Tag Archives: narcissism

Lessons for the church from the Narcissist in Chief

Could it be that “it takes a village” of narcissists to get a president who appears to have NPD?

I was up in arms (again) when Trump went to Dayton/Toledo and then El Paso and managed to make the story about himself and how he was treated. The HuffPost France made a disapproving video about it:

The news media is in awe of how he can do these heartless things and get away with it. But he’s the master a making sure nothing can get to him. They no longer try to be polite, “Can’t he see he is a jerk?” But I think people miss the big point of the narcissist psychological defense. The whole point of narcissism is not seeing and NOT feeling.  I think that is why he so often talks about himself in the third person. He is talking about the persona he has so carefully cultured to get affirmation and other comforts his true person has no hope of receiving.

Narcissism is a village issue

But we all have this overlay of narcissism – the constant scanning the horizon for anything that can pierce our armor and point out how empty we have made ourselves and how underneath it all we fear our intolerable shame. When we get pushed towards that shame we erupt with blame to get the attention back out on the “other” and how they are or should be responding to the persona that has swallowed our personhood. {We’ve talked about this before].

I say “we” even though many of us aren’t organized that way because the whole country seems a bit like a narcissist food fight. The people on screens that dominate our days are all performing an image or are themselves images scorning someone else. No one seems to have an alternative.

There isn’t an alternative jumping up into view because so many of the people running the “show” which is the United States are working out a narcissistic wound. I think all of us experience the overlay in one way or another, since we are all schooled to present a persona that can be hired and can avoid offending people. It’s the way we learn to get affirmation in a rather heartless world. As we know, as Trump has often said, if we do not succeed, we are losers.

Narcissism comes to the Sunday meeting

Long before the country spawned Trump, the influence of the narcissistic wound we all carry was developing (or undeveloping) the church. The church is under attack by your narcissism, too.

There are a few signs of it:

  • Can’t stand to be wrong or wronged?
  • Can’t repent and don’t like hearing about it?
  • Find reading the daily prayer threatening or boring or for “others?”
  • Suspicious of most people in the church? Isolated?
  • Can’t build something, only assess what you are being provided? or what’s missing?
  • Looking for affirmation all day? Angry when it feels denied to you?

Obviously, you don’t need to be pulled by narcissism to act and feel these ways. But, as painful and unlikely as it might be, it would be good to recognize that you are being pulled around by it, if you are, and not just righter or more wronged than everyone else.

Like a scornful inner parent

The U.S. is pretty much a unique place. The whole country seems to feel entitled to rule the world on the basis of its exceptional nature. Presently the president heaps daily scorn on someone who’s not “us”: shithole nations, invading brown people, Chinese cheaters, silly Europeans. A retaliatory barrage of scorn comes right back on Donald Trump and his “base.”

The U.S. stands alone behind its arsenal, untouchable, with an increasing array of sophisticated ways to scan the horizon for enemies that would expose its shame. Even citizens eager to expose the shame so we might get over it rarely expect telling the truth will do anything but make the nation more exceptional and able to live up to the idealizations of the founding fathers.

I’ve been working on this malady in myself and with clients for many years now. It is not easy to even see, much less make choices about. It is hard to sympathize with a narcissist, even oneself. They feel guilty that they can’t keep up the maintenance on their persona, but they are usually determined to try harder when they fail. They get super angry when their expectations are not met, especially if you are close to them, or in their family (or church). It is the missing closeness that sets them off, even though the lack of it is buried under layers of self-protection.

The church is a lot more than a bunch of narcissists, of course. But when Paul says our battle is not just against flesh and blood, but against the powers, it makes sense to identify those powers. I’m suggesting one of them is this repeated narcissistic wound, the interactions with people who should care for us that keep resulting in messages of devaluation and indifference. If you already have the wound, it would not be surprising to get close to someone in the church and get a feeling of shame triggered. When you do, it would be great if you took a minute with God and remembered whose child you are. Take a look at Jesus and remember who was worth dying for. Get in touch with the Spirit and get a dose of empathy to spread around; we’ve all got a lot to work through.

Jesus and RBF — the Savior and the Fake Syndrome.

I pause to be excited with Taylor Orsi, an aspiring comedienne, who came up with a little video. Now she is a youtube star. She and her boyfriend, Jared, invented a “syndrome” and created a fake PSA (public service announcement) for it. It has more than three million hits so far; it got them featured on the Today Show; and, finally, it was misquoted in my cell meeting last week.taylor orsi

In my cell their fake syndrome was named “accidental bitch face.” One of our members was tagged with it by her boyfriend, because when she is not smiling, her face has a natural downward turn to it and she looks sad, or even like she might be scowling. Taylor Orsi calls that “resting bitchy face” and made a video about it. The video included the male counterpart: “resting asshole face.” For those of you still interested in the culture being formed here in America, here is their video: http://youtu.be/3v98CPXNiSk

Appropriate scorn

It is always hard to respond to these things, since it is so tempting to give Taylor and Jared exactly what they dish out: mockery. We have all been repeatedly taught to do that, by the last 25 years of comedy. I don’t want to play that game, but I do want to scorn a movement that invaded my cell with shame (in the name of fun, of course) and sent three million people fanning out into the population to look for certain faces to mock. And I do want to be amazed (and deliberately not accepting) that we can appeal to the now-built-in narcissism of American youth who have been told to “say cheese” so much that they are rebel against it by pointing out people who get tagged for not doing it all day.

taylor oris todayThe Today Show people treated their joke as an actual syndrome and Taylor treated her appearance as an actual star turn. For those of you still able to watch the Today Show, here is the segment: http://youtu.be/Xf-zXyfO7X8.

It is always hard to take these things seriously, because it is very hard to figure out whether the media is making fun of itself and secretly mocking their “reality” guests. The way I see it, Taylor Orsi found a group of people to exploit; then the Today Show found her and exploited her hope of fame to use her wit for a few minutes. The producers brought in their plastic surgeon expert to talk about how faces work. The staff lifestyle coach said that if you have the condition you can help yourself out by remembering to smile. She really said that. They filmed it.

What is the media teaching us?

Lessons from the culture:

  1. Smile all the time, it will keep you safe.
  2. Exploit people (even if it shames unsuspecting victims) to get well-known.
  3. Make fun of yourself or act like everything is “no worries” to keep yourself unaccountable.
  4. Women, especially, are expected to be smiley all the time like Today Show hosts, even when making real news into fake news [Erin Burnett].

It is hard to move with Jesus into these things. But where else would he be but with the bitches and assholes? And who else would he be instructing but the new Pharisees, judging people with their powerful media and rules of behavior, replete with experts to back up their claims?

Can Jesus save us?

I think this whole situation needs a Savior, even if I will be mocked for getting serious about something that was just a joke to begin with.

Jesus might start off by affirming Taylor who implied that her whole bit could be summed up with a moral to the story: “we should give each other a break.”

But I think he might go deeper than that to suggest that rather than just being accepted, everyone needs to be forgiven. Leaving people alone is not quite the same as loving them with a self-giving love. How about looking at yourself in the mirror and considering whether you can even see yourself the way God sees you: the forgiven, the beloved who is destined for your unique fullness?

And I don’t think Jesus would shy away from showing a little fury toward the powers that be (like the Today Show). Through Isaiah he says:

The Lord enters into judgment
against the elders and leaders of his people:
“It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
the plunder from the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people
and grinding the faces of the poor?”
declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty. (Isaiah 3:14-15)

What do you mean when you mock and exploit people? Or don’t you know you are supposed to mean something?

When you get a momentary boost at someone else’s expense, what does that mean? Or don’t you know that what you do makes a difference?

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Narcissism and Telling Our Stories

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.

Narcissism poster child

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.

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Wanderlust, Eckhart Tolle and Autonomy

OK. So I am one of the forty-five people who watched Paul Rudd and Jennifer Anniston in Wanderlust, last weekend, before the bomb blissfully sank into the red ink, unexploded. US Magazine will no doubt try to keep it alive for the sake of Jennifer falling for her co-star Justin Theroux. I thought the movie was amusing, even though one character ran around in a prosthetic penis the whole time making normal penises seem abnormal, even though the beloved Alan Alda was inexplicably present, and even though the state of Georgia was accurately portrayed, which isn’t usually a nice thing to do.

Jesus followers should be students of pop culture

That being said, there isn’t much a Christian can receive from the pop culture that isn’t very instructive. There is more philosophy in the typical rom-com than in The Tree of Life. Just looking through the Jennifer Aniston window, herself, is usually a great look at what is infecting and motivating normal people. For instance, I opened up my Facebook page on the same weekend I watched Wanderlust and there was a quote from Oprah’s buddy Eckhart Tolle infecting one of my “friends”:

Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.

Essentially that quote could have been the guiding philosophy being taught by Wanderlust, and is more likely the guiding principle for some people in my church than anything Jesus is talking about or demonstrating. Such postChristian ideas are so common they are the center of little fables on the big screen (or almost immediately DVD in this case).

Wanderlust is teaching the meaning of life

If you know me, you know I think meeting God in the present moment is a crucial skill for having a true self in Jesus. So there is some “truth” in what Tolle says. The people in Wanderlust are having the Eckhart Tolle mystical experience with “Life,” not Jesus, and they get “conscious” and “evolve” before our eyes in ninety-eight minutes. It is a comedy, but you can’t write a script without a philosophy someplace. It has one.

Paul and Jennifer play characters who are sick of being abused by New York (also accurately depicted, which is also not nice). Paul’s high-flying finance company goes bust in a scandal; Jen’s documentary on penguins is rejected by HBO. They evacuate the Manhattan microloft they just got suckered into buying and move in to his brother’s McMansion outside Atlanta – the brother who made his fortune renting porta-potties, of course.

I can feel this. What we learn about them is: they hate corporate America and they hate entrepreneur America; they hate being enslaved and they want to be themselves; everyone is a jerk.

“Life” gave Eckhart Tolle a similar experience. He said in an interview: “I couldn’t live with myself any longer. And in this a question arose without an answer: who is the ‘I’ that cannot live with the self? What is the self? I felt drawn into a void! I didn’t know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and the fearful future, collapsed. It dissolved. The next morning I woke up and everything was so peaceful. The peace was there because there was no self. Just a sense of presence or ‘beingness,’ just observing and watching.”

Back to the movie – Paul and Jen return to the commune they stayed at overnight on the car ride down to Atlanta. They remembered their night there as so peaceful they thought they could make that moment last forever. Drugs, sex, nakedness, and sharing toilet-time follow. On top of that, add Justin Theroux as a yoga-esque guru. They have a commune experience.

I can really feel that. I’ve been there, in my own way. They want to feel something. They want to be honest. They want to experience relationships. Everyone should be friends.

Tolle is there too. According to his official website, “At the core of Tolle’s teachings lies the transformation of consciousness, a spiritual awakening that he sees as the next step in human evolution. An essential aspect of this awakening consists in transcending our ego-based state of consciousness. This is a prerequisite not only for personal happiness but also for the ending of violent conflict endemic on our planet.”

As it turns out in the movie, Paul and Jen don’t get to transcendence; The commune doesn’t work any better than the McMansion.

The autonomy industry is powerful

The movie ends up with a much more conventional happy ending than the “next step in human evolution.” Paul and Jen wander, like Tolle, through a narcissistic breakdown and emerge with a new image better suited to their passions. They start a small publishing firm back in New York that exploits all the people they have met on their journey up and down the East Coast for mutual profit.

Their solution to their unhappiness is better autonomy. At the end, they are not beholden to a big financial product company or to HBO; they make their own way, selling media products in a much more hippy-like atmosphere. They couldn’t live with themselves; they had a collapse and epiphany and, like Tolle, created a media company to teach what they learned. John Stackhouse says Tolle “gives a certain segment of the population exactly what they want: a sort of supreme religion that purports to draw from all sorts of lesser, that is, established, religions.” It is a religion of self, and a self that is defined by one’s own interpretation of experience.

So it was not a good movie. But it was an instructive movie. At the end of it I had to say, “That’s it?” What you learned from your breakdown is that everyone is bad in their own way and the only solution is to be autonomous, create a little pod with your mate (assuming you can find this marvel who will stick with you through infidelity and financial ruin) and create a small niche where you can do what you want by selling deconstructive thoughts about the monster you hate?

For a lot of people I know, that is, indeed, their dream. The movies taught it to them, with a lot of help from Oprah.