My recent studies in psychoanalytic theory confirmed nicely what my first individual therapist, way-back-when, knew as soon as I sat down. At one point he handed me a book and said, “You might want to read this.” It was titled “Narcissism.” I take some small comfort in knowing that I am not alone in having my psychology organized in that way.
Many people say that the United States is a rather narcissistic society (notably Christopher Lasch). So I felt comfortable talking to the men about it when we were on retreat last weekend; we all know something about it, at some level. Narcissists are often merely seen as people who are into themselves. But, in truth, what they are into is anything but themselves; they are more into the presentation of themselves – they are consumed by maintaining the image that keeps them safe from dealing with their shameful insides, the things they don’t want to touch or know about. They maintain their self-esteem by getting affirmation from outside themselves. So they can often be driven by repressed rage and self-hatred, and escape into a grandiose self-conception, merely using other people as instruments of gratification even while they crave their love and approval. Something is missing. If they ever ponder what is happening in their soul, they probably feel fraudulent and loveless.
Tiger Woods became the poster child for narcissism that developed into an extreme version; some say he has a disorder. It is no suprise that he might have developed this way; the United States seems to be full such people. Rush Limbaugh and Barack Obama may have at least one thing in common; they were trained to be narcissistic. Society sets us all up to need to appear special so we can sell our labor. We have all become products in a package. We are encouraged to be grandiose by constant testing and resume-building. The most susceptible of us end up preoccupied with what we should be and perpetually critical or depressed about what we are. Narcissists are terrified of insufficiency, shame, weakness, or inferiority. That resembles the country’s political debate and foreign policy.
Shame is the big motivator for the narcissist — and shame is hard to look at and harder to overcome. Shame is being seen as bad or wrong. I understand how it can get a grip on one’s heart. For instance, I recently wrote a blog piece that criticized the way my leaders in the BIC were communicating about the crisis in our leadership. I received a scathing letter from one of the general church leaders and it set off a flood of emotion in me. They were trying to shame me, and it almost caused me to stop telling the truth in order to avoid the feeling. Narcissists have a whole collection of ways they defend against shame and the envy they feel of others who seem not to feel it. Here are a few examples:
- They devalue. They will scorn or ridicule what they envy, or think they are unworthy of. Watch an episode of Seinfeld.
- The other side of devaluing is idealization. They have a grandiose sense of self. They don’t merely compare themselves to others; they compare themselves to the best person in their profession and feel horrible in comparison. They need to go to the best school. They know what the best beer is, or can list the top ten microbreweries in the Philadelphia region. They need to wear the best shoes. They read the magazines that reveal the most rigorous workout to achieve the best abs.
- They end up perfectionistic, which can result in either thinking they have made it or feeling inherently flawed. They have a tough time being forgivably human. They might attach themselves to an idealized, perfect mentor or mate and gain status by being an appendage. But they might also knock them off their pedestal in fury when they prove to be imperfect.
The men’s retreat was full of wonderful stories about growth and pain and Jesus. I told parts of my story of transformation, as well. I said that my story had a wonderful factor in it. I may see my parents as having “whacked” the best parts of me whenever they surfaced like they were playing whack-a-mole. But in my hole I found Jesus. When I was a teen, and all my narcissistic props got knocked out from under me, I remembered Jesus in the deep hole of my depression.
Telling my story was predictably difficult for me. Our whole society is dedicated to flooding the world with idealized stories that create a reality that devalues authenticity. It is hard to figure out whether one is telling a story that is true or “truthy.” We are trained for inauthenticity by watching “reality” shows that have very little to do with reality. As a result, many of us are hesitant to tell a story about ourselves because the best we can do is not be as inauthentic as someone else. When our church decided to call out 100 stories of transformation this year, I don’t think we realized how hard that might seem to people.
Because of the confusing atmosphere in which we live, we are hestitant to ask people to tell their stories. We are hesitant, so why wouldn’t they be hesitant?
- We are afraid we might turn them into commodities. The 24-hour news cycle is out filming us all the time to provide feed for their image business. Facebook needs all our images and personal history giving to survive. We don’t want to do that to people.
- So we are afraid that asking someone to tell a story will be exploitive. We’re like a primitive person somewhere who doesn’t want her picture taken because she thinks the camera will steal her spirit. We don’t want to steal others’ spirits.
- We are afraid that people will feel like they are selling themselves, providing material for a Christian hype machine. The last thing we want to look like is a hype machine!
We try to do things that are “not-unChristian” to be a Christian. We focus on not doing what we are ashamed of, or what embarrasses us in others, or what we envy in others but think will look cheesy when we do it. So it is hard to tell a story about what Jesus is doing and hard to ask someone to do it.
Nevertheless, I think we need to keep trying to tell our stories. The powers that be would like to shut us up. The men at the retreat went into the night not shutting up last Saturday. I think it made a difference.
- Storytelling helps us to understand who we are and listening to stories gives the gift of understanding to someone else. Vulnerable dialogue is fundamental to love.
- Our stories are valuable. Even if we don’t really know what we are talking about right now, God thinks our story is valuable because we are valuable to him. We are the creatures he died for, for whom he made a covenant in blood to give us his life. If we receive that gift we are each a vessel in which the Holy Spirit is carried and from which the glory of God is dispensed in this time.
- Telling our stories is an act of defiance against the powers that sell stories, who want us to be a mere images of some idealized self that is not a gift of God but just a contract with the economy.
Jesus is made known in the human story that acknowledges God with us and that story is continuing to be told in us.
Understanding, restoration, and resistance are in the storytelling. The dialogue is a process of losing one’s false self and taking on one’s true self in Christ.