Whether in Parliament or the workplace, let's call out the narcissists among us
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Whether in Parliament or the workplace, let's call out the narcissists among us

Narcissistic personality disorder affects between 1 per cent and 6 per cent of the population (predominantly males), with significantly higher rates in certain subcultures.

For some, it is a severely troubling affliction, in which unattainable, grandiose expectations impair the ability to connect, contribute and thrive.

Brendan Nelson has described Malcolm Turnbull as a narcissist.

Brendan Nelson has described Malcolm Turnbull as a narcissist.Credit:Andrew Meares

For other, more accomplished narcissists, it opens doors and bolsters success in highly competitive environments.

Narcissistic personalities are characterised by an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy for others and a belief that one is "special" and should associate with high-status individuals.

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People with this personality style have a strong need for admiration, power and prestige, and are attracted to vocations that might provide these.

We see them strutting the stage in media, big business and politics, often at the top of the power hierarchy. Inflated self-regard and social confidence enables them to charm and build alliances, essential skills for cultivating power and influence.

If it is true, as Brendan Nelson purportedly claimed, that Malcolm Turnbull is a narcissist, he is in good company. According to American expert on the subject, Professor Jerrold Post, narcissism is widespread among politicians.

Our state and federal parliaments attract these individuals because they offer opportunities to bask in the spotlight, exercise power and rub shoulders with high-flyers.

One only has to observe the conduct of many of our politicians over recent years to recognise behaviours consistent with this personality type.

In the workplace, narcissists often fail to collaborate or engage in teamwork. Driven by self-interest, they make decisions they believe will boost their own standing, regardless of the common good.

Grossly overestimating their intelligence and abilities, narcissistic individuals may fail to consult, and consequently make poor decisions. When the praise and admiration they expect is not forthcoming, they become angry and disdainful.

Criticism or lack of appreciation will trigger intense emotional reactions – the "narcissistic injury" typically prompts rage, revenge fantasies and attempts to damage those who have spurned them.

Socially, the narcissist appears buoyant and self-assured, but friendships are superficial and transient. Relationships are assessed by the extent to which others can serve their needs, and there is little capacity to enjoy friendship in its own right.

For the successful narcissist, the inability to relate to the feelings and desires of others is masked by finely honed social skills. They learn to suppress innate arrogance and self-aggrandising behaviour, and may even come across as humble or self-deprecating.

A strong sense of entitlement and perception of self as "special" means that rules that apply to others do not apply to them. Hence, some narcissists are tempted to misuse entitlements, or binge on the taxpayer credit card under the pretext of parliamentary "work". The less cautious may accept bribes or illegal donations, and occasionally come unstuck for corrupt deals.

The inability to empathise means that narcissistic politicians cannot feel compassion for fellow citizens, including those less well off than themselves. Disadvantage may be perceived as the fault of the individual, and those who cannot afford housing, health or education might be told to work harder or get a better job.

Narcissistic leaders are motivated by self-interest. They build alliances with colleagues and interest groups that will bolster their personal ambitions, and shape policy to reward those groups.

Politics is a game they play to destroy enemies and boost their own authority. Inability to see their own deficiencies even when they have demonstrably failed in the job means that, at the end of their reign, few go willingly for the good of the party or the interests of the country.

While we cannot rid our Parliaments of narcissistic politicians, we can recognise and call out narcissistic behaviour when we see it.

Let us be more vocal in criticising politicians who manipulate and deceive us, who are willing to say or do anything to maintain power, who chide and taunt opponents like adolescent schoolboys, and who feign empathy when it is clearly lacking in their actions.

Let us praise and reward those who are genuinely collaborative, who support good policy regardless of its origins.

Dr Sarah Edelman is a clinical psychologist and author.

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