Jay B. Rohrlich

Work and Narcissism

VTR Date: September 22, 1999

Guest: Rohrlich, Jay B.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Jay Rohrlich
Title: Work and Narcissism
VTR: 9/22/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today first joined me here a generation ago to discuss his intriguing book on “Work and Love: A Crucial Balance”.

Clinical assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Cornell University’s Medical College and attending psychiatrist at New York/Presbyterian Hospital, Dr. Jay Rohrlich’s private psychiatric practice is on Wall Street … which is both cause and effect, one assumes, of his interest in the world of work, of men and women who often are hugely successful in the marketplace, but whose lives at home and hearth often do not reflect the same level of achievement or pleasure.

Well, some months ago, at New York/Presbyterian Hospital’s psychiatry Grand Rounds, my wife heard Dr. Rohrlich deliver a paper on work and narcissism that she described as absolutely brilliant.

She was right, as usual, and now I’ve invited my guest back today to look at the whole range of issues raised here, particularly after all these intervening raging bull years of achievement on Wall Street. Dr. Rohrlich, is it different now than when we spoke a generation ago?

ROHRLICH: I’m different. I’m 20 years older from the first time that we met. And my … the things that I’ve observed I, I think are … in my office, have to do with people struggling a little more with issues of trying to balance their work lives with their, with their personal lives. Perhaps I’ve had a little bit of influence over that.

HEFFNER: Well, why more now? Because of the raging bull … of this bull market of these years?

ROHRLICH: It’s hard to say. I suspect that one of the, one of the reasons is that extraordinary success can leave a lot of questions unanswered. Like, you know, “what am I going to do with all my success?”. And simply to turn it back into the office seems like a … to a lot of people who are asking these questions … a bankrupt approach. So it ought to translate into something that’s more fulfilling in their personal lives.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting that you use that phrase “a bankrupt approach”. Monetary terms by which we judge people?

ROHRLICH: Yeah. Money’s a good metaphor for a lot of things.

HEFFNER: More so now … again, I keep asking this … I know that when we spoke before you, you frequently said, “listen, I’m not a sociologist, I’m a psychiatrist”.


HEFFNER: … and I’m interested in seeing whether you’re willing to generalize, or to help the rest of us generalize in terms of what’s happened to this country, to our people in terms of your involvement with individuals. What’s happened?

ROHRLICH: I will dare to generalize a little bit only within the limits of my little office. But, I believe I have seen a trend where there is more concern for making the money mean something. Obviously I get a selected group of people who come to my office, who pre-selected themselves, who are concerned enough, one way or another with trying to help with some of these issues. If the money were sufficient to make them happy, they wouldn’t be seeking my help. So, that’s the … that the trend … and it’s a very gratifying one for me that people are at least struggling with this.

HEFFNER: That’s interesting. I thought you were going to say the opposite. I thought you were going to say that increasingly, or at least more and more people are involved in the life of work in a way that they do not have the pleasures at home to the degree that they have them at the office.

ROHRLICH: One of my … I guess one answer that I would give to that is, “thank God for women”.


ROHRLICH: [Laughter] Because … for many reasons, but one of them is I think women who have played a more and more prominent in the … in the work world, who have made their presence felt much more actively over the last twenty years, have brought a perspective to these issues that has … you know, just things like day care and part-time work and other things that have forced on, on the work world a consideration of issues that were not considered before. So I think the women’s perspective and an active involvement in the workplace … and a prominent and powerful involvement in the workplace … have brought a female perspective to bear on some of the limitations of a male perspective.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by “female perspective” as opposed to male perspective?

ROHRLICH: I guess the issues of work and love can be distilled down to issues of masculinity and femininity. Men have, have in a sense dominated the world of work. The world of love … the home, the rearing of children, the softer areas of life have been the female domain. And thankfully I think that there has been more of an inter-mixing of the two and not the rigid wall that had divided them before.

HEFFNER: How do you respond to the people who say, “Dr. Rohrlich, we’re hard-wired that way … men this way, women that way”.

ROHRLICH: With some skepticism. Men and women are different, certainly and anatomical differences can probably reach up to the brain, too. But our environments certainly modify our, our endowments. And how we’re reared and how we educate our children will certainly have an influence on the state of the culture and how people behave.

HEFFNER: In terms of your own observations, does that confuse the matter if there is to some degree a truism in “biology as destiny”. That we are molding the environment to modify that destiny.

ROHRLICH: Well, thank God for confusion. I don’t like simple answers and I think … I’m glad to see that people are struggling with some of that confusion and not just simply giving easy answers to “well, that’s the way men are, that’s the way women are”, or … you know, “I’ve got to be at the office because I’m bringing home the bacon for the wife and the children, and that’s that. And no questions asked”. I mean there are more questions that are being asked that I think are enriching relationships between people and, and allowing us to rear our children in a, in a broader way.

HEFFNER: You say, “enriching our experiences”, “allowing us to educate, bring up our children in a broader way”. What about those who say, “quite the contrary”. Perhaps I should strike the word confusing because you’re going to say again that confusion is … can be a healthy thing … who say that the impact in reality, in our society, in our times, of that modification of traditional patterns, has been, in fact, underlying the, the negative aspects, many of the negative aspects of contemporary society. The problems we’re having with our children, with our schools … you, you make it sound as though we have risen to the challenges presented by this denial of the hard-wiring, and we’ve done so well. Look around us. Or are you saying, “hey, I look around me and it’s a better world. We’re better adjusted to the realities of this new world?”

ROHRLICH: I, I … I’ve only been around this world for 58 years and can’t … and a lot of those times I was just playing basketball [laughter] and not making intelligent observations. So, it’s hard for me to measure the world and how good it is. I think we’re stuck with whatever it is and I like the developments that I’m seeing … that, that, you know men are jocks and women do the home-making is just too simple for me.

HEFFNER: Too simple, what do you mean?

ROHRLICH: Too formulaic. The ambiguities of role are, I think, important to infuse ourselves with a kind of energy to, to try to find our own individual answers. And not to have answers that are, are simply imposed on us. The Civil Rights Movement, for example … the Feminist Movement has forced us to, to look at … and the Aging Movement in a respect that people who can change careers and grow and be interesting and have sex at 80 and 90 … all of these things are changes in perspective from, from the simple roles that defined us … I believe defined people a hundred years ago. Fifty years ago.

HEFFNER: You said before that you thought the presence of women, the increasing presence of women in the work place is what has brought about much of what you like …


HEFFNER: … to see what you’re, what you’re praising. Was it the presence and the need to adapt to the child-rearers, or the child-birthers, or was it that there are instinctive female traits that impose themselves upon the marketplace and led to the changes. Was it just the presence of women, or … I, I raise this question … as confusing as it may sound because at times when my guest has been someone from the world of diplomacy, from the world of international affairs … we talk about this question with more and more women in the … not the workplace now …


HEFFNER: … but in high position in international affairs … national affairs. Is there a difference, is there a softening? Can we assume there will be conciliation, that we will “jaw-jaw” more than we will “war-war”. And I wonder if that is what you mean when you talk about the presence of women in the workplace.

ROHRLICH: Well, I hope so, certainly. Although Madeline Albright, I guess, has been quite a … more bellicose than some of her male counterparts would have been in the resolution of some of these conflicts. But, it’s an interesting thing … a number of patients of mine who have been in high places in companies have had to deal with women at a higher level. And one of the things that they’ve encountered, and this has come up a number of times, that’s quite amusing and, but challenging to them is, how to deal with a woman crying. A woman … high placed woman vice president was called on the carpet by a president of a company, and this is a very effective woman, and, and crucial to the organization. And he gave her a dressing down about one thing and another. And she began to cry. He’d never encountered this before. And how … and it, and it paralyzed him. Because he wanted to respect her, he wanted to, to have a dialogue with her, but he’d never had a man cry in his office [laughter], when he gave him a yearly review of something like that. And the interesting thing is that he tried not to dismiss it as, as female weakness, but something that he had to deal with. That women, if they are softer, or more emotional, or perhaps more prone to cry … if that was his conclusion … I, I didn’t have an opinion about that, but it was the first time that he had ever encountered it. And then someone else actually encountered it again in his organization and a couple of men got together and said, “we have to be able to deal with this”.

HEFFNER: What did they do? Learn how to cry themselves.

ROHRLICH: Well, they couldn’t. You don’t learn how to cry. But, but to have respect for something that they may have denigrated, denigrated before. I don’t want to present this as a generalization about, about women … that women cry. But it’s an interesting angle that, that has challenged men and brought these issues into the workplace. Not in the issue of crying, so much, and weakness, but the issue of emotionality. And, and feelings … that how somebody feels may be, you know, hurting somebody’s feelings. “Emotional Intelligence”, Dan Goleman’s book has been a very influential book that, that chief executives of companies have been challenged to become more emotionally intelligent. To bring consideration of emotional issues into the workplace. And I think, I think the presence of women has certainly influenced that.

HEFFNER: This is the opposite of the lyrics that I identify always with Rex Harrison, “why can’t a woman be more like a man”. Now, that leads me to the question of … let’s turn this around … the man dealing for the first time with tears. Are women learning in the same way? If you say there is an emotional component that is larger with women, or perhaps that can be what one interprets the matter as …


HEFFNER: … what is the component in men that women have to deal with as they have not before? As they come into the world of work.

ROHRLICH: I guess single-minded goal directedness … getting the work out, the product, the bottom line, an aggressive, sort of unromantic pursuit of the, of the product … whatever that may be. And it sometimes may go against the grain … firing people … cutbacks … keeping the bottom line as … keeping the stock price up, if, if we’re dealing with a public company kind of thing. And it can be very, very difficult for people who are on the more sensitive side to, to have that kind of single-mindedness.

HEFFNER: You see the obligation of the male chief executives and others to recognize and to deal with sympathetically or empathetically with female characteristics, things that we … put in the world of emotion.


HEFFNER: What’s the obligation on the part of the women who come into the world as they face this harder, bottom line orientation. Or almost exclusively bottom line orientation. To change? To adapt? To empathize?

ROHRLICH: Well, I think to adapt and perhaps over time to modify and, and to, and to grow and have things develop in a more balanced and sensible way.

HEFFNER: To become more like a man?

ROHRLICH: Perhaps to, to take on … I mean I think it’s necessary for sure. If goal-directedness and a kind of absolute … you know, there was a play, a one-man show on Broadway … I don’t know if you saw it … “Defending the Caveman” about the difference between men and women. And he portrayed … somewhat caricatured, but, but very entertaining and a lot of truth. Where men are hunters and women are gatherers. And there were interesting vignettes about a man and a woman going to a department store. The woman would go and take a look at this department, browse around here. Men wanted to get four shirts … he goes in, gets four shirts, he’s out, he’s done. He hunted the shirts down and he was finished. And there were some generalizations made about that. And I think to, to be too much of a gatherer in a … if you’re the chief executive of a company is not going to work so well … you’ve got a deadline, you’ve got to meet it and you’ve got important products to turn out. So I think that’s an adaptation that women have had to, have had to make. If they’re not naturally inclined in that direction, to be successful, success means achieving goals.

HEFFNER: What about dropping out. Do you find that, and I’m not talking about your own patient load, and to the degree that you’re willing to talk about anecdotes from the profession generally … is there a dropping out … let’s, let’s say in the last … since we last sat at this table. Certainly this country has become more bottom line oriented. It is a philosophy that was always been with us, but had been modified in the beginning of this century and through the Roosevelt years and on.


HEFFNER: But the Reagan years brought us with … to a greater respect for marketplace values. Now how does that fit when a woman who is softer and more emotional, more sympathetic, runs up against it. Do you think she … again, going back to the Rex Harrison bit … becomes more like a man along those lines, and that this is good or bad or indifferent.

ROHRLICH: Well, if you want to call it “more like a man”, I’ll, I’ll go along with that … but not “a man”. She will not become a man, she’ll become more like a man if, if you want to use those stereotypes to distinguish the two poles. But, yeah, I think there needs to be … as with Madeline Albright, she is not my patient certainly, I’m just reading the newspapers as everybody else. But from what I read, in order to be Secretary of State she and to get where she has gotten she has had to be tough.

HEFFNER: And the women who have risen to chief executive position … to a high position in the world of work, the world of business. They’ve become tough, presumably …

ROHRLICH: But not men. They’re still women.

HEFFNER: Why do you repeat that? Why do you say that again. You, you want to make sure that I understand that they haven’t lost something. Right? They’ve gained something, but not lost.


HEFFNER: They’ve gained an ability to function like a man, but haven’t lost the ability to function like a woman.

ROHRLICH: I’m a little uncomfortable with this …

HEFFNER: … the generalizations.

ROHRLICH: … the generalizations about, you know, men and women and stereotyping men and women in this way. So, I, you know, I, I think that’s …

HEFFNER: I knew I would make you uncomfortable with that because …

ROHRLICH: {Laughter] Thank you very much

HEFFNER: [Laughter] … that, that hasn’t changed in all these years since we first talked about that. Where are we going, what’s the direction in terms of the world of work and I need to ask you, why “Work and Narcissism”? Why that title?

ROHRLICH: Well, this was a, this was a clinical paper and one of the points that I was trying to make was that there are a lot of extraordinarily successful people in their work, whose success may be informed by a high degree of psychiatric pathology in the narcissistic direction. And … just a simple definition of narcissism as some one who has experienced considerable damage in the, in their early psychological development in the area of a sense of self, a sense of a coherent identity and who are driven by a need for mirrors from the outside to reflect a sense of reality for themselves, and work products, work success, work recognition can be a kind of mirror that fortifies someone who has a very weak sense of self. And, and the craving for that continuous recognition and mirroring of self through achievement can lead to extraordinary achievements. But it, it does not alter the difficulties that they may have in the personal realm.

HEFFNER: You would never cheer on a person who would say the increasing number of millionaires and multi-millionaires is a reflection of a decreasing capacity to deal with friends and family along other lines, or is a sign of increasing pathology.

ROHRLICH: I couldn’t generalize, but certainly increasing multi-millionaires may not … it has no necessary reflection on how those people are dealing with their personal relationships and their own insides, their own sense of self. There are a lot of very wretched people. Just privately wretched people who are billionaires.

HEFFNER: Well, in a sense you’re saying …

ROHRLICH: Or, have won Nobel prizes, and have published, you know, thirty Pulitzer Prize novels.

HEFFNER: A formula for success perhaps, wretchedness …


HEFFNER: … a sense of incapacity and the need to find, as you say in this mirroring process … success?

ROHRLICH: Well, you know I’m not going to give any formulas … and I don’t like formulas, but it certainly … it certainly has informed a lot of successful people that the, that the drive is based on something that is … is based on a weakness. Based on a fear, based on a terror, based on an inadequacy … on a real shakiness that needs to compensate. And to be sure, I’m not denigrating the success of the product. There have been some … our civilization has been, has been enhanced by the creations and monuments of a lot of unhappy people.

HEFFNER: Dr. Jay Rohrlich, thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

ROHRLICH: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.