Monday, March 4, 2013


The Grandiose Personality
 I read recently that the estimate of the number of Jews killed at death camps has been increased from six million to an estimate of fifteen to twenty million victims. The new statistic sent a chill down my spine, not because I’m a practicing Jew, but because I'm a practicing Christian. The statistics evoked thoughts about the grandiose personality of Adolph Hitler who engineered the mass extermination of Jews and other groups and about the general mayhem grandiose personalities cause nowadays. After reading the entire article about the up-to-date statistic, I ordered a second copy of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and have spent a week reading and pondering the account of how he survived the death camps of the Nazis.

During the past few years, I’ve been thrown into the company of several grandiose personalities who by their aggressive behavior have caused some of my friends to suffer – not in gas ovens – but in the ovens of abusive talk, injustice, and manipulation. According to Erving Goffman, a grandiose personality is defined as a person who begins his/her “program” by promoting himself/herself in the family hierarchy…moves backward to grandiose statements about the high rank and quality of his forebears, and forward to an exalted view of what he proposes soon to accomplish. At the same time, this person may become “tremendously expansive and feel very big and powerful and start all kinds of overambitious projects…going back to being a big balloon.” I was reminded of Lewis Thomas’s description of meetings where people’s egos rise like big balloons while they compete and cat scratch for power, status, omniscience…

Sometimes grandiose people envision themselves as kings or presidents and have lavish fantasies in which they’re the principal players. In everyday life, they downgrade other people, their projects, and dreams, and they regard themselves as special, behaving self-referentially and boasting about themselves pretentiously. They slay many well-meaning and rational people who get in their way because they're trying to carry out a mission.

Viktor Frankl was a victim of the Holocaust author, Hitler, a cogent example of the grandiose personality. Frankl survived by believing that every human has the potential to transcend evil or insanity by making responsible choices. He said that in contrast to Freudian and Adlerian “depth psychology,” which entails delving into an individual’s past and his/her unconscious instincts and desires, he practiced “height psychology,” which focuses on a person’s conscious decisions and actions, to find meaning in his/her sufferings. Being human points toward someone or something other than himself/herself (the very opposite of grandiosity), giving that self to a cause with love, or to another person with love.

Experiencing Beauty
(The Sewanee woods
behind our cottage)
Frankl mentions three ways we can discover meaning in life: 1) by creating a work or doing a deed (and not a dastardly one); 2) by experiencing or encountering someone and accepting that person’s uniqueness; and 3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. The people I’ve observed who’ve suffered at the hands of grandiose personalities (myself included) have gone on to transcend their suffering, taken up a new vocation or an expansion of an old one that got zapped, or found a group where reciprocal love flourished.

Frankl also says that a fourth way of discovering meaning in life could be by experiencing goodness, truth, or beauty. These are serious thoughts on a beautiful Spring day when balmy winds out of the South remind us that if there are grandiose things in the world, it‘s the natural world which “The One Whom None Can Hinder” created.

As for grandiose personalities, when victims of these delusional personalities ask me for counsel on how to deal with the grandiose, I tell the sufferer to “shake the dust.”

Photograph by Victoria I. Sullivan