Tony – not his real name – was a gifted writer.
I cannot take that away from him. He had the chops. He could have made a great name for himself, but for one major shortcoming: Tony could not get along with other human beings at all.
To put it bluntly, he was the most insufferable person I have ever met.
As someone – I have forgotten who – once said of former President Lyndon Johnson: “Every man who runs for President has to have a liberal coating of ego. But Johnson’s been double-dipped.”
That was true of Tony, also.
Carting a preposterously puffed-up sense of self worth, Tony assumed that the perfection only he saw in himself had laid in his hands a blade to eviscerate all lesser human beings. It licensed him to cast the most vile insults into your teeth, and if you had the temerity to object, he’d reply with a smug, smack-inviting smile: “If you can’t take the criticism, that’s because you are unprofessional.”
One night Tony asked me what had gone wrong in my head that gave me the silly idea that I could be a reporter and writer. Here’s that brief conversation:
Me: “Well, I had a teacher-advisor who praised my – ”
Tony: “He was an idiot. Anyone else?”
Me. “Well, this former employer – ”
Tony: “Guy was a jerk. Anyone else?”
Mind you, I didn’t get to finish what I was saying, and Tony had never met either of the people I mentioned. Yet, in his mind, as the final arbiter of what was good and what was trash, I was trash, full stop.
It never occurred to Tony that I or anyone else might not accept the crown he’d placed upon his own head, and meekly, humbly, cheerfully submit to the gutting. No, if he tossed and gored you, I suspect the proper response in his mind would have been for you to thank him for the gushing wounds, and then slink away without a yawp.
What I couldn’t get across to him — I tried — is that you can be the best on the planet at what you do, but if you can’t get along with other human beings, you won’t get anywhere. And if you can’t accept even the mildest correction or advice, you will never learn a thing, and you will never grow.
Tony likewise displayed a trait I have since observed to a lesser degree in others who share some of the characteristics I described above: not only a gigantic ego, but an ego that was at the same time brittle and fragile. He would scream at the slightest critique of his work. Okay, scream is not nearly a strong enough word. Better to say he erupted with such over-the-top, ear-splitting rage that I’d bet others heard his bellowing blocks away.
Tony also boasted about how attracted women were to — his words, not mine — the “pile chested, thick-muscled, close-cropped, clean-shaven, all American he-man” he proclaimed himself to be. Yet, at the same time, he dripped venomous contempt for their intelligence: “You reason well, for a female,” he told one woman.
Can’t be certain, but with lines like that, I suspect the guy’s love life was a fizzle.
I don’t trust people who can’t laugh at themselves, and Tony absolutely could not. I have observed that the more inflated one’s ego is, the easier that ego is to wound because it’s hanging out in all directions where anyone can stumble over it. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Satan fell by force of gravity” — that is, by being grave, by taking himself too seriously.
After five days on the job and threats from staff to quit en masse unless Tony made a hasty exit, the company fired him. It must have been a helluva blow to his inflated ego to be booted from a small-town paper, as he threatened to come back and kill everyone.
Clearly, the guy needed help, but Tony was the last person on Earth who would ever seek it. Why should he? Tony was never wrong. Other people made mistakes, not Tony. Tony was perfection.
So why am I dwelling on this guy?
Because I believe that with all the talk about narcissistic personality disorder these days (NPD), it’s good to stop and consider what that means.
Before I get to talking about that, let me offer one thing that narcissism is not. Narcissism is not the same thing as self-confidence, which is associated with a strong sense of self. Narcissists believe that they are “special,” and only other special or high-status people or institutions can understand them.
So, what does the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders have to say about NPD? To be diagnosed with NPD, according to the manual, a person must display at least five of the following traits:
A grandiose sense of self-importance;
A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love;
A lifelong pattern of exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive craving for admiration, and a diminished ability to empathize, recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others;
A weak sense of self, and excessive intolerance of criticism;
A demand for excessive admiration, and a sense of entitlement, with unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with their expectations;
Taking advantage of others to achieve their own ends;
Envying others or believing that others are envious of them, and displaying arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
By these standards, Tony was certainly a narcissist, but what’s more, he came as close as anyone I’ve ever known to meeting the definition of Fromm’s “Syndrome of Decay,” and Peck’s description of the evil personality type, as the latter delineated it in his 1983 book, “People of the Lie: Hope for Healing Human Evil.”
Let me emphasize, I don’t want to say Tony was evil. I am not a psychiatrist, and I don’t have the standing to make such a judgement.
Also, most of us at some time in our lives will display one or two of those characteristics, so don’t go off on Uncle Joe for being in love with himself.
It may be rare to meet people like Tony, but they’re out there. And given their brittle egos, it’s best to be wary of them. They can explode.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.