As I watched GOP candidate Herman Cain on TV in his latest encounter with the press this morning, I was struck by one small thing. Not that he was refusing to answer questions about his alleged sexual misconduct with employees, not that he had a negative “attitude” toward the press who were crowding in on him as he exited a speaking engagement, not that his personal security guards were aggressive in shoving the reporters out of the way so that he could even walk through the crush.
I was struck by what he said to the reporters. Instead of saying that he was refusing to answer any questions about the harassment issue or simply stating that he would not comment on that, he TOLD the reporters not to go there! He ordered them to leave that topic alone. When they ignored his order and asked pointed questions about it anyway, he then scolded them angrily. After that he expressed his irritation and that is what the media seem to have seized on, his irritability.
Why do I find this interesting? Because it is a subtle glimpse of the narcissistic world view of someone who is a big shot celebrity, politician, or other powerful figure. He seems to have felt that he had a perfect right to tell a group of media reporters what to do or not do. Furthermore he seems to have felt that he had a right to be angry if they did not do what he told them. A narcissist has trouble behaving as though other people exist. A narcissist is grandiose, with an attitude of over-entitlement and a need to have all those around him reflect his own wonderfulness back to him. When this doesn’t happen, he is cut to the quick; this is the “narcissistic vulnerability”. This in turn can result in rage, rage that is turned outward in contempt for others and sometimes in the extreme, inward in a fit of despondency.
The level of over-entitlement inherent in narcissism is obviously conducive to all manner of self-centered and opportunistic behavior including exploitive sexual behavior. The lack of awareness of other people’s needs promotes a lack of accountability and explains the seemingly delusional attitude of the politician caught in sexual misconduct, the attitude of not “getting it.”
There has been an interesting kind of chicken-and-egg debate recently about what has come to be called “acquired situational narcissism”. In other words, does the person in power become narcissistic as a result of having been treated like the world revolves around them, or do they choose to try to become a rock star, politician, or, yes, even powerful clergyman because they already have the need to be the center of the universe in order to feel OK about themselves. Probably the best argument I’ve heard is that basically the person started out narcissistic and got even worse when they became more powerful.
Clinicians who work with patients who engage in sexually compulsive or risky behavior are well aware that narcissistic traits are par for the course, equally in the famous and the humble. This only suggests as has been argued by James Masterson MD, who has written extensively on narcissism, that some people are just better at being narcissists, i.e. getting where they want to be, than others. Certainly not all narcissistic people will become sex addicts. But whether it is acquired or there to begin with, the extreme self focus of the narcissist and their lack of empathy and tendency to see themselves as exceptional will set the stage for sexual behavior that violates the normal boundaries. It is not hard to see the potentially addictive nature of fame and adulation coupled with unfettered sexual gratification. This is a potent cocktail.