The Role of Narcissism and Anger in Suicide: Understanding Germanwings and Other Tragedies

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Suicide is not as simple as the combination of a depressed mood and a hopelessness outlook. The Germanwings pilot who crashed his plane did more than kill himself. The mass death of passengers and crew — some who may have been his acquaintances — raises motives one can only guess at. Suicide permits no questioning of the man who undoes his life. Even farewell notes are inadequate to a complete understanding.

A former professor of mine killed himself to send a message, it seems. He was to meet his parents outside of his hotel. Indeed, he arrived on the spot, but jumped to his death from a high floor while they waited. Was he angry with his folks? The conclusion is hard to dismiss.

The news offers speculative details about the German pilot: apparent burn-out, visual problems threatening his career, and a history of treatment for depression.

One additional item. A girlfriend (“Maria”) told Bild, a German tabloid:

We spoke a lot about work and then he became another person. He became agitated about the circumstances in which he had to work, too little money, anxiety about his contract and too much pressure.

She continued, “During conversations he’d suddenly throw a tantrum and scream at me. I was afraid. He even once locked me in the bathroom for a long time.”

And most strikingly:

When I heard about the crash, there was just a tape playing in my head of what he said: “One day I will do something that will change the system and everyone will then know my name and remember me.” I did not know what he meant by that at the time, but now it’s clear.

Maria said her boyfriend sometimes reached the point of emotional dyscontrol. Her words also suggest he was self-involved (narcissistic). Could this quality, combined with his anger, have contributed to his bullying of her? Did a lack of empathy and a grandiose wish for fame — “then my name will be known” — partly explain his dismissal of the many lives he took? If the pilot was feeling inadequate and ineffective, unrecognized (in his opinion) for special talents, might the prospect of a grandly infamous act be empowering and fulfill his belief in his own uniqueness? If you think of yourself as some sort of frustrated giant, your attitude toward the pygmies around you can range from indifference to rage. It is also possible that such animosity was directed at Germanwings, with the passengers and crew viewed as collateral damage. All of this is speculation, of course.

Those who are severely depressed rarely pose a risk of harming anyone else. Depression is too immobilizing at the extreme, reducing the ability to carry out even routine daily activities, such as getting out of bed or cleaning oneself.  Were the pilot only depressed, a satisfying explanation of his behavior becomes difficult.

Nonetheless, suicidal patients can be indifferent to another sort of damage: the emotional pain of loved ones left behind. Therapists encounter clients who assert that their family would be better off without them, and/or would recover quickly. When you consider yourself a burden on your spouse, children, or society, it may be hard to imagine the loss of your life mattering very long or very much.

The profoundly depressed can experience a limited time horizon: even if they were happy in the past, a better future than the agonizing present seems impossible. Judgment is impaired and alternative methods of reducing their suffering appear ineffective or out of reach.

Most depressed people display enormous courage in the simple act of functioning. Those who recognize the injury they will do to others and who choose to stay alive for their sake are admirable. It takes everything in them to keep fighting when the internal wail of pain begs to be ended. Take care not to render quick judgement of those who opt for oblivion, when Death, a bigger than life opponent, has the last say.

A sense of belonging tends to reduce the likelihood of a suicide. A pointed example of this was a man who vowed not to kill himself because of the loss of most of his family to the death camps of the Holocaust. He reasoned that he did not own the right to choose an end to his life, because they had no choice in the termination of their lives. He was “connected” with relatives (and responsible to them) even though almost all died before his birth.

In antiquity suicide was not always considered dishonorable. Indeed, a handful of countries today permit assisted-suicide. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar presents a suicide by Marcus Brutus, a man who is nonetheless eulogized as “the noblest Roman of them all” by his enemy Marc Anthony. The Stoic philosophers, in fact, saw death as a reasonable way of escaping the pain of life, although they believed men should show courage in their approach to difficulties rather than submission to them. Indeed, the Stoics urged indifference to the common reverses so troubling to us, like loss of status and wealth. The Catholic Church was a powerful influence on suicide becoming verboten in a moral, religious, and legal sense. Religion, however, is not required to take a position against suicide. The 18th-century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, did this based upon reason alone.

There is no certain and complete explanation of the Germanwings tragedy, as stated earlier. One can only raise questions based on limited data. Even with more time and commentary we won’t have full access to what was going on inside the unfortunate young man. His death alone would be tragic.

What can one say about the hostages and the friends and family they leave behind? There are no words.

Two days after I posted the above essay, the New York Times published an article that is consistent with mine: The Mind of Those Who Kill, and Kill Themselves/

Love and Commitment: The Termite Solution

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Randy (not his real name) had a bad relationship history. Oh, he had plenty of relationships, but everything fell apart as soon as he and his lady friend lived together.

Randolph was almost — almost — the perfect boyfriend, up until the moment of cohabitation. He was tall, handsome, thoughtful, considerate, funny, and generous. Randy made a good living and made time for anyone he loved.

But living together was a wholly different and painful experience. He joked that his family had come from Slobovia, a fictitious country of his own invention, and that was why he was called a slob by some, at least regarding his spacious and expensive apartment.

Randy claimed that his family came from “Upper” Slobovia — the Slobovian nobility — and therefore became accustomed to lots of servants picking up after them. When the revolution of the “Lower” Slobovians finally came, the family fled the country in order to survive, but discovered that they had lost the ability to do the housework. Thus, he explained, he came by his messiness honestly. It was all a joke, of course, one that got stale pretty quickly.

Nor was it consistent with the fact that Randy kept his clothes clean and crisp, his shoes shined, and his personal hygiene tip-top. It was all the rest that went to hell, which his girlfriends always thought they could change about him. None succeeded and so he became relationship shy, at least to the extent of ever wanting to make a permanent residence with his romantic partners again.

He simply could put up with more clutter, more clothes on the floor, papers in piles, and the occasional cobweb in a dark corner than the more fastidious and beautiful women whom he dated.

Randy was about 35-years-old and looked a bit like Richard Gere at that age when I met him and his girlfriend Jill in relationship therapy. Jill reminded me more of Laura Linney in The Truman Show: blond and pretty, but not drop dead gorgeous. More of a healthy, attractive, girl-next-door type than a seductress.

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When we started, Randy told me that he really loved Jill, or so he said, and it was clear that she was crazy about him. Jill (not her real name either) was not a cleanliness nut or obsessive compulsive, but she was neat, didn’t like piles of books and papers or CDs growing like some in-home land-fill.

This young, accomplished, and very pretty lady wanted her bathrooms hygienic and the mess swept away before their friends began to think that his apartment was actually a larger than normal room of a teenaged boy. Nor did she desire to be a slave to keeping up the house cleaning. Randy needed to do his part. She couldn’t just leave the dishes in the sink in the evening, which was Randy’s habit, home and away, when he spent his nights with Jill. Order was important to her and Randy was indifferent to it except regarding his work and his appearance.

The man realized that he was at risk of losing his girlfriend once again, which was a good start to treatment. He was still leery of moving in with the woman he loved, but said he’d give therapy a try. It wasn’t until I’d seen photos of “ground zero” taken by Jill that I understood why, despite his other fine qualities, Randy’s mini-Slobovia was a relationship-killer. The Slobovian told me that he would put everything he had into this process, because he knew Jill was something special.

We’ll see, I thought to myself. Talk, as we know, is cheap.

We made a behavioral contract that both of them signed involving various tasks and elimination of clutter. Certain activities that Randy enjoyed were contingent on his fulfilling the contract and he agreed to forgo them unless he kept his part of the bargain: things like watching movies with Jill, going to concerts, and the like were forbidden unless he did. The contract worked briefly, but after a few weeks it was clear that Randy was still Randy. He’d found other things to fill his time and so wasn’t sufficiently motivated by the deprivation of the fun stuff he had put aside.

Neither one wanted to give up sex, at least while there were other possible therapeutic interventions that might work, so my suggestion about making sex contingent on the cleanliness and order of his apartment was dropped for the moment.

I’d noticed the apparent contradiction between Randy’s grooming and his messiness around the house. Indeed, he was even more fastidious about his appearance than I first realized. He got, and could afford, a weekly straight-razor shave at a high-end, specialty barber shop, where his hair was also trimmed regularly. He always wore patent leather shoes except when lying about the house or playing sports, the kind that dazzle the eye with their shine and that most of the rest of us only sport at our daughter’s wedding to complement a rented tuxedo. His finger nails were even manicured with some frequency and he had a monthly deep-muscle massage.

As you might have gathered by now, Randy lived the life he wanted to live, a life most of us can’t afford, and had a more than healthy dose of self-love, something all of us need in a smaller amount. If Randy’s narcissism could be measured by the cup of a typical morning coffee, he’d have three cups to everyone else’s one or two.

My plan then was to get Randy to agree not to go to the barber, not to get the weekly straight-razor shave, not to wear his patent leather shoes, and to forgo manicures and massages until he did the weekly chores that would make his apartment look less Slobovian. I think this would have worked, but while we were still negotiating the details (with expected reluctance from Randy) something external intervened.

Between one of our weekly couple sessions Randy discovered that he was not as much the king of his castle as he thought. An infestation of termites had been discovered on the window sill of the hallway. Once this was verified by the landlord, Randy was told he would have to vacate the premises for three days while the exterminators did their job. Randy would be compensated for his required hotel stay, but before he needed to vacate, the property manager decided that since all the occupants would be out of the building, it was a perfect opportunity to do some remodeling which was expected to be finished in “not too long” a time.

Well, if you’ve ever had remodeling done, you know that “not too long” should be translated as “way too long” or “much longer than we promised.” Randolph also had concerns about what kind of poison might be used to kill the termites, and whether it would really be a wonderful idea to return to his place after just three days and risk contaminating himself. Moreover, he usually worked from home, and thought the renovation during the day time would make his work impossible. He talked about this with Jill, who graciously, but with a little trepidation, invited him to stay at her small apartment for as long as it took.

It took six or seven weeks, a period that tested both the lovers. Could Randy respect Jill’s desire for neatness and order? Would the two of them get into fights over it? Or perhaps they would find that her place was simply too confining and that he was cramped by a space much tinier than his own?

Something pretty remarkable happened. Randy saw, close up and every day, that Jill was doing everything she could to accommodate him and make his unexpectedly long stay pleasant for both of them. He knew that Jill was a teacher, but had never seen her do the tutoring she always did on Thursday night. The man observed the woman’s way with her struggling students, her patience, the manner in which she made work into play; but with a steady hand that ensured the work would be understood and completed, fun or not.

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Randy tried hard to change his ways and realized that he had been too self-involved all along with the women he had known. The phrase he had used in his younger days — that “A woman is like a bus. If you miss this one, there will be another one along in ten minutes” — certainly didn’t apply to Jill. He was used to the attention of attractive women and the (for him) never-ending line of them waiting for the chance to know him. He realized, too, that he didn’t want to know any other women ever again; that Jill was his one and only.

One day, at our weekly therapy session with the couple, he said, “I know that I will age and Jill will age and that there will probably be other younger women available to me. Some might be richer or poorer in some ways, but I won’t ever meet someone who has as good a heart as Jill — who loves me as much as Jill, who makes me a better person, and whom I love as much as I have come to love her.”

Randy returned to his apartment and to the lease he had signed months before and lived out the time there until his obligated stay was fulfilled. But he was neater now and he didn’t require much encouragement on that count. He wanted to do it because he saw himself more clearly, saw his selfishness more clearly, and wanted to please the woman he now knew was the love of his life. They then searched for a place together and were expecting to move in when therapy ended.

Still, as a therapist you never know. All the old axioms apply: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” or “Time will tell” seemed to fit this circumstance the best. I was, as I usually was in my therapeutic career, pretty sure, but not certain that things would work out for Randy and Jill. As it happened, they sent me a note about a year later, thanking me and saying that their life together was better than ever. And, in another few years I received a referral via their recommendation of my services to a friend. She was told by them to report to me that they were still doing very well. Randy had permanently surrendered his Slobovian citizenship and now there was a little one in the home.

Therapists only succeed when their patients want to change more than the therapist wants them to change. As the old joke goes, “How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?” The answer is “One, but the lightbulb has to want to be changed.”

Counselors, in other words, can’t do everything, but we can do some things. Still, I never had a case quite like this one. Narcissists rarely have the kind of epiphany that Randy had. And there is more that made this special, because it was not even Randy or Jill or I who had to play our parts, but termites that made it all possible.

The top photo is not of the couple described in the essay. It is called After the Kiss: James Cospito and LiAnne Cospito at the Brookly Art Project Meetup, October 1, 2009. The picture was taken by See-ming Lee and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by russavia. The second image is Laury Linney, taken at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival by gdcgraphics. The final picture is a Bus taken from the AIGA Symbol Signs Collection commissioned by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. Like the other pictures, it was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Signs of Self-Consciousness: When the Mirror isn’t Your Friend

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“That is the worst picture of me I’ve ever seen.”

You are looking at your new driver’s license photo, just after it has been handed to you.

It will remain the worst picture of yourself imaginable until you renew your license and get one that is even worse.

At some point, if you are inclined to look at old photos, you will realize that you were once actually better looking than you thought. Even though, back then, you spent enormous amounts of time considering all your visible shortcomings.

And, if you can bear it, the idea creeps up, that you look — right now at this very moment — the best you will ever look again. However low it is, you are at the top of your own personal ski-ramp of pulchritude. Gravity will have its way. The grave is at the end of the downhill run, the place where you will certainly not look splendid, although a few might comment on how life-like and peaceful you appear to be as a corpse.

The mirror is irresistible. Although a frequent carrier of bad news, it is like a siren calling you to it — beckoning, luring you.

“Look at me,” it says. “Look at me, so that you can look at yourself. See what others see before they see it.”

Even your reflection in a department store window can’t be ignored.

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The scrutiny of skin texture, hair style, and unevenness of any kind can be a full-time job. How large are my pores? Were they always this large? Are my eyebrows even, my lips symmetrical? Is that a pimple? Did I miss a spot shaving? Is my hair losing its color?

To comb-over or not to comb-over. That is the question.

Unfortunately, omnipresent advertising reminds us of the importance of appearance and suggests that we are falling down on the job if we don’t look right, sound right, and smell right; if we aren’t clothed right and adorned right to the point of rewriting ourselves.

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Would that one were more like Narcissus, who saw his reflection in a pool of water and fell in love. Instead, the self-conscious are the opposite of Narcissus according to John Updike, seeing the disqualifying things that others don’t see or care to look for.

Why?

Because they are too preoccupied with their own mirror-image.

Each of us may be our own main-attraction, but to almost all others, we are but footnotes; either not viewed as important enough to look at or quickly forgotten.

Despite this truth, the insecure man sees the outer world as an anticipated audience for his one-man-show, having paid dearly for tickets and expecting a star-turn. “How will I look?” the performer says to himself. Implicit in the question is, “How will I look to them?” And, more to the point, “How will I rank?”

The mirror is like a ruler, telling us whether we measure up to both friends and strangers; and rules over us, sucking away our time as we stand before it. But then, many carry mirrors in their pockets or handbags, all the better to do some compulsive checking.

I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others…

Marcus Aurelius, the author of those words, like other Stoic philosophers, thought it important to remind oneself of what is valuable (like good deeds) and what is not (like the opinion of others). But we seem to be automatically drawn to “making an impression;” and we hope that it is not one of the wrong kind.

Take my mother, a surpassingly beautiful young woman, but confident of little more than her appearance. When age robbed her of that singular quality, she sometimes joked about looking at herself in the silvered-glass and asking, “When did this happen?” The loss left her all the more vulnerable to and preoccupied with what others might be thinking about her.


Although self-consciousness is commonplace, I have actually met people who seem to be totally un-self conscious and unaware of who they are, how they come across, and the impact they have on others.

We incorrectly assume that people universally understand the impression they make.

To illustrate the point, think back to the very first time you heard your own voice on a recording device. It was probably shocking. You didn’t sound the way you heard yourself inside your head.

The act of looking in the mirror is not a whole lot more reliable. And the mirror changes how we behave while doing the looking: the expressions we see as we examine ourselves are not necessarily identical to those observed by passers-by in our unstudied moments.

People with Asperger’s Disorder are among those who are unconcerned with and unaware of the effect of their self-presentation. Their social interaction is significantly impaired, in part, because the social cues that we commonly get from others — and that are instructive about how we are coming across to them — don’t seem to register. They miss signals that the person with whom they are conversing might be bored, impatient, indifferent, upset, or angry. Nor will they seem to care about shaping themselves to fit the prevailing social conditions.

Adults categorized as Narcissistic Personality Disorder are equally unaware of and unconcerned with the negative implications of the way in which they are seen by the world, except to complain about the unfairness of how they are treated. Their grandiosity and exaggerated sense of self-importance leads to arrogance rather than self-reflection or self-doubt. It is as if they have a Teflon-coated exterior that prevents criticism from penetrating to the heart.

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If we set aside those people who are diagnosably paranoid, the personality trait of self-awareness causes problems at both of its extremes. Too little self-consciousness and you have Asperger’s and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. On the opposite wall are those hyper-focused souls whose radar is going full-force at all times.

Members of the latter group are so preoccupied with the need to detect rejection and disapproval that they mistake casual and meaningless comments for devastating critical opprobrium. Were their personal scanners instead used for national defense, like a giant radar antenna in the photo above, they would mistake birds flying overhead for incoming thermonuclear warheads.

At the same time that their own monitoring devices are being ratcheted up, these self-conscious individuals wish to fly under the radar of others, hoping that their imperfections will go unnoticed.

And they are drained trying to simultaneously make themselves invisible while watching for all possible personal incoming data.

For them, life becomes a performance and everyone else in life becomes a potential journalist reviewing that performance, imagined to be preparing a devastating and slashing critique for the next day’s blog post or NBC news broadcast.

The over-sensitive and insecure individuals of this world have lots of company, but don’t always think that they do. They are too busy comparing their “insides” to other people’s “outsides,” a game that is played on an uneven playing field designed to cause the person making the comparisons to feel like crap.

A 2011 study led by Dr. Alexander Jordan in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, supports the notion that people tend to underestimate the negative emotional experiences of others. In part, this is thought to be due to the fact that we see friends and neighbors (by definition) only in social situations, where research shows that people generally feel relatively good and therefore appear to be doing well. Since individuals are also somewhat hesitant to express suffering in social situations, the tendency is reinforced to see those folks as more satisfied with their lives than they actually are.

Thus, all of us (but particularly the self-conscious among us) can only observe the appearance (rather than the reality) of others’ lives, but have complete access to our own internal turmoil, especially during the time when we are alone and more prone to negative feelings than during periods of social activity. Almost inevitably, the contrast between the outward sunny appearance of our peers and our own private darkness (even if it is simply the commonplace trouble to be found in any life) contributes to a sense that we are not doing very well at all.

Life for the self-conscious person is a little like wearing glasses that look exactly like regular glasses, but have a silver coating on the inside. The glasses cause an automatic inward look — a claustrophobic view of a dark and suffocating place. Life satisfaction is to be found in an outward gaze, not an eternally internal one.

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The excruciating inward focus makes it very difficult for “(Self)-Doubting Thomas” to realize that he is not as uniquely deficient as he is prone to believe. And since self-protective efforts inhibit sharing one’s personal insecurities even with friends, the holding-back robs him of their commiseration and understanding; not to mention the sense of identity that he might receive from others, fellow-suffers in particular.

Still, at least the self-conscious will sometimes go to therapy, while neither the Asperger’s clan nor the narcissists see much of problem requiring professional consultation. Each, in his own way, is content with himself. If there are troubles, others are blamed, not the person’s own inadequacies.

Unfortunately, there is no “cure” for self-consciousness, per se. But therapy can help to uncover the reasons for self-doubting and quiet the self-disparaging voices inside, shroud the mirrors, still the racing pulse, and eventually come to a point of self-acceptance. Treatment can make you feel better about yourself. Equally significant, therapy prepares you for the fact that there will, indeed, be no way to impress everyone, but worry less over the failure.

After all, even a wildly successful presidential candidate must confront over 40,000,000 votes for the other guy.

No, therapy won’t change your driver’s license photo into a professional “head-shot,” making you look like a movie star, but it just might do something even better.

You will see that card-carried image in all its horrific awfulness, and care about it much, much less.

You may find the following related post of interest: Signs of Insecurity: Behavior That Reveals a Lack of Confidence.

Also, you might want to look at The Upside of Insecurity.

The first photo is a Scan of An Expired Diplomatic Driver’s License by Foreignaffairsinfo. Next, a Woman Standing In Front of a Mirror by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. The third image is a Statue of Venus in Mirrors by Nevit Dilmen. It is followed by Jeanette Stein (with the author, who was apparently sceptical of the camera even then) and A 50-Foot Radar Antenna at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Finally, a Self-Portrait by w.helwig. All of these with the exception of the family photo are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.