Narcissists and Sycophants: A Marriage Made in HellJuly 29, 2009
Whether we realize it or not, we all have at least one narcissist in our lives. In fact, according to authors Jean Twenge, PhD and Keith Campbell, PhD, there is a narcissism epidemic in this country. (The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Free Press, 2009, Twenge PhD., Campbell, PhD.).
After reading this eye opening book I found myself thinking about this subject in general and agree with the authors that narcissism is sweeping our country and wreaking havoc on the personal, social and professional relationships of the masses. Most of us, however, live in denial. We don’t want to view someone we look up to as a narcissist and we certainly don’t want to acknowledge the hold narcissists have on us and on the world at large. We also live in denial about the part we play in the creation of the narcissist and the perpetuation of his or her behavior. Far too often the people drawn into the narcissist’s force field enable, condone and tolerate the negative and destructive behavior of the narcissist. We absolve ourselves by saying we are doing it for the greater good, or by apologizing for the narcissist’s behavior. Often we take responsibility for the damage caused to other’s psyches by the narcissist. If truth be known, we do it because we are afraid. We don’t want to wound the highly sensitive narcissist because we will pay dearly for this narcissistic injury. We don’t want to be tossed out of the narcissist’s orbit for speaking up, for disagreeing or challenging the narcissist because what we get from the narcissist fuels our own needs.
I have a theory about why this is. From my life experience, I have come to believe that sycophants fuel narcissists and enable them to exist and even thrive. I am sure this isn’t a new or novel idea on my part. In fact, it is probably overly simplistic.
Let’s begin with some descriptions. A narcissist is a person with inordinate fascination with himself or herself. They have few social control mechanisms, fewer friends, little or no psychic demands to do the right thing (even though they give lip service to this concept) do not look for approval from others, lack social barometers of how to conduct themselves, and are driven to be captivating, inspirational, charming and seductive. They have a desperate need to get others to buy into their worldview–their vision, to create a world that they populate with their devoted followers. They are grandiose, don’t listen to others, are prone to angry outbursts (often used to control others who disagree with them), bully subordinates, dominate meetings and are often isolated and paranoid. According to Twenge and Campbell, narcissism is “a disease that causes others to suffer.” Narcissism is nearly always corrosive to social relationships as it breeds distrust. Narcissists are prone to using people like they use books, information and knowledge—they pump them for information and then when they are through, throw them aside. To the narcissist, there are only friends or foes; you are either for or against their vision. There is no middle ground.
Sycophants are self-serving servile flatterers and are often slavishly submissive to the narcissist. The narcissist and the sycophant need each other. The narcissist is completely dependent on the sycophant to feed his ego, to feel important and powerful. The sycophant, on the other hand, is also dependent on the narcissist for the narcissist makes the sycophant feel included and connected to someone the sycophant believes is powerful and important and will elevate the sycophant to great success, recognition or social standing. The sycophant derives a lot of self worth from the narcissist as the relationship with the narcissist gives the sycophant social standing he otherwise would not have. In short, the relationship between the narcissist and sycophant is symbiotic; each feeding and dependent on the other. Without sycophants, the narcissist struggles, becomes depressed and feels his or her life has no meaning. A narcissist must have blind allegiance and the adoration of sycophantic followers because that is the food of the narcissist. Most often, a narcissist surrounds him or herself with “yes men” (slavishly submissive flatterers) who the narcissist sees as no threat to him or herself but yet, who are also not much good for advancing the narcissist’s vision. But that is ok with the narcissist, because he or she has all the answers, knows what is best and right and doesn’t listen to others anyway. The “yes men” are the means to an end, they help the narcissist get what he or she wants and will only be kept close as long as they serve a purpose.
As a group, sycophants find meaning and purpose out of protecting and becoming the narcissist’s handlers. They bond with other sycophants in this common purpose and are simultaneously validated by each other for how dysfunctional this interpersonal interplay is, either on a conscious or unconscious level, depending on the dysfunction of each individual. In such groups, everyone suffers. There are no winners in this symbiotic relationship. The narcissist’s hold is so great it is hard for the sycophant to escape the narcissist’s seductive embrace. At some point, depending on the amount of pain the sycophant has had to endure, they will wake up when they are no longer able to tolerate being used or when their own ethics or integrity will no longer permit them to be passive participants in the destructive world of the narcissist. Faced with abandonment, the narcissist acts more and more out of desperation, devolves deeper into his or her pathology and ends up alone and even more isolated, completing the cycle of narcissistic self-destruction.
In the end, narcissists die alone and sycophants suffer stunted emotional and psychological growth, unless they grow strong enough to break their addiction and choose to value their own self-worth instead of abandoning it for the advancement of the narcissist.
I highly recommend anyone interested in the burgeoning narcissism epidemic read Twenge and Campbell’s excellent book. It is both eye opening and thought provoking.
Another good book on narcissists is Michael Maccoby’s Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails (Broadway Books, 2003).