Abnormal and Film Narcissistic Personality

Abnormal and Film

Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the Company of Men

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Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) has been portrayed numerous times in the media. Playing on the image of the Greek myth of Narcissus, who loved his own reflection in the water and eventually starved to death, films have given new character to this disorder. Nicholas Cage’s role in the Family Man (2000) and Roger in Roger Dodger (2002) are good recent examples. The narcissist typically cares only about himself or herself — usually the person is a man — and has an inflated self-image. This leads to hurtful antisocial actions towards others. Two of Neil LaBute’s films give almost classic depictions of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, in the Company of Men (1997) and the Shape of Things (2003). Wedding, Boyd, and Niemiec say, “The characters in each film have strong antisocial qualities evident in their complete disregard for others and social convention and in their pathological manipulation” (Wedding, Boyd, and Niemiec, 2005, p. 69). This paper wants to analyze this abnormal behavior by exploring the NPD portrait in Chad’s character from in the Company of Men.

The DSM-IV-TR defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as “a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy” (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, p. 685). It begins by early adulthood and often shades into antisocial personality disorder because of the lack of empathy. Of the nine distinguishing features of NPD, at least five of the following must be present for a diagnosis: (1) grandiose sense of self-importance; (2) preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love; (3) belief that he or she is “special” and unique, and should associate with other special or high-status people; (4) requirement for excessive admiration; (5) sense of entitlement and unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment or automatic compliance with expectations; (6) interpersonal exploitation; (7) lacking empathy; (8) envy of others; and (9) arrogant, haughty behaviors and attitudes (APA, 2000, p. 717). These are the broad diagnostic criteria.

People suffering from NPD idealize themselves. They expect others to cater to their desires. When compliance does not happen, they become angry. They consider it a sleight of their value, which they perceive to be superior. They feel themselves to be uniquely gifted. They have this crazy idea that they should be exceptions to the rule, allowed to do things others are not allowed to do. For example, they feel like they should not have to wait in line at the bank like others do. This gives them a bent toward risk and rule-breaking. They exaggerate as well. Sperry (1995) writes, “They take liberties with the facts, distort them, and even engage in prevarication and self-deception to preserve their own illusions about themselves and the projects in which they are involved” (p. 114). In addition, they are insensitive to hurting others. Often they cannot recognize the feelings of others. They might boast about themselves in the presence of a sick person, for example. Or they will devalue some people below them, while overvaluing others. They tend to demonstrate emotional coldness and lack of reciprocity. If they engage in a relationship or friendship, it is “only if the other person seems likely to advance their purposes or otherwise enhance their self-esteem” (APA, 2000, p. 715). Silverstein (2007) writes, “Another manifestation is a seductive Don Juanism dominated by patients’ grandiose fantasies about their abilities accompanied by indifference to their targeted objects’ needs” (p. 29). As we will see, this sketch fits Chad’s antisocial and aggrandizing behavior well.

What is interesting about NPD is that the overall sense of self-importance the person gives off is underlain by a fragile self-esteem. At heart, they are insecure and concerned with how others regard them. All of their behaviors mask fears, self-doubts, and hatreds. Their behaviors and attitudes are a false projection. They compensate for what is really within them a shallow or hollow shell. This makes them overly sensitive to criticism or defeat. Their reaction to criticism may be disdain or rage. It may also cause them to withdraw, although more frequently they just put on the mask to hide their feelings of shame and humiliation at having been degraded.

In the Company of Men portrays Chad (Aaron Eckhart) in a pattern of antisocial narcissism. A striking misogyny shows itself early on in the film. Chad’s view of women is hateful. He says, “Inside, they’re all the same: meat and gristle and hatred, just simmering.” He tells sexist jokes. He complains to his boss, Howard (Matt Malloy), about how poorly women treat men, blaming them for being rejecting. His view is that men need to put their foot down and “never lose control.” Out of this hatred, he develops a plan to exploit a vulnerable woman named Christine, who is deaf and innocent. It is like a revenge plot to restore men to dignity. He gets his friend to go along with the planned false seduction so that at the end they can just drop her, leaving her dashed. As the plot continues, Chad seduces her with lies and romance. He is a loveless predator. His philosophy is that “I don’t give a shit, not about anybody.” He wants to inflict pain. Before it all begins, he says, “Let’s hurt somebody.”

Chad demonstrates many of the other features of NPD. He is constantly looking in mirrors, laughing arrogantly, and adjusting his suit to make his appearance perfect. He feels entitled to good treatment and holds an idealized image of himself as fully successful. He demands that his inferiors comply with his business requests. If they show signs otherwise, he is angry and frustrated. Chad is arrogantly critical of others, both men and women, disdainfully calling them names. He clearly puts himself in a special category and operates out of a status hierarchy that does not allow him to consort with those below him. For instance, he demeans the painters, feels slighted when they don’t have better office equipment, and cannot stand the interns. He looks down on the interns for being dirty and associating with the shipping guys, and humiliates one of them, making him pull his pants down to prove that he has what it takes to make it in the business. What it does is show an abuse of power to assert his overestimated self-importance. He acts as though his advice should be cherished, and that they should aspire to be like him even though he calls them disgraceful. He clearly holds a grandiose illusion about himself. In fact, he treats his boss as an inferior, using his office for his own means, correcting him at meetings, once not allowing him even to sit down. In the end, he throws the boss over as well — probably his plan all along — by botching a meeting intentionally. Howard is demoted as a result of Chad’s sabotage, revenge for him having been chosen over Chad for the project management.

Most important is Chad’s lack of empathy. He laughs at Christine for her dolphin-like voice. When he breaks up with her because she has found out about their “game,” he can only laugh and asks her insincerely how she feels. He tells her, “I was gonna try and let you down easy but I can’t keep a straight face.” After she slaps him, he chides her: “It only hurts that much?” Callously, he leaves her there in pain, crying in a fetal position on the bed. This contrasts eloquently with Christine’s own sensitivity and makes the manipulation all the more cruel. Nowhere does he show any remorse. Howard ends up actually loving Christine. When he comes to talk about her, because he cannot eat or sleep, Chad shows no sympathy at all. He is cold and removed. In fact, he reveals that his own girlfriend had never left him, as he said she had. The twist is that the whole thing had been set up so that he could watch these people take a fall. He gets perverse pleasure out of seeing others in pain, without feeling their pain. When asked why he did it, he says the most arrogant thing possible, “Because I could.”

How can such behavior be explained? Biogenetic explanations are not prevalent. According to Ronningstam, the link between environmental attachment patterns between child and others has only recently been studied for its effects on neurobiology (2005, p. 51). In the film, none of the character’s past histories are given in detail. Nothing is known about Chad’s parents or upbringing. Therefore, there are no hints about what might have led him to become narcissistic and manipulative. We can guess as to his background, however, by looking at psychological research that would help form a possible portrait of his early situation.

Most theories see pathological narcissism as environmentally inspired. It is related to parental interaction with the developing child through mirroring, attachment, over-gratification, Oedipal strivings, and omnipotent family roles (Ronningstam, 2005, pp. 52-60). For instance, the child may have omnipotent influence over their parents’ self-esteem or projected roles. These may contribute to the formation and persistence of dysfunctional narcissism. Millon’s biosocial view seems to be that narcissistic children are spawned by narcissistic parents who overindulge them, giving them a sense of specialness that creates expectations about praise and subservience from others (Silverstein, 2007, p. 30). Sperry (1995) gives a good summary of various theories about NPD formation (pp. 116-118). The psychoanalytic formulation attributes NPD to an early childhood of parental overvaluation or of erratic, unreliable caretaking. This fixes the psyche in the narcissistic phase. It cannot break free of this self-image. Kohut thought that the structures of the grandiose self and the idealized parental image are not integrated in the NPD person’s childhood because of environmental mirroring, echoing, and idealizing. This leads the adult from this environment repeatedly to fail to realize their goals or promise, and to the experience of shame and rage (Silverstein, 2007, p. 44). Kernberg links NPD with emotional deprivation caused by a covertly spiteful mother, which is then escaped from through some special and unique talent. Benjamin’s interpersonal formulation claims that NPD sufferers are raised in environments of selfless, unconditional love and adoration, but without genuine self-disclosure. The extreme vulnerability to criticism or being ignored, and the strong wish for love and admiration, results from holding onto the expectations of others being the same adoring mother from childhood. As these views show, the family is generally considered the place where NPD begins. The parent-child relation is crucial. Unfortunately in the film, there are no memories or flashbacks. Therefore, the notion of Chad’s background can only be assumed.

The cognitive-behavioral theory of NPD proposed by Beck and others is similar (Beck et al., 2003, pp. 17-51). It focuses on the ways mental schemas are formed in the child or person’s environment. The schemas are made up of beliefs that serve to interpret and evaluate experience. Out of the evaluative schemas come affective motives and adaptive or maladaptive strategies. The dysfunctional narcissistic beliefs at the root of the problem are caused by the interaction of genetic predispositions and the influence of others, including traumatic events. Out of this constant nature-nurture interaction develop the core beliefs and self-appraisals related to their own specialness. This is the schema of inferiority or unimportance, which manifests itself in the compensatory attitude of superiority or specialness (Beck et al., 2003, p. 249). It comes from parental messages in childhood and personal experience. Covertly there is a belief of their being unlovable and helpless (Beck et al., 2003, p. 44). Nothing in the environment serves adequately to counteract the schema. One author has pointed out the core operating schema as entitlement, emotional deprivation, and defectiveness, with secondary schemas such as unrelenting standards, subjugation, and distrust (Ronningstam, 2005, p. 22). Chad shows all of these elements, and must have had a childhood upbringing similar to this.

As a result, he was unable to integrate a healthy schema of himself and world. The grandiosity, need for achievement, and lack of empathy he developed in adulthood are compensating mechanism. They allow him to overcome an inherent low self-esteem — self-doubt, distrust, insecurity, and unconscious fears. This low self-view is evident in his constant worry about those under him in the company taking his job and his losing his girlfriend to some other man. His critical speech and distrust toward others suggests that inside he feels inferior and is sensitive himself to criticism. This is what drives his narcissistic complex.

People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are difficult to get into therapy. Chad displays no sign of wanting or needing intervention. Their heightened self-image and sense of pride makes them outwardly project a type of imperviousness. Often they can function in society as long as their antisocial behaviors go undetected. Chad recognizes the risky behavior of seducing someone vulnerable at work. He reminds his accomplice Howard that it should never be discovered. If it was, perhaps he would seek counseling. It often takes some triggering event like job loss from unethical conduct to get NPD’s into therapy. Using their talent often allows them to succeed in the workplace, where their personality failures may be ignored for some greater good. Rarely are they confronted by peers on their disorder. The same goes for their relationships, which simply come, go, or stay without a fuss. In other words, the likelihood of NPD’s to get into therapy is low. The fact that they misperceive their own accomplishment and importance while being sensitive to criticism means that they are able to overlook the possibility that they have a problem. However, they may enter therapy as a result of exploitive abuse of power. Chad would have a chance at therapy if he ran into limitations at work that threaten his self-image — things such as looking bad or losing a special status (“narcissistic insult”). Once in therapy, however, “they do not see their problems in ordinary terms, however, and may expect to fascinate the therapist by being a uniquely complex patient” (Beck et al., 2003, p. 242). This means that even were Chad to seek therapy, it would be difficult to work with him.

The cognitive-behavioral goal of therapy is to restructure the NPD person’s personality. Davidson (2008) writes, “Cognitive therapy for personality disorder aims to modify these early maladaptive schemas” (p. 22). Identifying the schemas comes first and involves the exploration of the person’s childhood and unmet needs. Then work can be done to challenge or heal that schema. Using guided imagery dialogues with key childhood figures, for example, can help identify and repair the false beliefs created back then. The persistent interpretive bias that comes from unconscious dysfunctional core beliefs needs modification. The aim is to make the person more adaptive and less self-defeating (presuming they are in therapy because they experience a defeat). This would mean increasing their capacity for empathy with others. It would mean also clearing out false cognitive distortions about the self that place the person in an inflated view. This could be done through examining evidence for the core beliefs (superiority or inferiority) and putting them to a reality test — including for example drawing up a list of supports for the old belief and new belief side by side (Davidson, 2008, p. 93). It would involve breaking down their status consciousness and warding off threats to distorted self-image. Through systematic desensitization, the therapist could help tone down their sensitivity to criticism while developing a truly empathic self that does not rely on false self-centeredness and disregard for others.

Chad’s prospects are not good. In the Company of Men ends with him in victory. His girlfriend does not realize his deception, and his former boss is unwilling to talk. He is confirmed in his grandiose self-view and has the professional rewards to prove it. Nothing in the film shows him developing toward awareness or falling into trouble. As a result, the events that would lead him toward therapeutic help are still in the future. He remains a callous and manipulative person with antisocial Narcissistic Personality Disorder.


American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: author.

Beck, a.T., Freeman, a., Davis, D.D., and Associates. (2003). Cognitive therapy of personality disorders (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

Davidson, K. (2008). Cognitive therapy for personality disorders: A guide for clinicians (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Ronningstam, E.F. (2005). Identifying and understanding the narcissistic personality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Silberstein, M.L. (2007). Disorders of the self: A personality-guided approach. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Sperry, L. (1995). Handbook of diagnosis and treatment of the DSM-IV personality disorders. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Wedding, D., Boyd, M.A., & Niemiec, R.M. (2005). Movies and mental illness: Using films to understand psychopathology (2d ed.). Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe & Huber.

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