Anglican Watch

Narcissism: A Christian psychologist’s perspective


The following is republished from VirtueOnline. Experts consulted by Anglican Watch estimate that one-third of clergy are clinical narcissists. Many cause deep and lasting trauma and unhealthy patterns of relationships, both in their personal lives and in their parishes.

We also note that anyone who pokes holes in the narcissist’s veil of illusion will face vile, vicious, vindictive behavior from the narcissist, ranging from shunning, to claims of mental illness, to allegations of criminal conduct.

So, if you are dealing with a narcissist, it’s important to consider whether you want to remain in your church, or prefer to exit quietly to prevent abusive conduct by the narcissist,.

Narcissism: A Christian Psychologist’s Perspective

By Bruce Atkinson, PhD
Special to Virtueonline
January 21, 2023

Definition of Narcissism

Most of us know some basic information about narcissism. The term itself comes from the Greek mythical story of Narcissus, a beautiful young man who lacked affection for others. He fell in love with himself when he saw his reflection in a clear pool; he kept staring at his reflection for the reminder of his life. Hence, narcissism is about self-love and self-entitlement, and minimal empathy or compassion for others. It is about putting oneself first… far above everyone else. It is believing that one is wonderful and should be idolized by all. From a Christian theological perspective, it is self-idolatry and a result of original sin associated with the Fall.

I think that all individuals have some narcissistic tendencies at the bottom of our fallen little hearts. Who does not want to be more loved, honored, respected, and admired by others? No one wants to be rejected; however, the acceptance and admiration that we so desire can easily get out of hand once we start to receive these things. Others’ high opinion of us can ‘go to our head.’ As a direct result of our deepest selfish desires, we can become proud and arrogant.

Like other human traits (both normal and disordered), narcissistic traits and symptoms are statistically on the “normal curve.” This means that there are few individuals at either extremes (5% with no narcissistic traits at all and 5% who can be easily diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder), but the great majority of people are close to the middle of the curve… and thus have a few of these traits. Although selfish and self-centered traits will greatly impair functioning in close relationships such as marriage, not all people with these traits can be properly diagnosed as having narcissistic personality disorder. But self-centered, self-aggrandizing, and non-empathic traits do stand out more obviously in those who can be so diagnosed.

We all tend to be narcissistic during childhood and/or adolescence. It’s all about “me” and “mine” because we perceive the world through very center-centered eyes. These traits are especially evident among those children who have been ‘spoiled’ with being able to get whatever they want from their caregivers (usually parents and/or grandparents). They are programmed to feel entitled. But with lots of parental love, consistent discipline, and training in sharing with others and other aspects of morality, most of us outgrow the worst of this childhood narcissism.

When the individual is either traumatized during childhood years, neglected, and when there is a lot of inconsistency of being spoiled some of the time and abused or neglected the rest of time… then he gets emotionally stuck at that stage of development.

Note that some 65% of those diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder are male. Because narcissistic women tend to be more emotionally expressive in their need for attention, they are generally diagnosed with histrionic personality disorder instead.

The DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) describes the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder as revealing a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy. These individuals have an immense sense of their own self-importance but are also extremely sensitive to criticism. They have little ability to empathize with others (other people are relatively unimportant, unless they can benefit the self), and they are more concerned about appearance than substance. It is characterized by arrogance and a tendency to exploit others. Individuals with this personality disorder have a sense of excessive entitlement and may demand special treatment. Their relationships are notoriously superficial and based on what the narcissist can get from them.

In terms of causal origins, I have categorized three types of narcissism:

1) Primary narcissism. This is the classic spoiled prince or rich kid who is trained to be a narcissist. They are told from the beginning of their lives how important and wonderful they are–and of course they find this easy to accept and then end up being entitled narcissists. But they may be quite successful in life because they expect a lot from themselves and try hard to live up to it. They truly believe that they can do almost anything and that others should look up to them. Many royal families have these types and most presidents have been somewhat narcissistic. Donald Trump is likely to be the most obvious recent example.

2) Secondary narcissism is more commonly found in mental health treatment situations. This type is more likely to come from a dysfunctional and/or abusive family of origin. It is the “wounded child” who compensates for underlying low self-esteem by trying to convince others of (and themselves) of how great and important they are. But deep down they do not believe it themselves. They are more likely to have some major emotional ups and downs (perhaps even bipolar disorder or an anxiety disorder), and/or to have other personality disorders (passive-aggressive, histrionic, antisocial, paranoid) depending on the severity of their childhood trauma and social rejection.

3) Born narcissists (genetic tendencies beyond normal self-centeredness). The two types of narcissists described above are not born but they are made into narcissists by their early environments. However, this third and least treatable type has more genetic anomalies, innate strong-willed tendencies, and a lack of conscience. When combined with a dysfunctional childhood environment, they become sociopathic or even psychopathic. While researchers cannot find any genetic markers for homosexuality (same-sex attraction), they have indeed found genetic markers for both alcoholism and sociopathy (criminal tendencies).

Although it has become popularized in the media, I dislike the use of the term of “malignant narcissism.” This is because it merely means the presence of two separate but often overlapping diagnoses… narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial (or sociopathic) personality disorder.

The essential difference between the two diagnoses is that the antisocial type is more likely to risk negative consequences by breaking laws and abusing others. However, narcissists are better at looking out for themselves (after all, they love themselves) and so they are more likely to avoid behaviors which lead to self-harm or dealings with law enforcement.

The DSM-V details the differential diagnostic features as follows.

“Individuals with antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder share a tendency to be tough-minded, glib, superficial, exploitative, and to lack empathy. However, narcissistic personality disorder does not include characteristics of impulsivity, aggression, and intentional deceit. In addition, individuals with antisocial personality disorder may not be as needy of the admiration and envy of others, and persons with narcissistic personality disorder usually lack the history of conduct disorder in childhood or criminal behavior in adulthood.” (p. 662)

Note that narcissists can be properly considerate and caring… superficially, and they can even be charming and charismatic, but only to get what they want. They are manipulative. If they are bright enough, they make ‘successful’ politicians, entertainers, lawyers, and business people who live on edge of the law. They will try hard to avoid the obvious breaking of laws to in order to avoid the negative consequences, but they do not really care about ethics. Narcissists are likely to have blunted consciences, but they do not totally lack a conscience like those who are diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.

I think that some introspective commentary is appropriate. I found that researching and writing about narcissism was difficult because I was continually comparing the symptoms and characteristics to those exhibited by myself, my family members and friends. You see, most of us have some narcissistic tendences (we all want to be admired and loved, and we can be very self-centered at times). Unless we are lying to ourselves, we will not want to look in the mirror.

Also, for those of us who write books, articles, and commentaries for the public, we may overly identify ourselves with our particular opinions, and thus we may regard any criticism of our beliefs, ideas, and feelings to be an attack on our very selves. They may in fact be an attack on our sensitive and perhaps narcissistic egos. When we become defensive or attack back, then we know that we have fallen prey to this self-centered tendency.

Narcissism and Christianity

The virtue of humility is the opposite of the self-glorifying pride that we find associated with narcissism. We Christians are best able to stay humble when we do not forget our innate tendency to sin and when we accept the reality of our weaknesses.

As C.S. Lewis put it, “A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential for Christianity… Christ takes it for granted that men are bad (Matthew 15:19-20). Until we really feel this assumption of His to be true, though we are part of the audience to whom His words are addressed, we lack the first condition for understanding what He is talking about. And when men attempt to be Christian without this preliminary consciousness of sin, the result is bound to be a certain resentment against God [and subtle rebellion]. The [letter of the] moral law may exist to be transcended, but there is no transcending it for those who have not admitted its claims upon them, and then tried with all their strength to meet that claim, and fairly and squarely faced the fact of their failure.” Humility is merely honesty about our failure to fully follow God’s requirements and our failure to be all that we are supposed to be.

Here are some apropos quotes associated with the “god of me” idolatry written by John R.W. Stott:
“The Pharisaic spirit still haunts every child of Adam today. It is easy to be critical of Christ’s contemporaries and miss the repetition of their vainglory in ourselves. Yet deeply ingrained in our fallen nature is this thirst for the praise of men. It seems to be a devilish perversion of our basic psychological need to be wanted and to be loved. We hunger for applause, fish for compliments, thrive on flattery. It is the plaudits of men we want; we are not content with God’s approval now or with his ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ on the last day. Yet, as Calvin put it: ‘What is more foolish, nay, what is more brutish, than to prefer the paltry approval of men to the judgment of God?'” (from Comment on John 12:43 in “The Gospel According to St John”)

“The vocabulary of ‘self’. That self-centeredness is a worldwide phenomenon of human experience is evident from the rich variety of words in our language which are compounded with ‘self’. There are more than fifty which have a pejorative meaning — words like self-applause, self-absorption, self-assertion, self-advertisement, self-indulgence, self-gratification, self-glorification, self-pity, self-importance, self-interest and self-will.”

“True freedom is not freedom from all responsibility to God and man in order to live for myself, but the exact opposite. True freedom is freedom from myself and from the cramping tyranny of my own self-centeredness, in order to live in love for God and others. Only in such self-giving love is an authentically free and human existence to be found.”

As Paul advised: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” (Romans 12:4). Not even the great saints are qualified to feel superior to anyone else, for all of us are sinners saved by grace and have nothing about which to boast. We can only honestly boast about our God. We have nothing good in ourselves that we did not receive from God. I heard it said once that those persons closest to spiritual perfection are so aware of the faults that remain that they are dismayed rather than proud.

In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being,
we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activities.
We must be content:
to live without watching ourselves live,
to work without expecting immediate results,
to love without instantaneous satisfaction,
and to exist without any special recognition.
For it is only when we are detached from our selves
that we can be at peace with ourselves.

Thomas Merton

I will complete this teaching essay about narcissism by posing a relevant psychospiritual question and providing what I hope to be a helpful answer for all Christians (like myself) who struggle with this issue of self.

What is the difference between positive self-esteem and sinful pride?

Answer:Pride is not something that is based on truth, rather, it is a self-deception. It is a facade we erect, a wall meant to keep us (and others) from seeing the ugly truth about ourselves, and it keeps us from seeing our utter need of God.

Christian self-esteem, on the other hand, is based on the truth of God’s love toward us, His choosing us for Himself, and our own subsequent worth and specialness. Our worth is not based on anything that we can do, it is based on God. All of our worth is derived from the worthiness of Jesus Christ.

Pride is the most basic sin and the one of which we are all guilty to some extent. Pride comes from insecurity, knowing deep down that we are not what we should be and it comes from our not being able to accept or deal with that truth. Pride, by its very nature, is an exaggeration of the positive–in order to hide the negative that also exists in us. It is self-centered and self-glorifying; it is not God-centered and not God-glorifying. It is stealing some of God’s glory to cover our lack. Someone once described the ego as that “ugly little troll that lives under the bridge between our mind and our heart.”

Christians need to remember that what we really are to be seeking is to be is full of God rather than full of ourselves, and to give God the glory rather than to steal it for ourselves. But we have an enemy who is quick to tempt us to self-deceiving vainglory… because this is Satan’s very nature. But “greater is He who is in us than he who is in the world,” and if we resist the lies and temptations with the truth, they recede into the background of our lives. Bottom line: we have plenty of reasons to feel good about who we are (because of whose we are) without resorting to pride.

Dr. Bruce Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He also has an M.S. in research psychology from Illinois State U. and a B.A. from Beloit College. He is Moderator and a frequent contributor for VirtueOnline, and he is a member of the Anglican Church in North America.

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