Interview with Dr. Joseph Burgo on Narcissism, Sociopaths &, yes, Romance.


Hi gang, Dr. Eeks here.  

I was really happy to interview expert Dr. Joseph Burgo on narcissism, sociopathy, dating and more. Here is a copy of his bio from his website:

Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. has practiced psychotherapy for more than 30 years, holding licenses as a marriage and family therapist and clinical psychologist. He earned his undergraduate degree at UCLA and his masters and doctorate at California Graduate Institute in Los Angeles. As an instructor, he has taught graduate students in psychology and supervised their training in community counseling centers. He is also a graduate psychoanalyst and has served as a board member, officer and instructor of the International Psychoanalytic Association. He spent 13 years in individual psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. He is the author of Why Do I Do That? Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives, available in print and digital versions on Amazon. In addition to this website, he also writes a blog on the subject of Shame for Psychology Today and another entitled “Therapy Case Notes” hosted by the popular website PsychCentral. He currently provides face-to-face video counseling to clients in Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as throughout North America.”

Dr. Eeks: You’re an expert on Narcissism. One of the biggest complaints I hear from my female friends is that they’ve dated narcissist and that’s why their relationships didn’t work. Perhaps the relationship didn’t work out for other reasons, but my question to you is, can a narcissist really fall in love and be in a relationship with someone else?

  Dr. Burgo:  It helps to think of narcissism as occurring along a spectrum of severity, rather than as a discrete entity that corresponds to Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  The extreme narcissist is incapable of authentic love and concern, but many other people with milder narcissistic features to their personalities can feel love under certain conditions.  I’ve seen people able to feel a limited kind of love for their spouse or children but who demonstrate no empathy for anyone else.  The love is often fairly “selfish,” with a focus more on what the narcissist needs rather than on concern for the other, but it is a kind of love all the same.

  Dr. Eeks:  We live in the Age of  Social Media. Are all those people ( including myself) who post pictures of ourselves or frequent updates, narcissists?  

 Dr. Burgo: Posting on Facebook and tweeting aren’t necessarily narcissistic when they enable us to connect with and share ourselves with those we care about.  But the more we try to skew status updates and tweets to make ourselves look good, asking for admiration (lots of “likes”) — especially when we take little interest in what anyone else may post — the more narcissistic it becomes.

 Dr. Eeks:  In general, are social media tools like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Youtube fueling narcissism?

 Dr. Burgo: I think so.  The narcissist always want to believe that there is an audience – other people watching and admiring – and to the extent we’re all displaying ourselves in public to garner attention, we’re becoming more narcissistic.  There’s nothing inherently narcissistic about sharing in the public space, but how many people share themselves in full – their pain, their struggles, their failures, along with all the self-display that makes them look good?  The narcissist doesn’t want to be known, he wants to be admired.  Social media theoretically enables us to make ourselves better known to people, but I’m not sure that’s the way it’s being used.

Dr. Eeks: There are some incredibly “self-important” individuals in powerful job positions. The movie American Psycho comes to mind.  Wouldn’t then narcissism, or at least narcissistic traits, be beneficial in that sense?  In helping us achieve great success?

Dr. Burgo: There’s a lot written on this subject.  I believe that many people in positions of power such as CEOs of major corporations have been shown to demonstrate major narcissistic traits, but contrary to what you might think, it doesn’t lead to greater success for the company. The narcissist’s personality might help him to advance to positions of authority, but he tends to lead in an autocratic way.  The more cooperative, empathic type of leader is apparently better for the overall health of the company she leads.

Dr. Eeks: Is the anti-age craze a form of narcissism or the belief that we must try to look young forever?

Dr. Burgo:  Yes, I think it’s a kind of narcissism.  The underlying problem, though, is that our culture provides so few other sources of “meaning” for us to aspire to.  Wealth, sexual attractiveness and celebrity – that’s what modern life is all about.  We don’t revere our elders for their wisdom, gained through lengthy experience.  We admire young, sexually attractive celebrities who appear to “have it all.”  As we age, then, we lose value in our culture – especially women – and that’s a kind of narcissistic injury.  We have no shortage of aging action heroes who continue to make films, but how many roles are there for women beyond a certain age?  We don’t look to older women as repositories of wisdom and character; once they lose their sexual appeal and their children are grown, they lose their social currency.  No wonder everyone is obsessed with looking young forever!

Dr. Eeks: A lot of my female friends will refer to an ex as a “sociopath.” So, I ask, can a sociopath really fall in love?

Dr. Burgo: That term gets thrown about too loosely, and sometimes it’s just a kind of name-calling.  If you look at the DSM, Anti-Social Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder share many of the same features, which says to me that narcissism/sociopathy is actually a spectrum.  A true sociopath is incapable of love but that doesn’t apply to everyone with narcissistic features.

Dr. Eeks: Can a narcissist, through training, become a non-narcissist?

Dr. Burgo: Not “training” but through psychotherapy.  The therapeutic challenge is to help the person come into contact with and learn to bear the unconscious shame that her narcissistic defenses are warding off.  It’s the kind of work I do and it takes years.

 Dr. Eeks: Can a sociopath, through training, become a non-sociopath?

Dr. Burgo: A true, full-blown sociopath?  I doubt it.  They’re too damaged.  And besides, they don’t willingly seek psychotherapy.

Dr. Eeks If a sociopath and a narcissist walked into a bar, who would buy a drink for who?  ;)

Dr. Burgo: The sociopath would try to manipulate the narcissist into buying the drink; the narcissist might actually comply, thinking he could win the other person’s gratitude/admiration, but the sociopath would only feel contempt for the narcissist because he “fell for it.”

 Dr. Eeks: You wrote a book called, “Cinderella: A Tale of Narcissism and Self-Harm.” That doesn’t sound like it has a Disney-approved ending.   What inspired you to write a “twisted fairy tale” so to speak?

Dr. Burgo: It began when I started to wonder how Cinderella would actually have turned out, psychologically and emotionally, if she’d grown up in a family where everyone hated and abused her?  Not the way she’s portrayed in the Disney version! Once I started to look at the scenario, Cinderella’s family seemed to have so many features I’ve seen in families with narcissistic mothers:  the splitting between the “good” children and the “bad”, the preoccupation with status, the envy between siblings.  In the end, the story I wrote felt more psychologically and emotionally true than the Disney version.


Other things to checkout: 

What to do if a nuclear bomb drops

6 Responses to “Interview with Dr. Joseph Burgo on Narcissism, Sociopaths &, yes, Romance.”

  1. Great read!
    I have a question is someone born a sociopath or do life events cause them to be that way? If they are born that way and it is observed at a very young age, would psychotherapy help them?

    • Hi Jen

      Some of these questions are easier to answer in the abstract, some not.

      The evidence is pretty compelling that there about 60 or more polymorphisms that predispose to sociopathy. These are genetic risk factors, and the current thinking is that they are probably nondeterministic. To get to full-blown sociopathy, which you have to think of as a ‘phenotype’ (an emergent collection of characteristics) and not a genotype (a collection of characteristics that is genetically determined), you need the right (or wrong!) type of environment, typically characterized by neglect and abuse. If you have both a damaging and abusive environment and genes that predispose to sociopathy, you are in serious trouble, and have very little chance for more prosocial trajectory.

      There is a lot of debate about what are the core deficits in sociopathy, but I believe that it’s likely a core empathy deficit, which deceptively but profoundly alters social trajectories through development, combined with an inability to learn from aversive experiences (recurrent punishment for their antisocial behavior).

      An interesting question is what the 60 or so genes that have linked to sociopathy might have to do with empathy or as it’s sometimes called contagion – the ‘catchiness’ of prototype emotion that allows us to easily sample what other people are feeling simply by witnessing it. Although sociopaths have intact theory of mind, they have defective contagion or ‘proto-empathy’.

      As for whether or not sociopaths can change, this depends on too many factors to make neat predictions. You have to think of this as a continuum rather than any kind of homogeneous category. At the mild end of the continuum are people who would swindle you to get your money, but they wouldn’t shoot you to get it. So it all depends on how severe the sociopathic condition is, whether somebody appreciates at some level that they are on an altered and negative life trajectory relative to people with intact social abilities, and whether they have any real motivation to change. This insight and motivation are both unusual in most sociopaths, although occasionally a very bright Sociopath will realize that there is something terribly wrong with them.

  2. Joseph Burgo is a lying, cheating, scammer who has no business being a psychologist. Based on his actions, he is probably a psychopath himself. He will never admit this because he is narcissistic to the extreme. The state of California should take away his license.

    • You make strong accusations. Where is the proof? In some ways doesn’t that mean he can educate others about it better because he has that kind of mind?

  3. Don’t all people want to be admired? Certainly some are deserving of adulation. Might the difference be dissembling, obfuscating or lying to falsely elicit admiration?

    • I’m not sure if everyone wants to be admired. A lot of people want to go quietly about their day and activities. I think what he’s saying is that narcissists ONLY care about being admired, to the extent that nothing else matters. So, yes, they would obfuscate and lie and do all that to get the one thing they need: admiration.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This