Would Emperor Palpatine qualify as a narcissist?

A licensed therapist just diagnosed him as one, but ... how well does he really know Palpatine?
Sculptor Ramiro Sirpa makes various sculptures in Bolivia
Sculptor Ramiro Sirpa makes various sculptures in Bolivia / Anadolu/GettyImages

They're only movie characters, right?

Even so, the archetypes in Star Wars reflect human nature so well that, for those of us with an interest in psychology, those of us with a problematic family member who reminds us of someone in the galaxy far, far away, or those of us who are just plain Star Wars nerds, the temptation to diagnose characters we love to love (or love to hate!) is simply irresistible at times. Even for actual therapists!

This video from the YouTube channel Cinema Therapy by therapist Jonathan Decker and filmmaker Alan Seawright attempts to paint Star Wars' ultimate villain as a textbook case of narcissism.

People with narcissistic tendencies are known for treating others badly, often with zero empathy. However, narcissism actually exists on a spectrum. Some people show only a few narcissistic traits now and then, while some qualify for the clinical diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

Exactly where on the spectrum would Star Wars's most infamous villain fall? Would he be diagnosed with NPD? For answers, this curious writer and Palpatine fan turned to Malignant Self Love by Sam Vaknin, who is not only a professor and lecturer in psychology but has been diagnosed as a narcissist by two different therapists. Although, I have been unable to determine if he means the full-blown diagnosis of NPD or just high on the spectrum. He writes about narcissism in great detail but not about himself in particular.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the diagnostic bible of the mental health profession, lists nine criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. To be officially diagnosed with NPD, a person must meet at least five.

Does this list describe Palpatine?

The updated criteria in the latest edition of the DSM for narcissistic personality disorder can be found here, with more detail here. However, I find Vaknin's explanation of the diagnostic criteria for NPD useful because he adds his own observations, in italics, as a sufferer of the illness himself. Using Vaknin's explanation of the criteria for NPD, we find:

1: Feels grandiose and self-important (e.g., exaggerates accomplishments, talents, skills, contacts, and personality traits to the point of lying, demands to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).

Does this describe Palpatine? In my opinion, no. He has every talent he thinks he does, plus a few by the time period of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker that we never anticipated. He also does not demand to be recognized. For most of his life, he hides the fact that he is objectively the greatest Sith master who has ever lived, and he does not care that his average subject on the street knows it, either.

2: Is obsessed with fantasies of unlimited success, fame, fearsome power or omnipotence, unequaled brilliance (the cerebral narcissist), bodily beauty or sexual performance (the somatic narcissist), or ideal, everlasting, all-conquering love or passion.

Well, we are talking about a guy who actually screamed, "Unlimited power!!!" while killing Mace Windu. However, it matters very much to diagnose why the person wants the power.

Palpatine wants power because of his consuming quest for immortality. Sith appear to be terrified of death. The whole point behind wanting to be all-powerful is so he doesn't ever have to die. That, and because he was trained that the purpose of the Sith Order is to topple the Jedi from power and retake the galaxy in retaliation for what the Jedi did to the Sith.

One can see that in the Star Wars Legends canon regarding Palpatine's new Imperial palace. The Jedi built their temple over the old Sith temple. So, once he’s Emperor, what does Palpatine do? Raze the Jedi temple to build his palace over it. Of course, the Sith want revenge in a 1000-year fit of pique, but the Jedi did take their temple and their artifacts, too. One can see some degree of righteous anger in Palpatine wanting these things back and considering them his.

Vaknin tells us that "The narcissist uses the False Self to regulate his or her labile sense of self-worth by extracting from his environment Narcissistic Supply (any form of attention, both positive and negative.)" But Palpatine appears to be power-hungry for reasons of fear and revenge, not because of a deep-seated, hidden low self-worth. He may appear to meet this criterion on a superficial level, but his deeper reasons for what he does aren't consistent with narcissism. Palpatine believes solidly in his own abilities, and he certainly doesn't appear to have low self-worth! We have to give this one a no.

3: Firmly convinced that he or she is unique, and, being special, can only be understood by, should only be treated by, or associate with, other special or unique, or high-status people (or institutions).

It's difficult to see Palpatine as the sort of suck-up who hangs around royalty or other high-status people as a measure of his own status. In the Sith Order, he is peerless. Any other Sith or dark side Force-user is inferior in status to him. He puts up with royalty and others in the Republic Senate because that is what he must do in order to take and keep the Chancellor's podium and, later, the throne. We have to give Palpatine a no on this criterion as well.

4: Requires excessive admiration, adulation, attention, and affirmation--or, failing that, wishes to be feared and to be notorious (Narcissistic Supply).

As we've seen, narcissistic supply is simply any form of attention. I don’t think Palpatine is looking for attention when he requires his underlings to bow and scrape. He’s looking for obedience. Some of these underlings are downright dangerous. We’re talking about Wilhuff Tarkin and Lord Vader. They need to be kept in their place because they could kill Palpatine, who chooses the most capable--and therefore the most dangerous--associates. So, they had better bow and scrape lest they try to take his head off.

As for his subjects and lesser underlings, when they fear Palpatine, their fear is of the dark side, and the more of that's around, the more powerful Palpatine is. His ultimate motivation is to cheat death, so he's gathering fear and notoriety for that purpose. It's a means to an end, and that end is not shoring up the hidden low self-worth that drives the narcissist. Power and narcissistic supply are not the same thing for Palpatine, so, no here as well.

5: Feels entitled. Demands automatic and full compliance with his or her unreasonable expectations for special and favourable priority treatment.

I see this in the sense of expecting favor one has not earned. In one sense, he is competent at forcing loyalty from beings. Nearly everything Palpatine tries to do, he proves himself competent, whereas the narcissist expects to be acknowledged as competent when he is actually incompetent. However, Palpatine has not earned the loyalty or approval of his subjects; he actually seeks to harm them. In that sense, he does meet this criterion.

6: Is "interpersonally exploitive," i.e., uses others to achieve his/her own ends.

If there's one criterion for NPD that Palpatine obviously meets, this would be it. From the Trade Federation directorate to his apprentices to Padme to Valorum, Sheev Palpatine is the ultimate user and manipulator of people.

7: Devoid of empathy. Is unable or unwilling to identify, acknowledge, or accept the feelings, needs, preferences, priorities, and choices of others.

This is also obvious—the question of why, however, speaks to whether the individual is a narcissist or a psychopath. The narcissist is oblivious to others’ feelings because he is insecure and needs their validation; the psychopath is oblivious because he has learned to discount others’ feelings and needs or because of a biological abnormality in the brain that makes the person incapable of noticing or caring. While Palpatine nominally meets this criterion, it's the reason he does that makes him more consistent with psychopathy than narcissism. Psychopathy and narcissism share this criterion.

8: Constantly envious of others and seeks to hurt or destroy the objects of his or her frustration. Suffers from persecutory (paranoid) delusions as he or she believes that they feel the same about him or her and are likely to act similarly.

It would be difficult to identify any scene in the Star Wars films or television series where Palpatine appears particularly envious of anyone. He is the most powerful being in his Empire; who would he envy?

9: Behaves arrogantly and haughtily. Feels superior, omnipotent, omniscient, invincible, immune, "above the law," and omnipresent (magical thinking). Rages when frustrated, contradicted, or confronted by people he or she considers inferior to him or her and unworthy.

One could interpret the entire Sith Order as believing themselves to be above all other beings. The sentiment is all but institutionalized in the order. Palpatine certainly does believe himself to be all of these things, but again, in large part because his actual abilities do outstrip just about everyone else's. And he certainly does rage when he doesn't get his way, at least in front of allies of the Sith.

He does appear to meet this criterion, but, according to Mind Diagnostics, appellate criteria for NPD include: "D. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual’s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment." Palpatine was selected by his master for his superior talent in the Force, and superiority over other beings is taught as a Sith apprentice matures. Because of this, I feel I have to give Palpatine a no here.

So, out of nine criteria for clinical NPD, Palpatine is meeting only three, and some of those are debatable. Mind Diagnostics also tells us that, according to DSM 5,

"To diagnose a narcissistic personality disorder, the following criteria must be met:

A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:

  1. Impairments in self-functioning (a or b):

a. Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.

b. Self-direction: Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high to see oneself as exceptional or too low based on a sense of entitlement, often unaware of their own motivations."

Palpatine again doesn't appear to have low self-esteem, and he does not do what he does for the approval of other people. Once he can name himself Emperor, he has no need for others' approval at all. So, we can conclude here that while Palpatine does show some traits in common with narcissists, he himself is only mildly narcissistic at best.

Next. The lessons my daughters taught me seeing The Phantom Menace. The lessons my daughters taught me seeing The Phantom Menace. dark