We have looked at how the foundation of our lives largely determines the trajectory of our journeys in life. To the degree that we live from a confidence that we are special and loved, we do not feel a need to run after being seen as special We do not need to grasp for love. If we have not experienced our initial world recognizing how valuable we are, we strive to make the world fill in that gap. And the seeds of narcissism are sown. Let’s flesh this out a bit more and ways that it can be displayed.
Narcissism is a result of developmental trauma. It develops when a child lives in an environment in which their need to be experienced as delightful and worthy of being cared for is lacking. When a child does not grow up in such an environment, they become committed to hiding all personal weaknesses and developing coping strategies to manage their insecurities. They are driven to gain attention, be seen as remarkable or so wounded that they must not be held accountable for their poor choices.
They gather ‘friends’ and followers who will become loyal to them based on their (real and perceived) strengths.
They track the weaknesses of others and use them to manipulate and subjugate their ‘followers’.
They interact from a stance of needing to always ‘win’, thus pushing others into a ‘loser’ position.
Being threatened by weakness and shame, they will justify anything they are responsible for regardless of how obviously inappropriate or wrong it is. While doing this, they typically shift the focus in a way to shame the other party involved.
They are committed to do whatever they can to avoid any form of suffering, pain or feeling unsafe in the moment. Due to developmental trauma, they have not developed the appropriate commitment to make sure everyone in their community is safe and cared for. Instead, they live from the personal motto, “If someone is going to suffer, it is going to be you rather than me”.
Through the study of developmental trauma, it has been discovered that around age 18-21, there can be a cementing in place a strong determination that others should suffer rather than self. Sociopathology can be developed int the human psyche to the degree that this is decided and cemented into place.
Relating with a charismatic narcissist can feel like relating with a slippery individual. They often are very good with words and use ‘truths’, psychology and even ‘God’, making it hard to interact with them. How does one get through that front to the motivation of the heart? Christians tend to have a ‘special flavor’, wrapping themselves in, using ‘god words’ and ‘causes’ and ‘ministries’ in order to be seen as the ‘best Christian’ around. The ‘best servant’. The ‘best prophet.’ These pretentious fronts create a strong defensive wall to keep others from confronting them. They become the ‘wolves in sheep clothing’, appearing to be wonderful while deceiving, overwhelming or harming the vulnerable. Often what the narcissist voices is ‘right’, including using scripture and values we all adhere to. But it is used from a motivation to look good, justify themselves and avoid shame.
This would be more of what constitutes taking God’s name in vain rather than the consonants and vowels that come out of our mouths that we are cautioned against. Justifying ourselves, using ‘god words’, as a means of harming another person is highly offensive to the Good Shepherd who seeks to care for the vulnerable lambs!
During his Sermon on the Mountain, Jesus taught in Matthew 6
1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
The narcissist lives from the urgency of wanting to be special and thought well of, thus cloaking himself in ‘spiritual glitter’ or a cloak of false humility. He does not experientially know that this need has already been settled. Made by the most magnificent God, having God’s traits woven within him, he has been made a little bit lower than God. He is unconditionally special and worthy of delight. He does not need to clamber for it. A narcissist will need help in untangling the impact of early childhood and the deep-seated insecurities and patterns that got woven into their experience of life.
We also would do well to remember that God looks not at the outward appearance, but at the heart! The pharisees of Jesus’ day, as well as narcissists of our day may look great, but only God is able to accurately discern the motivation of the behaviors which may be noteworthy. We need to see with the eyes of God, understanding the heart motivation and woundedness from which it comes. We need discernment and compassion and guidance from God in how to partner with Him as He does what only He can do- bring conviction and redemption to the wounded-ness of human souls.
Understandably, these individuals have their defenses up to help them avoid being in touch with the brutal pain that self-awareness would bring. They have developed strategies to avoid knowing their pain while manipulating their worlds to take care of their needs, displaying themselves as worthy of being applauded and/or cared for. Tragically, their defensive survival perspectives and behavioral patterns are brought forward into current history.
These individuals are often skilled in what is defined as ‘gaslighting’. Gaslighters are masters in manipulative comments and behaviors used to confuse people into doubting themselves, thinking that their own perspectives and reactions are off base. This can include patronizing comments and responses to and regarding the weak, that at first glance sound compassionate and thoughtful. But the subtle results are that they are elevated above the other person and their heart motives disguised. “Winning elevates me” becomes a big part of their life mission.
If you live with someone or are close to someone with this kind of behavior – a parent, spouse or friend – you will begin to lose track of reality and truth. Am I really crazy? Am I really an idiot? Maybe if I did this, things would get better? Maybe if I cooked better, dressed better, spent less, served more, spoke less, I wouldn’t deserve to be treated this way? But maybe I really do deserve this?
There are 2 forms of Narcissism:
Peacocks: Those who relate from a stance of power. (May also consider themselves to be perfectionists, ‘more than human’ and ‘heros’)
Skunks: Those who relate from an internal space of ‘martyrdom’. (These folks may be seen as ‘slobs’, ‘less than human’ and the scapegoats)
(Jim Wilder is the one from whom I gained the descriptive titles of ‘peacock’ and ‘skunk’. The other adjectives help to flesh the concepts out.)
Those who live out of the sympathetic system tend to become the ‘peacock narcissists’, exerting energy in demeaning and bullying ways.
Those whose nervous systems concluded that a powerful ‘fight’ stance would not work, that they were powerless to gain a prestigious position, experienced an internal ‘collapse’. This results in the parasympathetic system activating, regulating the approach they take in life. These individuals tend to become the ‘skunk narcissists’, playing the ‘martyrs’ and insisting that others feel sorry for them rather than hold them accountable for the ways they inappropriately relate in the world.
It is common for an individual to shift between both types of narcissism, depending on what the nervous system determines is the best approach in any given situation, usually starting by being on the offense.
There is a unique twist of ‘spirituality’ we Christians can use to dress up our narcissism. Using “God” scripture, God-sounding agendas or crusades, creates a persona in which we can appear godly and be perceived as holy and without blemish. Peacock narcissists are great at wrapping themselves in these types of cloaks, making a great defense against any type of criticism or questioning of motives. It makes for a confusing interaction. It may feel like trying to grapple with a slippery snake.
Jesus addressed the reality of how it is possible to participate in prestigious ‘spiritual’ activity, all the while not truly relating with Him. In Matthew 7 he stated, 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
In this context, Jesus expressed the heart of God. What He is passionate about is caring for the vulnerable, those who are imprisoned, the widows and orphans.
It is important to remind ourselves that we do not know all of life’s details that brought the narcissist to the place they are in. Only our God is intimately acquainted with their history. They also fall into the category of the wounded, although they are living from a stance that does not offer tender care for others who are vulnerable. And instead they cause and add to the injury of others. It is not ours place to set ourselves up as judges, bringing condemnation. We will later bring our focus to the challenge of how we are to relate to a narcissists.
The essence of grace and forgiveness must encompass every aspect of our lives, including how we go forward in our own healing as well as how we relate with the narcissist. The grace of God is incomprehensibly big towards us all, as well as His forgiveness. It would do us well to think through what this means and what it does not mean. This will be the focus of my next blog. Please join me.