Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Spiritual Narcissism

One could immediately say “that is an oxymoron,” and they would be right. However, as unhealthy and destructive as narcissism is, adding the spiritual component to it is even deadlier. My observation is that there are a disproportionate number of “spiritual narcissists” who find their way into Christian ministry. Perhaps it is easier to get away with this behavior in the church where we are reticent to name unhealthy behavior for what it is. Unfortunately they leave relational havoc in their wake wherever they are found. That is a consistent pattern.

Narcissism is really pride gone amuck without the counterbalance of humility. It can be very subtle or it can be “in your face.” Often times it is hidden behind a compelling personality that draws others to them but often in unhealthy ways such as emotional triangulation where I draw you into my orbit by creating a bond with you against another individual or group. The bond and friendship, often very close, lasts as long as you agree with them and once you start to disagree or think independently you find yourself on the outside.

What are the signs of narcissism? Consider these.
  • The inability to admit that one was wrong.
  • The deflecting of any criticism back to you or others. In this scenario, whenever you seek to confront behavior that is unacceptable it somehow becomes your fault and your issue, not theirs. Narcissists are unable to see and accept their own faults.
  • Strong reactions when confronted with behavior that is unhealthy. These individuals will go to great lengths to prove to you and others that it is not about them but about you. They are fighters and it is not always fair. Any criticism of a narcissist is immediately resisted because life is all about them.
  • The tendency to draw others in to emotional triangles as a means of keeping them on “their side.” Narcissists are experts at drawing others into their stuff at least for a time. These “friends” often pick up the offense and join the narcissist in their fight. Narcissists are intuitive experts in finding people who are willing to side with them and take up their cause – regardless of the facts in the case.
  • Inability to give up a fight over something – they need to win. There are no simple conversations with a narcissist. They love long dialogue and debates because they have something to prove and a lot to lose.
  • The tendency to draw lines and demonize those who don’t agree with them. With a narcissist, you are either their good friend or their worst enemy.
  • The inability to reason with them – every issue becomes complicated and drawn out because they cannot just say, “I was wrong” and must somehow justify their actions and rightness no matter how absurd the line of reasoning is. When everything is complicated with an individual and you are unable to make headway through long dialogue there is a good sign that you have narcissistic tendencies on your hand.
  • The need to defend one’s reputation at all costs by proving that others are wrong.
  • The ability to maneuver situations to suit them, make themselves look good and engender compassion for their situation.
·  Wherever you have a narcissist, you have complicated relationships where alliances are formed and where people eventually get hurt and discarded when they no longer toe the line. One narcissist on a team can cause havoc with the whole team and often people don’t really understand the dynamics of what is happening. By definition, a narcissist will divide people into those who are with them and those who are against them which divides teams and causes ugly division.

The spiritual narcissist is one who not only has tendencies like these but who then brings Scripture and God into the equation. Not only are they right but God is on their side! Any disagreement becomes grounds for “reconciliation between brothers” which really means, “You need to agree with me.” For narcissistic leaders, it often means, “God is leading me (and therefore you) in this direction and you must follow.” Those who question or don’t wholeheartedly follow become marginalized. When you confront, “you are not loving.” When you have a disagreement, “brothers need to live in unity.” When you discipline for behavior that is not healthy, “you don’t have grace.” In other words, you never win, you are always the one who is at fault and not only have you violated them but Scripture or God as well. You cannot win for losing!

All of this can make one crazy and wonder if it is indeed them that are at fault – after all narcissists are experts at making you feel that way. Ironically, a narcissist finds great pleasure in causing you pain while those they inflict it on are actually sensitive to the very issues raised because their own humility is greater than that of the narcissist.  This is where being wise as serpents and innocent as doves comes into play. We need to understand the MO of a narcissist and insist that the behavior is unacceptable no matter how much they deflect issues back to us.


Anonymous said...

A leader in my former church in MN who was highly tuned to dysfunctional relationships used to mention a "no-talk rule" that existed in many churches. "If you say there is a problem, you become the problem", is how the rule works. Consequently, it set up what called the "double bind" effect, where victims in this scenario cannot win.
While it had absolutely nothing to do with the Gospel, all the same, he's right. Your post reminded me of those past teachings I received.

Pastor Dave said...

THANK YOU for posting! This is a great description of a situation I recently faced. I was beating myself up for not being able to lead the other person to positive change.

Pastor Dave said...

THANK YOU for posting! The description you gave is a great description of a situation I recently faced. I have been beating myself up for not being able to lead the other person to positive change which eventually caused the other person to sever the relationship.

Jack said...

God led our church through a very difficult process, in which it took more than a year to thoroughly extract someone like this. They had done a lot of harm to others, but people were forbearing & we leaders kept hoping that there would be a breakthrough. But instead the behaviors, and rebellion that went along with the behaviors, kept worsening.

Mackenzie said...

This really touched home for me. Thank you!

Anita said...

I have spent the last seven years examining the behaviour of narcissists. My mother was one, my former church leader was one, my landlord was one etc. As a christian, I found the fallout from these people took me completely by surprise as nothing I had heard from the pulpit seemed to explain their behaviour. As a psychology student, I began to understand their behaviour better and to see how I became enmeshed in their manipulation.

Having said that, I would also like to point out that in truth, the only way to deal with these sorts of people is to call them on their actions. If you are walking in the spirit, you will be able to bring their sins to their attention and follow the Matthew 18 process that Jesus outlined for us. So many of us complicate matters because we want to be seen to be diplomatic or mature. I have found that if you are dealing with somebody who claims to be a christian, then you need to bring their attention to what Christ actually taught us about those who refuse to repent of their sin. Eventually these people need to be ousted because let's face it, they rarely admit to any wrongdoing.

I see narcissism not just as a character disorder, but a terrible indulgence in the flesh. I believe God can change them but they have to come to a full understanding of their own carnality, and they need to be able to recognise the consequences of their actions. If they can't then they really do need to be treated like tax gatherers.

It would take a whole church to do it, and in my experience, few churches will follow scripture when disciplining somebody who is this dangerous. Often of course it is the leader who is the narcissist and all the congregation can do is leave because any form of criticism of the pastor is met with explosive rage and character assassination.

We have to stop looking at these problems from a humanistic perspective and name the problem for what it is. Unconfessed and unrepented sin is going to be the yeast which spreads through the whole church.

Anonymous said...

Mackenzie said: "Often of course it is the leader who is the narcissist and all the congregation can do is leave because any form of criticism of the pastor is met with explosive rage and character assassination." The victims of this action suffer many sleepless nights, gut-wrenching anger and yet no way to turn. This is dangerous territory for all involved.