Charlie Sheen – Poster Child for Pathological Narcissism – And he's not alone

By Dr. Keith Witt
May 9, 2011
There’s something fascinating about a train wreck. Watching one unfold over an extended period both horrifies and magnetizes us. You probably are someone (or know someone) who’s experienced train-wreck fascination with the idiocy of the Viet Nam or Iraq wars, with the toxic bubble explosion of the mortgage crisis, or with the ramifications of Michael Jackson as a parent. You see the disasters unfolding before your eyes, and you can’t stop looking. Currently, most of us are observing the Charlie Sheen narcissism train wreck.

What is Pathological narcissism?

Pathological narcissism is when an individual believes himself superior, entitled, more beautiful, desirable, admirable, and deserving than others. This conviction of superiority is accompanied by shallow relationships and incredible abilities to turn others into objects existing solely to provide narcissistic supplies of praise, envy, and admiration. True empathy is vastly diminished in narcissists, and they easily demean and reject those that don’t give them the special attention and adulation they believe is their due. Usually pathological narcissism is created through combinations of genetic vulnerability and both indulgence and neglect from caregivers through infancy and childhood, though sometimes great success (being a top movie star in your early twenties?) kindles narcissistic fires that can burn out of control. Charlie’s narcissism might also be fueled by mania, the “high” half of manic-depressive—also called bipolar—disorder, where people have rushes of grandiose energy that make them alternate between hyped-up euphoria and out of control rages. Put this all together with cocaine addiction, and you have narcissism on steroids. In 2009 Jean Twinge and Keith Campbell listed a number of characteristic that distinguish narcissists in The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. See if you can find Charlie Sheen in any of them:
  • Brags about achievement (“I am all about winning”).
  • Focuses on physical appearance.
  • Uses big gestures (wall to wall interviews on major networks for days on end).
  • Turns conversations to self. (“But enough about me. How do you feel about me?”).
  • Manipulates and cheats to get ahead (ask his wife).
  • Has a posse/entourage that gives narcissistic supply.
  • Seeks trophy partners (matching porn stars anyone?).
  • Jumps at opportunities to garner attention (The “Giant Torpedo of Truth” Charlie Sheen Live Tour is now a reality).
  • Doesn’t value warm or caring relationships (Charlie seems to be executing friends and associates right and left—those that haven’t left him in disgust).
  • Rages and blames when the above strategies don’t deliver adulation and success (assaulting his wife, trashing his producer, denigrating Alcoholics Anonymous).
One reason rock stars (“I am a rock star!” says Charlie) are five times more likely to die than others is that celebrity status protects people from consequences. Just as managers used to pay off hotels for a band trashing rooms, and rock/fan magazines gave (and still give) passes to crazy behavior (like Michael Jackson’s molestation arrest and trial and Led Zeppelin’s infamous sex with shark steaks orgy), celebrities have more leeway than others to screw up their lives publicly and privately without major consequences.

That’s too bad.

Answering the question of how his daughters will think about his current excesses with statements like, “They’ll think their dad was cool,” and “I sign the front of the checks instead of the back,” should elicit major confrontation from friends and family—confrontations that might encourage facing the fact that he’s hurting lots of people by indulging his selfish, over-the-top impulses. I imagine the public spectacles we’ve been observing are only the tip of the iceberg of a crazy life. I also imagine that being the famous actor who’s a key player on a hit show has resulted in lots of passes for similar behaviors. An arrest for spousal abuse usually reflects an extended pattern of abuse. A flagrant coke habit usually means years of a secret coke habit.

What do you do?

If Charlie asked me for advice (unlikely since narcissists hate the part of therapy where they have to face their ugly inner demons), I’d suggest hospitalization for addiction and evaluation of whether he is bipolar and needs meds, and then regular long-term therapy to learn how to face and control his destructive impulses and establish and nurture healthy relationships. Robert Downy Jr.’s recovery is an inspirational model for drug addicts everywhere, but narcissism and possible mania turbocharge Charlie’s problems. A real possibility is Charlie dead or in jail in the near future—a waste of human life and artistic potential, and a tragedy to his family. And we won’t be able to help ourselves—we’ll watch the whole train wreck with horrified fascination.

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