaths don’t usually appear to be arrogant, self-absorbed or boastful. They can mask much better their grossly inflated egos, as they camouflage everything else that’s deviant and dangerous in their personalities.  They compellingly present themselves as loving, affectionate and other-regarding individuals.

However, as Cleckley notes,  “Deeper probing will always reveal a self-centeredness that is apparently unmodifiable and all but complete. This can perhaps be best expressed by stating that it is an incapacity for object love and that this incapacity (in my experience with well-marked psychopaths) appears to be absolute.” (347) Cleckley correlates object-love, or caring about another person, with the capacity to feel empathy. Without empathy, you can’t understand what others feel. You therefore don’t have a disincentive to cause them harm or pain. Conversely, you lack the incentive to make them happier. Love, or even kindness, don’t exist without empathy.

That’s not to say that psychopaths can’t experience any sort of fondness whatsoever. But their affection tends to be self-serving, fleeting and superficial. In some cases, it manifests itself as an intense, obsessive drive to possess another person. Cleckley grants that, “[The psychopath] is plainly capable of casual fondness, of likes and dislikes, and of reactions that, one might say, cause others to matter to him.” (348) He qualifies, “These affective reactions are, however, always strictly limited in degree. In durability they also vary greatly from what is normal in mankind. The term absolute is, I believe, appropriate if we apply it to any affective attitude strong and meaningful enough to be called love, that is, anything that prevails in sufficient degree and over sufficient periods to exert a major influence on behavior.” (347) Whenever they seem to be passionately in love or to experience genuine parental or filial devotion, psychopaths are faking it.

Let’s return again to the case of Neil Entwistle. Opening the door for his wife, giving her romantic gifts, posting the pictures of her and their newborn baby on a joint website, doesn’t mean anything if he’s prepared to literally sacrifice his family to his whims. To this effect, Cleckley observes, “The psychopath seldom shows anything that, if the chief facts were known, would pass even in the eyes of lay observers as object love. His absolute indifference to the financial, social, emotional, physical, and other hardships that he brings upon those for whom he professes love confirms the appraisal during psychiatric studies of his true attitude. We must, let it never be forgotten, judge a man by his actions rather than by his words.” (348) Because they can’t love others, psychopaths also lack the motivation to improve their character and behavior. Cleckley concludes, “This lack in the psychopath makes it all but impossible for an adequate emotional rapport to arise in his treatment and may be an important factor in the therapeutic failure that, in my experience, has been universal.” (348)

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

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