Nothing is Wasted: On Brokenness and Grace

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There is grace in brokenness. We don’t see it at first, it takes time to reveal itself. Time, and sufficient enough shattering to remove all–or most–obstacles to its manifestation.

That’s what brokenness does–it strips us of what’s superficial and unnecessary, of all pretense, of fake (and not) attachments and strivings, leaving us emotionally and spiritually bare and ready to see the truth. That’s where grace comes in, bringing the truth along.

“Each time the losses and deceptions of life teach us about impermanence, they bring us closer to the truth. When you fall from a great height, there is only one possible place to land: on the ground, the ground of truth. And if you have the understanding that comes from spiritual practice, then falling is in no way a disaster, but the discovery of an inner refuge.” Sogyal Rinpoche

Only when we are broken we can see it more clearly: the truth about ourselves, others, the world and God–or whatever one wants to call this grand principle responsible for our existence on earth that shows itself in it with such insistence, even if for a time through its seeming absence. It is also called the Source, Spirit, Force, All There Is, the Ground of All Being, Oneness, Universe; however you want to name (or not) this higher power, God has only three letters so it’s easier to use, therefore I’ll stick with it. This God is not a bearded father figure fuming in judgment over his sinful creation, but rather omniactive loving intelligence, as psychiatrist Thomas Hora put it. It is precisely grace working on and through our brokenness, by the way, which allows us to see and understand, to the extent it is possible, that this higher power is compassionate and set up in ways to manifest this truth to, in and through us. Grace is God’s middle name, as Richard Rohr says.

Brokenness, in all its forms–physical, emotional, spiritual–empties us of false beliefs and illusions, making thus room within us for God/Truth/Love, for grace. This emptying is a process that usually takes a long and difficult time, while grace manifests instantanously, appearing in a flash of insight, or more often an epiphany, when the pain of our broken existence becomes unbearable. Its benevolent work, which so often begins in such a transformative flash, continues throughout the rest of our earthly life, changing us–little by little–from the people we were to the people we are meant to be.

“Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through adversity.” Malcolm Muggeridge

Grace working through brokenness is the process of uncovering our Innermost, True Self and its God-like nature, the kingdom of heaven within.

Pain and suffering are its necessary antecedents. Disappointments, losses, grief, loneliness, anxiety, depression, abandonment, despair, physical and mental illness, addictions, inner conflicts and self-doubts; all those states also known as soul sickness, or a dark night of the soul. It cannot be otherwise. And none of it is wasted. Grace works upon us in this darkness whether we realize it or not.

“The seed must be buried deep down in the darkness under the weight of the earth. Then the seed must be subject to the winter, the season of frost, of long darkness and short light. The slow pace, the long pause in periods of growth is the condition of bearing fruit.” Caryll Houselander

And as the Zen proverb reminds us,

“No seed has ever seen the flower.”

We learn and transform only through lessons of suffering, and that has not varied yet. It does not mean that all suffering leads to obvious transformation, but transformation does not, will not happen without disintegration and pain.

“Pain is merely pain, but pain for a worthy cause is suffering. What is more worthy than your soul–than creating a life through which the energy of your soul can flow unimpeded into the Earth school? What is more worthy than fulfilling your most noble aspirations?” Gary Zukav 

This is the way of positive disintegration, initiated and guided by grace. The transformation effected through grace working on and in our brokenness has a spiritual (and/or religious) character, regardless of our belief system. It opens us to previously unseen, though perhaps sometimes intuited, vertical dimensions of reality and also unknown depths within ourselves. It lets the light of God to penetrate our being, but also allows the light of our True Self shine through the cracks of the broken facade that was once our false self (or ego, or individuality). With time, that inner light grows stronger and shines brighter, illuminating any corners where darkness may have lingered.

In our brokenness, we begin to see what really matters. Just as grief and suffering empty us, making room for God, they also prepare inner space for gratitude that disperses our inner darkness and allows us to see life more clearly, including our own characters and those of others.

“Karma draws your attention to what you have created. Is your attention not captured when you are in pain? Asking why the Universe is treating you badly when you experience painful circumstances in your life is like asking a mirror why you look the way you do. Your reflection will not change until you change.” Gary Zukav

Grace is a manifestation of God’s existence and boundless love for us. But we cannot see it when, functioning as the false self and assured in its certitude, we are in thrall of our self-seeking pursuits and the fleeting rewards they offer. Being broken opens us up to see and receive that love, and to be transformed by it into people we were meant to be, as the image and likeness of God.

“If there are supernormal powers, it is through
the cracked and fragmented self that they enter.” William James

A friend sent me a brief video from a Japanese spiritual teacher showing the beauty of broken objects, the pieces of which were put back and glued together with gold, bringing a new look, and a new quality, to their appearance and function.

The gold glue holding our pieces together is God’s love filling and pulsing through the previously disjointed seams, transmuting their brokenness into a now coherent whole. It not only fixes the broken fragments, but creates a new entity, full of new life. This spiritual alchemy transforms pain and suffering into compassion and love.

“The wound is the place where Light enters you.” Rumi

During Easter at my Mom’s house, I heard a Polish radio interview with Helena Studencka who is Secretary General of the Polish Highlander Organization in America. Helena talked about the loss of her son in 2015 and how it has affected her life.  It is difficult to describe this interview, but I am certain it captivated all listeners, accidental and not, such was the power of Helena’s voice as she talked about her grief and how it has been transforming her. Nobody wants to know the pain of losing a child; but as most of us will experience–and, if of a certain age, already have experienced–grievous losses, the journey, even though unique to each of us, feels familiar in many ways.

Helena said that nowadays, three years after her son’s death, her grief turned into a sort of numbness and described what it feels and looks like. It is still very difficult, but it is different now. She is learning humility, meekness, she said; the calm warmth of her voice confirmed it. She may or may not know–although her interviewer made a comment to this effect–that through such open and vulnerable sharing of her pain she has helped others heal. The grace working through her brokenness already influences others.

“All suffering prepares the soul for vision.” Martin Buber

We don’t always see or know right away how grace works through suffering and brokenness.

Pat, a kind and loving mother and grandmother started to show first symptoms of Alzheimer’s in her mid-50’s. Within several years marked by the rapid progress of the disease and the heartbreaking challenges it created for her impoverished family, she became unresponsive and confined to her bed, lingering there for nearly 20 years in a vegetative state, plagued by infections and other problems associated with her illness and incapacitation.

Her younger daughter, Kasia, took care of her in a tiny two room apartment that was home to four more people: Kasia’s chronic schizophrenic husband, Ian, unemployed for decades due to his disability; their two young sons; and Kasia’s ill and requiring progressively more care dad, Pat’s husband. Kasia was the only healthy and more or less functional adult in that household, tasked with generating income from her secretarial salary, keeping the family together and organizing their life, as well as caring for her mother, and her ill husband and father. The stress of their living situation bordered on unbearable most of the time.

As Pat’s state deteriorated, however, something unexpected happened: Ian spontaneously started to care for her and attend to her needs around the clock. Soon enough, he became her main caretaker, performing his duties with attention and compassion that nobody knew existed within his capacities. This man, lost and locked within his seemingly disordered mind and diagnosed as an incurable case, turned into a skilled and devoted nurse, finding purpose in his own life and serving through it as an example for others.

“God uses everything to construct this hard and immortal diamond, our core of love.” Richard Rohr

Nothing is wasted, least of all our suffering.


A Letter from an Educator

January 16, 2018

Dear Ms. Mika,

I am an educator. After the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, I spent over a decade doing research in order to find out “why.”

Of the over 400 psychology books I read, fully one quarter pertained to “why” of the Holocaust.

I discovered that the reasons 38% of German voters cast ballots for a charismatic demagogue in 1932 mirror the reasons why 38% of American voters today comprise the ardent base of our leader.

The Germans who supported their demagogue all had fathers whose every trait was exactly like him, even including his theatrical rants. One exception:

This new father never blamed them for causing all problems, as their own parents had done.

Instead, he blamed others for every societal problem.

This token of parental love, never given by their own parents, engendered absolute, hungered devotion.

The same is underway in America today. Unloved children, even decades later, gravitate toward someone who will give them permission to release pent-up, unconscious hatred toward their parents, for the mistreatment received, upon innocent scapegoats. Unloved children, unless helped by a teacher or another adult, are the origin for racism and all hate.

Robert L.

A Letter to Congress from Concerned Mental Health Experts

December 11, 2017

Dear Congress Member:

Since the election of 2016, an increasing number of mental health professionals have come forth to warn against President Trump’s psychological instability and its implications for national and international security. Recently, the signs of his instability have grown markedly worse: a return to conspiracy theories, more frequent tweets, and an attraction to violent imagery. We would like to discuss these concerns further with you, at the contacts below.

Seven months ago, a group of us put our concerns into a book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. Since release, it has become an instant bestseller with the public. Macmillan, a top publisher, could not keep up with the demand for weeks.

Much of what we warned about in the book has come true. Our ultimate concern is happening now. The developments with the special counsel’s investigations are not just a matter of criminal indictment but of critical concern with respect to the president’s mental stability. He has shown marked signs of impairment and psychological disability under ordinary circumstances, unable to cope with the slightest criticism or unpleasant news. With additional stressors, his condition will assuredly grow worse. We fear that this difference will bring us over the brink into disaster, where even ultimate destruction will be possible.

As mental health professionals, some of us with an expertise on violence, we deal with the risk of harm as a routine part of our practice. When someone exhibits signs of danger to oneself, others, or the general public, it is considered an emergency. All 50 states confer to us the legal authority, sometimes obligation, to act. When someone poses a threat, our response is as follows: (a) containment; (b) removal from access to weapons; and (c) an urgent evaluation. As health professionals, we cannot choose not to treat in an emergency, regardless of whether the person is our patient or has offered consent.

Mr. Trump has far exceeded our usual threshold for an urgent evaluation for signs of danger. Just a few of these signs would be: verbal threats of violence, a history of sexual assault, incitement of violence, an attraction to violence and powerful weapons (the more powerful the weapons, the greater the temptation to use them), and the taunting of hostile nations with nuclear power. Traits that are highly associated with danger include: impulsivity, recklessness, paranoia, loss of touch with reality, a lack of empathy, rage reactions, and a constant need to demonstrate power. These traits make one incapable of thinking rationally, and the usual inhibitions, such as a nuclear holocaust or even the annihilation of humankind, will not likely deter someone who is preoccupied by internal needs.

We are concerned enough to be ready to present to your office, at the soonest occasion possible, to explain our observations in person. While mental health experts who contributed to the book number at 27, there are thousands of us with the same medical consensus—and we are ready to communicate our case to you, should you choose to hear us.

Our contacts are: (917) 328-2492;; and


Bandy X. Lee, M.D., M.Div.
Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT
Judith L. Herman, M.D.
Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA
Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
Craig Malkin, Ph.D.
Lecturer of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA
Lance Dodes, M.D.
Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry (retired), Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA
Michael J. Tansey, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor (retired), Northwestern Medical School, Chicago, IL
Leonard L. Glass, M.D., M.P.H.
Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA
Henry J. Friedman, M.D.
Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA
James Gilligan, M.D.
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, New York University School of Medicine, New York, NY
Diane Jhueck, M.A., L.M.H.C.
Designated Crisis Responder, Island County, WA
Howard H. Covitz, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.
(Former) Director, Institute for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapies, Philadelphia, PA
Betty P. Teng, L.M.S.W.
Psychotherapist, Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, New York, NY
Jennifer C. Panning, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, Evanston, IL
Harper West, M.A., L.L.P.
Licensed Psychotherapist, Clarkston, MI
Luba Kessler, M.D.
(Former) Faculty, Institute for Psychoanalytic Education (New York University), New York, NY
Steve Wruble, M.D.
Private Practitioner of Psychiatry, New York, NY, and Ridgewood, NJ
Elizabeth Mika, M.A., L.C.P.C.
Psychotherapist, Chicago, IL
Edwin B. Fisher, Ph.D.
Professor of Health Behavior, Gillings School of Global Public Health,
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
Nanette Gartrell, M.D.
(Former) Associate Professor of Psychiatry,
University of California School of Medicine, San Francisco, CA
Dee Mosbacher, M.D., Ph.D.
(Former) Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry,
University of California School of Medicine, San Francisco, CA
Frederick M. Burkle Jr., M.D., M.P.H., D.T.M.
Psychiatrist, Pediatrician, and Professor of Emergency Medicine (retired),
Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA

Additional Signatures
Scott Banford, M.S.W., LCSW
Fort Lee, NJ
Susan G. Bednar, M.S.W.,LCSW
Monticello, IL
Brenda Berger, Ph.D.
New York, NY
Cherylynne Berger,
Pasadena, CA

Susan Edelman Blank,
Atlanta, GA
Paula Bloom, Psy.D.
Atlanta, GA
Suzanne Burger, Psy.D.
Pound Ridge, NY


Kimberly Corbett, Psy.D.,
San Diego, CA
Tammy Dale, M.A.
Lee’s Summit, MO
Portland, OR
Jennifer Farris-Young,
Largo, FL
Ellen V. Garbuny, LSW
Butler, PA
Patricia Geller, Ed.D.
Lexington, MA
Carolyn Jankowski, M.A.,
Laurel, MD
Maureen S. Kapatkin, M.S.,
FL and GA
Gabriella Janet King, M.S.
Laurel, MD
Emily Krestow, Ph.D.
Hollywood, FL
Barbara Lavi, Psy.D.
Weston, CT and MA
Avigail Lev, Psy.D.
Sarah Church Liebman,
Oakland, CA
Lynn Groff Loomis, M.Ed.
Harrisburg, PA
Diane K. Mahoney, Ph.D.
Marstons Mills, MA
Robert McDonald, Ph.D.
Fairview, NC
Raechel McGee, MSW
Somerset, MA
Julia McLaughlin, M.A.,
Columbus, OH
Melissa Mendenhall,
Cedar Falls, IA
Cheri Parmely, Ed.D.
Newton, MA
Michelle Pawkett, M.A.,
Buffalo, NY
Sandra Petrakis-Childs,
Atlanta, GA
Emily Polak, Ph.D., LCSW
IL and Crown Point, IN
Randye Semple, Ph.D.
Los Angeles, CA, and New
York, NY
Gail Sheehy, Ph.D.
New York, NY
Claire Silverman, Ph.D.
New York, NY
Andrew Spitznas, M.D.
Johnson City, TN
Sunda Friedman
TeBockhorst, Ph.D.
Boulder, CO
Margaret Thompson,
Salt Lake City, UT
Barbara M. Turk, Psy.D.,
Harrisburg, PA
Karin Wandrei, Ph.D.
Rohnert Park, CA
Harper West, M.A., LLP
Rochester Hills, MI
Elizabeth Zoob, LICSW
Cambridge, MA

An Authoritarian or a Madman?

By Elizabeth Mika and Frederick Burkle

Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s WaPo opinion piece from Nov. 30,  No, Trump is not a madman — because he knows exactly what he’s doing, posits that Trump’s not a madman but an authoritarian. She says that the historical framework of authoritarianism, rather than psychology and psychopathology, is best used to explicate the Trump/ism phenomenon.

We would like to add that this framework, although useful and necessary, is incomplete without understanding the psychology and psychopathology of the strongmen, their followers, and societies that enable their rise. Even though the question of strongmen/tyrants’ “madness” keeps coming up with cyclical regularity in discussions about tyrants past and present, it has never received a satisfactory response. It also has never been fully applied to an American leader until now (for good reasons).

One of us, Dr. Burkle, is a psychiatrist by training (among other specialties) and has a long and distinguished record of working the world over for humanitarian and peace causes, which involved diplomatic dealings with various strongmen in power, including Saddam Hussein. He has studied the psychology of strongmen and written a seminal paper about it, noting the increase in their numbers since the Cold War, which, not surprisingly, corresponds to the spread of fascistic ideologies all over the world today. The co-author, raised under an oppressive political system in Eastern Europe and trained as a clinical psychologist, has authored a chapter on Tyranny as a Triumph of Narcissism in the recently published NYT bestseller, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.”

We maintain that the knowledge of psychology, and specifically psychopathology of the autocrats/tyrants and their followers, is crucial to grasping the rise, development, and inevitable fall of tyrants and the socio-political movements they inspire and lead. This knowledge is also necessary to create the shared understanding of conditions that give rise to fascism and other oppressive political movements, as they are all built on the same fundamental individual and collective psychopathology, fueled by specific socio-political factors. Such understanding, we hope, will help prevent development of these movements in our future and make the world a safer, better place.

Studying biographies of strongmen/tyrants shows that they all share the same essential character structure, or more accurately a character defect (disorder): a severely impaired conscience — which makes them unable to experience pro-social emotions like empathy, guilt and shame, and understand higher human values — combined with an insatiable drive for power and adulation. A clinical name for this specific character structure, which is not mental illness, is narcissistic psychopathy, also known in its extreme form as malignant narcissism (which is comprised of paranoia, sadism and Machiavellianism, in addition to narcissism and psychopathy). Neither term is included as a diagnostic category in DSM, and there are some mental health experts who don’t believe that narcissistic psychopathy or malignant narcissism constitute pathological conditions. Some see them as just garden-variety “badness.”

Nevertheless, it is a specific character disorder with well described symptomatology and prognosis, which allow us to recognize it and predict its progression inevitably leading to dire outcomes for the afflicted individual’s behaviors, those around him and the society at large. In fact, understanding the psychology or rather psychopathology of the strongman/tyrant-wannabe and that of his supporters has allowed us to correctly predict Trump’s presidential win, along with the subsequent general political developments, in early 2016.

Strongmen differ in their individual personality characteristics, but they share essential easily recognizable core features, specifically the aforementioned deficits of conscience and an abiding and insatiable desire for power and adulation.

Not all strongmen turn tyrants; those who do exhibit unusually high levels of narcissism of the malignant type characterized by sadism and paranoia. Once the strongman/tyrant-wannabe achieves the ultimate position of power, these malignant characteristics intensify, leading to what we call psychological decompensation. His grandiose expectations balloon, along with his sense of aggrieved entitlement and rage when they are frustrated, which happens sooner or later. The rage fuels his paranoid distrust of others and the compulsive (sadistic) need to hurt them.  With time and progressing decompensation, no one is immune to the tyrant’s escalating rage. This is when his pathology becomes most apparent, although his sycophants and enablers are the last ones to notice it (or at least to admit it), invested as they are in placating him and protecting their privileged positions or even lives.

Bereft of a conscience and driven by the insatiable need to dominate others and avenge their non-ending humiliations, real and imagined, strongmen/tyrants are compulsively and sadistically vindictive. This assures that whenever they achieve ultimate power, a destruction of democratic institutions will follow, leading to chaos, disorder, oppression and eventually bloody conflicts.  It’s not a matter of if it happens, but how soon.

We have delineated the specifics of the narcissistic psychopath’s psychological functioning elsewhere. Dr. Burkle’s seminal 2016 paper on Antisocial Personality Disorder and Pathological Narcissism in Prolonged Conflicts and Wars of the 21st Century talks about political leaders with this character pathology and notes the increase in their numbers since the Cold War. Not coincidentally, this increase corresponds to the current rise in fascistic movements world over.

Prof. Ben-Ghiat goes on to describe the main features of the authoritarian strongman’s pathology — his disruptiveness, shape-shifting, a proclivity toward violence, and disregard for norms and values– which in the right socio-political context, that of widespread inequality and growing social unrest, as well as shared narcissistic woundedness that stems from frustrated expectations of collective and individual greatness, become his assets.

The strongman/tyrant-wannabe’s withdrawal from our shared reality into his own version of it, suffused with a grandiose sense of entitlement and eternal victimhood, and seasoned with dreams of redemptive glory and punishment for his manufactured enemies, appeals to the segment of the population that feels similarly aggrieved and looking for scapegoats onto which they can unload their misery. The tyrant-in-the-making would not amount to much if it weren’t for his supporters who see in him the embodiment of their own hopes for the settling of scores, avenging their humiliations and restoring their personal power.

This is the case where narcissistic pathology of an individual colludes with the needs of his similarly afflicted supporters. This process of narcissistic collusion is what fuels the growth of anti-democratic parties as well as cults and other destructive social movements. Such movements eventually fall, as do their leaders, crippled by their own pathology, specifically by unchecked grandiosity and paranoia that drive them to commit acts of political suicide and /or destruction evoking pushback and rebellion.

Ben-Ghiat is right that the behavior of strongmen in general is methodical in that it is designed to achieve a specific goal: maximize power and adulation, and minimize resistance and personal humiliations. It is not quite rational, however, as the needs for power and adulation driving it are insatiable and because of that ultimately lead to destruction of others and usually himself as well. His behaviors, even though purposeful and effective in helping him achieve his goals, something that renders the label of “madness” questionable in many observers’ eyes, are not normal, and certainly not healthy. While such adjectives like mad and crazy, strictly indicating a psychotic break with reality driven by delusions and hallucinations, may not necessarily apply to the strongman’s functioning, certainly not at all times, his incurable character defect makes him not only mentally unhealthy but also dangerous.

Where “madness” is concerned, it is crucial to note that one can be abnormal without being mentally ill. Not having a conscience – a main feature of psychopathy — is not an illness but a defect, still an abnormality, just like not having a limb would be considered an abnormality but not an illness. Psychopaths are not “mad” in the colloquial (or even clinical) sense of the word — their reality testing is intact and they are capable of effective, goal-oriented functioning in the world. Being free of scruples and treating other people as objects to exploit turns out to be an asset in the world that champions greed and the pursuit of power. There is logic, consistency, and predictability in their actions, and they can be seen as reasonable from the point of view of realization of their personal objectives and an effective adjustment to — and/or exploitation of — a society where primitive goals rule.

It is important to remember, as difficult as it may be to accept, that the problematic behavior of a narcissistic psychopath in a position of ultimate power will not change for the better, but will most certainly grow worse with time. We know that he will be destructive. We know that he will sow chaos, legitimize and incite violence, and quite likely start wars. We know that with the help of his always eager sycophants and supporters, he will dismantle anything that stands in his way to power, and that includes institutions, norms and values that support human civilization. Eventually this destruction will also reach many, if not most of his supporters, especially if they fail to provide him with the adulation and obedience he craves.

The debate about mental un/health of the current occupant of the White House as well as strongmen/tyrants in general is a good opportunity for educating our society about still poorly recognized dangers of conscience-impairing character defects like narcissistic psychopathy and malignant narcissism. If there is one lesson that we should be able to learn already, based on our historical and psychological knowledge, it is that of the necessity of keeping individuals with these defective characters away from power. That is because once they achieve a position of ultimate power, there isn’t much that can be done to prevent the predictable destruction they unleash on society.

Elizabeth Mika is an educational consultant and therapist in private practice in the Chicago area. Frederick Burkle is a psychiatrist with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

Pathological Narcissism and Sociopathy in Political Leaders Are More Pervasive Than You Think

The text below is a rejected op-ed submission to The Washington Post from October 17, 2016 — one of several on the subject which met the same fate that year. After Trump’s election, The WaPo put “Democracy dies in darkness” as its slogan in the masthead.



by Frederick Burkle

Millions of Americans plan on voting a narcissist into the White House next month, and large numbers of narcissists of every ilk seek political power and cutthroat business dealings in the world and in our own society today. Historically, narcissists in power are always a grievous problem — so how did we get into this current dilemma? What made us more vulnerable today and what are the risks we face when one governs?

The end of the Cold War brought with it many protracted internal conflicts and wars that have lasted for decades and whose persistent volatility lies at the heart of both chronic nation-state and regional instability. Responsibility for these chronically failed states has been attributed to multiple unresolved political root causes within troubled countries. With previous governance and parties to power no longer trusted or acceptable, the vacuum of leadership in many cases has been filled with “bad leadership”. In a number of cases, opportunistic leaders, suffering from character (personality) disorders of severe narcissism and various degrees of antisocial behavior, have emerged first as saviors, then as despots; or as common criminals claiming to be patriots, sharing a psychological framework that differs little from those responsible for WWII and the Cold War that followed.

Character disorders are not mental illness nor are they treatable by traditional medical, psychiatric or psychological means. The identifying characteristics of this unique and poorly understood subset of the population (about 4%) are levels of narcissism that can reach pathological proportions, manifested in grandiosity, lies, fabrications, and unstoppable need for admiration that is characteristic of a petulant child, now grown up physically but not emotionally.

The narcissism varies over a wide spectrum of behaviors. While we may encounter people every day with lesser degrees of narcissism-driven behaviors that are nothing more than annoying, those who evidence more severe and pathological degrees of narcissistic attitudes and actions cause major problems for every society, especially if they are challenged or shamed. All have difficulties in personal relationships. While they are appreciated by many as being ‘smart’, they are not ‘bright’. Their concrete black or white view of the world and their place in it belies a lack of reflection, abstract reasoning, sound judgment, intuition, and sincerity in their thinking and decisions that may be tolerated in a spoiled child, but remains fixed no matter what age they are. Their constant and insatiable need for power, total lack of empathy, entitlement and inability to handle any criticism leave them easily shamed, which often leads rapidly to excessive rage and contempt. These individuals are driven by impulsive and callous aggression and boldness to seek the ultimate opportunity to control, dictate and live out their fantasies of power on the world scene.

Their presence in the world as heads of state has remained unabated in the 21st Century with many at the helm of current conflicts and dictatorships. Vladimir Putin’s history of contemptuous behavior toward both national political rivals and international leaders is one worrisome example. During the Cold War years, as head of the KGB in East Germany, he investigated Angela Merkel revealing her fear of dogs. In their first meeting years later, when he was Russia’s President and her Germany’s Chancellor, he purposely brought large dogs to the meeting to intimidate her. His pattern of assassinations of his political rivals is legendary, the last being completed symbolically on the steps of the Kremlin. Kim Jong-un is another disturbing example as he has in his possession nuclear weapons which he could easily deploy in a rage, feeling justified by the most insensible of provocations. These pathological leaders are never amenable to conventional diplomatic interventions, negotiations, mediations or international sanctions as evidenced by Serbia’s Milosevic’s invasion of Kosovo after being charmed by Western leaders for signing the Dayton Accords.

The list of narcissists in power, living and dead, is long; the destruction they cause fills countless history books.

We are at the cusp of our first chance at global governance wished for by the emerging millennial generation who see themselves more a global citizens and less as nationalists. By not strongly speaking out with every violation and taking every opportunity to educate through the world stage of communication available to us today, we seriously risk being seduced into losing much of our democracy, freedoms we cherish and an opportunity for global governance that makes sense and addresses humanity’s urgent needs.

Professor Burkle is a Senior Fellow & Scientist at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Senior International Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC and author of “Antisocial Personality Disorder and Pathological Narcissism in Prolonged Conflicts and Wars of the 21st Century,” Disaster Medicine & Public Health Preparedness, 2016.


National Character Counts Week: Welcome to Pathocracy

Image result for trump offends soldiers widow

“The presence or absence of conscience is perhaps the deepest human division.”

Ian Hughes

Last week Donald Trump put another nail in the coffin of health care for American citizens, especially the most vulnerable ones; undermined the painstakingly drafted and internationally supported Iran nuclear deal; challenged his Secretary of State to an IQ test; chastised residents of Puerto Rico for their audacity to suffer and die in a hurricane-caused mayhem, and berated football players for their willingness to protest racial injustice. He also proclaimed the next six days, October 15 to 21, National Character Counts Week.

Yes, you have read that correctly.

The man who lies easier than he breathes (there is that perpetual snort, you know), who takes sadistic pleasure in the pain and suffering of others, and who lives for adulation and revenge without any efforts at disguising his destructive motives, lectures America about character.

Let it sink it.

It is apparent that someone in the White House came up with this bizarre proposal to divert our and Trump’s own attention from the chaos and mayhem he sows around him and spreads upon the world; and to erase, in our minds and his, the awareness of it happening.

Also to silence his critics.

In this past several days we have seen a growing chorus of voices openly questioning Trump’s fitness for duty, starting with Senator Corker’s warning about our unstable leader starting WW3 — a very real possibility if Trump remains in office, let’s be extremely clear about it. The subject of Trump’s disordered character has been gaining renewed attention in the media, not in the least thanks to the new book, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” which has quickly gone to second printing and made the NYT bestsellers list the second week in a row. (I have written a chapter for it, on “Tyranny as a Triumph of Narcissism.”)

Trump and his handlers are determined to obscure and deny what we can clearly see every day: that he is profoundly unfit for his job and poses clear danger to our survival, not to mention to what passes for our democracy. The emperor has no conscience and we are not supposed to notice it.

But we do. It is beyond preposterous to watch a man who is a walking embodiment of the seven deadly sins pontificate about the importance of character, even if the idea and its execution came from his handlers, as it is undoubtedly the case. It is beyond absurd, and unbearable, to watch him carry on his destructive conduct as usual, even though we knew what to expect.

We are only at day three of National Character Counts Week as I’m writing this piece, and so far Trump has managed to

  1. lie about, insult and pick fights with families of killed soldiers;
  2. lie about and insult former presidents;
  3. sadistically and publicly humiliate his Chief of Staff by dragging his son’s death into the fray, a subject John Kelly was adamant about avoiding;
  4. threaten  Senator McCain who battles brain cancer with vicious retribution for daring to criticize him; and
  5. propose plundering Afghanistan’s national resources.

And that’s just the top of this sordid list. We are not observing National Character Counts Week, but National (or at least presidential) Character Disorder Counts Week. One word, a yuge difference.

Jennifer Rubin sums up the ongoing debacle of the last few days by stating that

Trump may in fact be reaching the point at which the 25th Amendment becomes a consideration. In the future, we must never, ever elect someone as intellectually, temperamentally and morally deficient as Trump. He remains a menace to the country. 

She is right, of course. But in order to not ever elect someone as deficient as Trump, a mistake human societies make time and again, we must learn to recognize and name this particular deficiency — because it has a name — to better understand the dangers it represents and ways to avoid it.

Narcissistic psychopathy, a.k.a malignant narcissism is a character defect that manifests, mainly, in a severely impaired or absent conscience and an insatiable drive for power, adulation and revenge. Its other essential features are Machiavellianism — a tendency to deceive, manipulate and use people for one’s own gain; and sadism — a desire to inflict pain on others for one’s pleasure.

Narcissistic psychopathy is fixed (inflexible, unchangeable), permanent (won’t go away with time) and incurable. It is also inherently destructive.

This means that individuals affected with it, especially when in power, cannot be counted on doing the right and decent thing — on the contrary: they prove time and again that they live for destruction as it gives them a sense of power and pleasure.

Narcissistic psychopaths clamor for power and, if skilled and/or lucky enough, they achieve it. Once in power, they fully exhibit their pathology as they are no longer inhibited by the need to curb it to secure other people’s approval. We call it decompensation, but it is actually the narcissistic psychopath coming into his own, unleashing the contents of his defective psyche on the world without any constraints.

Not having a conscience means that narcissistic psychopaths are incapable of experiencing empathy, guilt, shame, as well as understanding and respecting higher human values (compassion, truth, justice, equality, freedom).

Their insatiable and thus usually frustrated desire for power and adulation, and a sadistic, irrepressible need for revenge (this is the narcissist part of narcissistic psychopathy) manifest in acts of aggression, verbal and/or physical, or in draconian, punitive political decisions if NPs happen to have such power. Often both.

In practical terms, it means that, for example, our narcissistic psychopath may go to a disaster-stricken area for a photo-op and once there, will toss paper towels to people who have lost everything, hamming it up for the cameras and bragging afterwards about his humanitarian efforts.

Then, when criticized for it, he will contemptuously chastise his critics, call them names, and try to refocus his own and everyone else’s attention on the softness of the paper towels he tossed. Meanwhile, he redoubles his efforts to starve the afflicted of the desperately needed governmental assistance and blames them for their predicament.

This is not just cluelessness, this is sadism, a feature of narcissistic psychopathy. It is also glaring evidence that he cannot be counted on understanding sentient beings and their suffering, and, for that matter, reality as such. His incurable emotional and cognitive deficits make it impossible. He can be counted on, however, to destroy anyone and anything that will interfere with his drive for power and adulation. Ultimately, this will be the world.

Normal people may not understand this pathology. They look for normal explanations, which often assume, incorrectly, that a narcissistic psychopath may change; that “deep down” he suffers from repressed guilt and/or low self-esteem; that he does evil “accidentally” and/or out of fear of something.

There is nothing accidental about the destruction narcissistic psychopaths, especially in power, inflict on the world. Destruction is coded in their character defect. They not only lack empathy and conscience, which makes them incapable of understanding human values, but they are driven to hurt and destroy everyone and everything that stands on their way to power and self-aggrandizement, and/or reminds them of their weaknesses. It is not a question of IF a narcissistic psychopath in power will destroy his world, but how soon.

Narcissistic psychopathy is the most dangerous form of psychopathology known to humankind. It is shared by all tyrants in human history, among other unsavory types. It is not mental illness, although this term is sometimes used to describe it, and there are some forms of mental illness, most notably paranoia, that are often associated with it. Diagnostic nomenclature aside, this character pathology is not a medical issue as there is no medical (or any) cure for it (although some associated symptoms may be medically managed). Narcissistic psychopaths are also not known for seeking  help, although normal people who have a misfortune to live or work with them often do. But it is a public health problem since character defective individuals are responsible for most man-made evil in the world. They destroy families,  organizations and countries. And we let them, mostly because we don’t understand what is happening and why.

This makes it imperative for us, human beings world over, to educate ourselves about dangers of these character defects and their consequences, and to keep those afflicted from power, since once they achieve it, their destructiveness is exponentially magnified.

The moral injury, for one, that blatant violations of norms and contemptuous disregard for values by a conscience-defective leader cause in people with a more or less functioning conscience is real and damaging. It induces anxiety, confusion, hopelessness, helplessness and defeat, eventually leading to depression, anomie and alienation. And that is by design, however unconscious it may be, as people alienated from their own selves and each other are more easily exploited by toxic leaders.

In his recent article for The Atlantic, Norm Ornstein described Trump’s government as kakistocracy — a governance by the incompetent and unscrupulous fools, the worst of society. A more accurate term, however, is pathocracy — governance by individuals with a seriously defective or missing conscience, specifically psychopaths, narcissists and their ilk. “States are as the men are; they grow out of human characters,” as Plato reminded us in The Republic, ca. 380 BC, describing how democracies turn into tyrannies.

The distinction (kakistocracy vs pathocracy) matters, as this kind of governance and destruction of society it ushers is not a result of some bumbling foolery, but of malignant and predictable actions of character defective individuals. Conscience-based character defects represent a well described though often misunderstood form of psychopathology; and those afflicted with them are drawn to power and influence others, including society at large, in predictable ways. Andrew Lobaczewski’s Political Ponerology is devoted to the problem of pathocracy and the character pathologies behind it. SystemsThinker‘s website has a good summary of Lobaczewski’s work.

Pathocracies — pathological human systems run by conscience-deficient people  — establish themselves so easily (yes) mostly because normal people remain either uneducated or in denial, and perhaps both, about the character pathology that gives rise to them.

Usually, pathocracies develop around a charismatic leader with a narcissistically psychopathic (malignantly narcissistic) character disorder. Lobaczewski called such charismatic narcissistic psychopaths “spellbinders.”

Narcissistic psychopaths are both malevolent and incompetent, as people without a conscience are incapable of building and supporting anything that expresses higher and lasting human values, no matter their IQ or expertise. Their intelligence, typically narrow and one-sided, bereft of broad abstract thinking abilities, is subsumed under primitive drives for power and adulation.

Once they achieve ultimate power in society — a process made easier by their lack of scruples, inhibitions, and empathy and respect for others — they start remaking it in their image. They do it through trampling on and dismantling society’s norms and undoing its laws, replacing them with their primitive versions (if at all) meant to satisfy their need for power, money and adulation.

Establishing pathocracy proves to be frighteningly easy when conditions are right, i.e. when the society is weakened by internal strife and facing external threats. It quickly becomes apparent how many so-called normal people are eager to support the narcissistic psychopath’s rule and obey his orders. There is never a shortage of sycophants ready to justify and enact any of his unlawful, inhumane and sadistic orders. Pathocracies are therefore tests of conscience, and what they tend to reveal about human nature does not inspire confidence in it (yet).

Employment of paralogisms — ways of distorting facts and replacing them with their propagandist “alternative” versions; and paramoralisms — perverting values by insisting that evil is good and vice versa, is how pathocrats change relatively normal shared reality of a society into what Robert Jay Lifton calls malignant normality. In the malignant normality of pathocracy up is down, war is peace, vice is virtue, and the conscienceless leader proclaims National Character Count Week to obscure his latest misdeeds. Forty six percent of Republicans believe that attacking North Korea is a good idea, while 46% of all Americans are convinced that the news media make up stories about Trump. Pathocracy normalizes individual and collective disorder and enables its spread.

People without a conscience (psychopaths) are a minority in the human society, about 4 percent, according to Martha Stout; but as their character defect drives them to power they are inordinately represented in leadership positions.

Stout says:

But what does 4 percent really mean to society? As points of reference to problems we hear about more often, consider the following statistics: The prevalence rate for anorexic eating disorders is estimated at 3.43 percent, deemed to be nearly epidemic, and yet this figure is a fraction lower than the rate for antisocial personality. The high-profile disorders classed as schizophrenia occur in about 1 percent of us — a mere quarter of the rate of antisocial personality — and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention say that the rate of colon cancer in the USA, considered “alarmingly high,” is about 40 per 100,000 — one hundred times lower than the rate of antisocial personality. Put more succinctly, there are more sociopaths among us than people who suffer from the much publicized disorder of anorexia, four times as many sociopaths as schizophrenics, and one hundred times as many sociopaths as people diagnosed with a known scourge such as colon cancer. (Stout, 2005, p.8)

Lobaczewski estimated that about 6% of the population becomes part of the pathological ruling class in pathocracy, with another 12% of variously conscience-impaired individuals serving in supportive roles. The rest of the population, people with normally functioning conscience, chafe and suffer under the pathocrats’ rule, which eventually ends as it must. Any human system built on lies and oppression is doomed to fail — people of conscience and human values always prevail, but only after much misery and destruction caused by pathocracies.

Two weeks ago there was a conference at Yale titled How Do Democracies Fall Apart (And Could It Happen Here?). One of the major takeaways from it was a consensus that “democracies don’t fall apart — they’re taken apart”  through deliberate decisions of human beings.

Sean Illing writes about it, quoting Nancy Bermeo:

Usually, it’s because the people in power take democratic institutions for granted. They become disconnected from the citizenry. They develop interests separate and apart from the voters. They push policies that benefit themselves and harm the broader population. Do that long enough, Bermeo says, and you’ll cultivate an angry, divided society that pulls apart at the seams.

What Illing and Bermeo describe here is exactly the kind of damage inflicted on society by character defective, conscience-impaired leaders, although there is no indication that character pathologies and their destructive influences on democracy were discussed during the conference.

This is not an unusual omission. For some reason we are unable and maybe unwilling to see how people with conscience-impairing character defects influence our lives, and that’s as there appears to be an increase in the number of these individuals in positions of political power since the Cold War. The corresponding increase in the popularity of fascistic ideologies and parties around the globe is more easily noted in our collective awareness.

We are not very good at spotting those defects in the first place, an ignorance with tragic consequences. Polish psychiatrist and psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski warned us,  decades ago, that

Our inability to recognize the psychological type of psychopaths causes immense suffering, mass terror, violent oppression, genocide and the decay of civilization.

THE question begging itself time and again is when will we open our eyes?

In February this year, historian Timothy Snyder gave an interview to German English language publication, Suddeutsche Zeitung, that was titled We Have a Year to Defend American Democracy, Perhaps Less. He was correct in his predictions of what would happen to America under Trump, as were those of us who warned about them based on understanding of the psychopathology at work here.

It is incumbent upon our lawmakers to take the warnings of mental health experts and historians seriously.

Our Positive Disintegration

And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Patient Trust

These are the times of disintegration.

Its first symptoms became vaguely sensed and then reported by the therapists, massage and others, concerned about the rising anxiety levels of their clients, as well as their own, in the spring of last year. And we know that there is a problem when the East Coast massage therapists report it. It ain’t real till the $250-per-hour-masseur’s comfortably afflicted client bemoans. Canaries in coal mines and all that.

The more tangible yet ignored disintegration, of the unmassageable kind, has been progressing in America for decades, driven by the corporate greed that has shrank the middle class and enslaved the working (and not) poor, fed the war machine and violence within our borders, led to the declining health of the populace, and an erosion of social bonds. It has been growing a split, on every level of existence, between the haves and have-nots, the comfortable and the afflicted, between men and women, between people of different religions and races, between human beings and other living species. We are seeing now that there never has been one America indivisible under God, but several disparate ones existing in opposition and a perpetual, deepening conflict fueled by rapacious capitalism.

The disintegration we are experiencing now was not caused by Trump/ism, but revealed through it. At its core, as it is always the case, lies a clash of values, specifically the clash of primitive, dehumanizing pursuits of power, money and self-aggrandizement, with higher universal human values, the importance of which, and their dearth in our lives, has been dramatically unveiled in this conflict. This clash has pierced our willful blindness, unearthing the rifts in our society which we pretended, for too long, did not exist.

The breakthrough is not done yet, however — the revelation is rarely if ever complete. Neither the powerful and privileged, nor those who seek a sense of power and validation through identification with the strongman understand it. Yes, judging by the proliferation of the poverty porn — the journos’ heartfelt dispatches from the forgotten America where despair and decay rule — the awareness of this one rift, among many, may be growing; however, history teaches us that narcissism is not broken by seeing but only through living, if that. As long as poverty is something the haves use as topics for their award-winning exposes, books and sermons from the Mount of TED (at $7,500 a pop), rather than see as an affront to their humanity demanding direct personal engagement through decisive social action, they will not see well, if at all.

We don’t like to talk seriously about our values, certainly not how they relate to mental health of individuals and nations, because such conversations, if honest, would necessitate change — and nobody likes change. Yes, we trot out values for important speeches and other special occasions, bragging about them and using them as weapons with which to clobber our opponents. In general, though, we relegate them to the domains of religion and/or the feel-good, for those comfortable enough in life, monetized spirituality. There they can be either safely ignored, and/or dangled over the heads of the suffering masses as something to maybe aspire to, some day. But as long as the masseurs’ clients remained mostly satisfied, authentic values, or rather their lack, had no emotional impact on the consciousness of the nation. Until now.

Now,  as the darkness is making itself rapidly visible, thanks to the short-fingered vulgarian whose lack of manners has made even the well-mannered panic, it cannot be ignored so easily — although it is not for the lack of trying, because if there is one thing that America has perfected is the art of denial. This is why the country, as we believed we have known it, is disintegrating now, and with it our complacent, erroneous beliefs about it and ourselves. This process is inevitable; and although it is and will be painful, it is also potentially positive, for many individuals and maybe even the entire nation.

That because even though disintegration, personal and not, is something that is typically feared — understandably so, as it means destruction of what’s known and thus safe – there is also another, positive way to look at it.

Positive Disintegration

The alternative view of disintegration of the personal kind was articulated over half a century ago by a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, Kazimierz Dabrowski, who observed that his patients struggling with neurotic and especially psychoneurotic symptoms (the difference is the predominance of the mental over somatic problems in the latter) were creative, thoughtful, and yearning to change themselves and the world.

He also noted that all creative people who have left the positive mark on the world – especially artists, philosophers, moral exemplars and saints – frequently struggled with similar psychological difficulties which, painful as they were, often enriched their characters, stimulated their creativity, and propelled their development. Thus rather than pathologize such symptoms, or otherwise make his patients conform to the status quo, Dabrowski stressed their positive value as both harbingers and mechanisms of personality development.

His clinical experience led him to develop the Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD), which posits that, far from being destructive and undesirable, many forms of psychological suffering — anxiety, depression, doubts, inner conflicts, even psychosis — are positive and necessary for emotional and personality development. More often than not, they are expressive of the emerging understanding of the multilevel nature of reality, inner and external, and, related, an objectively existing hierarchy of human values. This understanding becomes a basis of personality growth through positive disintegration.

Dabrowski’s theory is well worth knowing, but even though its creator spent part of his life in the US and he and his work were warmly received for a time by the greats of American psychology, it never gained popularity here, for some reasons that are more obvious than others. Two of them seem to loom large.

One, people in general, and Americans in particular, do not like being reminded that pain and suffering are an inextricable part of the human condition. We understandably want to avoid both; and when we can no longer do so, we still try — through distractions, medication, or employment of various forms of magical thinking, from self-help to positive psychology. Not that there is anything terribly wrong with such attempts; however, they offer only temporary solutions — and sometimes no solutions at all; sometimes they obscure the source of our suffering and the means of its amelioration, which is authentic growth and change.

Two, the theory is counter-cultural in that its ideas go against the prevailing (unilevel, as Dabrowski would call them) beliefs and social mores, with a potential to revolutionize our outlook on mental health and disorder, and our life in general.

Unlike other theories of human development, TPD presents, and assists, the human being in the dynamic, arduous and often tragic process of becoming.

It postulates that mental health is the capacity for personality development, which is understood as a conscious dismantling of our more or less primitively integrated (egocentric) individuality, and replacing it with a consciously chosen and created (altruistic) personality. That process, called positive disintegration, is rooted primarily in our emotional-motivational sphere, and guided by deeply felt and lived universal values embedded in our conscience. A recognition of an objectively existing hierarchy of universal human values is essential for development, although Dabrowski avoids specifying what that hierarchy looks like. Instead, he advocates studying the lives of moral exemplars to arrive at its understanding and empirical verification.

Personality development, if done right, inevitably sets us on a collision course with the unjust world in which we live, and with everything that is primitive, unevolved and destructive within ourselves.

One of the major developmental dynamisms — internal forces guiding our individual growth as described in TPD — is positive maladjustment: a lack of adjustment to the world as is, guided by our vision of what ought to be which turns us into eternal misfits, “guests of reality,” to use a title of Par Lagerkvist’s story.

Positive maladjustment is always rooted in universal human values embedded in our conscience and gives rise to our protest, internal and external, against the inhumane status quo. Sometimes this protest can take a form of non-cooperation and/or silence, or even mental illness, but it is still positive and expressive of better mental health than unreflective adjustment to what is. Jiddu Krishnamurti reminded us that “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Positive disintegration may start with positive maladjustment, which then awakens other developmental dynamisms such as guilt, shame, astonishment with oneself, disquietude with oneself, subject-object in oneself, and others that create the basis for transcending our biological and social limitations through personality growth.

This growth through positive disintegration, from primitive egocentrism / narcissism to conscious altruism, can be also expected, to some degree at least, in human groups and entire societies inspired and guided by moral exemplars. We can see it clearly in the social and political changes which expanded human rights and affirmed human values like freedom, equality and justice that took place thanks to the work of Gandhi, MLK, or Anna Walentynowicz, the mother of Solidarity movement in Poland.

While the full scope and depth of TPD are impossible to summarize in one article, one aspect that begs special attention here is its conceptualization of human society on the spectrum of emotional development.

TPD posits five levels of development — the table in this article shows how humanity fits on those levels:

  1. primary integration, where a pursuit of biological imperatives and unreflective adjustment to social norms rules;
  2. unilevel disintegration — the time of  ambivalencies and ambitendencies, intense inner conflicts between equally valued, usually unilevel options;
  3. spontaneous multilevel disintegration, when we see inner conflicts between what is and what ought to be; a first awakening of conscience;
  4. organized multilevel disintegration which marks the full awakening of conscience and beginning of inner transformation;
  5. secondary integration where a sense of purpose and meaning derived from the realization of higher values rule and guide us, harmoniously, toward transcending our biological and psychological type; inner peace; universal compassion and empathy are predominant developmental dynamisms.

As we can see,  this multilevel spectrum of character / personality development is also a spectrum of conscience, since our conscience is the active ingredient which makes development possible.

Dabrowski talks about the “overactive conscience” of psychoneurotics, who, endowed with multiple forms of overexcitability, feel and respond to life and its problems more deeply and acutely. This “oversensitivity” leads to frequent frustrations, pain, inner conflicts, doubts, and traumas, but also signals the existence of and activates developmental forces that enable healing and growth. The active conscience is an indispensable condition of emotional development. Dabrowski considered it a separate developmental dynamism and called it the third factor (the first factor is our biological endowment, and the second factor are the influences of our social world). Advanced emotional and personality development is impossible without the third factor.

The health of a society can be measured by the number of people who have achieved the level of personality, and by the emotional and moral health of the average people inhabiting the so-called statistical norm. The greater the number of moral exemplars, but also average people who are closer in their character profiles to psychoneurotics (folks with an overactive conscience), the healthier the society. Unfortunately, in most human societies the so-called average people are closer in their (lack of) development to psychopaths, as Dabrowski noted.

Psychopathy: “the greatest obstacle to development of individuals and societies.”*

Dabrowski was one of the first mental health experts who tried to bring the world’s attention to the dangers posed by psychopaths. His writings show an astute understanding of the effect that psychopathic individuals have on society. He warned that “our general inability to recognize the psychological type of psychopaths causes immense suffering, mass terror, violent oppression, genocide and the decay of civilization” (Dabrowski 1973).

He himself suffered persecution in political regimes created by psychopaths in power. Imprisoned and mistreated first by the Nazis and then by communists, he saw his work impeded and its fruits destroyed, along with his reputation and professional standing under communism. Nevertheless, he persisted.

Dabrowski’s views on psychopathy, which is characterized by an absent conscience, and its (clinical) opposite, psychoneurosis, defined by an “overactive conscience,” and on positive disintegration, are distinctly applicable to this moment in history, so let’s spend a moment on them here.

Psychopathy is a highly integrated character structure where intelligence is subsumed under primitive drives: for sex, money, and power. Psychoneurotics, in contrast, are nearly chronically disintegrated, as their increased sensitivity (overexcitability) weakens their primitive drives through introduction of conflicting motives and ideas, inhibitions, inner doubts, and ambivalencies. Their primitive drives, if present at all, are usually engaged in an inner battle with an overactive conscience, leading to much inner turmoil, which tends to subside with the growth of personality in those predisposed to it.

Psychopaths are incapable of grasping or experiencing higher values, while psychoneurotics are preoccupied with them to the detriment of their “successful” adjustment to everyday life and its requirements. That’s one reason why psychopaths, unlike psychoneurotics, are usually viewed favorably (and erroneously) by society as good leaders since they present as strong, decisive and “level-headed.” Yes, they are strong and decisive, but driven by unilevel — egocentric, primitive and thus destructive – motives, and their actions bring much suffering to others.

Psychoneurotics, on the other hand, are seen as impractical and ineffective, lost in reality, and/or “pathologically” maladjusted to it, since their motivations are “not from this world,” rooted as they are in the realm of the highest ideals which their oversensitive, overexcitable and conflicted nature cannot always, if ever, translate into everyday reality.

Dabrowski said that “Psychopaths have aims but not values. Psychoneurotics have values but not aims. Personalities have both values and aims.” (Dabrowski 1970, p. 160) One of developmental goals for psychoneurotics is to learn how to overcome their doubts and inhibitions and put their idealism with its values into consistent practice. This quest, not surprisingly, is what defines developmental struggles of all idealists, creatives and reformers world over.

Periods of social disintegration provide just the right opportunity to do so.

In times of social strife and upheaval, when the going gets tough because human values come under threat from conscienceless individuals and systems, psychoneurotics often find their mettle and proper role – and goals – in society. Thanks to their lived understanding of human values, they are capable of seeing both dangers of current events and often the correct ways of counteracting them. And so, for instance, people who may have lingered in a limbo of their own inner conflicts and doubts, spring to righteous action when confronted with the threat of encroaching tyranny, organizing and participating in a multifaceted resistance movement. We see this happening today on a large scale in America and the world.

In addition to external threats, such as those caused by oppressive political regimes that engender mass protest and rebellion, situations that spur positive disintegration in predisposed individuals include disappointments and traumas which lead us to a confrontation with our shadow, individual and collective, and a critical re-examination of our way of life. This confrontation, painful and difficult by necessity, enables emotional and spiritual growth of individuals, first, and then entire groups of people. It is the process of making darkness visible, so that we can better understand and tame it to aid our development.

The resultant disquietude, guilt and shame – feelings that are much maligned and unwelcome in our narcissistic society – bring us down to the level of truth, which also contains a possibility of redemption and transformation. This happens through restoration of our most important and cherished values in our daily life.

Such disintegrative experiences teach us that once we confront and comprehend the darkness residing in our hearts, we will choose to replace it with love and compassion. But as long as we lurch toward ritual sacrifice of The Others, instead of examining the fear, rage, and hatred that drive it, individual and mass scale encounters with our shadow will keep repeating with a frightening regularity, enlarging our misery to better direct our attention to what’s going on.

Thanks to Trump/ism, we are entering, or rather opening and deepening, a period of our collective “dark night of the soul,” which is a prolonged confrontation with our shadow. That journey to Hades must be undertaken if we are to see our true nature and choose, freely, its aspects worth cultivating, while abandoning the unworthy ones, which we have allowed to take over our lives for too long.

By opening for all to see the chasm between the primitive, valueless existence of psychopaths and their ilk, and the conscience-driven lives of exemplars of the highest levels of emotional development — or even just the “regular people” who have not shut down their conscience — this confrontation presents a unique opportunity for personal and collective growth. It becomes as clear as never before what’s most important in our short lives on this planet — and for the conscience-endowed, it won’t be the primitive goals of psychopaths. We can no longer deny this truth; but if for some reason we still do, and we are not character impaired, our positive disintegration will continue to manifest through our unsettled conscience.

With the emerging clarity comes freedom and resolve to reclaim and put our cherished values in action — because that’s where they really matter — with the positively maladjusted leading the way.  As difficult as this process is, it is a beginning of a much needed positive change for many, if not for all.


*In: Dabrowski, K. (1986). Trud istnienia. Warszawa: Wiedza Powszechna. p. 123

Dabrowski, K., Kawczak, A., Sochanska, J. (1973). The Dynamics of Concepts. London: Gryf Publications.

Dabrowski, K., Kawczak, A., Piechowski, M.M. (1970). Mental growth through positive disintegration. London: Gryf Publications Ltd.


Originally written in September 2016. Slightly updated for 2017.

On “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump”

Pleased to announce that The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump is coming out in a few weeks. Yours truly is privileged to have contributed a chapter there, on “Tyranny as a Triumph of Narcissism.”

Here’s Bill Moyers‘ early review of the book and interview with Robert Lifton.

Also, Duty to Warn is organizing various events — marches, lectures and meetings — around the country on October 14, 2017. Come to one near you!


“Now More Than Ever:” On Straitjacketing Trump

Image result for trump fire and fury pictures

The phrase Now more than ever has been used liberally in our media since November last year, more often than not to sell something. The New York Times uses it to push subscriptions, for example, and it is not alone in this. Now more than ever did not matter, though, when the NYT had an opportunity to alert America to the clear and imminent dangers presented by the GOP candidate in 2016. The paper, like all others, disregarded repeated explicit warnings sent to it by mental health professionals who described Trump’s fixed, inflexible character defect with its predictable manifestations and consequences for the country and the world.

Another phrase one hears often these days is “future historians” — as in, future historians will be perplexed trying to figure out why America elected the least qualified and most dangerous person in the country for president.

There are solid reasons why this happened, and some of them have been touched upon in the public discourse. The most important one, however, the American narcissism which Trump/ism both represents and reflects to the still unseeing like a glaring mirror, remains a taboo. Trump/ism is here to remind us urgently that we must change: we must dismantle and transcend our grandiosely deluded notions of ourselves and build a better, more just and equal world. America is at a crossroads and has a chance to turn this crisis into an opportunity for meaningful growth. But first it must save itself and the world from imminent danger posed by its inherently destructive leader.

Now more than ever we need future historians and psychologists, to bring this nation to its senses or whatever is left of them. One hopes against hope that they would be able to explain to the sizable portion of the American population in thrall of the evil unfolding around it what’s in store for them if the catalyst of that evil remains in power. Presumably, those future experts will know ways to open people’s minds enough to change them. One hopes against hope.

We’ve just witnessed the most Trumpian of Trump’s performances yet — and our pathocracy is still young. For those of us who were raised on Hitlerism, the Phoenix rally was sickeningly familiar, especially in the relentless scapegoating and unloading of narcissistic rage on The Others. “They are trying to take away our history and our heritage,” he bellowed, inciting hatred and bloodlust, as did the other leader in 1930’s Germany and as did all leaders like them in our human history. Some things never change.  This is not a dog whistle but a bullhorn. Not surprisingly, the Nazis applauded.

In Phoenix, Trump reveled in his ceaseless streak of lies and personal grievances delivered in a tone of someone who practices his speech in the mirror for the audience of one. No accident, that, since Trump is THE designated audience of his performances. People who attend his rallies are just props filling his echo chamber of self-adulation. It doesn’t matter that they many of them are fake fans, as evidenced by, among other things, their behavior. Early on, a man just  behind Trump held a sign “Women for Trump,” giggling and feigning (?) surprise when it was pointed out to him. He weaponizes his own rage by spreading it onto his followers who are only too eager to take on what they perceive as a shared cause of aggrieved entitlement.

Back at Mar-a-Lago, Trump will watch his rally repeatedly and demand his handlers to affirm how great he was. His public performances have the aura of hypnotic theatricality because almost none of he says is real in the sense of being grounded in human values or facts.  He does not write his speeches nor understands most words in them, save those that express his pathological desires for power (“win,” “losers”), adulation and revenge. Those he enunciates with the kind of relish that makes non-psychopathic people cringe.

His rallies, like his presidency, are adulation-and-power garnering acts — there is nothing solid or true about them, not in the sense normal people — people with a conscience — understand. They are vehicles for his pathological emotions, just as the other guy’s rallies were, and as such human occasions always are. Groups are always more pathological than individuals, which is one reason why character disordered leaders and followers form such a strong bond: it allows them to normalize and enact their sick impulses  without a fear of judgment.

There is logic and predictability in this pathology, as there always is in cases of human behavior (future psychologists and historians should explain it one day to everyone’s satisfaction). There is a reason, for instance, why this horrific lie-and-hate-fest came a day after a more somber, praised by some journalists, speech on Afghanistan. It is the same reason why Trump delivered his jaw-dropping “fire and fury” threat to North Korea looking as though he was straitjacketed.

Many people wondered about his seemingly defensive posture of crossed arms and petulant demeanor as he spontaneously issued a stunning death threat to another country. His body language expressed how constrained he feels by the presence of the seemingly competent adults around him, those generals who remind him of his military school days and supposedly can reign in his misbehavior. Whenever Trump is forced to act like a human being with a conscience rather than freely show his narcissistically psychopathic self, he experiences it as an unbearable imposition, a wounding which he must undo — unwound — in order to feel like his old “winning” self. And he unwounds best by wounding others, 10 times as hard, as we have been told.

That’s why any attempts to tame or civilize him are futile: he is a walking wound in a perpetual need of unwounding — the harder, the better; such is the pathology of narcissistic psychopaths (a.k.a malignant narcissists). We should ask his former teachers and siblings — they would tell us if they had the courage to tell the truth. He cannot stand to be forced to pretend to be a normal human being.

Any self-serving delusions we may cultivate about our mighty generals controlling Trump should be dissolved quickly, for everyone’s sake. The generals most likely know it already, unlike many of our journalists who are still mired in the swamp of denial. While Trump may partially and superficially submit to his handlers’ guidance, his demeanor says it all: he resents any and all interference with his vengefully grandiose plans and will do what he can do subvert it. And he can do a lot of evil,  and nobody will stop him.

This was shown in the unprompted “fire and fury” announcement accompanied by a resentful and defiant straitjacketed posture, and now in the horrendous display of his insatiable id (not as though there is any other kind) during the Phoenix rally which followed his fake somber (and still unacceptable) Afghanistan speech. Whenever Donny is forced to pretend to do something right, he will have to  — yes, it’s a compulsion — undo it to feel better.

People with Trump’s character defect never do anything good or even decent. This is not a demonization, this is a fact, difficult as it may be to understand and accept for some. Bereft of a conscience, these individuals are incapable of recognizing higher values and have no internal correspondence for positive affective states associated with them. If anything, they look with contempt upon values and people who try to live their lives accordingly. In their eyes, those people are “suckers” to be used and abused. If something that a man like Trump does appears good or decent, you can be certain that it is either an accident — which he will try to undo ASAP — or part of a larger, nefarious agenda meant to benefit him and harm others. If there is one thing everyone, and especially the members of our media, should know in these times of Trumpism, it is this.

Tragically, our journalists are still unable to see and understand it, although some may be slowly opening their eyes. The Afghanistan speech was followed by another batch of journalistic pronouncements of Trump’s non-existent near-virtues. Apparently he was that close to the ever elusive pivot. Why, even as the Phoenix rally was going on, the WaPo editorial board praised Trump’s “welcome self-correction” in his supposed Afghanistan stance (as if he understood anything about the country and its needs).

Steeped as they are in their own narcissism and blinded by the proximity to power, many journalists do not grasp the danger awaiting us. Maybe our future historians and psychologists can explain what is going on more clearly to them, one of these days after the dust of our inevitable mayhem finally settles.

Our future experts may also issue a word of warning to those who expect that Trump’s inevitable demise (tyrants always fall) will make America great again. Nothing is further from the truth. Trump has not caused the disorder we witness, he has merely revealed it and brought it to our attention, as we refused to see it for far too long. Some, those who expect that the removal of Trump would fix everything, continue to do so. It is a mistake.

Narcissistic psychopaths have a knack for violently, sadistically pulling scabs off people’s individual and collective wounds, unveiling the sickness that festers underneath. It is painful and horrifying, but also potentially healing if the revealed sickness is properly diagnosed and attended to. America’s process of (maybe positive) disintegration has just begun, for worse and possibly for better once we get through the worse part and learn from it, if we do.

Meanwhile, now more than ever let’s remember the following and act before our Destroyer-in-Chief fully comes into his own:

What we know about malignant narcissists is that they psychologically decompensate once they achieve the ultimate position of power. They worsen in every possible way: become more grandiose and paranoid, more aggressive and demanding, and progressively less in touch with reality (and Trump has never been fully in touch with it).  We can expect his narcissistic rage to intensify in proportion to his growing grandiosity and paranoia. His handlers will have to resort to increasingly more “creative” ways to placate and subdue him — and it will work, for a while, until it doesn’t. There’ll be blood, symbolic, if not literal, as he’ll fire and destroy his previously “trusted” associates, maybe even in rapid succession and without any rhyme or reason. His demands for adulation will also become more intense and bizarre, and we’ll be witnessing idiotic and quite possibly dangerous displays of his “superiority” and might, likely military as well. This is where the possibility of him starting a war or two just to satisfy his ego becomes quite real. It’s not only that he will never get better, but it is certain that he will get worse. There has never been a case of a malignant narcissist in power whose pathology improved, or even remained stable: they always deteriorate, and often rapidly, as they become drunk on (what they see as) now unlimited power and adulation.