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The Nelson diagnosis: does Turnbull suffer from narcissistic personality disorder?

Over the weekend, Brendan Nelson drew on his medical past to play psychologist. In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, the outgoing Liberal MP and former Opposition leader diagnosed Malcolm Turnbull with narcissistic personality disorder.

On Sunday, Liberal frontbencher Tony Abbott also weighed into a little pop psychology, suggesting that it was PM Kevin Rudd, not Turnbull, who has narcissistic personality disorder.

So what is narcissistic personality disorder? And does Malcolm Turnbull have it? Crikey asked personality disorder expert Professor Henry Jackson from the University of Melbourne’s Department of Behavioural Science to shed some light.

According to Professor Jackson, narcissistic personality disorder is one of the 10 types of personality disorders outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The disorder is “characterised by patterns of grandiosity, a need for admiration, and most importantly, a lack of empathy for others,” said Professor Jackson.

These people are pretty entitled and pretty exploitative of others,” said Jackson. “They can also be quite envious of others.”

Narcissistic personality disorder is a “disorder of self not a disorder of other” and these people “don’t give a damn about others,” said Jackson. This can mean that when the person affected by the disorder is disappointed by the people they require admiration from, they can turn quite nasty.

People affected by narcissistic personality disorder come from all walks of life, says Professor Jackson, and personality disorders such as this generally develop during childhood and over a period of time.

It is unclear, however, how many Australians are affected by this disorder as only limited studies have been carried out on specific populations. Professor Jackson estimates that between one and two per cent of the population may be affected.

People suffering from narcissistic personality disorder are unlikely to present to mental health professionals for treatment, says Professor Jackson, unless they experience a depressive episode following some form of loss in their lives, such as losing a position of power or going through a divorce. It makes sense that people suffering from this disorder are predisposed to depression given their sense of bravado and external self esteem.

When asked, Professor Jackson declined to comment on whether Turnbull could be categorised as having narcissistic personality disorder. From the information provided by Professor Jackson, it appears that Nelson’s diagnosis of Turnbull may be unfair, and only vaguely true at best.

Does Turnbull exhibit patterns of grandiosity? In Febuary this year, Labor MP Lindsay Tanner spoke of Turnbull’s “breathtaking arrogance” with regard to blocking Government legislation in the Senate. SMH columnist Annabel Crabb likened Turnbull to a chest-beating Tarzan “more comfortable with grand gestures” than the realities of political compromise.

A need for admiration? Sure. Most politicians and people in public life do. According to Abbott, “no one goes into politics without a pretty solid ego”.

High external self-esteem? As a former high-flying lawyer and now Leader of the Opposition of the nation’s federal parliament, it would be a pretty safe bet to say that Turnbull’s self esteem is quite healthy.

In 2000, author turned spinmeister to Turnbull, Mark Wesfield, wrote in his book The Gatekeepers:

Perhaps more than any person in Australian corporate circles, Malcolm Turnbull’s name inevitably provokes reaction. He can be courteous, charming and flattering one minute, and bursting with dark volcanic rage the next, depending on whether or not he is getting his way in negotiations.

But is Turnbull exploitative of others? Does he not give a damn about anyone else?

The answers to these questions might depend on what side of the political fence you sit on.

Perhaps the Liberal party’s recent romance with psychology might be more important for what it says about Nelson’s bitterness in leaving politics, than Turnbull’s personality.

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  • 1
    Liz45
    Posted Monday, 31 August 2009 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    I intensely dislike both of them. I’ll never forget the second part of Nelson’s speech during his ‘sorry’ speech. I could not imagine what he thought he was doing, apart from reinforcing the ingrained racist and bigotted views of the previous Howard govt, not to mention over 200 years of paternalistic and patronizing attitudes. He omitted to realize that a lot of children around the country were also watching; I can only imagine their confusion. Perhaps the teachers quickly turned the TV off - I can only hope so!
    His ability as a Minister is questionable, unless you don’t include ‘losing’ the remains of a serving Australian deceased military person, and sending a coffin(of a person from another country) half way around the world, ending up in the wrong place, adding unimaginable trauma to the grief stricken families of both?
    A bit more than an ‘ooooppppssss moment’?

    As for Turnbull? Spare me another conservative who has an overdeveloped sense of his own importance, and has no inclination to acknowledge the importance of the rest of us! He lacks the guts to stand up to those like Minchin, Pyne, Abbott and company, who still can’t grasp, that the electorate has rejected their horrific abuse of the marginal to cause hatred and division. We’ve woken up; realized it was destructive; resolved that we don’t want politicians to engage in this behaviour in future, and like to be treated as intelligent and articulate people. I don’t buy his BS about the debt or the stimulus package etc either. I don’t want Stone’s rehashed Howard policies on asylum seekers; or Brough’s on rolling the military into towns housing aboriginal people, and I don’t like liars or those who support them. He’s an egotistical person, in love with his own sense of importance, as was Nelson! Get rid of them both! Soon!

    However, on a second thought, if they stay; keep rehashing failed/unpopular/unjust/cruel/vindictive polices, then they’ll get done at the next election! Yippee!Not that I’m in favour of too many of Labor’s actions, but the other lot??No thanks!Perhaps though, we could have a workable Senate that would combine to get a workable policy on climate change, before we all choke on our own filth?

  • 2
    Helen Morrissey
    Posted Monday, 31 August 2009 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Helen M
    Perhaps Godwin Grech would be the person best placed to judge whether or not Malcolm Turnbull is exploitative of others

  • 3
    Nadia David
    Posted Monday, 31 August 2009 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    I read that article in the Saturday SMH and remember being left with the distinct impression that Turnbull was really the only guy Nelson hates, despite a pretty awful few months as opposition leader. He even had nice things to say about the then-Opposition. So, I’m not sure just calling him a sore loser really covers the Turnbull-hating.

    Have a think about Turnbull’s behaviour as it is described publically: the Utegate gun-jumping and Greche-exploiting, allegedly killing his ex-girlfriend’s cat, apparently no interest in engaging in negotiation and conversation with anyone (including members of his own party) who don’t share his views, constantly carping about Government policies without coming up with any of his own, and still apparently stunned that everyone isn’t in love with him….

    Sounds narcissistic to me.

    But then, the guy’s a merchant banker and litigation lawyer by trade who saw fit to lead the fight for a republic. Hard to see where the narcissism has gone badly for him before. As they say, do whatever works!

  • 4
    Posted Monday, 31 August 2009 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    A thinly veiled stab at Turnbull nursing a grudge since that vote. The polls bottomed and turned a little and Nelson was in there like flint before they could recover and adding some bricks into the washing machine (the one on the tinny with chain around Mal’s leg) by bringing on a byelection in a safe seat.

    Even if its true Nelson should rewatch Insiders - the bit about leaders don’t emote as a full time occupation. And the diagnosis is ….passive aggressive.

  • 5
    Jillian Blackall
    Posted Monday, 31 August 2009 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Tom.

    It seems Malcolm is accused of contradictory faults. Liz says “he lacks the guts to stand up to … Minchin, Pyne, Abbott and company…”. Nadia says he has “apparently no interest in engaging in negotiation and conversation with anyone (including members of his own party) who don’t share his views…”

    So does Malcolm capitulate to those in the party who disagree with him or does he ride roughshod over the top of them? I would say neither. The Liberal Party is going through a very difficult transition period from the Howard era to the post-Howard era. I think Malcolm knows what has to be done, but it’s not an easy job and it will take time.

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