I never thought I would be talking about Vladimir Putin to make a point about mental health but, well, here we are.
Putin is a cruel and dangerous man – that’s obvious – but he is not stupid. Until recently, he was routinely described as a cold and calculating figure, ruthless but not impulsive.
And yet, it is clear Putin badly miscalculated when planning Russia’s terrible invasion of Ukraine. Credible reports suggest he expected the war to be over within days, with little resistance from the Ukrainian people.
He badly underestimated Ukraine’s desire to remain a free and independent country. He badly underestimated that huge numbers of brave Ukrainians were willing to fight – even die – rather than be occupied and ruled by a foreign dictator. He badly underestimated the West, which has united against him and made his regime an international pariah.
One reason is it appears Putin has partly bought into his own propaganda. He protests that Russians and Ukrainians as ‘one people’. He has long seen Western democracies as weak and decadent, too spoiled and flabby to make any kind of stand on behalf of their self-professed values.
His speeches, like his address to the Russian people prior to the invasion, are characterised by a toxic combination of superiority and self-pity. That speech ‘was Putin the angry; impatient and directly threatening’, one BBC report noted. ‘It felt like Russia's president was getting 20-odd years of hurt off his chest and hitting back.’
That gets to the nub of the problem. After 22 years in power, Putin has been indulging his grandiose fantasies and bitter resentments for a long time. As far back as 2014, in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, then German chancellor Angela Merkel reported that Putin was ‘living in another world’.
Over time, he has done away with potential opponents and surrounded himself by yes-men and people too afraid to answer back – the classic mistake of all dictators, who end up isolated and deluded, with no one willing to push back against their increasingly unhinged ideas and risky endeavours.
The message of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is we all should try to be personal scientists. Instead of taking our automatic thoughts as gospel, we should pause and say: is this accurate? Is it helpful? What is the evidence for and against my thoughts and beliefs?
Putin’s approach is the exact opposite, but he is not alone in his approach. For example, it’s common for abusive people to see themselves as the victims, not the aggressors.
“You made me do it”, “Everyone has done me wrong, you’re just like all the others”, “What I have to put up with from you”, “If you would only do as I say and show me some respect” – such self-serving thoughts and beliefs are divorced from reality, but that doesn’t really matter. After years and years of stewing on perceived slights and others’ apparent mistakes, they are familiar to the abuser.
As humans, we sometimes find it hard to distinguish truth from familiarity. The abuser’s thoughts are not true, but they feel true – or at least, true enough for them to justify their own destructive behaviour.
And the exact opposite is also the case. In CBT, low self-esteem is characterised as a prejudice against the self. For example, many people routinely beat themselves up, telling themselves they’re useless, ugly, unlovable, defective. Every mistake gets magnified and exaggerated, whilst every positive is ignored, discounted or explained away (“Anyone could have done it”).
Again, the thoughts are not true, but they are familiar; thus, they feel true.
TWO WOLVES LEGEND
We need to be careful of the things we tell ourselves – a point illustrated by a Cherokee legend about an old man who told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
The grandfather told the boy that there are two wolves inside us all. One is a bad wolf, which is characterised by resentment, superiority, greed, arrogance, self-pity, bitterness, and lies.
The other is a good wolf. It is peace, joy, kindness, humility, empathy, compassion, and truth.
The grandson paused for a while and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”
The old man replied, “The one you feed”.