Well Being

Lance Armstrong Could Be A Narcissist … Or A Sociopath

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Today on the Atlantic, author and psychotherapist Joseph Burgo delves into the psyche of Lance Armstrong, whose doping, lying and other shenanigans have strangely transfixed American pop culture.

Burgo thinks that given Armstrong's “persistent lying and bullying, his arrogance and apparent indifference to the feelings of others,” he may have narcissistic personality disorder.

A lust for money, for fame, or for victory — these are the main motivations the world has assigned to Lance Armstrong following his revelations during the Oprah interview and his dubious mea culpa. Yet these explanations, though thoughtful and widely shared, don't fully account for his propensity to lie, no matter what the cost to others who challenge him, in order to achieve victory and preserve his heroic self-image.

The term “narcissist” is thrown around casually, most often as an insult or a description of someone who thinks too highly of themselves, he notes. However:

A deeper, psychological view of narcissism explains that Armstrong's personality works as a defense mechanism to ward off unconscious feelings of shame, defect or inferiority. The “Lance Armstrong” who for so long was adored by the public embodied a carefully constructed lie meant to disprove these feelings of unworthiness. Ongoing lies, in public statements and under oath, helped sustain the central lie of his existence: I'm a winner, not a loser. Over the years, whenever someone has challenged those lies, he has responded with swift brutality to protect that perfect image and prevent the return of shame.

Burgo goes on to explain the roots of “the unconscious feelings of shame” that plague people like Armstrong, citing emotional trauma during early childhood, a “chaotic family life, depressed or alcoholic mothers, absent fathers, physical or sexual abuse, etc.” And he explains how these things may inform Armstrong's recent behavior.

But … the whole thing feels more like Burgo started by deciding Armstrong was a narcissist and then looked for evidence to fit that hypothesis, rather than weighing all the evidence before coming to his diagnostic conclusion. As one commenter says, “I think the article describes the mechanisms behind the narcissistic personality well, but I question the application of it here.” It certainly seems like Burgo's engaging in the sort of casual throwing around of narcissism allegations he decries.

Luckily, I have no problem throwing around casual and unqualified mental health diagnoses (blogging!). I mean, far be it from me to second-guess the armchair psychoanalysis of a professional psychologist, but … I'm totally going to (does this make me a narcissist?), because everything Burgo's written about Armstrong just seems to scream sociopathy, if anything.

Sociopathy — now officially called antisocial personality disorder — is one of my favorite mental disorders to write and talk about because it's so widely misunderstood. Most people think sociopaths are necessarily violent, which is untrue. Mosby's Medical Dictionary defines antisocial personality disorder as:

a condition characterized by repetitive behavioral patterns that are contrary to usual moral and ethical standards and cause a person to experience continuous conflict with society. Symptoms include aggression, callousness, impulsiveness, irresponsibility, hostility, a low frustration level, marked emotional immaturity, and poor judgment. A person who has this disorder overlooks the rights of others, is incapable of loyalty to others or to social values, is unable to experience guilt or to learn from past behaviors, is impervious to punishment, and tends to rationalize his or her behavior or to blame it on others.

Emphasis mine — I bolded parts that sound like Armstrong. But those are also key elements of sociopathy, especially the inability to feel guilt or learn from past behaviors. That's what makes sociopaths so dangerous: They do not experience regret. They do not have the capacity most of us have to weight personal gain against the rights, feelings or safety of others.

Some sociopaths may also be violent. When antisocial personality disorder combines with aggression, drug abuse, sadism or other violent or fetishistic propensities, we get serial killers and genocidal leaders and other horrors. But your run-of-the-mill sociopath doesn't have the urge to strangle nurses or eradicate ethnic populations, just to satisfy his or her own desires and goals without regard to other people.

There's allegedly a high number of sociopaths in politics and among the upper echelons of the corporate world — it's obvious how a lack of moral concerns could be an advantage in these fields. But political and business success also requires high intelligence and charisma levels. Sociopaths do tend to be intelligent and charismatic, but again, aren't necessarily so. The best book I've seen on this is called The Sociopath Next Door, by Harvard psychologist Martha Stout, who says one in 25 Americans today are sociopaths.

Including Armstrong? Who knows? I'm just saying that the diagnosis seems to fit as well or better than narcissism, which Mosby's defines as:

a psychiatric diagnosis characterized by an exaggerated sense of self-importance and uniqueness, an abnormal need for attention and admiration, preoccupation with grandiose fantasies concerning the self, and disturbances in interpersonal relationships, usually involving the exploitation of others and a lack of empathy.

Obviously, the whole business — Burgo, me, you, anybody trying to analyze Armstrong's psyche based on media appearances and secondhand testimony — is silly, just a form of gossip or speculative media wankery. Maybe Armstrong is a narcissist, maybe he's a sociopath, maybe he's both — the two are often found together in individuals. Maybe Armstrong is totally psychologically normal and just a desperate asshole, caught in a web of deception and self-preservation. He sure as hell doesn't seem to feel any remorse, guilt or shame, however. If he's not a sociopath (or is but would rather everyone not know it), he might want to work on that one.