It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Hero Syndrome

An abstract from an article published in the Sept-Oct 2013 issue of the medical journal Drug TestAnalysis: “A nurse administered the neuromuscular blocking agent succinylcholine (SUX) to at least one patient and gave first aid in the therapy of unexpected respiratory depression. SUX is regarded as an undetectable and thus perfect poison due to its short half-life and degradation to the endogenous compounds choline and succinic acid. However, SUX and especially its metabolite succinylmonocholine (SMC) were found in plasma and urine a few hours after administration by means of high performance liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (HPLC-MS/MS). Compared to clinical studies, the window of detection was sufficient to gain definite proof; in other cases no samples were collected. The nurse enjoyed high reputation with the doctors. According to the court she wanted to present herself spectacularly as the first and decisive rescuer to demonstrate her special abilities and capacities, perhaps to receive a better job in the hospital. Considering the actual case, the hero syndrome is not limited to fire-fighters.” (Emphasis mine.)

I am sure we have all heard of the heroic fire fighter who rushes into a burning building to save those imperilled, only to later be discovered as the person who set the fire so that he had an opportunity to be that hero. The above-cited article is an example of a medical professional, a registered nurse, intentionally endangering the life of a patient so that she can rush to the rescue and receive the accolades of a hero. What you may not realize is that there is a very good chance that these people are narcissists, and this behaviour…this “hero syndrome” mindset…is not limited to fire-fighters or medical personnel, either.

Wikipedia says “The hero syndrome is a phenomenon affecting people who seek heroism or recognition, usually by creating a desperate situation which they can resolve. This can include unlawful acts, such as arson. The phenomenon has been noted to affect civil servants, such as firefighters, nurses, police officers, programmers, and security guards. Acts linked with the hero syndrome should not be confused with acts of malicious intent, such as revenge on the part of a suspended firefighter or an insatiable level of excitement, as was found in a federal study of more than 75 firefighter arsonists. However, acts of the hero syndrome have been linked to previously failed heroism. The hero syndrome may also be a more general yearning for self-worth.”

There are more subtle forms of “hero syndrome,” forms that do not overtly endanger the lives of others but still allow for the creation of situations in which the “hero” can be the rescuer. These forms involve the creation of a desperate situation…real or contrived…that can only be resolved by the very same person who covertly created the situation. A perfect example is a woman I worked for, the head of the legal department of a large company, who regularly created situations that, upon resolution, made her look like a hero…so much so that the unsuspecting Board even made her a member of its august self.

She was a lawyer, educated at an Ivy League university, who had a staff of eight to ten lawyers and law specialists and four secretaries. Her legal staff was highly credentialed, with degrees from prestigious universities and experience in prominent law firms. And yet, at the end of my two-year tenure as her executive assistant, only two of the original lawyers remained and she had had a staff turnover rate of 144%, meaning that among those positions that became open due to resignations, some of them had been filled more than once: the new lawyers took her measure and left the company, usually within four to six months of starting.

Why? Because their boss had a “management style” in which she would give them a task and then prevent them from completing it. She was an extreme control freak, so she would set them to work at something, like preparing new contracts for leasing some of our technology, but tell them that she had to review their work at a particular juncture and they were not to proceed beyond that point without her approval. And then she would make herself “too busy” to meet with them. This, of course, was sabotaging her own staff, but what could they do about it? If they proceeded without her approval, they were being insubordinate; if they waited for a meeting with her in which to receive that approval, she was never available to meet with them. Eventually, the situation would become dire: the contract due date would be looming and the contract wasn’t done. She would then swing into action, taking over the project and working heroically into the night (or requiring the staff to stay late and then stay and micromanage them), presenting the completed contract in the eleventh hour, along with the tale of how her staff stuffed it up but she managed to pull it off. This not only earned her sympathy from the senior staff, Nsupply for having to put up with the incompetents around her, but polished her halo for being able to force success out of the sluggards. It earned her the executive staff’s admiration.

People who are afflicted with “hero syndrome” are people who seek praise and admiration…or even more concrete rewards…from others and have little or no limits as to what they will do to set themselves up to appear to earn that recognition. And while some will endanger lives and others will limit themselves to endangering the careers and/or emotional well-being of others, they all have one thing in common: other people are merely objects to them, pawns to be used in the game of getting what they want. And they have no compunctions about hurting another person in the pursuit of their goals.

In order to make a “hero syndrome” scenario work, three things are needed: 1) danger; 2) a victim; and 3) a rescuer. It is a foregone conclusion that the N casts herself in the rescuer role, but, but the N must choose a victim (or victims) and then find a way to either put the victim in danger or make it appear that the victim is in danger. The danger can be as real as a fire or as ephemeral as another person identified to be a danger through slander and gossip. All that matters to the Hero is that someone has to appear to be in danger from someone or something else and she, the Hero, saves them.

In the case of my former boss, the danger was the possibility that we would lose out on a lucrative business deal, the victim was the company we worked for, and the hero, of course, was my boss who would wrest victory from the jaws of defeat by working long hours and cracking the whip over those idlers who put the contract in jeopardy. She set up the situation, then swooped in and saved the day…instant Hero!

It is my own personal opinion that the more subtle Hero is the more common: as long as you are not doing things that endanger the life and limb of others, it is unlikely that your game will be recognized…and even if it is recognized, in the absence of any law breaking, the consequences are much less severe. And while it is reprehensible to set up your staff to look like a bunch of inept bunglers so that you can look like a hero, there’s nothing illegal about it. Narcissists, as we all know, will go as far as they can, as long as they believe they can avoid being exposed. This is why the more dangerous, life-threatening forms of Hero Syndrome tend to be found in professional rescuers like police, fire-fighters and medical personnel, and the critical situation is created within the bounds of their expertise: they are confident that they know what they are doing and that they can effect the planned rescue without getting caught. My boss, who was a lawyer, would never dream of setting a fire and then herding everyone out in a show of heroism…she didn’t know anything about fires, how they acted, what to do to make a rescue that pointed her out as a hero…she might even get hurt herself. But she knew law and she knew how Boards of Directors work and think and she had her staff sufficiently intimidated (and the Board sufficiently hoodwinked into thinking that she was stuck with a staff of lazy incompetents) that nobody was going to say anything against her that the Board would take seriously.

These more subtle hero-types exist everywhere and the dire situations they create to give them opportunities to swoop in to the rescue are legion. It took me years to realize that my mother was one of these “rescuers,” and it didn’t happen until I was able to see three similar situations she created, years apart—only then did her pattern emerge and I could see it.

When I was in the first grade, we moved in next door to the McKenzies. I have never yet figured out what it was my mother had against Mrs. McKenzie, but shortly after we moved into the house next door, my mother began spreading ugly rumours about her. Up to that point, the neighbourhood had been sympathetic to the woman, who was a war widow and worked nights as a nurse to support her two daughters, who were just a few years older than I was. Before long, my mother had the whole neighbourhood believing that Mrs. McKenzie beat and starved her daughters, kept an unsanitary house, and was a drug addict who stole drugs from the hospital and also worked as a prostitute on her nights off from the hospital in order to feed her habit.

The way the houses were built in our neighbourhood, Mrs. McKenzie’s garage was between her living quarters and the house to the east of her; we were to the west and our living quarters and hers were separated only by a six-foot wide strip of dirt that was divided by a flimsy wooden fence. In a time before residential air conditioning and in a place where a good part of the year was hot and humid, windows were often left open for months at a time, affording a snoop like my mother ample opportunity to hang over the fence and eavesdrop on the McKenzie household.

By the time Mrs. McKenzie unwittingly gave my mother a reason to bring the authorities into it, my mother had successfully convinced our neighbours that Mrs. McKenzie and her skinny daughters were a danger to the neighbourhood. And because she lived right next door and could hear them through our open windows, my mother was in possession of information about the family that the rest of the neighbourhood could not possibly know…at least that was how she presented it. Nobody was in a position to tell the real truth from the manipulations and embellishments and outright lies except the person who was telling them…my mother. Then, one evening, Mrs. McKenzie had cause to punish one of her girls and, like most parents of the time (including my own mother), she spanked the child. The kid put up an awful howl and my mother was on the phone to the cops before you could blink an eye. The upshot of the situation was that Mrs. McKenzie was arrested and her daughters taken to the Children’s Shelter. A few days later the girls were back home with their mother and a “For Sale” sign appeared in their front yard. Within weeks the house was sold and the neighbourhood villains, Mrs. McKenzie and her scrawny daughters were gone.

My mother called everyone she knew to crow about their departure…she had “saved” the neighbourhood from the nefarious influence of the drug-addled nurse and her starvelings. The truth was, she had successfully created a situation by casting aspersions on a completely innocent neighbour, accused the woman of beating and starving her daughters to the police (the girls were just naturally thin like their mother—unbeknownst to my own mother I had been in their house numerous times and there was always plenty to eat and the girls had complete access to the food, unlike my house where every apple was counted and a missing one would bring doom to the child who took it without permission), and then went on to “rescue” us and our neighbours by running the woman out of the neighbourhood. And, time would reveal that Mrs. McKenzie took the smartest route by moving away because my mother’s next two victims were not so fortunate: they lost custody of their children due to her Hero Syndrome.

I cannot imagine that people who employ Hero Syndrome tactics of creating a crisis that only they can resolve are anything but narcissists. Just as my boss cared nothing about the feelings or professional reputations of the staff members she cast in the role of obstructive malingerers, my mother cared nothing for Mrs. McKenzie’s feelings or reputation, or the terrible consequences that might befall a nurse accused wrongly of stealing drugs from her job. She had no empathy for the woman’s situation, a widow with two daughters to raise, and no empathy for those girls whose father had died and who had only their mother, just as my boss had no empathy for the people she maligned on her way to Hero status. No, my mother, like my boss, saw them all as merely pawns who could be used to achieve their own objectives: looking like a hero, feeling like a hero, and reaping the rewards of appreciation, gratitude, and admiration. That it was gained at the result of a contrived situation made no difference: the prize was just as sweet to them as if it had been honestly earned.

This Hero Syndrome can be enacted inside a family. The Hero selects one or more people in the family to be the “problem” and then goes about blackening the reputation of that person to the rest of the family. Normal mistakes are spun to be intentional wrong-doing, acts of defiance or rebellion. Someone else in the family is identified as being at risk because of the “problem” person…it could be a sibling, the children of the “problem,” or even the entire family. Once the “problem person” is sufficiently maligned to the family that she is viewed by the majority as a troublemaker, the Hero can take action, whatever that action might be. I have been the victim of this, inside my family, several times. Mostly my mother was behind it all, but on one occasion it was my daughter. And they came out Heroes whereas I came out the bad guy, yet again.

As scapegoats, we are all vulnerable to this kind of subtle attack. Too often we not only cannot see what is happening, when we finally do see, we have no idea what is going on, why we are being targeted in this manner, or what the perpetrator gets out of it.

The answer is simple: she gets to be the Hero…and you get to be the vanquished dragon.


  1. Violet, I've been following your blog for a number of months now, and articles like this are the reason why. Superbly insightful post, thank you for sharing it. You get to the heart of a confusing, damaging behaviour which, as you say, can only truly be understood as a form of narcissism.

    My Nmum did this to me in several ways, but one particular incident stands out.

    She failed to teach me how to ride a bike as a child. Her rationale for not teaching me was that "the road outside the house was dangerous." Despite this, my GC brother, several years younger than me, learned on our patio at the same time that most kids my age could already cycle. Many years later, when I was 19, I was naturally very embarrassed when my friends invited me on activities that involved a bike. But - never fear - my parents stepped in and bought me a bike! I spent a couple of weeks with Dad learning, and Nmum bought me a T-shirt with a bike on to celebrate.

    I don't speak to her anymore.

    Thank you for writing with such insight, this blog has been a great help to me over the last few months.


  2. Both my NM and NMIL love to play "hero". NM, in particular, seems to fancy herself everyone's savior on a white horse who rides in to save the day. Both women seem to toss in a good deal of martyrdom too (all they had to "sacrifice" in order to be the hero) in order to increase their NS. Both women not only enable their children and encourage them to be dependent on them, but also create situations to "fix". Both have a radar for any sort of difficult situation, and are always the first to clamor to "help".
    It really is an upsetting form of crazy making as it is so covert that it is difficult to detect or explain to anyone else (and they think your crazy for even suggestion your mother would set you up).
    Great post with great insight.

  3. I can SO identify with this post. Especially when you said this...

    This Hero Syndrome can be enacted inside a family. The Hero selects one or more people in the family to be the “problem” and then goes about blackening the reputation of that person to the rest of the family. Normal mistakes are spun to be intentional wrong-doing, acts of defiance or rebellion. Someone else in the family is identified as being at risk because of the “problem” person…it could be a sibling, the children of the “problem,” or even the entire family. Once the “problem person” is sufficiently maligned to the family that she is viewed by the majority as a troublemaker, the Hero can take action, whatever that action might be. I have been the victim of this, inside my family, several times. Mostly my mother was behind it all, but on one occasion it was my daughter. And they came out Heroes whereas I came out the bad guy, yet again.

    This was my mother to a tee.

  4. Violet, I so enjoy reading and processing your articles - and you have been very prolific lately - thank you! There are many people in my own life, family and supposed friends (all former), who thrive on the drama you describe. It also described so well what we've seen in civic and political arenas, when wannabe leaders point out even sometimes egregious wrongdoing by other parties, only to promote their irresponsible and mercurial agendas, with no concern for anyone but themselves. My husband and I have a question about the woman who supervised many in the legal department where you used to work. Do you know how that turned out for her? Was she ever exposed and stopped? Any recommendations on how to thwart someone who will stoop to destroy perfectly decent, honest and competent people's lives, jobs/careers and/or sense of worth to be the exalted hero, when getting far away is not necessarily an option?

    1. The sad fact of life in the executive suite is that this kind of behaviour is not really an issue, as long as the desired results are achieved. But narcissists are arrogant and they seldom have just one nasty act up their sleeves. This one, in particular, had a bad habit of not paying our outside legal counsel. Each month her budget looked great because, unbeknownst to the Board, she was stacking up the bills, her excuse (to me...when I brought the invoices in for her signature) being that she was "too busy" to review them. Eventually she ended up with more than a million dollars worth of unpaid invoices, which was about the time I quit the company to get married and move away. Several months after I left the President and CFO resigned and the Board appointed new ones and the new CFO found out about the unpaid invoices and, according to a friend of mine who still worked there, my former boss was asked to resign. But, if you think that made a dent in her career, it didn't...she went on to become Chief Counsel for a nationwide corporation, and I am sure she was no better there than she was where I worked.

      How to thwart them? I wish I knew. They hold all the power and unless you are absolutely certain that management above her doesn't have a reason to take her word over her, you can go to upper management and complain. But be aware that unless the complaint is something a lot more damaging to the company than she is destroying the careers and emotional well-being of honest and competent people, be prepared to be ignored...and be first on the next lay-off list.

      Corporations and the people who run them are bottom-line oriented: unless the sins of a senior executive stand to lose them megabucks, the rest of the senior staff could not care less. Not even HR cares...this woman was reported to HR and her shenanigans were outlined in detail during exit interviews and nothing changed. And until she did something that threatened the company's financial health, the Board and executive staff didn't give a damn what she did to the rest of us.

      The smartest thing you can do if you are stuck with a boss like this is get another boss...transfer to another department, find another job, go into business for yourself. Because nobody is going to do a thing to stop her until and unless she threatens the company's bottom line. That is business in America.

  5. Violet, I am a new reader of your blog. I read for over an hour last night, entry after entry saying "that's me, that's my life!"

    My mother is the ignoring narcissist who also sucked in my father, but he too has the traits but is so easily manipulated by her.

    She tried to play the hero so many times. The first I remember was her deciding that my cousin's step grandpa was molesting her. She would spin the story to whomever would listen. It was nothing but vicious lies. From there she moved to my Aunt, her sister in law that worked at the same place as her. My Aunt was well liked by all and had many friends, mother decided that she was stealing money and altering peoples grades on their report cards (she worked at the school). She would have co-workers over for coffee and in her hushed and know it all tone "I don't like to say anything because she's family....but". And then she would twist her tale.

    I am a work in progress. I have much to learn and am so happy to have found your site.

  6. My Nfather probably became a Doctor to play martyr. He often talks vulnerable or criminal people out of abortions (we're talking convicts here, many of which are addicts), without ever considering how irresponsible that is, as long as he gets to think he's moral, he never asks himself what becomes of these children.
    It's all about getting to call people names and feeling righteous for him.

    If he hears us fight among ourselves, he'll inflate little sibling quarrels, create problems where none are, interfere without listening first, and generally treats us like we're too stupid to solve our own problems.

    I often get unwanted protection (but woe me if I tell him not to speak for me or otherwise act like I don't hate him), while the secong-youngest always gets told off and insulted by default...

  7. The most hurtful thing that I have felt being the scapegoat is that people who have known me for years will usually believe the lies. Sometimes, even those who know the victimizer as a liar will still believe them. Crazy.

  8. I am sorry if you think dead children are better off than live one. I am pretty happy to be alive and I had to be alive to escape my abused childhood. Given the choice of making you feel better by being flushed down the toilet or surviving a few bad years asa child I will take the few bad years.

    1. To whom are you speaking? To me?

      Neither I nor any of the commenters here said a thing about dead children being better off than live ones. Kendrix Havlik said her father talked people out of abortions, not into them, and he did not do it for the welfare of the child or the mother, but to make himself feel like a hero. He didn't care if those babies, who were born to mothers who did not want them, lead healthy, happy lives or if they were neglected and abused by their unwilling mothers. He cared only for himself and how powerful and "good" he felt after talking a person into keepin the child.

      Your comment does not sync with anything written by anyone else here--nobody said you would be better off flushed down the toilet, that is something you, yourself, inferred from a monologue that was not in the least directed in that attention.

      This is my blog and the opinions expressed in the articles are my own. I will assert here, as I have numerous times in the past, that I am pro-choice. I believe nobody has any rights over my uterus--and its contents--but me.

      Abortion is a fact of life whether it is legal or not. Illegal abortions kill women, many of whom already have children at home who need them, in a household with already stretched resources. Those who advocate a ban on abortion do nothing for the babies who will be born as a result of the ban--indigent women forced to bear children they cannot financially care for are seeing their safety nets yanked away by the very same politicians who are curtailing abortion and birth control.

      The truth is, this has NOTHING to do with dead babies and everything to do with controlling the sexuality of other women, women over whom the pastors and the politicians have no control or influence. To force them into a life of sexual abstinence the block access to birth control, to abortion (in case the contraception failed), and further removes financial assistance from economically marginal women. The object is to get them to simply not have sex because woman's sexuality is evil, it leads innocent men into temptation and sin. So to force women into a chaste state the politicians, urged by the preachers, remove those things that allow women to enjoy their sexuality with impunity: birth control, abortion, and financial safety nets for those who birthed and kept their babies.

      My uterus is none of your business. If you don't like abortion, don't have one. But don't go around putting words in other people's mouths. Not one person here said s/he thought dead children are better off than live ones. That's something brought forth from your own psyche. And "surviving a few bad years as a child"? No, narcissistic parents are forever, and some of them continue to attempt to control and even destroy our lives even when we are in our 40s, 50s, and older.

      You don't get to second-guess other people's lives, not in here. And you don't get to put words in other people's mouths, either.


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