Usable Insight – Know Any Sado-Narcissists?

My last living mentor, Warren Bennis, passed away on 7/31.  A few days later, there was a gathering at his home to share condolences with his widow Grace Gabe and to celebrate what Warren meant to all of us.  What was peculiar, but not surprising was Warren’s ability to make you feel so special, so what we all had in common was our love for Warren as well as the feeling of having been loved him [you can read my tribute to him at: Warren Bennis (1925-2014) - A Personal Remembrance].

At the gathering I spoke with Marty Kaplan, Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment at USC. And in a matter of fact manner he told me that in a strange way he was comforted to discover that Norman Lear, Warren and he had in common a mother that he referred to as a sado-narcissist.  Marty originated the term, which I had never heard before, and mentioned it in his recent blog, “If Norman Lear at 92 is What, I’ll Have What He’s Having,”  about Norman Lear who has recently finished his memoirs.

It immediately struck a chord regarding many parents I have heard about for 30+ years as a clinical psychiatrist.  And hearing the term, sado-narcissist, seemed both descriptive and helpful, because sometimes when you can give something a name it gives a little more feeling of control

I’m sure you can guess what it means, but in case you can’t, it’s a person who is not only self-centered and self-absorbed (the proverbial “stone you can’t get water from”), but they also take delight in hurting and demeaning you (“the stones that may break your bones” and damage the heck out of your spirit and stomp on your soul).

I told Marty to write more about it.

Does the term speak to any of you? If so, please share in the Comment section.

I re-published this blog at the TED linkedin Group, because it does seem like an Idea Worth Spreading.

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One Response to “Usable Insight – Know Any Sado-Narcissists?”

  1. Shaun R Says:

    Dear Dr Goulston,

    I have just discovered you via a network of links that started with a post on Facebook about Robin Williams. This led me to some other articles you have written (especially the Heartfelt Leadership article where you describe your experiences as a med student), which in turn have led me to this post regarding the sado-narcissist. I would like to share some of my experiences with you. Please forgive me in advance if this post is too long.

    I am not a trained therapist. However I believe I have accumulated some useful insights into motivation, thought and action over the years, so I will try to share some of those now. I apologize again in advance if the ideas I bring up are commonplace or belong elsewhere.

    First a few thoughts on the nature of categorization and personality descriptors. The clinical names of disorders and personality types provide us with a useful shorthand for defining clinical presentations as well the people we meet in our day-to-day lives. The problem, as I see it, is that tags such as these – such as sado-narcissist – have the effect of defining a person’s behavior a priori; they suggest a permanent element in the motivational structure of a psyche. I prefer to consider at least two types (there might be many more) of psychopathic personality traits; those that are enduring, and those that are contingent.

    I was married for thirteen years to someone I would describe as a contingent sado-narcissist. By this I mean that my ex-partner did not exhibit sado-narcissistic tendencies every day, or in every situation. Nor would she exhibit these tendencies to every person. Certain situations however would act as a trigger for these tendencies. I will describe a few of these situations, to give a sense of the pattern of motivation and action:

    • When I was discharged from hospital after treatment for a severe episode of pneumonia, rather than collect me from the hospital she told me to catch a taxi. Her superficial reasoning was that she did not want to disturb our sleeping children (it was 9.00pm).

    • My ex-partner ended our marriage on the first day of my teaching rounds as a trainee teacher.

    • My ex-partner left me and took our children from the family home knowing that I could not pay the mortgage or easily find somewhere to live: I was studying full-time and working part-time, and I have no extended family.

    • My ex-partner arranged for the auction of the family house on my birthday.

    • I was struck and even kicked on occasion

    I do not think it a long bow to describe these actions as sadistic. If I had been violent or incontinent in some other way, the descriptor ‘sadistic’ might be modulated to the somewhat less pejorative term ‘vengeful’; but I was neither violent nor incontinent in other ways.

    In many respects the sadist must be a narcissist by definition. A certain psychopathy must be at work for someone to inflict pain without regard for the wellbeing of the other. In a different context, my ex-partner shows strong empathic motivation – the context of our children. At least, since her attempts to dispose of me, she has shown empathy for our children. At the time of her breakdown she did not consider the damage she was inflicting on the children.

    There were certainly extenuating circumstances that informed my ex’s behavior; a family tragedy (in the context of a natural disaster) some years before; a history of substance abuse; financial difficulties and disjointed and unhappy experiences in her family of origin. But her actions towards me were conscious and deliberate – she has never received treatment (to my knowledge) for psychosis. She has however been on a course of anti-depressants, treatment for severe PMDD, which coincided with her violent dissociation from me.

    By now I think it is clear that a perfect storm of circumstances for my ex led to a raft of behaviors that could easily be characterized as sado-narcissistic. Several possible explanations could be advanced for these behaviors; pathological predisposition (PMDD), dysphoric side effects of SSRI drugs, sado-narcissistic tendencies, psychological disposition formed as a result of experiences in her family of origin, or some combination of all of these. What is clear to me is that I bore the brunt as the scapegoat (a powerful biblical metaphor) for these forces. What I am not convinced about is the permanence of the sado-narcissistic motivational element in her personality. My own personal narrative would be greatly palliated if I decided that my ex suffered from some permanent flaw. But I take the scientific view that that her actions were amplified by a confluence of circumstances, and that I played the role of scapegoat (and yes, I probably had choices about that role). Just as ordinary people sometimes act heroically under duress, others are momentarily gripped by demons instead of angels.