Saving Face After Narcissistic Injuries in Ukraine and Everyday Life


How can we treat Russia’s narcissism?

Iliya Mitskavets/AdobeStock

Iliya Mitskavets/AdobeStock


As the invasion of Ukraine escalates, future death, destruction, and trauma is inevitable for both sides—that is, unless there is some negotiation that can stop the process. What potentially may make that so psychologically hard for the invader is the blow to its collective narcissism, to the overly optimistic expectation to win quickly. As Heinz Kohl taught me long ago about self-psychology, narcissistic injuries to the oversensitive can produce humiliation, which in turn spurs a desire for revenge. That may be where leadership in Russia is at psychologically in Ukraine.

We in psychiatry know how difficult it is to treat patients with narcissistic personality disorders. To begin with, they will likely feel humiliated from even seeming to need the help. The key is to initially mirror their inflated self-esteem, and to then avoid comments or interpretations that feel like criticism during the psychotherapeutic process.

In what I might call the narcissism of everyday life, some degree of humiliation can occur by losing an argument, having to wear a face mask, and what Freud termed small differences. In his book 12. Civilizations, Society and Religion, Freud extended the narcissism of small differences to communities with adjoining territories.

How might our clinical knowledge transfer to this war? Though counterintuitive in the natural fight or flight sense of wanting to punch face, it would seem that there would have to be a public way for Russia to save face, for some sort of way to claim any sort of victory, especially by the annual Victory Day of May 9th. If not possible, for every time the country falls short, humiliation may produce a stronger desire for revenge. At the same time, mirroring in part Russia’s threats towards more American and NATO involvement, communicate to Russia privately of the dire consequences of escalation to any nuclear or biological weapons.

We have also experienced this narcissism challenge internally in the United States. The loss of the last Presidential election was likely humiliating to the Republican Party. Revenge for some seemed to occur in their invasion of the Capitol, now extended to political opposition at any cost.

In a world where so much has become public due to cell phones and the internet, humiliation becomes a greater psychological risk to individuals and groups. We need to educate our leaders and the public to be on guard against this psychological threat.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues relate to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.

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