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Winning, Narcissism and Self-sabotage

I know the destruction well, and I also know the fix.

You don’t have to look too far to find high profile examples of people that are very successful, powerful, and accomplished that crash seemingly out of nowhere. If anything, it seems the more these people accomplish the more destructive their behaviors are. I was one of these people.

Narcissism and grandiosity, or an unrealistic sense of superiority, are very common traits of people in powerful positions. More often than not some kind of pain or emotional injury drives them. The conscious or unconscious need to rid themselves of the hurt is what fuels their relentless drive. But this success can come at a price. If their foundation, their core, is not put together well, success can have a destructive side effect, what psychiatrists term Narcissistic behavior disorders.

What is Narcissistic behavior disorder? Essentially, it is the inability to regulate our self-esteem. The reasons for this will vary for different people, but it is ultimately a function of some core injuries we suffered growing up. We grow in our narcissism and in our levels of grandiosity as a defense to these injuries. Unless you have done some serious therapy, you’re not even aware of these tendencies. And that is when the self-destruction begins.

Self-destruction can take the form of substance abuse, affairs, or financial irresponsibility, among many other behaviors. These transgressions are often unconscious even if the behavior is quite evident. 

I know the destruction well, and I also know the fix.  

I came to America as a child, fleeing the Iranian revolution with the rest of my family. We had nothing. I was poor, I had been abused, and I moved around a lot in a totally foreign country. I was also not raised with great strength and nurturing from my loving but limited parents who had their own struggles.

But by the time I was an adult, I was very successful, at least by any external measure. I built a multi-million dollar tire and auto business with franchises all over Illinois and Iowa. I was married with three beautiful children. I also became a raging narcissist with a grandiose appetite for everything that was bad or misguided, like my $1500 a week cocaine habit. I was addicted to money and power, and I was completely out of control. My transgressions were a function of my deep down insecurities and shame. I felt enormous guilt. I countered that guilt by creating, unconsciously however, failure and destruction.

I only lived to tell about it because I was lucky enough to get help. I have been going through psychoanalysisfor almost fifteen years to try and fill the gaps in that shaky foundation and rebuild (I recently published a memoir called Perfect Pain that tells this story in detail.)

Even if my business was ultimately a success, my narcissism was very clear in my track record as a CEO and leader. For decades, I followed a pattern of success followed by failure. If I had a great year financially, it was likely the next year would have a decline. If I were insanely successful for a couple of years, without question, there would be major downturns that had nothing to do with the market or conditions outside my control.

In every case, these fluctuations had everything to do with my mental state. I almost wished for failure because I simply couldn’t handle how my grandiosity would expand because of the success. My company and employees suffered as a result.

If you aren’t challenged by this disorder or if this seems just too bizarre to you, take a moment to at least look around. I promise there is someone you’re working with that is. And having a narcissist onboard means that your team or your company isn’t operating nearly as efficiently as it could be.

Getting out of the cycle of up-down fluctuations that grandiose or narcissistic decision-makers drive is difficult, but it’s possible. Here are a few hard-earned tips I’ve learned:

1)   The first step is awareness. Most narcissists would never own up to the label. Maybe you’re even a little narcissistic. Look back on your career for that hyper-fluctuating high/low pattern. Do you often find yourself achieving despite having one hand tied behind your back? Do any parts of my story sound familiar to you?

2)   If so, you need to be able to recognize when a faulty, narcissistic psychology is driving your decision-making. You need an internal dashboard, much like the one your car has, but customized with your own personal signals. Are you suddenly deeply impatient at work? Are you suddenly more conservative or more aggressive taking risks? Are you periodically in deep conflict with your business partner or significant other? These are drastic behavior changes, not minor disruptions, but big swings can be a clue that you need to pay attention.

3)   If your signals on your internal dashboard start to turn orange, then get help! At this point, your hopefully past the ignorant stage and the unaware stage. That is huge. But the real work begins now. The level of work will vary depending on the level of your issues. But one thing I know for sure is that you can’t do it on your own all the time. There is a point in which you need professional intervention. This is where I see most people falling short. It takes great strength to get help.

The real problem with the self-sabotaging highs and lows that accompany narcissism is that highs are falling so short of your true potential and you will never find sustainable growth. You need to develop awareness and a toolkit around this tendency if you want lasting success.  

My drive to be an entrepreneur was pretty much purely dependent on my desire to rid myself of all the shame I felt. Ironically, once my drive wasn’t maniacal, I became much more successful because I wasn’t getting in my own way all the time. I also wasn’t getting in everyone else’s way. The business grew to the extent that I was able to sell it and comfortably retire at the ripe age of 45, an achievement that my past narcissistic self would never have been able to execute, let alone enjoy.

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