As a psychologist/author (or psycho author), I'm starting a series of posts today about using psychological diagnosis to assist the development of your characters. The typical layperson is probably more familiar with diagnoses like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, etc. -- what mental health professionals refer to as "Axis I" disorders. However, I'll focus on personality disorders, known as "Axis II".
Personality disorders are clinical syndromes with enduring patterns of inner experience and interactions with the world, with a typical age of onset in late adolescence or adulthood. Because these patterns are inflexible and interwoven into an individual's personality, they are more difficult to treat. The DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition) lists ten personality disorders. I plan to cover a few of my favorites, starting with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
The Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as "a pattern of grandiosity (exaggerated claims of talents, importance, or specialness) in the patient's private fantasies or outward behavior; a need for constant admiration from others; and a lack of empathy for others."
The diagnosis refers to the Greek myth of Narcissus, a hunter with unparalleled beauty and pride. When he scorned the love of others, the gods punished him. Narcissus became entranced by his reflection in a pool of water, so much so that he was unable to leave and slowly pined away by the water until his death.
The lack of reflection (aka empathy) is so important to the development of this disorder. As children, we need empathy from our parents/caregivers. Here are some examples of empathic parents:
Child: "This is so unfair!"
Parent: "You're disappointed about this (and it's still going to happen)."
Child: "I hate you."
Parent: "You're angry with me."
Child: "I can fly!"
Parent: "You're so happy you believe you can fly!" (hopefully the child's not close to a ledge at this point).
The reflection provided above can teach children to label and accept their emotions, and to connect with others through expressing their emotions. What happens when parents repeatedly fail to provide empathy? At its most severe (neglect and abuse), narcissim can develop.
Child: "This is so unfair!"
Parent: "This is perfectly fair, stupid. How dare you complain about this when I'm taking time out of my busy schedule to make this happen. You kids just take and take, and don't care at all about what I've got on my plate."
Parent: "Stop that crying this instant, you little baby! Put a smile on that face or you'll be in big trouble."
How can a child provide empathy for others when he's never received it himself? As an adult he will constantly search for what's missing--that reflection and validation from others. He will build a carefully constructed outer shell that is egotistical and entitled. He will demand that others admire him. Naturally, others will feel frustrated by his apparent egotism and lack of caring, and will eventually shun him. When this happens, the outer hard shell crumbles, revealing an extremely insecure core. The narcissist is quite vulnerable to deep depression at this point.
Narcissists might pursue careers like acting and professional sports. They are likely drawn to acting since it provides that mirror they so desperately seek. Some actors may only feel whole when the audience is cheering and the paparazzi are snapping photos. Likewise, fans adore elite athletes, giving them a pass on misbehavior, as long as the athletes continue performing well.
I'm currently writing a story featuring a narcissist. He's a highly demanding boss and his underlings fear him more than respect him, making fun of him behind his back. When he's angry, he expects everyone to cater to his needs, and he is physically abusive to his children. His wife tolerates this ridiculous behavior because she has some features of Dependent Personality Disorder herself. (It's even more stimulating to create a romance based on several personality disorders!)
Thinking of fictional narcissists, Colonel Nathan Jessup from A Few Good Men comes to mind:
Eek! Do you have any characters with narcissistic traits? I hope this post is helpful to you in your characterization. What other psychological disorders would you like to learn about?
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