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Jul. 3 2009 - 5:36 pm | 47 views | 3 recommendations | 17 comments

Palin’s Mental Meltdown

Sarah Palin Kuwait 13b

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Honestly, I’m shocked. I wouldn’t even know where to begin speculating. And I mean that quite literally. Do you start speculating in terms of politics? Or in terms of arm-chair psychologizing? I’d lean toward the latter (as useless as it may be), given that the former really gets you nowhere. Unless she’s being blackmailed out of office, I don’t see any political upside to such erratic behavior. So, that leaves us with the psychologizing…

Apropos of the recent Vanity Fair article on Palin, we could look at the diagnostic criteria of narcissistic personality disorder:

DSM IV-TR criteria

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:[1]

  1. has a grandiose sense of self-importance
  2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love (megalomania)
  3. believes that he or she is “special” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, people (or institutions) who are also “special” or of high status.
  4. requires excessive admiration
  5. has a sense of entitlement
  6. is interpersonally exploitative
  7. lacks empathy
  8. is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
  9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

I’d say the public record gives us at least seven out of nine — and I’m being pretty generous not checking off No. 2, given that she wants to be president. But therein, I think, lies the problem with this armchair diagnosis. Have we ever had a president who didn’t meet at least a decent number of these criteria? (Let’s look at Obama: he’s the change he’s been looking for; he’s written two memoirs at an extremely young age; he’s thrown plenty of allies under the bus on his way to the top; he thought he should be president after a couple years in the Senate… etc.)

The concept that hits me more directly between the eyes when it comes to Palin: self-esteem.

She strikes me a bit like a child of mediocre intelligence who’s been told she’s a genius. While boosting one’s self-esteem is often thought to be a good thing, it’s also been shown to have plenty of negative consequences. As one study found, telling a child that he or she is “clever,” before asking him or her to perform a task, “caused them to become to be more distressed when they encounter failure and lead them to chose easier tasks afterwards.” And the negative effects of self-esteem boosting are all the more dangerous the more decoupled they are from actual ability. As another study puts it: “indiscriminate praise might just as easily promote narcissism, with its less desirable consequences.”

So, yes, there’s a narcissism problem here. But, again, anyone who thinks he or she should be president is more often than not going to be a narcissistic bastard. The problem is when you think you’re brilliant, when you are, in fact, no such thing.

And so, having been told that she’s a genius politician and the cure to all of America’s ills and the should-be next President of the United States of America, Palin finds she’s unable even to function as governor of a relatively small state. She gets frustrated, angry, distressed. She goes so far as to actually quit the task at hand. And it seems she’s planning to go on to what she considers an easier task afterward: Working for her idea of change outside of government (though, God knows what that will mean).

Is it the end of her political career? High self-esteem is far from being a detriment to political candidates. In fact, this study found that people are more likely to vote for a candidate perceived as having high self-esteem.

The catch for Palin: The exception is with women politicians, where high self-esteem can be seen as a drawback. (I’m not saying it’s fair, but it’s what the study found.)

We already saw that Palin is too pretty for politics. Maybe she’s also too conceited.

And, of course, we shouldn’t neglect the possibility that she’s just too goddamned batshit insane.


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  1. collapse expand

    All one has to do is watch and listen to her resignation speech, a disjointed, illogical, desperate spew of every slogan she has ever uttered. To my eyes she looked frightened, like her world has just shattered and she was trying to make sense of it on stage. This looked and sounded like a meltdown breakdown. She was over her head from day 2 of the campaign and I think we just witnessed her drowning.

  2. collapse expand

    She is definitely insane…or at least, unbalanced.
    Her speech made no sense whatsoever. It went from the Founding Fathers to a statement that the world needs more Down Syndrome Children (linked to the bizarre statement that people were making fun of her son–is she hallucinating?)….It truly made no sense.
    There were shades of Nixon’s paranoia in there, though Nixon was more intelligent.
    I agree, Ryan, about the self-esteem–wow, is Palin’s too high!

    • collapse expand

      Susan, I wonder about people who tune out Ms. Palin and make ridiculous statements … saying Ms. Palin is “hallucinating” because she is versatile enough to discuss the thinking of our forefathers as well as children with disabilities? If that is the best you can do, I would have to guess you’re jealous or fearful of her intelligence.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Ryan I agree there is a very strong probability that Palin suffers with NPD, but I still think she’s being pushed off by something yet to be revealed. The rambling, almost deer in the headlights quality to today’s performance leads me to believe something is up. If today’s event was driven by NPD I think it would have been better planned.

    And BTW congrats on being able to put up something with the word “empathy” in it!

    • collapse expand

      Hey, if Palin ends up lacking empathy, I’d support her for the Court.

      What’s worst is that now all the news networks keep replaying that speech. I know I have my issues with this woman — I hate her more than any politician since Rick Santorum, and man did I hate Rick Santorum (still do! actually) — but her inability to speak should be a red flag to… well, anybody.

      I think it was Tina Fey who referred to her “corn maze” sentences. What is wrong with that woman’s brain?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand


    Well, that was some piece! As usual I got carried away and read the embedded source material in the embedded source material. My only criticism is of the Vanity Fair article “It Came from Wasilla” by Todd S. Purdum. It was very uneven and, like many Vanity Fair articles, it was hopelessly too damn long. I started to doze off a couple times. Todd needs better editing. That six page article could have been three pages and an exciting read. Just my opinion.

    I don’t presume to know what her future plans are or are not. I wish she would just go away. But, I know that isn’t going to happen. I like the conspiracy theories that we will be finding out about some scandal soon. I would prefer her to do something other than politics, she simply isn’t qualified. I thought you showed some restraint with her level of intelligence. Mediocre is a compliment when it comes to Governor Palin.

    Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is certainly a thought. You should count # 2, as megalomania is not limited to politics. She definitely has it whether she wants to be President of the United States or not. Fame and popularity are right up there with politics. I see eight or all nine symptoms that she possesses. I can’t possible hit every point in all of the reading I did, but I think she is an idiot. She was from the get go. I don’t usually call people idiots, but in this case I will make an exception. Sen. John McCain should be embarrassed for introducing us to her as his running mate. What was he thinking? Her childish behavior around the David Letterman fiasco was an abusive act on her part. I believe she is passive/aggressive and her announcement today left more questions than it answered. Once again, she has our attention. Frankly, I am sick of it.


  5. collapse expand

    Nice work!
    Would be a good habit for journalists: to check every single person in public office on those 9 criteria, let’s say once every year. And why not do the same with sports coaches and ceo’s. Makes reporting fun and keeps the audience well informed about people that run the country.

  6. collapse expand

    “What is wrong with that woman’s brain?”
    Chronic beauty queen syndrome, haven’t you noticed how many suffer with it? And seriously Ryan look at who here supporters are, sentence structure really doesn’t rate very high on that crowd’s list. George Bush in a too tight, too short skirt and come fuck me pumps.

  7. collapse expand

    I have an alternate and simpler explanation: She’s supremely egotistical, enough to believe she can basically flip off the party establishment (which she’s been doing since the McCain campaign) and live as a Newt-like gadfly until she’s ready to mount a far-right insurgency and gallop into Washington as the wingers’ conquering hero. But it ain’t gonna happen. Even insurgencies need infrastructure and money, and she’s so far out in the weeds now, and so cut off from anybody who can help her get ‘em, that she’s cooked.

  8. collapse expand

    Nah, she wants to be the white right wing Oprah. Back to her first love, television. You know where people are nice and pay you a lot of money to look into the camera and wave while you spout your msg of hate and ignorance.

  9. collapse expand

    Having high self-esteem is like breathing if you really want to compete at the highest levels (or lowest) of politics, seems to me, whether you’re male or female. So I’m not sure you can go after her for that.

    But she’s just aggressively, happily, in-your-face stupid. Her inability to discuss foreign policy with any shred of knowledge or credibility on the campaign trail was fairly astonishing, and told voters plenty about McCain’s sense of judgment.

    I suspect she thought she was doing just fine in Alaska, figured what worked there would work in the lower 48 and it didn’t. I sure hope she’s cooked and out of the game, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

  10. collapse expand

    Ryan, this was a great piece. During her brief appearance in the 2008 election, we saw Sarah Palin make a mockery of the American political system, being the only politician rivaling the stupidity of George Bush. Since then, she has attempted to not fade in the background by creating comical feuds with late-night hosts, and has now decided to quit her job before leaving. I mean, how can she possibly expect to have a shot at the presidency in 2012? What is her resume? Mayor of a town of less than 7,000; almost one-term governor; and Vice-Presidential loser. She is narcissistic and represents what is wrong with America today. If she is the best the Republican party has to offer, they are seriously fucked.

  11. collapse expand


    For goodness sakes, you cannot get inside of Ms. Palin’s mind and thoughts, and if you are have the least bit of honesty about this, you have to admit that much of what you say is baseless. This piece is pretty much written with the slant that you do not like her or agree with her and because of that, you want to write her off, without much intellectual thought on your part I might add, in your claim that it is she who is narcissitic. How could you possibly know that she is envious of others, requires admiration, or has a sense of entitlement? That is your stuff put on her. Grow up.

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

    These days, I'm interested in humanity's ever-expanding understanding of its own irrationality. Hence, this blog.

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