The idiomatic expressions don’t judge a book by its cover and a leopard never changes its spots describe hallmark characteristics of some of the cruelest and exploitative members of our species. Whether they meet the subclinical and hypothetical criteria of a Dark Tetrad personality (trait narcissism, trait psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and sadism) or the clinically and diagnostically relevant Cluster B Personality Disorders, which include narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder, these nefarious humans are truly wolves in sheep’s clothing. Upon first meeting them, dark personality types may over-indulge you with charisma and charm as a grooming tactic, but this love bombing is all a facade intended to engage unsuspecting targets.
Jordan: I remember you mentioning the difference between a clinician who has training and one who has experience. What is so important about this distinction as it applies to the backgrounds of practitioners who work with traumatized populations?
Dr. Nae: Training is the tapestry that I use as a clinician. I’m very research-oriented and I’m very data-based. While I use psychoeducation based on my own experience, as a clinician, I know that research and science actually do matter. And yet there is nothing like the experience of going through your own trauma. I think that when you can refer to personal experience and match it with empirical data in a clinical encounter, you have a great trifecta at your disposal as a therapist helping people get over things, especially issues like trauma bonding.
Jordan: You have expertise with the dark tetrad or dark triad. Are you familiar with the emerging hypothetical construct of a dark empath? Is it a thing?
Dr. Nae: I don’t use that term, but I understand it. Some people can use empathy to manipulate or they can feign empathy to manipulate. This is especially true for someone with dark tetrad personality traits, which means they fall under the umbrella of one or more dark personality categories. These include narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and sadism. People with these dark personality traits can feign empathy or use cognitive empathy. For instance, they may say, “Oh, you feel like that? I went through that.” But it is not really empathy because someone with true empathy has remorse and compassion. Someone with emotional empathy actually understands that if you act in an inappropriate way with a person you love and care about, it will greatly impact them. When someone tells you that they’re hurt, and you have empathy, you won’t hurt them again in that way.
Jordan: The term “narcissist” has entered our lexicon in recent decades. The label has been popularized in abnormal, forensic, relational, and self-psychology forums but can be misused and weaponized intentionally and by accident. Similarly, “malignant narcissist”, which is a hypothetical construct has also become popularized, and “narcopath”, which is less well-known, has been used to describe individuals who present with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and comorbid Antisocial Personality Disorder (i.e. sociopathy/psychopathy). Can you share a bit about your perspectives on psychopathy and some diagnostic features that come to mind?
Dr. Nae: There are two types of psychopathy. Factor 1 (F1) or primary psychopathy describes someone who could be considered a more intelligent psychopath. Primary psychopaths are highly charming, and sociable, but completely callous and unemotional, and very harmful. And then there is Factor 2 (F2) or secondary psychopathy, which also relates a bit more to vulnerable narcissism. These individuals are much more impulsive. They are sloppier and have a lot more negative emotionality. A true psychopath doesn’t feel. In essence, they don’t have empathy. But they are aware that if they act friendly to a person, they can charm them, lure them in, and ultimately manipulate them. To a psychopath, other people are basically utility belts.
For example, my father was a severe gambling addict and he never yelled at me a day in my life. He was the most gorgeous, charming, kind man who would make you eggs and do everything you needed and then be like, “Hey, you got like 200K dollars?” But what would allow him to ask that of his own daughter, right? You have to be psychopathic and not feel and not think about the impact that would have on your adult child. And then he would take the money to gamble. Now, it wasn’t his money, it was somebody else’s money. Dark tetrad people want to get one over on us. We are not people, we are pawns in their game. We are objects to use. We feel pain and we feel sorrow.
Jordan: With regard to the Dark Tetrad, what is the D-Factor or dark core of personality?
Dr. Nae: This refers to a common trait among the tetrad, which is exemplified by exploitation. Someone looks at you and has no problem using or abusing you for their own needs be it personal pleasure or power or to pursue self-enhancement. The exploitation is bad enough but in addition, they feel justified in exploiting, using, and abusing you to get what they want. They rationalize their exploitative behavior by saying, “Everybody is like that. You know you can’t trust people.” In addition, they use revenge as an excuse and so then they just go on their merry way without concern or care. Another trait of psychopaths and grandiose narcissists is bold fearlessness. And in a society that values extroversion, we love that, we love James Bond. But James Bond is a psychopath.
Jordan: You were also married to a dark personality? Callousness is another really important factor that you said you want to bring up, right?
Dr. Nae: Before my ex-husband, Jordan Belfort, was the “Wolf of Wall Street”, he was my husband. During the seven years that I was married to him, he was a severe drug addict. I was 22 when I met him and he was nuts. The movie doesn’t exaggerate! He landed a helicopter in my backyard. I remember I was pregnant with my son and we had a seaplane and a helicopter and a yacht and he wanted to take my 2-yr-old daughter up in an experimental plane. And I was like no, I don’t think so. He was crazy, he was abusive. Finally, I told him to get sober. He kicked me down the stairs, he drove my daughter and me into a garage door. It was literally like living in Viet Cong. Not to take anything away from people who have actually gone to war, but that is what it felt like.
And when he finally did get sober, I finally said to him “You know what Jordan, I have to talk to you about something?” He said, “Get over it.” Back then I was 29 and I didn’t know what the word callous meant, but something inside of me closed because it was bad enough to go through what I went through but the fact that he couldn’t acknowledge that it was hard for me?! That was it. And that is the second part of the dark triad, right. They are callous, they justify it and it is really disturbing because they truly live among themselves.
Jordan: Do you see clients who may have been victimized by perpetrators high in trait narcissism or do they also have comorbid issues personality traits or disorders?
Dr. Nae: If we think about a dark tetrad individual, we have to consider their values. And value systems are very important because when everything is stripped away from us at the end of the day, all we have are our values to stand on. And a dark tetrad individual is very hedonistic. They believe that they should get what they want when they want it. No one should stand in their way at all.
To discuss a bit from the perspective of neuroscience, they can compartmentalize. Their brains are not integrated like most of ours and so the back brain, if you will, doesn’t speak to the front brain and the right brain doesn’t speak to the left brain. And because of this, they are impulsive and hedonistic in regard to rationalizing getting what they need and want. It is that simple and others are not considered in the equation. When they are in front of you they will tell you what you want to hear because again it is only to serve them. It is never about meeting any of your needs. They are not interested in your needs. In fact, if you tell them about your needs, they will get pissed off.
Jordan: At its core, pathological narcissism is about unresolved trauma and shame, deep shame, correct?
Dr. Nae: They have very fragile egos because at the end of the day they are very shame-riddled. They can’t admit failures and can’t admit mistakes. They can’t admit that they aren’t perfect, right? I think another essential word when talking about narcissists is accountability. They just can’t go there and because they can’t go there, they can’t be accountable. I make mistakes every day all day long. I’m human. I mean I used to be addicted to perfection. I think that is what happened to Jordan and me—I was addicted to perfection to deal with my shame and he was perfected to power to deal with his shame. And then I finally did enough therapy and I was like “OK, Nae, you are not perfect, that is impossible, that is unreasonable.” It is a normal response to developmental trauma, too. So you don’t want to throw too much judgment out there, but they will NEVER be accountable.
Jordan: Sadly, narcissism is epidemic in Western society and even in more collectivistic cultures? What do you think?
Dr. Nae: We see with Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, the boy scout leaders, the priests… Abuse of power in the name of somebody you are supposed to be able to trust is rampant, and it is destroying our society. It is not just about me. It has to stop and I don’t think that I can stop it, but if I can educate myself enough and educate other people to be aware of it, then we don’t have to fall prey to it over and over again.
We are no match for them. Make no mistake. I don’t care how much education I get, I’m just not that deceptive, that malevolent that cruel, that unempathetic. So, I think that yes, I can catch myself, of course, you know falling prey to somebody like that. because these sorts of people, they don’t just abuse codependent people, or this type or that type; They abuse everybody.
Jordan: I talk to people about my own cognitive distortions in response to trauma. Can you talk more about coping mechanisms and narcissistic confabulations?
Dr. Nae: I think narcissists have distorted values and beliefs. I think it comes down to distorted values. They feel entitled to what they want and they feel justified in using people. They have a real distorted value system, a hedonistic value system, and a self-centered value system. This system is structured around using people as a means to an end and that is really the only way they view people. And because they have such a desire for their own personal power and pleasure, they will control and manipulate and abuse everyone. Trauma causes trauma. Wounded people do wound people. So that is another reason I want to educate people.
Jordan: You have a book on trauma bonding coming out and a related assessment tool on your website for prospective clients. Please tell us a little more about what a trauma bond is and how your resources serve you as a clinician and your clients seeking to extricate themselves from relationships with dangerous partners and embark on a journey of healing.
Originally published on “The Accidental Science Writer”