Borderline Personality Disorder: What Is Black-and-White Thinking?

By Andi Chrisman

When I am speaking to a group about my history, I always list the typical symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD), since most people are unfamiliar with the diagnosis. One of the questions I am most frequently asked is “What is black and white thinking?”. Usually, I will tell them sort of about a funny example from my life of the first time I ever saw myself thinking in black and white, which I will share later in the post, but first let me explain black-and-white thinking in detail.

The official psychological term is splitting, though it may be called all-or-nothing, either/or, love/hate, us/them, and most commonly, black-and-white thinking. Splitting is not unique to BPD alone. Most people will experience splitting sometimes, but with BPD, splitting may happen the majority of the time, if not all the time pre-treatment. It’s a constant in my life that I have to check my thoughts for evidence of splitting. Black-and-white thinking is ingrained in me, the natural way my brain works.

So what is splitting? Splitting is the inability to see the dichotomy of both positive and negative aspects of our thoughts, usually associated with how we think about people. Everything is either all good or all bad – there is no middle ground. All of my thoughts are polarized. My life is either absolutely terrible or completely amazing, but nowhere in between…

That’s why the main treatment for BPD is called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). “Dialectical” means the integration of opposites, seeing that two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time. The therapy and its coping skills intend on helping patients more easily find a balance between these two extremes we are used to experiencing.

There is nothing intentional about splitting; it’s an automatic response to intense and/or dysregulated emotions. It’s a natural defense mechanism all humans have as children. What causes BPD is a complicated issue, but most professionals agree trauma can play a key role in disrupting the development of the person with BPD. Due to this, when someone with BPD is acting out, it’s not that they’re failing at using their coping skills effectively – it’s that those skills may never have developed at all.

Most children see everything as all good or all bad. This is especially imperative with relationships, most crucially the relationship with their parents. Young children lack object constancy, meaning if they can’t see something, they think it isn’t there. This is why you can play Peek-a-Boo with babies. So if Mom is another room the child may think “Mom abandoned me! She hates me. My mom is bad.” while later at dinner they might think, “Mom is feeding me because she loves me! I have a good mom.”

As you can imagine, thinking in these extremes causes a lot of the symptoms associated with BPD. Splitting is one of the reasons we can so quickly change from idealization to devaluation, and because of that, we may have chaotic and unstable relationship patterns. It isn’t only about others – we may think of ourselves under these strict guidelines as well. Often “I am a bad person” is an idea we are positive is true. This contributes to our identity disturbance and poor self-image. Splitting also contributes to frequent mood swings as we switch from all good to all bad.

As I said, splitting is something I have to constantly be on the lookout for. I also have to take precautions to avoid situations that cause splitting. For example, I cannot debate or realistically discuss politics with someone I disagree with. You should have seen how upset I was getting this past election season and how many people I unfriended! Splitting says my views are right, so yours are wrong. When I did engage in political discussions, more so when I was younger but occasionally still do, I would do things like argue facts that have been proven to be incorrect, just for the sake of staying right. Splitting says you’re either with me or against me. So I would suddenly hate someone I had liked just based on their political views – which is unfair and immature. But dialectically, I realize I do this and I take measures to prevent it by avoiding political conversations. I wish I could participate and stay reasonable and rational, but time has proven I still can’t, even in recovery – so I don’t (well, I try not too). I don’t feel I’m losing much by avoiding politics, so it’s an effective way for me to cope with splitting.

But I am constantly polarizing my thoughts, and I can’t avoid everything that causes it because then I’d get upset with every person who prefers Miracle Whip to mayo. Even something as irrelevant as that is processed by my splitting thoughts. So part of living in recovery of BPD is constantly analyzing my thoughts to look for signs of my symptoms like splitting. (Pro Tip: watch out for words like “always,” “never,” “hate,” or “wrong,” as signs you may be splitting.)

The best part is once I realize I’m splitting, I’m able to dialectically work it out in my mind so I don’t get so polarized about everything. I try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. I list out reasons why they might be like that. For example, if I am convinced someone hates me because I haven’t heard back from them in a while, I may remind myself of things like they might not be able to pay the bill, the phone may be broken, etc. As I do that, my thoughts move into the shades of grey I couldn’t see, and my emotional intensity comes down as I move into the grey.

When my therapist first asked me to read the DSM criteria for BPD and see if I found it familiar, I told her that wasn’t me at all. I didn’t think I had black-and-white thinking or pretty much any of the other symptoms that I can now see I obviously had. So it wasn’t until about six months into DBT that I was able to take a step back and notice myself splitting. I remember it very well as it was a huge revelation for me and a leap forward towards recovery. Note, this story does contain adult topics and may be NSFW.

I met L when we were in DBT in 2012, and she is still one of my best friends to this day. At the time, we both were struggling with BPD and quickly clicked when she joined my group a few months after I did. Before L joined, our group would sit in silence in the waiting room until our therapists called us back to the meeting room for group. That changed when she joined, as L is very gregarious, and the dynamic of the group evolved as we became more talkative and closer to one another.

This was about six months into my DBT treatment. L and I were just beginning to become friends. We had just started texting outside of group. That day, L entered the waiting room, sat down, and told the group of women she needed to buy a new vibrator. This led to a lengthy yet funny discussion of the quality of different vibrators and recommendations of which one she should get. I laughed through the conversation, though felt slightly embarrassed by the topic, not really contributing to the conversation. After about five minutes, they let us head back to group, and the conversation died out as we got our binders out and prepared to start. I laughed so much my face hurt and went into group in a jovial mood.

A few weeks later, M, one of the group members, was graduating. Graduation was not a formal event, but when someone felt they knew the program well enough, they would stop attending group, and graduation happened at the beginning of the last class a person attended. The therapists would talk about how much the person has grown since they started DBT, the class members would comment on her successes and send well-wishes, ending with the person making a short speech to say goodbye.

When M was ready to speak, she did not discuss her time in DBT at all. Instead, M quietly said, “So, um, there is something I need to say. I wanted to speak up then, but I couldn’t, but I really want to say it before I leave. A few weeks ago, there was a very inappropriate conversation in the waiting room before group. It made me feel very uncomfortable, but I didn’t feel I could speak up. I–”

L cut M off. “M, I know I started that conversation, and I wanted to tell you I am so sorry. It was a really inappropriate conversation, and I should have been more mindful. I did not mean to make you uncomfortable. I will be more careful in the future and I’m sorry to have upset you.”

“It’s OK, I just wanted to get the chance to speak up…”

M continued on, and L continued to apologize for starting the vibrator conversation, but I wasn’t really listening at this point. Instead, I was seething.

Who does she think she is? I thought to myself. L can talk about whatever she wants and just because M’s a prude doesn’t mean she can be such a bitch about it. And my thoughts kept going, totally trashing M while praising L, when suddenly it hit me. I was starting a fight in my head while the two women were actually apologizing. I had drawn a line in the sand and was intensely angry at M.

This is it! I’m thinking in black and white!

This is what black-and-white thinking is!

I spent a lot of time analyzing my thoughts through the rest of class, curious as to how it became so extreme in my mind when the situation didn’t warrant it. I was creating a fight when there wasn’t one. I complained that M was being a prude for being uncomfortable with the conversation, when I knew that I, myself, was a little uncomfortable too!

I remember I kept saying to myself that I was “on L’s side,” when L’s “side” was actually one that was forfeiting. In my mind, L was right and M was wrong and I had L’s back. Not only was M wrong, but she was a terrible person – in fact, I never liked her anyway.

There I was, totally devaluing someone based on one thing she said that I didn’t agree with. No, it wasn’t that I didn’t agree, it was that she said my friend did something wrong. At the same time, I was idolizing L, thinking about how cool I thought she was and how I was impressed by her candid constitution. Suddenly, she was my best friend and I had to defend her, though I really didn’t know L that much better than M at the time.

It was completely irrational, but it was an obvious display of black-and-white thinking to me — a demonstration I really needed because I didn’t even know I was splitting. I can’t spot it all the time, but I am pretty good at noticing when I’m splitting now. And the best part is once I realize I’m doing it, I can use my skills to talk myself to a middle ground. If I start getting worked up, I will actually ask myself questions about my symptoms, like, “Am I thinking in black and white?” and look for statements that are all or nothing.

Now you all have a more comprehensive understanding of splitting. It’s complicated to explain exactly how it works to people as they have a very elementary understanding of what that is like for the person experiencing it. Luckily, as long as we remain mindful of moments when we do start polarizing, we are able to correct those cognitive distortions before much damage is done. I can’t speak for other people with BPD, but I feel this is something I may never get a hold on. I don’t think I can rewire my brain to not immediately jump to the extremes, but as long as I keep mindful of my thoughts and watch out for splitting, it’s manageable.

10 Things Borderlines Deal With Daily

Borderline Personality Disorder is a very intense disorder of behaviour and intensified emotions, often described by medical professionals as a roller coaster. Trauma and other factors contribute to the formation of ones personality, and borderlines experience extremes daily. Though the disorder may not be seen on the exterior, it is very real and is hard for anyone to understand, even one living with the condition.


The following are common daily occurrences for the average borderline, and may help you to understand the condition better.

fear-of-abadonment

Fear of Abandonment. The most common Borderline trait is the fear of abandonment, and it is an everyday occurrence. As people grow older, they realize that people leave their lives, but we have witnessed it repeatedly in unnecessary forms. It could just be assumed abandonment or, other situations may feel like it. Having to leave a phone call, a coworker leaving work or having to say goodbye to a guest, though inevitable, can feel like abandonment. It is a repetitive pattern we’ve experienced which may seem irrational, but is a true fear.

emotions

 

Unstable and Intense Emotions. It is no secret that borderlines can climb the emotional ladder and come down again in a matter of seconds. It may be an overwhelming trait, but it is hell to live with. Our emotions fluctuate and they lean so far to extremes that we may not be able to cope. A negative comment from a friend can upset us at first, and then spiral out into self-harming thoughts and behaviours. In very intense cases, the individual may not be able to function in everyday activities and may require disability funds.

694346_1280x720

 

Feelings of Emptiness. Our intense emotions unfortunately includes emptiness. We may lie there, emotionless, trying to muster up reason for our living and life itself. Being empty can lead someone to risky behaviour and dissociation to retrieve feeling. Dissociation cannot be entirely controlled, but ones body resorts to this to escape trauma and an overflow of emotions. Emptiness can quickly lead to suicidal thoughts and actions as it can be mistaken as worthlessness, thus being a very dangerous emotion.

screen-shot-2015-01-09-at-11-05-16-pm

Anxiety. Not all borderlines have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, though most do experience it. We constantly experience fear and worry. We stress over other people’s thoughts and emotions in response to our own, becoming terrified of what they could do. We understand that our vulnerability can be used against us and we may end up hurt. Not to mention, there is anxiety revolving everyday activities, along with overanalysing everyone around us. We are apprehensive of the possibility of someone not liking us along with their ability to harm us, which is ultimately terrifying.

i-hate-me

Self-Doubt and Self-Hate. Everyone doubts and judges parts of themselves they don’t love, but those diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder experience it on an overwhelming level. We are uncertain about ourselves, our capabilities and our talents. Most of us have been continuously reminded in childhood of our wrongs, with our goods taking a back seat. The lack of acknowledgement of accomplishments in our childhood make it hard for us to see how amazing we really are. This self-doubt can affect our everyday functioning as we may not believe we are capable of handling phone calls, writing something down or preparing something for someone. When these emotions intensify, we become extremely self-destructive and implode, causing dangerous outcomes and needs for hospitalization. Understanding that we are valid human beings takes time, but can be achieved with constant Dialectal Behavioural Therapy.

boredom

 

Boredom. Enduring boredom with Borderline is a complicated struggle. It is just as intense as any other emotion. Our response to this can be very unhealthy. To cope, we respond in extreme ways that are often self-destructive. Commonly, we turn to alcohol, drugs, risky sex, overspending, gambling and poor career decisions, all to reach satisfaction.

suicide-istock-650_650x400_71468999138

Suicidal/Self-Harm Thoughts. It will never be easy to swallow, but we face this daily. It is agonizing to fight, but most of us manage to see the end of the day due to our strength and resiliency. We often consider these as options as a way to cope, but we fight our hardest not to resort to them.

x5_successful_essay_excerpts_on_the_struggles_of_personal_identity-pagespeed-ic-gwxhrrfarv

Identity Struggles. Have you ever noticed someone with Borderline hop job to job, getting invested in multiple hobbies, trying to start a career under a specific light, but quickly switching to a new approach? It isn’t strange for diagnosed BPD individuals to do this, and it can be draining to do. We may crave a label to identify us, so we can understand ourselves better, but it usually leaves us lost. It is a way to combat emptiness and boredom.

f21084539992f2262a3d4be4ff03af03

 

Paranoia and Sensory Overload. Borderline Personality Disorder may not be a psychotic condition, but we are subject to slight psychotic symptoms. In states of worry and fear, we may become overly aware and paranoid, believing that we are being stalked, or someone’s next victim. When out at a local store, we can stress over the amount of noise and crowds, along with vivid colours and brash movements. This could be a subconscious way to cope with anxieties and mistrust.

terapia-sistemica-galapagar

 

Rejection from Medical Professionals. The majority of borderlines who have sought out medical attention can tell you that you will be denied and stereotyped at one point for your disorder by mental health and medical professionals. There is a large stigma around BPD and most professionals do not want to work with us because of the intense emotions, dependencies and constant suicidal feelings.

As sad as it is, they would be liable for our actions, especially if we threaten suicide and they don’t take us seriously. BPD individuals make many threats because of emotional intensity, and they cannot send us to the hospital every appointment, but a misassesment could cause them an upheaval of legal problems. It is possible to find a therapist that will work with Borderline, but it may be a struggle if you haven’t begun recovery as they will refuse to engage the comfortable Borderline behaviours we are accustom to.

Being refused treatment can bring us down and make us believe that we aren’t worthy of help, but we are, and we deserve to feel better. Attending Dialectal Behavioural Therapy regularly and practicing healthy coping mechanisms can be the path to a healthy and happy lifestyle.

Narcissism and terrorism: how the personality disorder leads to deadly violence

What do Sydney siege gunman Man Haron Monis, Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz, Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, and Isis killers Mohammed Emwazi and Jake Bilardi have in common? Delusions of grandeur, a fear of failure and a need for admiration

When Man Haron Monis, self-styled Islamic cleric, took 18 hostages in the Lindt cafe in Sydney, he declared himself to be a jihadist on behalf of Islamic State. Reports of the siege immediately went global. But, in fact, Monis had no connection to the group; he had brought the wrong flag to his own siege, and demanded that police bring him the right one in exchange for releasing hostages.

In the inquest into the siege, which concluded last week, Monis was described as a “man spiralling downwards”. He had no job but many debts, had lost custody of his children and faced a lengthy jail term. Seeking “power and influence”, he had even briefly joined a biker gang, but was rejected as too “weird”. “His constant goal in life,” junior assisting counsel Sophie Callan summed up, “appears to have been achieving significance.”

Pretending to be an important cleric, in reality he was on bail for sordid crimes: as an accessory to his ex-wife’s murder and for multiple sexual assaults on women, committed while posing as a “spiritual healer”. He claimed to be a refugee fleeing persecution in Iran; it now seems likely he fled after embezzling money. Diagnosed with a number of mental health problems, he was a relentless attention seeker with delusions of grandeur and a con man, who elevated his personal grievances with the heavenly glow of Islamic jihadism.

Before he took hostages, Monis sent vicious letters to the grieving families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Monis’s lawyer sternly instructed him not to talk to the press when he was on trial for this crime. It would harm his case. Like a moth to the flame, Monis rushed out to the assembled media and stood gesticulating, long robes fluttering, proclaiming dramatically: “This pen is my gun and these words are my bullets.”

'This pen is my gun and these words are my bullets' ... Man Monis outside court in Sydney in 2009. Photograph: Sergio Dioniso/AAP
 ‘This pen is my gun and these words are my bullets’ … Man Monis outside court in Sydney in 2009. Photograph: Sergio Dioniso/AAP

It was a humiliation – the Australian high court threw out an appeal against his conviction for the defamatory letters – that provided the emotional trigger for the subsequent siege. Monis would have been understood, and diminished by being seen, as his lawyer described him, as “a damaged goods individual”. Accordingly, he wrapped his outburst of deadly rage in an Isis flag, and claimed he was acting on behalf of the caliphate. Like other lone-wolf killers, he gained a greater significance to his actions by attaching his personal grievance to a larger ideology. And like so many of this decade’s most infamous terrorists and murderers, his theatrical crimes suggest he was pathologically narcissistic.

Narcissistic personality disorder involves a pervasive grandiosity, an extreme desire for attention, a sense of entitlement, a willingness to exploit or mistreat others, an excessive need for admiration and a lack of empathy. Yet narcissists can be fragile too and prone to outbursts of humiliated rage. Their grandiose self-beliefs are built on foundations as solid as quicksand, hence the need for constant admiration and attention, shoring up their unstable sense of self.
As the co-author of a recent study, Brad Bushman, explains, narcissism is the claim that you are superior to other people. From this core belief, bad things flow. “I’ve been studying aggression for about 30 years,” says Bushman, “and I’ve seen that the most harmful belief that a person can have is that they’re superior to others.” Narcissists “fantasise about personal successes and believe they deserve special treatment. When they feel humiliated, they often lash out aggressively or even violently.”
Psychologists warn that narcissism is on the increase. Invisibility is a central terror of the narcissist, and in our world of hyper-individualism, the competitive pursuit of attention produces winners and losers, those who painfully feel passed over and excluded. One response to the shame of exclusion and marginalisation is violence, which enacts revenge at the same moment that it lifts the person out of oblivion.

At the more pathological end of the spectrum, we have what the psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg called malignant narcissism, the source of much “evil in the world”. Disappointed in reality, love turns inward, the self becomes idealised, doted upon, admired and excused. Narcissism becomes deadly when destructive impulses become fused with the conscience, transforming lying, manipulation, murder or even terrorism into noble, moral acts. Malignant narcissists may even kill to slake their thirst for attention.

Andreas Lubitz at the Golden Gate Bridge in California. His behaviour resonates with Monis and other narcissists. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
FacebookTwitterPinterest
 Andreas Lubitz at the Golden Gate Bridge in California. His behaviour resonates with Monis and other narcissists. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

While we may never know with certainty why the Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz flew a plane with 149 other people into a mountain, his behaviour has many resonances with that of Monis and other narcissists. He once warned a girlfriend: “One day, I will do something that will change the whole system, and then all will know my name and remember it.” Narcissists can have violent mood swings as they are alternately inflated and deflated, puffed up by hubris, or crushed by a collision with reality that cracks open a cauldron of shame. In Lubitz’s case, he had just suffered blows to central life goals – remaining a pilot, making captain, and keeping a longstanding girlfriend after cheating on her. She and others have said that Lubitz had frightening mood swings and aggressive outbursts. Excessively preoccupied about how he looked and how he appeared to others, he responded to his girlfriend’s doubts by suddenly buying two prestige Audis – a his and a hers – just before the crash.

Depression is a deeply painful condition, usually marked by withdrawal, ruminative sadness, self-blame and excessive guilt. Those concerned about the stigmatisation of depression after Lubitz rightly point to the fact that self-harm rather than violence is more likely. There is a very different kind of depression however; the shame-rage spiral of the narcissist who reacts to failure with other-directed, humiliated fury. As Jeff Victoroff, neuropsychiatrist at the University of Southern California argued in the LA Times: “We need to stop talking as if this was a suicidal guy with access to an airplane. This was a murderous guy who probably had elements of a mood disorder and personality disorders.”

In narcissism, an inflated grandiosity is repeatedly punctured by an unbending reality. Depression and even suicide can be the reaction. Elsa Ronningstam, a Boston-based specialist in narcissism, calls this the “my way or no way!” suicide. The narcissist defends against feelings of catastrophic failure by resorting to a fantasy of specialness, an illusion of mastery and control. Sentiments such as “I fear nothing, not even death” (Lubitz’s breathing as the plane hurtled towards the mountain was steady); “death before dishonour” (failing to make it as captain); and “I’ll show you” (the rejecting girlfriend, the wider world) can be elements in the egoistic suicide. In pathological narcissism there is a complete lack of empathy towards those that rage destroys, such as the 149 others he killed. If Lubitz wanted fame, he was rewarded posthumously. Since the crash, searching for his name on Google brings up more than 12m hits.

‘Who gets to decide who lives or dies?’ ‘Me’

Or consider Anders Breivik, responsible for the slaughter of 77 people in Norway. He wanted to be the worst mass murderer in history. Psychiatrists did not find that he had paranoid schizophrenia, as first thought, but several disorders, most notably an extreme narcissistic personality disorder.

Breivik’s narcissism is in abundant evidence in Asne Seierstadt’s new, gripping account of his life and crimes, One of Us. When police tried to take a mugshot of him, he protested. He wanted them to use Photoshopped studio images he had posted online. Foreseeing the humiliation of not looking his best after the massacre, these showed him with makeup and in powerful poses – wearing military garb festooned with medals, or aiming a rifle in a tight sports suit with the words “Marxist Hunter” emblazoned on the sleeve.

The police refused and went to take the photo anyhow. They were astonished when Breivik, stripped to his underwear for the shot, with a sudden, grotesque theatricality adopted a proud body-builder’s pose, side on, hand on hip with muscles flexed.

He wanted to be the worst mass murderer in history ... Anders Breivik raises his fist in a rightwing salute in court. Photograph: Heiko Junge/AFP/Getty Images
FacebookTwitterPinterest
 He wanted to be the worst mass murderer in history … Anders Breivik raises his fist in a rightwing salute in court. Photograph: Heiko Junge/AFP/Getty Images

Like Monis, Breivik also claimed a larger political significance to his crime, only this time as Christian crusader. In his 1,500-page online manifesto, he gave himself lofty titles such as “Grand Commander of the Knights Templar”. He had not slaughtered innocents but performed “political executions” of “cultural Marxists”. A policeman asked him: “Who gets to decide who lives or dies?” Breivik’s answer: me.

Malignant narcissists, though devoured by envy and rage, can still idealise powerful figures whose beliefs conveniently justify the destruction of those they denigrate, says Kernberg. This makes them susceptible to taking an ideology such as jihadism to the point of violent extremism. In Terror in the Name of God; Why Religious Militants Kill, Jessica Stern interviewed many terrorists. She found a common theme: “They start out feeling humiliated, enraged that they are viewed by some ‘Other’ as second class. They take on a new identity on behalf of a purported spiritual cause. The weak become strong … rage turns to conviction.” As the world is simplified into good and evil, they feel “spiritually intoxicated”. The “apocalyptic violence” on behalf of their spiritual calling, committed as if in a trance, is addictive, the ultimate high.

In the deeply troubling phenomenon of suburban jihadists, young people with narcissistic traits may also be attracted to what terrorism expert Raphaello Pantucci calls “jihadi cool”. This is a chillingly brilliant marketing exercise via social media: a teenage adventure camp with a Kalashnikov among flowering meadows; a world of belief, purity and struggle; a prefabricated heroic identity to slip into; a tightly woven place in the world; the promise of obliging brides and sex slaves; a secure sense of superiority to the fallen, craven and corrupt world of the impure infidel; a loyal band of brothers; and permission to kill. Above all else, what is promised is significance.

He had found his place in the world, as a suicide bomber

It is that significance that seems to have attracted another sad, lonely, lost boy, Jake Bilardi, now known as “Jihadi Jake”, from a featureless outer suburb on the plains of northern Melbourne. This tender-faced wisp of a lad, with a cloud of long, soft hair, is now memorialised in a famous photo. Flanked by two burly jihadists, Bilardi’s pale, skinny arms hold on to an oversize Kalashnikov.

From an affluent atheist background, Bilardi was an isolated loner. His search for meaning followed his parents’ divorce, when he lost all contact with his father, then lost his mother to cancer. He was a disturbed boy with mental health issues that his father admitted were never addressed. Young Jake craved attention, had wild rages and attacked his parents with weapons such as scissors. A highly intelligent maths whizz, he found school life an agonising social humiliation. He was horribly bullied and friendless. Capsized emotionally by the death of his mother, he converted to Islam.

Bilardi wrote a political blog. His extremism grew. So did his paranoia. One post tells how, sitting in his living room, he looked at his brothers and thought they might kill him. He dropped out of school and isolated himself, but, via the internet, developed new attachments, to a world far away, to an ideal of earthly perfection, the caliphate run by Isis.

This painfully shy, anxious boy found his place in the world as a suicide bomber ... Jake Bilardi (centre). Photograph: AAP
 This painfully shy, anxious boy found his place in the world as a suicide bomber … Jake Bilardi (centre). Photograph: AAP

Ideology has the capacity to make a butterfly out of a grub. Bilardi managed to find moral perfection in beheadings, sexual slavery and attacks on priceless artefacts from the past. In Isis he would find true “brothers” who would value him, whom he could impress with his willingness to die, such as the burly jihadists flanking him in that photograph.

In Bilardi’s manifesto, From Melbourne to Ramadi, Australia was condemned as “a land full of such filth and corruption that no one in their right mind could live there without a craving to let some heads roll”. A picture of people shopping is captioned: “The talking pigs of Melbourne, Australia, in their sty …” Dehumanised as pigs, his fellow Australians could be slaughtered. Stockpiled in his Craigieburn home were the ingredients for a bomb. His manifesto told of plan B: “Launching a string of bombings across Melbourne, targeting foreign consulates and political/military targets, as well as grenade and knife attacks on shopping centres and cafes and culminating with myself detonating a belt of explosives amongst the Kuffar.”

This painfully shy, anxious boy, rejected, taunted and bullied, finally felt he had found his place in the world, part of a glorious struggle that promised him a heroic identity and spiritual immortality as a suicide bomber in Iraq. He described driving into Aleppo, and feeling utterly elated when he saw the Isis black flag flying high. After his death, he was no longer invisible, but infamous, acquiring another kind of immortality.

Christopher Lasch wrote in The Culture of Narcissism of how the “society of the spectacle” encourages the desire to have one’s life recorded and transmitted to an unseen audience: “The prevailing conditions thus brought out narcissistic personality traits that were present in everyone.”

And especially, one might add, in mass killers and jihadists. Fame is not just about being known. It is a fast route to high status and social dominance. Fame delivers the illusion that you matter more than other people. One of the Charlie Hebdokillers, Cherif Kouachi, originally sought to escape his life of petty crime and poverty by becoming a famous rapper. He sought a very western form of fame, and failed, before gaining it by launching an attack on the west.

Idolised by Isis recruits ... Mohammed Emwazi
FacebookTwitterPinterest
 Idolised by Isis recruits … Mohammed Emwazi. Photograph: screengrab

Fame played a part too for Mohammed Emwazi, the British man now known as “Jihadi John”. Formerly an obscure London lad with modest prospects, he is now a new human type, the celebrity beheader. Stern says: “Some experience a different kind of high: they like weapons and they like to kill, and they would do so for almost any reason.” The only real clue we have to the mystery of Emwazi is his violent, rage-filled outbursts as a youngster. On joining Isis, however, the sadism that Kernberg warns of in malignant narcissism becomes clear, in the evident pleasure with which he kills aid workers and journalists, and in the exultant torture he metes out beforehand. “Feel it? Cold, isn’t it?” Emwazi said to freed Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa, holding a blade to his neck. “Can you imagine the pain you’ll feel when it cuts?” He describes in horrific detail each stage of the beheading; “I’ve seen it before, you all squirm like animals, like pigs. The third blow will take off your head. I’d put it on your back.”

As justly reviled as he is by many, Emwazi is idolised by Isis recruits as the personification of jihadi cool. Such killers get fans. Breivik complains from prison about the “human rights abuses” of being given old versions of PlayStation, while his fans send him his favourite perfume, Chanel Egoiste, also the favourite brand of Isis commander Abou Bilel. Such killers may speak as if they are acting piously under the eye of an all-powerful God, but they actually act with a sharp, greedy eye for their audience of human peers. Getting a narcissistic hit of attention is indissolubly part of what Jessica Stern and JM Berger, authors of new book Isis: The State of Terror call the appeal of “the crack cocaine of violent extremism, all the elements that make it so alluring and so addictive purified into a crystallised form.” Understanding that truth, repugnant as it is, will have to be a part of any effective programme of counter-terrorism.