Donald Trump and the Narcissistic Illusion of Grandiosity

Donald Trump has grown an empire of wealth and power, but is it enough? He admits that it isn’t the money that motivates him (The Art of the Deal, 1987). What drives narcissists are their fears of feeling weak, vulnerable, or inferior. Consequently, for male narcissists in particular, achieving power is their highest value at any cost. Trump is “certain about what he wants and sets out to get it, no holds barred” (Trump on Trump).

There is great disparity between what narcissists show the world and what goes on inside. Despite their big egos, they’re frightened and fragile just the opposite of their grandiose, powerful façade. They must work hard to keep up their image, not only for others, but for themselves. In fact, their immodesty and exaggerated self-importance are commensurate with their hidden shame. Shame is paradoxical in that it hides behind false pride. Its defenses of arrogance and contempt, envy and aggression, and denial and projection all serve to inflate and compensate for a weak, immature self. Like all bullies, the greater their defensive aggression, the greater is their insecurity.

Shame fuels their needs for admiration, attention, and respect. “If I get my name in the paper, if people pay attention, that’s what matters” (Donald Trump: Master Apprentice, 2005). Trump wants “total recognition” as when “Nigerians on the street corners who don’t speak a word of English, say, ‘Trump! Trump!’” (New Yorker, May 19, 1997). Praise and success never fill a narcissist’s inner emptiness, nor compensate for deep-seated feelings of inadequacy.

To gain recognition and validation of their worth, narcissists brag and exaggerate the truth. They imagine themselves to be more special – more desirable, more intelligent, more powerful, more invincible – than others. “Some people would say I’m very, very, very intelligent” (Fortune, April 3, 2000). “My I.Q. is one of the highest!” (Twitter, May 8, 2013). “All the women on ‘The Apprentice’ flirted with me  – consciously or unconsciously” (How to Get Rich, 2004). “It’s very hard for them to attack me on looks, because I’m so good-looking” (NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Aug. 9, 2015). Trump announced his grandiose, unrealistic ambitions to Scott Pelley to force businesses to close foreign plants, to compel the Chinese to devalue their currency, and to build a cheap, impenetrable wall paid for by Mexico. (Estimates are $28 billion a year.)

It’s all or nothing with narcissists. For Donald Trump, there are winners, like himself (TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald, 2005), and losers, and he “doesn’t like to lose” (New York Times, Aug. 7, 1983). “Show me someone without an ego, and I’ll show you a loser” (Facebook, Dec. 9, 2013). Trump must stay on top and thrives on the challenge. “You learn that you’re either the toughest, meanest piece of [expletive] in the world or you just crawl into a corner … Guys that I thought were tough were nothin’” (New York magazine, Aug. 15, 1994).

Losing, failing, being second aren’t options. “Life to me is a psychological game, a series of challenges you either meet or don’t” (Playboy, March 1990). He “lies awake at night and thinks and plots” (New York magazine, Nov. 9, 1992). These high stakes make for vicious competitiveness, where offense is the best defense. “Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition” (The Art of the Deal, 1987).

Narcissists have a “my way or the highway” attitude and don’t like to hear no. Others’ limits make them feel powerless as they did as a child, which is very frightening. They can throw a childlike tantrum when others don’t comply. When their imagined omnipotence and control is challenged, they manipulate to get what they want and may punish you or make you feel guilty for turning them down.

By projecting their aggression outward, the world appears hostile and dangerous. “The world is a pretty vicious place” (Esquire, January 2004). People who are seen “as out for themselves” (Playboy, March 1990) become adversaries to defeat or control. To keep safe, they push others away, fending off threats and humiliation, and they do so aggressively. Women “are far worse than men, far more aggressive … ” (The Art of the Comeback, 1997). “You have to treat ’em like [expletive]” (New York magazine, Nov. 9, 1992). Nevertheless, narcissists are exquisitely sensitive to any sign of disrespect or imagined slight that threatens their self-concept. When Trump says, “The rich have a very low threshold for pain” (New York magazine, Feb. 11, 1985), he includes himself.

Trump learned to attack from his father, who “taught me to keep my guard up” (Esquire, January 2004). When attacked, narcissists retaliate to reverse feelings of humiliation and restore their pride. “If someone screws you, screw them back. When somebody hurts you, just go after them as viciously and as violently as you can” (How to Get Rich, 2004). “If somebody tries to push me around, he’s going to pay a price. Those people don’t come back for seconds. I don’t like being pushed around or taken advantage of” (Playboy, March 1990).

He told Scott Pelley that his father was “a tough cookie” — a strict, “no-nonsense kind of guy” (Playboy, March 1990). There are many ways parents can shame their children and instill the belief that they’re not worthy of love. Scolding feelings and needs or emphasizing high expectations convey conditional, tough love, which makes a child feel unaccepted for who they are. Sadly, the implication is that without success (or for a female narcissist, often beauty), no one would care about me. “Let’s say I was worth $10. People would say, ‘Who the [expletive] are you?’” (Washington Post, July 12, 2015). Instead, they must earn their parents’ acceptance. Ted Levine, Trump’s high school roommate, described the kind of pressure to excel that the boys were under. “He had to be better than his father. We were sent here to be the best of the best, and we knew what our job was.”

To compensate for insecurity and shame, narcissists feel superior, often expressed with disdain or contempt. Arrogance and putdowns bolster their egos by projecting the devalued parts of themselves onto others. Trump has disparagingly and publicly labeled various people a “dog,” “bimbo,” “dummy,” “grotesque,” “losers,” or “morons.” Narcissists’ invectives are made worse by their lack of empathy, which enables them to see people as two-dimensional objects to meet their needs. “It really doesn’t matter what they write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of [expletive]” (Esquire, 1991). Objectifying others demonstrates how insensitively they were treated growing up.

“Not the quarry, but the chase; not the trophy, but the race” inspires Trump. “The same assets that excite me in the chase, often, once they are acquired, leave me bored. For me … the important thing is the getting, not the having” (Surviving at the Top, 1990). Conquest and winning reaffirm a narcissist’s power. “It’s all in the hunt and once you get it, it loses some of its energy. I think competitive, successful men feel that way about women”.

Victory also bolsters unexpressed feelings of insufficiency. Trump so hinted, saying, “Oftentimes when I was sleeping with one of the top women in the world I would say to myself, thinking about me as a boy from Queens, ‘Can you believe what I am getting?’” (Think Big: Make it Happen in Business and Life, 2008).

However, power and love don’t easily coexist. “Intimacy requires vulnerability, letting down one’s guard and being authentic to get close emotionally — all signs of weakness that are frightening and abhorrent to a narcissist. Rather than give up power and control, which risk exposure of their false persona, many narcissists have short relationships or are distancers when more than sex is anticipated”

Love relationships are about connecting — something herculean for a narcissist. “For me, business comes easier than relationships” (Esquire, January 2004). “I’m married to my business. It’s been a marriage of love. So, for a woman, frankly, it’s not easy in terms of relationships” (New York magazine, Dec. 13, 2004). “I was bored when she (Marla) was walking down the aisle. I kept thinking: What the hell am I doing here? I was so deep into my business stuff. I couldn’t think of anything else”.

Dysthymic Disorder and Codependency

Stressed businesswomanDysthymia or chronic depression is a common symptom of codependency; however, many codependents aren’t aware that they’re depressed. Because the symptoms are mild, most people with chronic depression wait ten years before seeking treatment.Dysthymia doesn’t usually impair daily functioning, but it can make life feel empty and joyless. In the Shadow Sufferers have a diminished capacity to experience pleasure and may withdraw from stressful or challenging activities. Their emotions are dulled, though they may feel sad or melancholy or be irritable and anger easily. Unlike with major depression, they’re not incapacitated, yet they may have difficulty trying new things, socializing, and advancing in their career. Some may believe that their lack of drive and negative mood is part of their personality, rather than that they have an illness. Like codependency, dysthymia causes changes in thinking, feelings, behavior, and physical well-being.

Dysthymia was renamed “persistent depressive disorder” in the 2013 edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual V. (I use the terms “dysthymia,” “persistent depressive disorder,” and “chronic depression” interchangeably.) Symptoms must have persisted for at least two years (one year for children and teens) and includes at least two of the following:
• Low energy or fatigue
• Sleep disturbances
• Increased or decreased appetite
• Irritable or angered easily (for children and teens)
• Low self-esteem
• Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
• Feeling hopeless or pessimistic

The symptoms must create significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, educational or other important areas of functioning. Although mood remains persistently “down,” it may improve for several weeks of feeling better. Untreated, depression soon returns for longer periods. People are usually motivated to seek help in order to cope with a relationship or work problem or a major loss that triggers more intense symptoms. When they rise to the level of major depression, which can often occur in people with dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder), the diagnosis is “double depression” – major depression on top of dysthymia. Unlike chronic depression, an episode of major depression may only last a few weeks, but it makes a subsequent episode more likely.

Persistent depressive disorder affects approximately 5.4 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older. The numbers may be much higher, since it often goes undiagnosed and untreated. Over half of dysthymic patients have a chronic illness or another psychological diagnosis, such as anxiety or drug or alcohol addiction. Dysthymia is more common in women (as is major depression) and after divorce. There may not be an identifiable trigger; however, in cases of onset in childhood or adolescence, research suggests that there is a genetic component.

Although stress can be a factor in depression, some people don’t experience a life event that triggered their depression. There are individuals with chronic depression who blame their mood on their relationship or work, not realizing that their outer circumstances are only exacerbating an internal problem. For example, they may believe that they will feel fine when they achieve a goal or when a loved one changes or returns their love. They’re unaware that the real cause is that they’re striving to prove themselves to compensate for feeling inadequate, or that they have no life of their own, have sacrificed self-care for someone else, or that they feel unlovable and worthy of love. They don’t realize that their depression and emptiness stem from their childhood and codependency.

Codependents, by nature of their addiction to people, substances, or compulsive processes, lose touch with their innate self. This drains their vitality and over time is a source of depression. Denial, the hallmark of addiction, can also lead to depression. Codependents deny their feelings and needs. They also deny problems and abuse and try to control things that they can’t, which add to feelings of hopelessness about their life circumstances. Other codependent symptoms, such as shame, intimacy issues, and lack of assertiveness contribute to chronic depression. Internalized shame from abuse or emotional abandonment in childhood causes low self-esteem and can lead to depression. Untreated, codependency worsens over time, and feelings of hopelessness and despair deepen.

Codependency and depression can be caused by growing up in a dysfunctional family that’s marked by abuse, control, conflict, emotional abandonment, divorce, or illness. The Ace Study demonstrated that adverse childhood experiences lead to chronic depression in adulthood. All subjects with a score of five or more were taking anti-depressants fifty years later. Other causes of dysthymia are isolation, stress, and lack of social support. (Research shows that people in abusive relationships aren’t likely to disclose it.)

Psychotherapy is the treatment of choice. It is more effective when combined with antidepressant medication. Cognitive therapy has been shown to be effective be eliminating negative thinking to prevent recurrence of depressive symptoms. It may mean healing trauma and PTSD from prior abuse.

In addition, patients need to develop better coping skills, heal the root cause, and change false shame-based beliefs that lead to feelings of inadequacy and unlovability. Goals should be to increase self-esteem and confidence, self-efficacy, assertiveness, and restructuring of dysfunctional thinking and relationship patterns. Group therapy or support groups, such as Codependents Anonymous or other Twelve-Step Program are effective adjuncts to psychotherapy. Lifestyle changes, such as exercise, maintaining healthy sleep habits, and participating in classes or group activities to overcome isolation are also ameliorative.
©Darlene Lancer 2015