How Aggressive Narcissism Explains Lance Armstrong

Given his persistent lying and bullying, his arrogance and apparent indifference to the feelings of others, and the pain he inflicted on so many people, it's difficult to feel much compassion for Armstrong -- to even care to understand why he behaves the way he does. But let's try.

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Denis Poroy/AP

A lust for money, for fame, or for victory -- these are the main motivations the world has assigned to Lance Armstrong following his revelations during the Oprah interview and his dubious mea culpa. Yet these explanations, though thoughtful and widely shared, don't fully account for his propensity to lie, no matter what the cost to others who challenge him, in order to achieve victory and preserve his heroic self-image.

While "narcissistic personality disorder" has been floated in connection with Armstrong's name, this diagnostic label is more often used to vilify social pariahs like Bernie Madoff or Anders Behring Breivik than to shed genuine light on the person's psychology. Armstrong's grandiose personality certainly fits the profile of a narcissist, but these days, that label is most often hurled as an insult, used to express hostility toward egomaniacs who think too highly of themselves. How exactly does that label help us understand his history of relentless and ruthless lying?

Ongoing lies, in public statements and under oath, helped sustain the central lie of his existence: I'm a winner, not a loser.

A deeper, psychological view of narcissism explains that Armstrong's personality works as a defense mechanism to ward off unconscious feelings of shame, defect or inferiority. The "Lance Armstrong" who for so long was adored by the public embodied a carefully constructed lie meant to disprove these feelings of unworthiness. Ongoing lies, in public statements and under oath, helped sustain the central lie of his existence: I'm a winner, not a loser. Over the years, whenever someone has challenged those lies, he has responded with swift brutality to protect that perfect image and prevent the return of shame.

John Bradshaw shed needed light on a type of toxic shame largely produced by shaming messages from parents, educators and other important figures in a child's life. Today, this is how most people conceive of shame. But the unconscious feelings of shame that plague those like Armstrong are of a different order, with roots in the soil of emotional trauma during the first few years after birth: chaotic family life, depressed or alcoholic mothers, absent fathers, physical or sexual abuse, etc. It arises from a conviction, felt at the core of one's being, that something went very wrong in these early years. As a result, they feel themselves to be defective, abnormal, ugly or a "loser." Many people are consciously aware of these feelings. The popular idea of an inferiority complex captures their experience.

For others, the shame remains unconscious, kept from awareness with characteristic defense mechanisms. Narcissism is the primary defense against shame, where the creation of an idealized false sense serves to disguise and conceal the damage. Because narcissists feel threatened or attacked by criticism (anything that challenges the central lie of their being), they will respond by blaming the other person, or taking refuge in contempt. They may become enraged and indignant; when pushed too hard, they may go on the attack. The threat to their sense of self feels so dangerous that they may want to annihilate the source of it.

Anyone familiar with the "reasoned decision" about Armstrong from the United States Anti-Doping Agency or David's Walsh's books L.A. Confidentiel and Seven Deadly Sins will recognize this description. Armstrong's arrogance and contempt for others, the indignant effort to turn tables on his accusers, charging them with vindictiveness and envy, his brutal assault on their characters and his attempts to destroy their careers -- it all describes the narcissist who feels that his ideal self-image is under siege.

Gauging from recent reactions to his interview with Oprah, it appears that a large part of the public is ready to consign Armstrong to the dustbin. In USA Today, Christine Brennan found Armstrong to be "even more unlikable than one might have imagined," referring to him as a "cold blooded customer." Over Twitter, television host Piers Morgan remarked, "What a sniveling, lying, cheating little wretch @lancearmstrong revealed himself to be tonight. I hope he now just disappears." Follow the comment thread on any of the online articles that analyze the Armstrong-Oprah interview and you'll feel the hatred.

While perhaps the most dramatic example, Armstrong's career has followed the typical arc of celebrity worship: first we raise our heroes to the pedestal then pull them down, throwing them onto the trash heap. Once disillusionment sets in, idealization gives way to hatred and contempt. Given his persistent lying and bullying, his arrogance and indifference to the feelings of others, his ruthless drive to win, and the pain he inflicted on so many people, it's difficult at this moment to feel much compassion for Armstrong, or even to muster any interest in understanding why he behaves the way he does.

But let's try.

* * *

Lance Gunderson's mother was only 17 when he was born and his father abandoned them when the boy was two. The fact that Lance refers to his biological father as his "DNA donor" and refuses to this day to meet him suggests that this abandonment was both painful and traumatic. His mother's second marriage a few years later didn't last, and though Lance took his last name, he never bonded with his step-father. This is the kind of chaotic early childhood that instills a basic sense of shame and unworthiness. While divorce no longer carries the same stigma it once did, children who grow up in broken families, especially boys without a father to admire and emulate, are more vulnerable to a wide range of social problems and emotional difficulties.

When the narcissist feels his idealized self-image to be threatened, he may go on the attack to defend it.

Armstrong found a way to rise above his lot. In the account of his victory over cancer, It's Not About the Bike, he says, "I had started with nothing. My mother was a secretary in Plano, Texas, but on my bike, I had become something. When other kids were swimming at the country club, I was biking for miles after school, because it way my chance." Follow the train of thought, and you'll see it's about feeling as if you're nothing rather than having nothing. Competitive sport gave Armstrong a way to escape the sense of being inferior to the "normal" children, the other boys and girls at that country club. Victory in competition made him feel he was a winner and not a loser.

Presented by

Joseph Burgo, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist and the author of Cinderella: A Tale of Narcissism and Self-Harm, Why Do I Do That?, and The Narcissist You Know. He has written for After Psychotherapy and Psychology Today.

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