John Edwards, Guilty of Narcissism?

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

I’m writing this before knowing John Edwards’ verdict in North Carolina on charges of violating federal campaign laws by spending nearly $1 million of donors’ money on hiding his affair (and child) with Rielle Hunter. Whatever the outcome, he has already admitted that he is guilty of narcissism: “[My experiences] fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe you can do whatever you want.” He admitted that he had become “increasingly egocentric and narcissistic.” (abcNews, Aug. 12, 2008) I don’t diagnose people in public, but I share what others report – especially what people publicly say about themselves. He has provided a great opportunity to explain narcissism with a real life example, including what it is and what it isn’t. Narcissism in small doses can be a good thing. Narcissism in too large a dose becomes narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which can be harmful – for the person himself as well as those around him.

Narcissism helps us all get by in the face of adversity. It helps us believe in ourselves enough to keep going. We all have some of it, or we wouldn’t have survived this long. Entrepreneurs, actors, politicians and many professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.) tend to have above-average rates of narcissism, because it helps them push forward despite repeated criticism, rejection, set-backs and occasional public humiliation.

In other words, they believe in themselves so much more and in what other people think so much less, that they can survive as risk-takers – and they are risk-takers. When they have a good idea, good talent and other good qualities, this narcissism helps them contribute to society from positions of leadership and power. You want your leaders to have some extra narcissism so that they can cope in protecting us from strong enemies and leading us forward in dealing with big problems.

However, when they have a bad idea, little talent and lack sufficient redeeming qualities, this extra narcissism can get them into a lot of trouble and public humiliation. If they have narcissistic personality disorder, this means that they do not learn and change their behavior. So if they get into trouble, they can’t see that they did anything wrong and keep going. In a sense it’s like a form of self-blindness – they really can’t see the effects of their own behavior.

Does John Edwards have NPD? I don’t know, but you can watch whether he learns and changes, or keeps on the same path. Here are some characteristics of NPD. See if you think he fits:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance?

  • Fantasies of unlimited success and power?

  • Believes he’s special and unique?

  • Requires excessive admiration?

  • Sense of entitlement?

  • Interpersonally exploitative?

  • Lacks empathy?

  • Envious of others or believes others envy him?

  • Arrogant behaviors or attitudes?

About 6% of the population of the United States has narcissistic personality disorder, according to the most recent large study. This is also known as pathological narcissism or malignant narcissism. But if you recognize some of these characteristics in someone you know, DON’T TELL THEM! You will make your life a lot worse. Some people with these disorders become highly defensive and sometimes dangerous when confronted with their weaknesses or problems – for this reason they are often considered “vulnerable narcissists.” Others with this disorder truly don’t care what anyone else thinks – sometimes called “grandiose narcissists.” Many politicians seem to fit in this second type, since they truly don’t care what anyone else thinks. Yet they can be extremely charming, attractive and even intelligent.

Yes, NPD has nothing to do with intelligence, which confuses people. They wonder how someone in a position to become Vice President or President of the United States would be so stupid as to take the kinds of risks Edwards took in having an affair during a campaign – even when his wife is possibly dying from cancer. It’s because intelligence is not the issue – personality is the issue. We have had many examples recently of highly intelligent and charming politicians who have crashed and burned – or at least humiliated themselves publicly. Several governors have been kicked out of office recently. Some politicians running for president have had a hard time recognizing when to quit, despite humiliating defeats. Many of these folks are the ones most eager to judge other people.

To me, the issue is the future. How can we spot politicians with excessive narcissism or NPD before we elect them? The key is to recognize the PATTERN of behavior, even on a small scale. Lacks empathy? Sense of entitlement? Grandiose sense of self-importance? When you vote for any office this year, keep these patterns in mind. Don’t let good looks and charm mislead you. Check the list above instead.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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