Lies, Evil And Narcissism
Back in 1983, well known American psychiatrist Scott Peck (1936-2005) published a book that by his own admission; “I have written it with trepidation,” was very difficult for him. That book was titled; People of the Lie. In this book he delves into the essence of human evil. Coming from a Christian perspective his tendency was to look at the subject through rose coloured glasses….somewhat coloured by his religious beliefs, but his writing goes a long way to putting the question of evil into a perspective that we can all understand and relate to, and unfortunately sometimes see and even get caught up in, in everyday life.
When I read this book so very long ago I came to better understand generally why people lie, and why they manipulate or otherwise wreak havoc with their own, as well as other people’s lives.
However the book became particularly disturbing for me when I began to read about a particularly dangerous TYPE of liar and on more than one occasion I had to stop, and take a step back before I was able to return and continue again. It wasn’t so much because of what I was reading, well actually it was but it was also because I recognized people who had come through my life that fit into Scott Peck’s definition of this type of liar and by extension this form of evil!
The experience of them was traumatizing to say the least.
Before going any further I should make the point that it is important to understand that not everyone who lies is evil but most certainly, everyone who is evil lies!
There has been much written about your “run-of-the-mill” liar if I can put it that way, so I do not have to spend any particular amount of time just regurgitating what probably most of you know already. Suffice to say and truth be told…..most every one of us reasonably normal, reasonably well adjusted individuals lies from time to time.
But why do we lie? There are some fundamental reasons for this:
Fear of harm: I think the easiest reason to understand why we lie is for self protection, including self deception, to prevent harm to ourselves. This harm can be either physical or mental.
Fear of punishment: When growing up, how often did we lie about how well we did in school or who started a fight to our parents? How often do we cover up our mistakes and transgressions because of this fear?
Fear of conflict: To some degree, we all fear having to deal with confrontation.
Fear of rejection: Sometimes, a fragile level of self-esteem is the basis for why we lie to each other, because we want to be and remain popular in our relationships. Typically, it is harmless boasting to make ourselves appear more admirable to other people.
Fear of loss: This is usually the loss of personal objects, such as money or expensive valuables. Greed is the foundation for this reason and can be found in each of us. We often lie to make ourselves more desirable to other people too. Most common, people lie for fear of losing an opportunity to have sex. Other times, when our self esteem starts to decline, we even lie to ourselves as a means to prevent loss of morale.
Altruistic Reasons: We often lie to help our friends and loved ones. How often do we flatter someone just to make them feel better? This is the only selfless reason why we lie.
Despite all the technical reasons why people lie, it all boils down to this; the fundamental reason why people lie is because it mostly works. At least for a while!
And because lying has become more understood in today’s society, it unfortunately has become more acceptable. It has sometimes even become an admirable and useful social skill.
“Lies of omission are every bit as bad as lies of commission.”
Now please do not misunderstand, these reasons for why so called normal people lie can have very serious, devastating consequences for those being lied to and for those lying but as stated they are not the subject of this essay. Believe it or not although I do not condone lying, lying for these reasons is not nearly as dangerous as those who lie because they are evil.
The Subject of Evil
According to Scott Peck; “evil is that force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness.” He goes on to say that some of us are very good and some of us very evil, and most of us are somewhere in between. We might therefore think of human good and evil as a kind of continuum. As individuals we can move ourselves one way or another along the continuum. Just as there is a tendency for the rich to get richer, however, and the poor to get poorer, so there seems to be a tendency for the good to get better and the bad to get worse.
For us to be able to get a better understanding and appreciation for the forces that act on people who are evil, Scott Peck suggests that we look at the phenomenon of narcissism.
Now it can be said that we are all of us self-centered to a lesser or greater degree and although we have a tendency to judge a situation or a plan according to our own advantage, most of us quite naturally, or as a result of our socialization are able to see things from another person’s perspective that is, from a viewpoint different from our own. In other words we can empathize with another and act accordingly.
The people whom Dr. Peck refers to as “evil” are those who lack this capacity for empathy, altogether. If you have been around for any length of time, you should be able to think of persons you know or who have come through your life as well, who emulate this type of behaviour!
It can be said that each of us is not only a unique entity but we do also have clearly marked boundaries which need to be recognized and respected if we are to live in peace with each other. A mentally healthy person is able to both, see and appreciate his/her own boundaries and those of others. “We must know where we end and others begin.” Narcissistic people lack this ability to distinguish between boundaries.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders DSM-IV-TR, published by the American Psychiatric Association, identifies 10 distinct personality disorders, narcissism being one of them. I read somewhere that 1 in 5 people could be diagnosed with some form of personality disorder.
The character of a person will always show through his/her personality by the way they think, feel and behave. When the behaviour is consistently pervasive, inflexible, maladaptive and antisocial over a period of time, then that individual is diagnosed with a personality disorder. Scott Peck would say that by virtue of their unwillingness to tolerate the sense of personal sin and the denial of their imperfection, an evil person would easily fit into this broad diagnostic category.
Typically, most personality disorders begin as problems in personal development and character which peak during adolescence or early adulthood and lead to distress or impairment ultimately being defined as a personality disorder.
Personality disorders are not illnesses in a strict sense as they do not disrupt emotional, intellectual or perceptual functioning. However, those with personality disorders suffer a life that is not positive, proactive or fulfilling. Not surprisingly, personality disorders are also associated with failures to reach potential.
Definition of a Narcissist
“People with a narcissistic personality have a sense of superiority, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. They have an exaggerated belief in their own value or importance, which is what therapists call grandiosity. They may be extremely sensitive to failure, defeat, or criticism. When confronted by a failure to fulfill their high opinion of themselves, they can easily become enraged or severely depressed. Because they believe themselves to be superior in their relationships with other people, they expect to be admired and often suspect that others envy them. They believe they are entitled to hav
ing their needs met without waiting, so they exploit others, whose needs or beliefs they deem to be less important. Their behaviour is usually offensive to others, who view them as being self-centered, arrogant, or selfish. This personality disorder typically occurs in high achievers, although it may also occur in people with few achievements.” Excerpt from: Merck Manuals (Online Medical Library)
There is a particular pathologic variant that the psychologist Erich Fromm (1900-1980) called “malignant narcissism.” Malignant narcissism is characterized by an unsubmitted will. All adults who are mentally healthy submit themselves one way or another to something higher than themselves, be it God or truth or love or some other ideal. They do what God wants them to do rather than what they would desire. “Thy will, not mine, be done,” the God-submitted person says. They believe in what is true rather than what they would like to be true.
Subject of Evil (PART II)
A predominant characteristic of the behaviour of the evil is scapegoating. Because in their hearts they consider themselves above reproach, they must lash out at anyone who does reproach them. Definition: Scapegoat – an innocent accused and forced to take blame. And more significant, one who is the object of irrational hostility.
Scapegoating works through a mechanism which psychiatrists call projection. Since the evil, deep down, feel themselves to be faultless, it is inevitable that while they are in conflict with the world, they will invariably perceive the conflict as the world’s fault. Since they must deny their own badness, they must perceive others as bad. They project their own evil onto the world. They never think of themselves as evil; on the other hand, they consequently see much evil in others.
The essential psychological problem of human evil is a particular variety of narcissism. Narcissism, or self-absorption, takes many forms. Some are normal. Some are normal in childhood but not in adulthood. Some are more distinctly pathological than others. If the central defect of the evil is not one of conscience, then where does it reside? The essential psychological problem of human evil is a particular variety of narcissism.
Surprisingly, except for their evil, evil people are most ordinary. They live down the street – on any street. They may be rich or poor, educated or uneducated. There is little that is dramatic about them. They are not designated criminals. More often than not they will be “solid citizens” – Sunday school teachers, policemen, or bankers, and active in the PTA.
We all know that the tendency of so-called evil people is to mostly evoke a feeling of repugnance in us and Dr. Peck feels that this is natural. However, while it is important to label a person’s character or actions as evil, he feels that it is necessary for us to also see that evil is a sickness and that the only way to really heal it, is through compassion. On the surface people who are seen as evil might not appear to suffer, but under the surface, they are battling with tremendous currents of fear. It is precisely through the attempt to keep fear at bay and their lack of preparedness to face reality that an “evil” person develops the kind of personality they do, so as not to have to acknowledge their own suffering.
So then, in summary, to a greater or lesser degree, all mentally healthy individuals submit themselves to the demands of their own conscience. Not so the evil, or narcissist however. In the conflict between their guilt and their will, it is the guilt that must go and the will that must win.
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To all the run-of-the-mill liars out there who I mentioned earlier in this article who are not evil or narcissistic, I would ask you to take a close look at what appears in the green box, there just might be something there of interest to you.