©2022 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
High Conflict Institute is committed to understanding high conflict personalities and training people for the peaceful resolution of conflicts. We are aghast at the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin and our hearts go out to the people of Ukraine.
What kind of personality would promote such heartless, destructive action against a people who have done him no harm? There is a special kind of personality that this suggests, which is the most dangerous and untreatable condition, according to the highly regarded Otto Kernberg, a psychoanalyst who studied this condition for most of his life and helped define it: malignant narcissism.
This personality may look unhinged at times, but someone with this personality grows more and more dangerous with time and must be understood in order to stop him. While I should not diagnose someone I have never met, I feel that we must now operate on the likelihood that Putin has this personality and is revealing who he always was and who he is becoming. If he has this disorder, he is entirely predictable. Put simply, he cannot stop himself from this malignancy. It grows like a cancer.
Malignant narcissism is considered a combination of:
narcissistic personality disorder;
antisocial personality traits;
Erich Fromm may have been the first to write about this as a psychologist in his 1960s book The Heart of Man: It’s Genius for Good and Evil as applying to the Egyptian Pharaohs, the Roman Caesars, Hitler, Stalin, and others. Unlike most personalities, which stay stable over a lifetime (including most personality disorders), he said malignant narcissism grows over the years. He becomes more isolated and considers everyone a danger, so he takes more and more extreme action to increase his power and ruthlessness and narcissism.
Fromm contrasts malignant narcissism with benign narcissism which may drive the person to believe their actions are extremely special and superior—and some great inventors, artists, and others have had this personality—but they limit themselves in order to get along with the world around them and to have success. On the other hand, malignant narcissists believe they are extremely special and superior individuals because of inherent qualities of who they are as a person, so that anything they do is superior and justified simply because they thought of it. Therefore, malignant narcissism grows and is not self-limiting.
History tells us that it only takes one person with an extreme personality to start a war and cause the deaths of millions. Many historians say that no one wanted World War II except for Adolf Hitler. Likewise, Josef Stalin was the sole instigator of the drive to collectivize the farms of Ukraine and Russia in the 1930s, which caused the deaths by starvation of approximately five million people. As we have learned in our work with high conflict personalities in all areas of life, when there is no issue driving extreme behavior, the personality is the issue.
Here are the four parts of this personality to consider:
Narcissistic personality disorder: The traits listed in the diagnostic manual for mental health professionals (DSM-5) for narcissism include (among others):
“grandiose sense of self-importance,”
“fantasies of unlimited power,”
“requires excessive admiration,”
“lacks empathy,” and
Watch the news and consider whether he displays any of these. It appears that he is consumed by his fantasies of unlimited power, which is how he has ruled Russia over the past twenty years.
Within his first year in office in 2000, he took control of the largest and most influential television companies, the key to manipulating the news in his favor. By 2002, he gave the federal government (his government) the right to fire elected governors and reversed judicial reforms. He manipulated elections to run for repeated terms as President and prevented any serious competitors from running against him. We are not seeing a new personality in his attacks on Ukraine. He’s been working on unlimited power for many years.
Antisocial Personality Traits: According to the DSM-5, this personality disorder includes traits of:
“failure to conform to social norms,”
“reckless disregard for safety of others,” and
“lack of remorse.”
Many news reports point out Putin’s deceitfulness before invading Ukraine to the world and to the Russian people. He claimed that the Ukrainian government was a danger to Russia and Russian-speaking people in the border regions of Ukraine, and that historically Ukraine belonged to Russia.
His subsequent actions showed his clear failure to conform to international standards, such as the United Nations’ rules about respecting each other’s boundaries. His description of history to justify this attack was very inaccurate according to historians, who noted that over 90% of Ukrainians voted for independence in 1991, including a majority of those who spoke Russian. And there was no obvious indication that this invasion would benefit the people of Russia or Ukraine. There was no reported groundswell of interest in Russia for invading Ukraine. His actions showed blatant deceitfulness, aggressiveness, disregard for the safety of others, and lack of remorse.
Paranoia: This aspect of malignant narcissism seems to have been showing more recently for Putin. Reports from those who have met Putin over the years, such as French President Macron, suggest that he has severely isolated himself and fundamentally changed during the pandemic, which has caused him to be more paranoid, more aggrieved, and more reckless than just two years ago. But his actions over the twenty years of his rule show that he has always had this trait to some extent.
Sadism: This characteristic of malignant narcissism may be the most disturbing because it means that the person may actually enjoy other’s pain, rather than simply being impervious to it. The next few weeks will show how he reacts to the thousands of dead Russian soldiers and Ukrainians caused by his invasion.
Does Putin have malignant narcissism?
The reader will have to reach his or her own conclusion. But if he does, this means that he will not be self-limiting and that we are therefore witnessing an historic return to personality-based wars that will benefit no one. We should not be naïve and hopeful, as we were just a month ago.
If he has malignant narcissism, he is unlikely to stop with Ukraine but keep going as far as he can. He has always grieved the demise of the Soviet Union. Self-determination and respect for borders mean nothing to him, just as they did not when Adolf Hitler invaded European countries less than one hundred years ago after lying to the world that his military buildup was entirely defensive. Don’t expect Putin to back down until he has thoroughly gained control of Ukraine, even if it means millions of deaths and destruction of a nation. It will take a united world to put a stop to Putin’s misadventures as soon as possible, since he won’t be able to stop himself.
In response to many questions received in the comments sections and via email and social media, Bill responds here:
“Thank you for reading and thinking about this. I agree that we have malignant narcissists in our everyday lives and that people hesitate too long in recognizing them. In families, at work, and in communities, it is important to recognize that some people will be bullies regardless of their impact on others. The sooner we stop them the better.
This fits the coercive control pattern to the extreme. What can be done? The world must do everything in its power to stop such behavior, economically, politically and possibly militarily. When high conflict personalities are allowed to run free it only empowers them. They are not persuadable. We must not be naïve about this or in denial.”
BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.