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.