What did Freud say about narcissists?

Psychoanalyst on Malignant Narcissism: "Dishonesty Is Passed On"

Otto Kernberg is considered one of the most important psychoanalysts. The ninety-year-old on social groups, Trump and politician diagnoses.

Was the first to successfully treat people with narcissistic disorder: Otto Kernberg Photo: Christian Werner

Age is no reason, 90 years is no reason for Otto Kernberg to stop teaching, giving lectures, opening his ordination to patients who want to know why they are the way they are. Kernberg is a psychoanalyst, one of the most important, many say. He waves it away. In a light-flooded room in the Institute for Psychotherapy in Berlin-Lichterfelde, the ninety-year-old gives the interview, he would also give it in the hallway, the main thing is to talk. Every sentence he says is actually three times as long as it is reproduced here. Kernberg forgets the time while talking. That is good, because there are never enough words for the unconscious, this alien in each of us.

taz am weekend: Mr. Kernberg, you are a psychoanalyst, you deal with the background of human behavior, with good and bad. In the latter case, you have or had three citizenships - Austrian, Chilean and US. You left Austria because of Hitler, Pinochet came to Chile, and now you have Trump in the USA. Is something there repeating?

Otto Kernberg: I left Chile before Pinochet. I left thinking the United States would be a better place to research psychiatry.

Nevertheless, there were dictatorships in two of your homes, for you home in the plural.

As I said, I left Chile in 1961 when Allende was not yet president. He was my university professor in medical sociology.

This is how you experienced Allende up close. How was he?

Intelligent, amiable, elegant. Like some kind of dandy, extremely popular. All the women in my class sat in the front row. He was a very good teacher. The military coup against him was in 1973.

And now the USA with Trump.

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We really have a problematic government in the United States now. I have just written a thesis on the influence between on the one hand personalities with the syndrome of malignant narcissism, where egomania goes together with antisocial and paranoid behavior, and on the other hand the regression of large groups. So how such a person, when in charge, affects large groups. But I don't mention Trump in my work.

What did you find out?

That a negative dynamic arises when a part of a society that is dissatisfied projects this dissatisfaction onto an indefinite desire for change.

Does the indeterminacy make the group manipulable? According to the motto: No matter who comes, the main thing is that it promises change?

At least a critical situation arises when, on the one hand, there is this group, whose members feel that they have been treated badly, and, on the other, possible enemies are identified. An authoritarian leadership is then established, which manages to bundle the dissatisfied into a social fighting group in which their own size and importance are confirmed and which stands for everything that is good and desirable, but possible enemies for everything that is is bad and angry, it becomes dangerous.


Because evil must be conquered by good.

Now that's not really surprising. What's new about your research?

That the cognitive understanding of the group members is reduced in a situation in which a leader appears who is great, self-confident, paranoid, aggressive, calming and who declares everything that is done against the supposed enemy to be morally right. Conversely, such a regressive large group increases the security, magnificence and readiness to fight of the leader and absolves him of moral prejudices.

So in a regressive group, people get dumber. But how?

By greatly simplifying all social problems. An image is created from above and below. The regressive group thinks they are below and everyone else is above. But if the regressive group were on top, so the promise, all problems would be solved.

That seems to be happening in the US.

There is a petty-bourgeois, especially white, working class that feels threatened by various developments, in particular by the inequality that has been exacerbated by the economic development of the last thirty years.

That the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?

is an American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. He was born in Vienna in 1928, fled the Nazis to Chile in 1939 and emigrated to the USA in 1961. He did research on severe personality disorders. He still teaches at Cornell University in New York to this day.

Kernberg pioneered the development of depth psychology so that people with borderline disorders and those with malignant narcissism can be treated. These are personality disorders that were previously considered untreatable.

Yes, that increased dissatisfaction, but so did the Obama administration, which particularly supported minorities, blacks, immigrants, and the less privileged. The white American workers, especially those in agriculture, suddenly felt themselves to be a disadvantaged minority through Obama's policies. That has alienated them from the Democrats. They were now seen as elitist. This group was of course open to someone who would tell them: You are the real Americans, the white American men who have been disadvantaged here. It's time we did something about it. The Republican Party recognized this and sensed its chance without considering the consequences.


That of a radicalized nationalism that isolates the US in foreign policy and bureaucratises it domestically. On the other hand, the Republicans have of course also seen that they could succeed in enriching the wealthy at the same time with a tax cut, which they communicated as a positive American-nationalist element, without causing them problems with the large regressive group.

In this relationship, Trump was very successful.

That calmed the Republicans. But slowly many are coming to grips with his economic ignorance and dishonesty.

Do you fear negative consequences, similar to what happened in fascist Germany?

It's at least one way. Although the country's democratic institutions have been opposing it so far, i.e. the press and justice. It is also good that the military is not allied with the government.

In an interview you once saw the fact that Trump does not associate any ideology with his rule as a glimmer of hope.

Yes, although he has already admitted his closeness to neo-Nazi currents.

Trump is described as a narcissistic personality in many media outlets. What do you call him?

I don't diagnose people I haven't seen in my ordination. If Trump is to be criticized, it is not because of his personality, but because of his behavior. His dishonesty is clearly documented, as is the distortion of financial interests, for example in the customs wars. Also the ridiculous distortion of the political program by the intention to build a wall between the USA and Mexico is pure madness, no, not madness, it is stupidity.

Ignorance and dishonesty in connection with the highest office - that is what you want to be explained by someone like you, who has dealt with the psyche of people for a lifetime.

When Trump came to government, various media outlets turned to me to talk about Trump. I refused, I did not want to make a diagnosis and to this day I have not made any. I criticize his attitudes. What worries me the most is the combination of greatness he shows and dishonesty, that's fair to say.

Why do you worry?

Because dishonesty has a corrupting effect on the whole administrative structure. Dishonesty is passed down from the top. I originally investigated this problem in social organizations, in hospitals, religious institutes, educational institutions, non-political organizations. I found a structure that repeats itself over and over again: when you have someone with a narcissistic and paranoid personality at the helm, or someone with a syndrome of vicious narcissism, the only people closest to you are those who know how to flatter you, who are fearless subordinate, because they manipulate him yes.

That is, around a dishonest person, other dishonest people can best survive?

Yes, it goes from top to bottom, the whole organization becomes paranoid because it has to submit to a power that is dangerous. That means becoming adaptively paranoid. You live in an enemy country, you live the way you lived in the GDR. You had to love the communist system and not be against it.

Flatter upwards and be flattered from below?

Those who cannot identify with the system go into internal emigration or flee. But I studied organizational psychology, not politics. I am a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst. If you apply the model to politics, you have to be careful. Sure, incompetence and open dishonesty are very problematic. But I am against psychiatric diagnoses of politicians on principle. I would only do that if I knew childhood and private life.

And what about dead politicians?

If we have information about private life and can infer your personality from your behavior, that's different. I dealt with Stalin and Hitler, who were clearly malicious narcissistic personalities and not psychopaths.

How can you say that so precisely?

They had the fundamental features that I have described as the syndrome of malignant narcissism. We infer the sadism of Hitler from his behavior. The same with Stalin. Hitler watched films of hangings for weeks. Stalin, in turn, was in the habit of taking tea with both people he wanted to reward and people whose death warrants he had signed. And everyone knew that if they were invited to tea with him, it was either very good or very bad. It was great fun for him that people didn't know what to expect.

What do you call that?

The photographer

Christian Werner's last major photo work is entitled “Los Angeles”. He learned a lot about the power of language in a three-year psychoanalysis.

Joy in the agony of others. Sadism. The more innocuous aspect of it is malicious glee.

You are considered to be the first psychotherapist to successfully treat people with narcissistic personality disorder. Why was it previously considered untreatable?

Because the personality disorder was not recognized. Freud described narcissism but not the narcissistic personality. The description came in the 50s and 60s and the diagnosis even later. I then tried to describe the full spectrum and came up with the hard end of malignant narcissism in connection with the narcissistic personality exhibiting paranoid attitudes, antisocial behavior and ego-syntonic aggressiveness towards others and oneself.

What does "I-syntonic aggression" mean?

That you do not question the aggression you are exercising and do not recognize your part in it. - But, to say the least: I am not the only one who has treated such people.

You have developed the tools to do this.

Yes that's true.

Another personality disorder that was considered untreatable until you tried it is borderline disorder.

There were others there too. I don't want you to feel like I did it all on my own.

It's classy.

The author

Waltraud Schwab is editor of the taz on the weekend. She is fascinated by how much the unconscious forms personalities.

No, realistic. It is always dangerous to see yourself as everything.

Can you name a historical figure who had borderline disorder so that it could be easier to get an idea of?

Hm, difficult. I can't think of any at the moment.

Don't borderline personalities get that high in the hierarchy?

That's a good question. Personalities who are so emotionally fluctuating, so endangered in their human contacts, are sure to find it difficult to reach political leaders. There are probably such personalities among inherited positions in royal dynasties, but I am not familiar with them.

Many cannot really imagine anything under borderline.

But that can be described. People with this disorder do not have a clear concept of others and of themselves. They want to be in constant contact with others, but cannot because they distort the meaning of the other's behavior. And since they don't understand their own behavior either, it gets them into constant trouble. This prevents good work and love relationships, even though they are very often very sexually free.

Why were these people considered untreatable?

It was thought that these patients were too weak to go through life, that their personality could not be changed. It has only been known since 1970 that these people can also be treated psychoanalytically. The prognoses are good and that is a development that I have contributed to, and I accept that.

Personality is how you are. How do you define “identity” on the other hand?

As an integrated concept of yourself and as an integrated concept of others. This is the fundamental axis around which personality is built.

Is the identity debate, which has recently focused on what you are not, going wrong?

What do you mean?

Someone whose grandparents immigrated is not German, despite German citizenship. Someone who is German, but Jewish, is not German, but Jewish. Someone who is darkly skinned is not white. Someone who belongs to the white majority in the American Midwest now feels like a minority. Identity is determined by negation, not by affirmation.

Identity is confused with identification. When minorities accuse the majority culture of being different from their own culture, then they withdraw to victim status.

You once said in an interview that anyone who feels like a victim has the advantage of moral superiority. He doesn't need to feel guilty and invites others to rule. Can this be transferred to the current paralysis in society and to many discourses of exclusion?

Those who feel like victims must be taught that it is best if they become part of society. And society has to make that possible. It's like this: we all have the same challenges. How can we survive at work? How can we live and experience sex and love well? How can we achieve personal satisfaction and opportunities to develop? How do we deal with friendship and how do we responsibly fulfill the social functions in society? If you make sure that you and others succeed in doing this, you have gained a lot.

Yes, life would be good that way. And if you had to leave a country again because everything is not always good, where would you go?

To where my wife would go. She is Irish and would say: to Ireland. I would follow her.