How Aggressive Narcissism Explains Lance Armstrong

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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.

The narcissist lives in a world populated by two classes of people, the winners and the losers. His constant aim in life is to prove he's a winner and to triumph over the losers. In the competitive cycling world of Armstrong's era, winning depended upon the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Right or wrong, you couldn't win the Tour de France as a clean rider. The psychological need to win, to escape the painful sense of inner defect or inferiority (shame) over-powered all other considerations. In terms of his psychological needs, the morality of his actions was irrelevant, not even a consideration.

To win represents a triumphant victory over shame, while to lose is contemptible. In the victory speech he gave after his seventh Tour de France victory, you can hear the contempt in his voice: "For the people that don't believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics, I'm sorry for you, I'm sorry you can't dream big. And I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles." He might as well have said, I feel sorry for you losers. It made no difference that this was in fact no miracle but rather a chemically-enhanced performance engineered by Dr. Michele Ferrari. The only thing that mattered was victory.

The narcissist craves admiration, of course. It serves as an antidote to the unconscious feelings of shame and unworthiness. Millions of adoring fans fed Armstrong's need to believe that he was someone very special. Even more than a winner, he was becoming a hero to millions of people around the world: cancer survivor, humanitarian, a model of bravery and perseverance. They praised and idealized him. Armstrong carefully cultivated this image. His philanthropy has no doubt done genuine good, but in light of the recent revelations, you have to wonder how much the charity aspect mattered, and how much he relied upon LiveStrong to bolster his public image and further the winning narrative.

When the narcissist feels his idealized self-image to be threatened, he may go on the attack to defend it. Hundreds of women have responded to the post on my Web site about The Vindictive Narcissist, sharing their stories of ex-husbands who devoted great amounts of energy and money, often involving protracted legal action, to destroy the reputations of former wives who left them. Revelations from the USADA's reasoned decision, along with the accounts of former friends and teammates who were threatened, sued and driven from the sport by Armstrong tell a similar story. The narcissist experiences a challenge to his or her self-image as a vicious attack and will respond in kind.

Armstrong vilified masseuse Emma O'Reilly for telling the truth about doping on the U.S. Postal Team, calling her an "alcoholic whore." After former Tour de France winner Greg LeMond publicly expressed concern about Armstrong's association with Ferrari, Armstrong threatened to find ten people who would testify that LeMond had used PEDs unless he apologized for his remarks. According to LeMond's wife, Armstrong also offered a $300,000 bribe to one of her husband's former teammates if he would claim that he had seen LeMond use the oxygen-boosting drug EPO.

When Betsy Andreu cooperated with David Walsh on his first book, revealing that Armstrong had admitted using PEDs to his oncologist, he sued her for libel. He has called her a "crazy bitch." He threatened to "destroy" Filippo Simeoni for cooperating with anti-doping officials. After Tyler Hamilton released his book about doping in the world of professional cycling and began to cooperate with law enforcement, Armstrong accosted him in an Aspen restaurant: "When you're on the witness stand, we are going to fucking tear you apart. You are going to look like a fucking idiot. I'm going to make your life a living ... fucking hell."

During the Oprah-Armstrong interview, he characterized such behavior as "controlling the message," going on the attack to protect his territory, but there is no better way to describe it than vindictive and vengeful. One of the well-known features of the narcissist is a lack of empathy for the feelings of others. Despite his on-air apologies, Armstrong seems to feel no real remorse for the hurt he inflicted on his friends and teammates. He has called himself a jerk and an arrogant prick, but he doesn't seem able to understand how much pain he has caused, to imagine what it would feel like to be Emma O'Reilly or Betsy Andreu, scorned in public by a powerful public figure, a hero to millions. The only thing that mattered was to destroy them.

Losing Faith in Sports?

Armstrong still hasn't acknowledged the truth of Betsy Andreu's claim that she heard him admit using PEDs to his oncologist; he continues to insist that he had stopped doping when he returned to the Tour in 2009 and finished third. The man is engaged in damage control, saying whatever he believes necessary to retrieve some part of his public image and the chance to compete again one day. He wants to salvage a portion of the Armstrong myth, his idealized false self, and then begin to rebuild it.

If he's going to learn and genuinely recover from this experience, Armstrong needs to feel authentic guilt for the hurt he inflicted on so many people. He needs to feel their pain, as Bill Clinton used to say, but in order to do so, he'll have to feel his own: get in touch with that boy who felt like a nothing, face the shame that has fueled his drive to win and finally bring himself to sit down at the same table with the rest of us losers.

Like an alcoholic still in denial, he may need to "hit bottom" and lose everything before he can begin.

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Joseph Burgo, PhD, is a psychotherapist and author of Why Do I Do That? Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives and the forthcoming The Narcissist You Know.  He writes at After Psychotherapy and Psychology Today.

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