Was Hitler a vicious narcissist?
psychotherapy: "Narcissism is completely normal"
The question of the healing power of psychotherapy is as old as the first work of prehistoric shamans in their attempts to heal souls (= psyche). At a time when more and more people are taking the help of soul therapists, a professional speaks to Otto Kernberg about the sense and nonsense of treating the mentally ill. As one of the leading psychotherapists of today, he draws the dividing line between normal and abnormal in an interview with the "Wiener Zeitung". As a ten-year-old Jew in Vienna, the city of his birth, he had to deal with the Nazis, and in his field he succeeds as an expert on narcissism.
"Wiener Zeitung": "What good is psychotherapy, Mr. Kernberg?" is the name of a dialogue just published by Herder-Verlag in which the German psychotherapist Manfred Lütz asks questions about your life and your work. How did the fascinating conversation come about?
Otto Friedmann Kernberg, born on September 10, 1928 in Vienna, is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in the USA. In 1939 Kernberg and his family had to leave Austria because of his Jewish origins and emigrated to Chile. Since 1976 he has been Professor of Psychiatry at Cornell University. He practices in New York.
Otto Kernberg: Many years ago Manfred Lütz invited me to the hospital he ran in Cologne to hold seminars and lectures. We developed a personal friendship and then he had the idea to continue our dialogue in book form. We met in New York for two and a half days and talked without any preparation - it was a good experience!
You are an avowed atheist. In your opinion, what is soul?
Soul is the dynamic interaction of all subjective and behavioral experiences that we develop in the course of life. It is the higher sphere of psychic life in which our emotionally invested value systems develop: formulations about our own existence, the understanding of self and others, human life and culture, as well as the ability to think realistically about ourselves: all these psychological Functions and our search for what is good, valuable, true and beautiful is what I would call soul.
You are considered to be the leading expert on narcissistic disorders. What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
Narcissism is completely normal. We want to feel important and recognized and to be treated with respect and loving care. We want to be successful, to be able to fulfill our wishes and to have good relationships that confirm our value to us. A narcissistic disorder is a disruption of self-esteem and the normal feeling of self-love and satisfaction with one's life. Narcissistic personalities suffer from excruciating insecurity and a deep feeling of disapproval, not to be loved, that dates from the earliest years of life.
How do narcissists stand it?
To compensate for the terrible feeling of being inferior, they develop the opposite feeling of being especially important and great. There is a great sense of self these people seek that makes them feel better than everyone and that they can afford to look down on others. They are filled with their own importance and their ambitions and dreams and must be successful, triumphant, because they live on admiration as a substitute for the deep, unconscious feeling of worthlessness that they have to fight against. It is a defensive grandeur that must be supported by admiration.
Can these people form and maintain friendships?
You cannot get to know others in depth because they are only interested in themselves. They have no empathy for what is going on in them because they suffer from an excess of a primitive affect: envy. They are filled with envy when others have something they cannot have. They react by devaluing it. That has serious consequences, also in love. You fall in love very much and you need to get the person you love. But when they have the love that they have so idealized, they subconsciously devalue it. After a while, she gets bored with this person. Then they look for a new person who they just as badly want and get and then devalue again and go away empty-handed. Sexual promiscuity arises from the inability to enter into steadfast love relationships.
Some top managers are credited with narcissism.
People with narcissistic personality disorders can function very well when they have a skill that allows them to be on top. Then they are great artists, writers, industrialists. But in the long run you can't stand them and they don't know why. Others have the complication of malignant narcissism. They attack others, become suspicious and vengeful. Self-centeredness and the greed to appropriate everything go so far that they develop anti-social traits. They lie, steal, write false checks and can be dangerous.
Is US President Donald Trump a Vicious Narcissist?
I never diagnose people I haven't seen in my ordination. Sometimes public behavior is a conscious mask. However, it is true that Trump's public behavior shows those traits of greatness, aggression, suspicion, vengefulness and constant lying that would allow such a diagnosis in a patient - apart from the intensity of the anti-social attitudes of Adolf Hitler, who had a severe personality disorder with malignant ones narcissistic aspects, or the paranoid-aggressive attitude of Josef Stalin. This personality structure, which Trump shows to a lesser degree, is dangerous and harmful to society.
What does that say about voters?
There are socially critical situations in which, in population groups that feel neglected, a mass develops that wants to break free from their situation and longs for a leader who promises them a brilliant future and gives them the freedom to be aggressive against enemies to be. The leader takes responsibility and demands submission. Massive social regression and a managerial personality with these characteristics are intensifying in the United States.
You were born in Vienna in 1928 and had to witness the November pogroms of 1938 before you emigrated to Chile with your parents. What feelings do you associate with Vienna?
My first ten years have been very happy. My father loved Vienna. He showed me everything - streets, buildings, museums, cinemas. He even smuggled me into films that were forbidden for children. I loved the German language. I was an only child, unfortunately spoiled, but my parents wanted to offer me everything they could. My father was trusting, my mother was paranoid - and that saved our lives! She said if we don't emigrate they'll murder us - otherwise I wouldn't be here to tell you all this. We went to Italy at the last moment on July 16, 1939. I was lucky enough to have nothing to do with concentration camps, but I saw enough to worry about it later.
Did these early experiences spark your interest in psychotherapy?
I was impressed with the medical profession from a young age because my mother went to the doctor for all sorts of symptoms. My uncle Manfred Sackel ran a psychiatric hospital and discovered the treatment of schizophrenics with insulin. Whenever my mother had problems with me, Uncle Manfred was asked. After studying medicine in Chile, I got a scholarship to study psychotherapy at Johns Hopkins University in the USA. The ability to understand problems of personality fascinated me so much that I didn't want to do anything else.
Today you head an institute for personality disorders in New York. How much do you work
I work Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. 50 percent of my time I see patients, 25 percent do research and 25 percent teach. On an empirical basis, we have developed a therapy for the treatment of severe personality disorders and use brain research to observe what influence this has on the balance of different brain structures. I really enjoy it!
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