Lately, the words “narcissism” and “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” have appeared in a lot of news commentary, usually bandied about without much explanation.
In the words below–while I cannot speak for him–I think Sam Keen may be referring to the most extreme forms of narcissism when he says that people who commit evil acts are on a deep, unconscious level motivated by a need for ego-aggrandizement or self-importance. In effect to matter, for our existence to have meaning, some impact. How we experience “self”–thus our self-image and self-esteem–is vital to our sense of “being” in the world, particularly as individuals in relationship to others, including from infancy onward.
There is healthy narcissism, and there is pathological narcissism, on a continuum from very positive to very negative. While self-confidence and pride are good qualities, self-righteousness and a need to win or to dominate can lead to harming others and authoritarian superiority. When our earliest experiences are not adequately positive to build a strong, integrated sense of our body/mind/spirit personhood, self-esteem is poor and the ego is fragile. Tragically, trying to preserve that fragile “self”–especially if feeling threatened or seemingly pushed into a corner–can result in lashing out in pretty awful ways, including cruelty and abuse.
People who fit the mental health diagnosis known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder can, to greater or lesser degrees, manifest the most negative and pathological of such attitudes and behaviors, probably because those with NPD exhibit little or no empathy for other people. Taken to the absolute extreme, this lack of empathy leads to the absence of concern or caring for human pain and suffering seen in sociopaths, even to such individual’s enjoyment of inflicting pain on others.
History gives us many examples, some of the worst among them Adolf Hitler, Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele and other Nazis of the Third Reich. It is indeed appalling to think that these men were possibly motivated, on a very deep, unconscious level, to commit heinous atrocities and other crimes against humanity because they were seeking to feel good about themselves. That seems absurd, doesn’t it? But sadly, the human psyche is capable of such horrific turns and twists.
I don’t know if narcissism is the origin of evil, but it is interesting to contemplate, and certainly points to the importance of providing children a positive, nurturing environment in which to grow up and flourish. And needless to say, it underscores the importance of putting an end to all the physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional abuse that so much damages or destroys the sense of self of so many. At worst, monsters create monsters.