Greed as a Mental Health Disorder

During a recent discussion of narcissism on the TV program “The View,” Rosie O’Donnell was told that the condition is “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of self and their own importance and a deep need for admiration.” She replied, “That’s every celebrity I know, including me!”

That’s great candor from an entertaining lady. We might practice candor, too, by expanding our understanding of mental disorders to include the problem of greed. Both narcissism and greed produce personal and national self-sabotage.

Greed is a factor in the well-documented growing concentration of wealth in the United States. The super-rich claim to deserve their wealth, but it’s likely that greed – not wisdom or common sense much less the common good – was a factor in the creation over the past decades of a “financialized” economy that unduly tilts the playing field in favor of those with the most capital to speculate.

Yet people don’t have to be rich to have the disorder; greed about money is all it takes. As a psychiatric diagnosis, it could be called the Great Gatsby Syndrome or, better yet, Wealth Accumulation Disorder.

Both narcissism and greed have their roots in profound self-doubt. Narcissism is self-aggrandizement of the emotional kind, while greed is self-aggrandizement of the materialistic kind. Narcissism (when it occurs as pervasive grandiosity) is listed as a mental disorder in psychiatry’s diagnostic manual. Why not greed?

Narcissism and greed have other aspects in common. They both arise as disorders in people who, in their unconscious mind, are aligned with the conviction that they’re lacking in importance, significance, or value. Such people have difficulty feeling or accessing their own essential value. Instead, a deep negative sense of self contaminates their emotional life, and they resonate or identify with this inner default position.

Narcissists deny or cover up inner truth by believing, as they shower themselves in self-admiration, that they truly want admiration from others. Greedy individuals, meanwhile, believe they really want to feel value and worthiness, yet they go chasing after an illusion of value – materialistic self-aggrandizement –that can only deepen self-alienation.

All of us experience self-alienation at times. Consciously, we all want to feel that we’re important and that we have value. On an unconscious level, though, many of us still identify with ourselves through painful self-doubt, emptiness, powerlessness, and unworthiness. Through resistance and denial, we can stubbornly hold on to this old painful sense of self. The dark secret we refuse to acknowledge is our unconscious determination to continue to live through this familiar old identification. Many of us refuse to “die” to this identification and be reborn with a fresh, renewed consciousness. Wealth and fame don’t alter this inner situation.

Many painful afflictions are symptoms of our self-doubt, including vanity, anxiety, depression, indecision, confusion, and loneliness. What’s especially troubling for us, individually and for society, is the lack of understanding we bring to the problem.

A defense is employed to cover up one’s inner determination to hold on to an old identification rooted in self-alienation: “I’m not interested in feeling devalued or unworthy. Look at how much I give value to myself (through narcissism or through wealth). Look at how good I feel when I give myself this value or sense of importance. That proves I’m not at all interested in feeling unworthy.” This defense is a lie such people tell themselves, and it only makes them more desperate for wealth or recognition.

Narcissists and the greedy compensate for their self-doubt by giving themselves an inflated sense of importance, while they project on to others their own repressed feelings of unworthiness. “They’re the unworthy ones,” their projection asserts, “not me!” Scorn and cold-heartedness arise out of such projections.

Let’s look in more detail at the problem of greed, which so often manifests as the compulsive accumulation of wealth. Many people who are wealthy do conduct themselves with honesty, integrity, and compassion. But others among them are dependent emotionally on their wealth. They can’t see how unevolved they are. They lack in the ability to feel inner richness. They feel themselves to be people of substance, but that impression is a narcissistic gratification that sits astride their wealth and power.

For people so afflicted, the gratification, security and superiority they feel from whatever wealth they possess are precious as the family jewels. The more they value these jewels, the more they live in fear of losing them. They’re compelled to experience this fear because the fear is served up as a psychological defense. The defense operates on this basis: “I’m not looking to experience myself through the familiar old feelings of self-doubt, emptiness, and unworthiness. Look at how fearful I am that I might lose my wealth and be plunged into those painful emotions. Look at how desperate I am to acquire more wealth. That proves I want to feel even more confident and superior.”

Their instinct is to hold on tightly to their material assets and sense of superiority because to lose them, they feel, is to collapse, to become an ordinary peon, and to sink into disgrace. Greed and egotistical striving become frantic pursuits designed to avoid this “terrible fate.” Meanwhile, the mental disorder creates the illusion of possessing the keys to fulfillment, happiness, and even life itself.

Because wealth hoarding is so damaging to the aspirations of worthy everyday people, those who live sheltered in their wealth and identified with it may be conducting themselves with the kind of insensibility and ignorance that in the past possessed the mind of slave-holders. Our collective well-being, even survival, may depend on these people quickly becoming more conscious and liberating themselves from the chains of their psychological enslavement.