Putin’s attack on Ukraine. Why is he doing it? What drives him to act with such ferocity to destroy a county, innocent civilians, children? In this episode, Bill and Megan discuss whether Putin is a malignant narcissist, what that means, and whether his future actions can be predicted with this knowledge.
To get insight into this personality type and how it manifests in Putin’s framework, listen in as Bill and Megan discuss The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil by Erich Fromm wherein Fromm explains malignant narcissism in leaders, along with these important notes:
- What do malignant narcissists want?
- Do they want unlimited power over others?
- Are malignant narcissists unusual and rare? Or do we find them in the workplace and in political leadership?
- Why is this happening now?
- Does Putin think he can get away with what he’s doing?
- Does he have the ability to stop himself?
- What is needed by Ukraine and by the world to stop him?
This is one of our most important episodes — one that everyone should hear to gain an understanding of the realities of what the world is dealing with and what, if anything, can be done to stop him.
Links & Other Notes
- 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life: Identifying and Dealing with Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Other High-Conflict Personalities
- Why We Elect Narcissists and Sociopaths―and How We Can Stop
- Putin Attacking Ukraine: Is this Malignant Narcissism? If so, Can We Predict His Future Actions?
- ‘Yes, He Would’: Fiona Hill on Putin and Nukes:
All of our books can be found in our online store or anywhere books are sold, including as e-books.
Note: We are not diagnosing anyone in our discussions, merely discussing patterns of behavior.
Megan Hunter: Welcome to It’s All Your Fault on TruStory FM, the one and only podcast dedicated to helping you identify and deal with the most challenging human interactions, those that are with people that we’d say are high-conflict or have a high-conflict personality. I’m Megan Hunter, and I’m here with my co-host Bill Eddy.
Bill Eddy: Hi, everybody.
Megan Hunter: We are the co-founders of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. And now in today’s episode, we’re going to take a slight diversion from our schedule. At the end of the last episode, I announced we’d be talking to Dr. Jay Lieberman in this episode, but due to the eruption that’s happened in the world over Ukraine, we thought this would be an important interruption. So today we’ll be talking about what may be one of our most important discussions ever on this podcast, the atrocities being committed against Ukraine by Putin. We’ll focus on Bill’s recent article called Putin Attacking Ukraine, Is This Malignant Narcissism? And if so, Can We Predict His Future Actions?
Megan Hunter: Now, if you have questions about what’s happening surrounding this troubling topic, please send us your questions and we’ll be talking about this in future episodes for sure. So send them through our website at highconflictinstitute.com/podcast or email us at [email protected] You can find all the show notes and links at highconflictinstitute.com/podcast as well. Please give us a rate or review and tell your friends, colleagues, or family about us, especially if they’re dealing with a high-conflict situation. We are very grateful and now let’s get to it.
Megan Hunter: Bill, the world is very troubled right now, or at least most of the world, about the war being waged by Putin against Ukraine. In this first eight days of aggressive action, we’ve heard the media suggesting that Putin’s behaviors have changed recently and asking whether he’s suddenly become mentally ill or maybe perhaps his mental status has worsened of recent. Now this article that you’ve written has gained a lot of attention about this topic. So let’s dive right in. Let’s talk about that article and malignant narcissism. Can you explain that a little bit further?
Bill Eddy: Yeah. So in the article I explained that this is actually a diagnosis that was established in the 1960s by Erich Fromm, a psychologist and then by the 1980s was more further defined by a psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg. And I was fortunate to hear Otto Kernberg at the Evolution of Psychotherapy conference, which recurs every four or five years, an excellent assortment of mental health’s some of the most well-known experts. And Otto Kernberg was there and he had just turned 90 and he’s got a really big perspective on this. And he talked a lot about narcissists and a lot about sociopaths or antisocial personality disorder. And he says, "When you put these two together, you’re really getting the most severe personality disorder there is and the most untreatable." This is an entirely untreatable disorder. And Erich Fromm originally talked about this in terms of historic leaders who were malignant narcissists. He said the pharaohs the Caesars and Hitler, of course, and Stalin, of course.
Bill Eddy: Now as mental health professionals, we’ve seen over the years this personality exists for some people in families such as domestic violence, for some people in the workplace who may destroy people’s reputations and enjoy doing it, people in the world. So it can be at all levels of society. But the characteristics that ended up getting defined were really a combination of narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, paranoid traits, and sadism. And this certainly seems to fit what we’re seeing today with Vladimir Putin. We need to recognize that there are personalities like this who don’t operate the usual way. These are people that don’t negotiate. They rule. These are people who lie, people who look reasonable and yet are totally unreasonable. And we see them in different settings. I just read about a guy who murdered a visitation supervisor and his children in a divorce, and then himself in San Diego where I am. And so it makes me wonder, "Was this a malignant narcissist that nobody spotted?" And I think the world stage now is Putin a malignant narcissist that’s deceived everybody, or almost everybody up to now.
Megan Hunter: Yeah. It’s interesting. As I think back through all of the video I’ve seen in the news of other world leaders having meetings with Vladimir Putin and it just looks like a nice handshake, a nice conversation. So it can be tricky because that can put in your mind that this is a rational person that will stop himself. And as you know quite well, these are the folks who don’t stop themselves. Mental health professionals really aren’t supposed to diagnose public figures they haven’t met. So how do you deal with this?
Bill Eddy: Well, this is something that comes up from time to time. And there’s the thing called the Goldwater rule, which came out in the 1960s when Barry Goldwater was running for president and 1100 psychiatrists said he is not fit for office. And they got in trouble for that and passed what they called the Goldwater rule for the American Psychiatric Association, which was, "We shouldn’t be diagnosing public figures and people we haven’t met." And there’s a lot of logic to that, makes a lot of sense. But to me, there’s two exceptions and that’s why I can write an article like this. One exception is I’m not governed by the American Psychiatric Association. I’m a licensed clinical social worker. We don’t have a Goldwater rule, although the ethical standard is we don’t diagnose people we don’t know and haven’t met. The other is I believe there’s times when we need to use our knowledge for the safety of the public.
Bill Eddy: And I think of this like if you’re a heart doctor and you see somebody that’s showing symptoms of a heart attack and they’re a public figure or someone that’s maybe within the next month or two may have a heart attack, you should speak up about that. And that’s okay because that doesn’t have the stigma of mental illness, but what I believe is we need to operate on the possibility that Putin has this disorder. And I say the possibility, so I’m not diagnosing him, but I’m saying let’s operate as if he has some of the key characteristics. One of them is that he’s not going to stop himself. And as you said, Megan, that’s such an important principle. He has to be stopped. In other words, you’re not going to persuade him to stop.
Bill Eddy: As of today when we’re recording this, people are trying to convince him, "Don’t do this," "Don’t do that." President of France is calling him again. And the reality is, I think Putin’s loving it. He doesn’t care about people and sadism means you enjoy other people’s pain. And so when people say, "When he sees dead babies and when he sees dead Russian soldiers, that will move him." Forget about it, if he has this disorder. And that’s the key. We need to operate as if he has this disorder, because what happens is people underestimate malignant narcissists rather than overestimating. And so we need to be more careful.
Megan Hunter: Yeah. And I’ve kind of thought about this with so many in the news talking about, "Does he have a mental illness that’s just suddenly appeared?" Or, "Has it suddenly taken a turn for the worse?" Knowing what we do about people with these personality types, and I think you’ve really hit on something here with this combination that creates this malignant narcissist. He’s a smart guy and combined with his need to have domination and destroy others and enjoying their pain, I have to think he’s been planning this for a long time. He’s a chess player. So I’m interested in your take on that. Has he waited until this moment? Is he super reactive and it’s just, "Oh, we’re to go into Ukrainian and conquer?" Or has this been building for a while in your estimation?
Bill Eddy: I think this has been building and maybe one of the key things to think about with malignant narcissists is Erich Fromm called it malignant because it grows like a cancer. Most personalities, including personal disorders, are stable over a lifetime. They might get a little worse or a little better, but basically that’s what you see. But this is different. This grows. And so the person grows in being grandiose, the person grows in being paranoid. And so what I think, and I read a recent article by someone who studied him much more closely, and this is Fiona Hill, who was in the government and I believe wrote a biography of him or a study of him. And what she said is he’s been stewing ever since 2014, when the Western countries said, "We’re open to having Ukraine and Georgia join NATO, that the door is open if they qualify or when they qualify. We’ll welcome them in."
Bill Eddy: And for Putin, that was the ultimate threat because that meant, instead of Ukraine being part of the Russian Federation, it was going to become part of the Western countries lined up against him. So his fears of that, which I think are paranoid fears because I don’t think NATO wants to start a war. Nobody in NATO has a malignant personality to my knowledge that I’ve heard of, but he’s been stewing since then. She also said that he’s been isolated himself greatly with the pandemic. So he won’t let anybody even sneeze anywhere near him. So he’s-
Megan Hunter: Yeah. I saw a picture of him at a table that was about… I don’t know. It looked like a football.
Bill Eddy: Yeah. Like 20 feet long or something.
Megan Hunter: Yeah. And there’s two people, two of his comrades, I guess, clear at the other end. I don’t know how they could even hear each other.
Bill Eddy: Yeah. But the idea, he’s so isolated. She said he’s been spending some of this isolated time in the archives and looking at maps of old Russia. And what she says is his grandiose goals aren’t to put together just the Soviet Union with countries that are on the edge, but to put together the old Imperial Russia and that’s even bigger than the Soviet Union. And in his recent speeches, he’s criticized Lenin, who was the communist leader with the revolution of… What’s that? Almost a hundred years ago, saying that they gave up parts of the Soviet, that they gave ground that they shouldn’t have. And so he may be more grandiose than Lenin was. Certainly, there’s many similarities with Hitler in terms of lying about wanting to expand. And here’s an important point I was thinking about.
Bill Eddy: I read recently the thing with Hitler is he told people, "Oh, I would never go into another country. I’m just building up our military for defensive purposes." And at one point he even signed that he would only go into one country or something and that’s when England Chamberlain, the ambassador said, "Okay, good. He’s agreed. He’s just going to stop at invading one country." Well, apparently he even signed something like that. And of course, totally ignored it. So I don’t think Putin, anything he signs is worth the paper it’s written on. When you see this pattern, you have to think the extreme.
Bill Eddy: So what Fiona Hill was saying is, "I think he has much grander fantasies of growth." And he’s also turning 70 in October. And that this may be… I don’t know. It’s not a midlife crisis, but his time is running out. And I think that’s a lot of why we’re seeing this. But lastly, I want to say it’s because the restraints of the world order are really loosened right now. The US is fighting with itself. We just got out of Afghanistan with images that look terrible. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a big reason that he’s going in there now. So I think when you don’t have enough structure in the world, you get more high-conflict people with more high-conflict behavior.
Megan Hunter: Yeah. The peril of so many. And he’s the bully of bullies, he’s the king of bullies bent on destruction and getting what he wants. And like you said, being age 70, he had to delay his midlife crisis till the timing was right and the world was situated just so. I want to also mention that he is gaslighting a bit, right?
Bill Eddy: Oh, absolutely.
Megan Hunter: And I wish that world leaders and those that really can make an impact would listen, would understand this about him, what you’re talking about with malignant narcissism so that they don’t get this backwards. He’s projecting. He’s gaslighting. And they’re really expecting him to behave in ways that are more challenging and difficult than other world leaders. But I don’t think they have a true picture of malignant narcissism, of what you’re talking about, of the possibilities here of what can happen.
Bill Eddy: Yeah. I think so. And just backing up, what about 10 days ago when he was amassing 190,000 troops on the border with Ukraine from the north, the east, and the south, and people were saying, "Oh, he’s trying to be intimidating so we’ll agree that Ukraine will never join NATO. Well, that’s never going to happen. And he’s just this. And he’s just that." And the gaslighting is when someone tries to tell you that their view of the world is right, and what you see and what you hear isn’t accurate. And so he’s telling people, "We’re just having military exercises and we’re starting to withdraw our troops now." And you could see that that wasn’t at all the case. And yet people were trying to believe. We so much want to believe that problems are going to go away.
Bill Eddy: And I think that’s what we see in the workplace, and that’s what we see in the family with domestic violence, alienation, these problems that are coercive control by somebody and you just don’t want to believe it, because they’re telling you there’s no problem. And I think our brains just like to hear there’s no problem. It’s like, "What a relief!" And then the invasion began. So hopefully now we’re over that stage of denial, that hope that the person will change. I want to say a couple things. I think it makes sense that the economic sanctions, especially targeting the oligarchs around him, because part of the HCP theory is that high-conflict people collect and seduce negative advocates and the negative advocates give them 10 times more power.
Bill Eddy: And if the oligarchs aren’t going to be able to get to their yachts and fly their planes and their wealth is going to be impacted, it may be this is a way because we see that with high-conflict people. At some point, they lose their negative of advocates and then they’re kind of naked there without as much power as they thought they had. And that’s, to me, one of the biggest hopes, but I’m not optimistic about anything. I think we need to be prepared to take strong action, as strong as is available.
Megan Hunter: And that leads us to the scary word, the nuclear option, right? I mean the world is walking on eggshells because he has his finger on the button. So what do you do with the king of bullies, with his finger on the button?
Bill Eddy: Well, that’s a very tricky one. And I go back to the Fiona Hill interview, which was the 28th of February. I don’t know where I found it, but if people want to look for that. She says he’ll have no qualms about using nuclear weapons. And I think, and I’m not a politician or military strategist or whatever, but the principle with high-conflict people is you don’t tell them that, "We won’t match your strength," that you need to tell them, "We may match and dominate your strength so watch out buddy." And I think it’s been a mistake to say, "We’re not going to go into Ukraine." I think it would be better to be very coy about that.
Bill Eddy: "Well, maybe we will. Maybe we won’t," because once you give your strategy away as taking less strength to the situation, that’s empowering of a high-conflict person. So my thought would be, "We’d be very coy about this. Nuclear weapons would be a disaster and I hope we don’t need to use them, but Vladimir watch out. Who knows what we’ll do?" And that’s part of what works for him is he’s unpredictable. And frankly, I think that when you oppose someone like that, you need to be unpredictable too. On the other hand, I think you have to be much more reasonable. So I would recommend against using nuclear weapons, but I would almost say don’t say you’re not going to. Or say, "Let’s see what we have to do here."
Megan Hunter: So in his malignant mind, is he kind of laughing, do you think, that the world is walking down eggshells around him? I mean, he seems to have everyone tied up in knots. He’s destroying a people, he’s destroying a country ,and we’re sitting back and watching this happen. And I think back to when I was a child and we grew up without television in our home. And so my mom read us, my two brothers and my sister and I, she’d read adult books to us. And some were on the Holocaust. Some were missionary stories. They were always stories of heroism. And I remember as a child being very angry at my grandparents because they were alive during World War II. And I, in my child mind, thought, "Why didn’t they do something? They were alive. They could have done something." And here we are.
Bill Eddy: We are the grandparents now-
Megan Hunter: We are the grandparents now.
Bill Eddy: Who should do something.
Megan Hunter: And I just said to my husband this morning, "Why am I not writing to every congressperson and every world leader? Why am I not doing something?" Right? So I guess maybe our podcast is my doing something, but what do we do? What can be done?
Bill Eddy: Yeah. It’s, I think, supporting relief efforts to Ukraine. And I think educating people like we’re doing. And this Fiona Hill article was quite impressive to me, she says, "We’re not near the end. We’re at the beginning." And she also said that, "World War Three isn’t coming, we’re actually in World War Three right now. And we need to decide what our strategies are to set the strongest limits we can without blowing up the world." And I think that we need to understand that. And the analogy to me also is we need to not tell Putin how upset we are. We need to tell Putin how strong we are. And that’s what I teach people in court cases is when you’re dealing with a high-conflict personality, you need to not look like you’re distraught and emotional because that feeds them.
Bill Eddy: I think right now we’re feeding Putin with our distress, our news stories, and that we should be talking about, "We are organizing the world and we’re going to keep cutting off more and more every day until this stops. And we will or we won’t go deeper into helping Ukraine. You watch out. You go further, we may have to go further too." Now, like I said, I’m not a military strategist, so I’m not suggesting anything specific, but I do suggest that you don’t give away that you’re not going to do something when you’re dealing with a malignant narcissist.
Megan Hunter: Yeah. It reminds me of the animal kingdom really. Animals know this, they know that you have to be elusive, you can’t be super predictable to your enemy, and then when you do attack your enemy, you look much bigger. You need to appear bigger than you actually are and as strong as you are or stronger than you are. So I think we need to take some cues perhaps from the animal kingdom. Kind of coming full circle, why is this happening now?
Bill Eddy: I think that it’s a time of lack of structure in the world. And as I wrote about in one of my earliest books, It’s All Your Fault talking about the workplace that when workplaces are too loose or disorganized, then you get high-conflict people because the high-conflict people are always there. It’s kind of like germs of a cold or something that’s lingering there. And if you’re weakened, in a weakened state, then they’ll take over for a while. And so I think what we’re seeing now is a world that really needs to show its strength together and it’s rules. "You can’t do this, you can’t do that. And we’re not going to feed your narcissism by telling you how distraught we are. We’re going to tell you how strong we are." That’s, I think, why it’s happening now.
Bill Eddy: And partly with the US, we’ve got to learn to work together more. And I’m encouraged because it seems like there’s mostly political unity around being as strong as possible right now, which is probably similar to World War II before we entered the war. And we were like, "Well, we don’t really want to get involved, but maybe we need to." And we made the difference. Strange things for me to be saying, but setting limits is what you have to do with high-conflict people. And he’s an extreme example.
Megan Hunter: Very extreme. And this conversation would not be complete without talking a minute about President Zelenskyy from Ukraine. I think he’s shocked the world and his stand that he’s taken and rallying his country and really rallying the world to support Ukraine and support the people, it’s been quite remarkable.
Bill Eddy: Yeah. And he’s really doing everything right because he’s got to keep his presence. He’s keeping a high profile, which of course is very risky. But to rally his people and rally the world, he needs to talk to people every day and show his strength and that’s what he’s doing. He’s not showing his weakness and sadness and frustration. He’s showing his strength and that’s what you have to do.
Megan Hunter: Yeah. And the people of Ukraine, they are a strong people. Just a few days ago, I think we were three or four days into this war, the incursion into Ukraine and my husband suggested that we watch a Netflix documentary on the past conflict in Ukraine. I think it was 2013, 2014. Up until I watched that, I was able to watch news about this current conflict. But after watching that documentary where we saw the Ukrainian people have such strength and such commitment, they were willing to sacrifice and they were willing to stand up and protect their country and fight. And in this day and age, I don’t know that every country in the world would do that, so it’s quite encouraging, but what it’s done to me is I’ve connected with the people there now and it’s very hard for me to watch the news and what’s happening. And I’m frustrated that I can’t do more, that essentially. So I guess we’ll keep doing what we can and our hearts and prayers go to the people of Ukraine and to the people of Russia who do not support this.
Bill Eddy: Absolutely true.
Megan Hunter: So I know this is a heavier topic, but I think a very important topic. And you’ll find a link to Bill’s article in the show notes, along with some links to articles and other important information. And like I said earlier, we will be talking about this in future episodes and you should feel free to contact us with your questions about Putin or Ukraine or this conflict or malignant narcissism. And you can do that by sending your questions to [email protected] or submit them to highconflictinstitute.com/podcast.
Megan Hunter: Now next week we will have the guest that was supposed to be here this week, Dr. Jay Lieberman, a retired physician who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder late in life, which tanked his career and family relationships. So he has a very interesting story and I think you’ll really enjoy it, won’t want to miss it. Please tell your friends about it and tell them about our podcast. The more that know, the better we all learn to get along with each other. So until then, have a great week and keep learning about high-conflict behavior so you can manage it in your life and just keep striving toward the missing piece.
Megan Hunter: It’s All Your Fault is a production of TruStory FM. Engineering by Andy Nelson, music by Wolf Samuels, John Coggins, and Ziv Moran. Find the show, show notes, and transcripts at truestory.fm or highconflictinstitute.com/podcast. If your podcast app allows ratings and reviews, please consider doing that for our show.
Each week, Bill Eddy and Megan Hunter will be exploring the five types of people who can ruin your life — people with high conflict personalities — and how they weave themselves into our lives in romance, at work, next door, at school, places of worship, and just about everywhere, causing chaos, exhaustion, and dread for everyone else.