Making Peace with Narcissism (part one)
[NOTE: This series is available as both a printable PDF and an e-book file on the Downloads page.]
Part One: The World of Radical Narcissism
People whose writings I enjoy and respect continue to support a known unrepentant abuser. Acquaintances of mine still reference his works, at times even describing the abuser as a personal friend. These are people that I see otherwise authentically seeking to follow Jesus, the one who relentlessly sided with victims, the downtrodden, the powerless. I don’t understand.
One part of this I do understand is how disorienting Narcissistic Personality Disorder is to people who have not been in long-term relationships with people with this malady. All normal clues we use to evaluate people, determine our sympathies, and make decisions in relationships get turned upside-down and backwards.
Last year Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans were in the midst of promoting a conference called “Why Christian?” that asked interesting questions and included an array of amazing women as keynote speakers. A controversy erupted when people began pointing out that an organization that was helping to promote the conference included Tony Jones among its leaders, a man accused of abusing his ex-wife. (See coverage of the various issues here.) The leaders of the conference severed ties with Tony Jones’ organization and the conference went forward as planned.
Jones, however, continues to find support among many of his theological allies, his books are still published and promoted, and some still listen to him as an authority on the Christian faith. It seems some people that know Jones find him trustworthy and therefore accept his side of the story and his characterizations of his ex-wife. In everyday life we are used to being able to trust our judgments about the people around us based on what we see and hear. We are generally justified in thinking that our interactions with people give us solid evidence for if we should trust them or not. This sense is based on previous interactions with others. It‘s tested and refined throughout our lives. It’s often accurate. Until it’s not.
During the online dustup about the conference Jones, in an apparent attempt to tell his side of the story and end the accusations against him, posted on his blog his explanation of what had happened. The post has since been removed, apparently by court order. I was writing a series of blog posts at the time based on a Rachel Held Evans’ book and stumbled into paying attention to the controversy. I wanted to understand the situation and see how others were responding to it. My default is to believe the person claiming to be abused. False accusations exist but they are extremely rare. It is much more common for victims to remain silent. So I started from a posture of skepticism when reading Jones’ post but I did want to give him the chance to tell his story.
Reading his description of the situation sent me into an emotional tailspin. It took me into a world I have spent years trying to escape.
In the post Jones mentioned, among many other things, that he and his ex-wife had both had psychological evaluations done and that they both were found to have serious mental health diagnoses. Other documents posted online showed that he had been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. His ex-wife’s diagnosis was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD develops from extended periods of intense stress, like life with someone with NPD.
Much about Jones’ blog post was troubling — the non-apology “mistakes were made” apology, the constant deflection of responsibility away from himself and towards others — but just the diagnoses and the deliberate evasion about the diagnoses was troubling enough to convince me that the relationship between Jones and his ex-wife was most likely deeply destructive for her well beyond one or more incidents of physical abuse.
Life in a relationship with someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) who has turned against you is a constant mental war zone. Living in that space for an extended period of time, even without physical violence, puts you in a state of constant tension, constant insecurity, and a constant sense that the world is off balance and tilted so that all the world’s garbage flows toward you. At least it did for me.
A note before we get started:
I am not a mental health professional. I will be discussing NPD only from the perspective of someone having experienced a relationship with a person with NPD. And I will be examining some of the challenges this disorder raises for biblical ethics, not how to treat this disorder. Please seek help from a mental health professional if you find yourself on either side of these complex relationships.
In addition, I am going to be deliberately vague about who the person with NPD in my life was while also trying to describe my experience. This will make some of what follows a bit awkward to read. Thanks for bearing with me.
Entering the world of NPD
In any relationship where we interact with another person on a regular basis we end up hurting each other. We say the wrong thing, we overstep boundaries, we are unavailable when needed. The closer the friendship the more likely we are to hurt each other. Letting the other person know when we have been hurt helps our friendship grow. Accepting responsibility for ways we have hurt our friend includes both apologizing and changing ourselves to stop hurting them. Relationships are hard.
Most of the time the ways we hurt friends are subtle and unintentional. I may have said something in jest that touched on a sensitive area for my friend. Sometimes, however, the things we do to hurt our friends are really obvious. Lying, cheating, stealing, etc.
A moment came in my relationship with a person with NPD where the person did something obviously hurtful to me. The action ended up having negative consequences for the person outside of our relationship. In the turmoil of these negative consequences the person turned to me for comfort. What?
I had known something was off-kilter with our relationship. At that moment I came to realize why: I didn’t exist in this relationship. Turning to me for comfort did not come from malice, it came from cluelessness. This person’s world was so radically turned in on itself that the reality of my separate world — my unique history, experiences, and personhood — was invisible.
My anger at having been hurt got mixed up with an overwhelming pity in that moment. Without the lived knowledge of other people one’s world becomes radically impoverished. We will never know and understand other people fully, but the process of getting to know one another in depth, even when it’s hard, is one of the great joys in life.
After the realization that I didn’t fully exist to this person it still took me a while to understand what the ramifications of this were for our relationship. Eventually someone with expertise and experience in the area, unlike myself, offered up to me the idea that NPD was at play. Several of the characteristics of this disorder (though not all) fit my experience in the relationship. People with a radical absorption in themselves to the exclusion of recognizing the world of other people develop complex patterns as they interact with others.
NPD has entered into the national conversation with the rise of Donald Trump as a (gasp) presidential candidate. When many people think of this disorder they think of Donald Trump’s overblown grandiosity. His sense of his own greatness despite being desperately uninformed, flagrantly inconsistent, and ethically deplorable certainly fits the profile. This may be common but is not universal. Other characteristics are closer to the core of NPD. Here are a few:
Turning others on and off
Trump has at least demonstrated NPD for the world to watch and learn from. Among other things, we can see how he creates insiders and outsiders, heroes and villains. No one seems to be left out of his these classifications, no one is neutral.
Similarly, the authorized biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson never mentions NPD but describes this characteristic of it in its subject thoroughly. The central figures in Jobs’ life are, to him, categorized as either “great” or “s**t”. The biography describes many times where the same person would transition from one category to the other in an instant. Ones that fell to his bad side would then incur his rejection, sometimes even his aggressive wrath. And sometimes these were members of his own family.
This practice of dividing people into categories of good and bad feels, from within a relationship with someone with NPD, more like people being turned on or off. There is an intense fragility to it. Accepting the existence and the humanness of someone who does not reflect back his own high status becomes a threat to his very self.
Being the one turned on or off has the risk of leading us into their categories. Being “on” may in fact be the greater risk. The person with NPD can make us feel like we are the best, most important person in the world, which is how many of us get absorbed into these relationships in the first place. It preys on our insecurities, our self-doubt, and builds us up. On the other hand, being turned “off” preys on these same insecurities and is bent on tearing us down.
Though I didn’t understand it at the time, I remember the moment I went from “on” to “off”. We were in a social setting with others who were also “on” to this person. I challenged the direction the conversation was going, the way we had been talking about someone else. I thought I had been gentle and diplomatic. Everyone else took it in stride and we moved on in the conversation. But apparently I had put this person in the position of not being perfect in my eyes and especially of being at risk of not being reflected back as perfect by the others. The anger and resentment from this moment never went away and the overt and covert disconnecting from me and undermining me never stopped.
I’ve learned that it’s important (but difficult) in these relationships to trust neither the “on” nor the “off” status. When the person with NPD describes another person, we can assume that the other person is more human than described, neither as angelic nor as villainous as the description given. And we must be particularly wary of trusting the image the he or she has of us.
As people with NPD warp the world around themselves to build themselves up and to protect their own fragility they are rarely aware that they are doing it. Instead it’s a set of practices they develop over a lifetime to adapt to a world that doesn’t put them at the center.
We can watch this being played out on a macro scale with Donald Trump as his followers accept Trump’s praise of themselves over and against outsiders and begin acting out the insider/outsider dynamics at rallies. Trump presents a world where his followers are the good guys that are victims of so many others out there. He presents it with such confidence that it is infectious. The fact that the world presented by Trump is so unlike the actual one where people live their daily lives gets relegated to the shadows by the glaring light of Trump’s confidence.
How can someone tell so many lies with such confidence? It can seem like stellar acting or like an extremely skillful snake oil salesman. It can look like a powerful, conscious, deliberate act of deception. I don’t think it is. I think the person with NPD fully inhabits the fragmented, distorted, and self-serving world they project. They don’t have to lie or perform. Their deceptions are in their own hearts.
This, for me, made it particularly difficult to extract myself from the world of NPD. Eventually the world people with NPD project becomes so ridiculous that the self-deceptions are obvious. But by that point we’ve been slowly sucked into the world over time and may have accepted parts of it as a reality.
As I watched events unfold with the conference last year and as I’ve seen others continue to support Tony Jones in his work I’ve wondered how much this kind of deception is at work. His allies could be either (1) trusting in their evaluations of the veracity of Jones’ stories based on their experience with him or (2) caught up in the light of his confidence and praise reflected back on themselves. These are very easy traps to fall into and very difficult ones to get out of. Escaping involves a deeply sober and humble evaluation of oneself and a questioning of one’s instincts about others that otherwise seem trustworthy. It took me years to understand the world of the person with NPD in my life and even more years to learn how to navigate the relationship constructively.
Lack of reciprocity
For those who have not experienced a long term relationship with a person with NPD it would be easy to think of someone who is self-absorbed and just think of NPD as more extreme self-absorption. That was not my experience. A better way to think about NPD it is to imagine a person whose sense of self, the value they place on themselves as a person, has been so hollowed out that they need others to fill themselves back up. People that like and praise them give them the identity they so desperately crave. They feed on the value being reflected back on themselves. On the other hand, people that are in their lives but that don’t exclusively offer this feeding become a threat to who they are.
Generally if someone is upset with something I’ve done I have various options to consider. Maybe I have done nothing wrong and she is falsely accusing me. Maybe I have hurt her and need to apologize and change. In both of these cases I am working from an understanding of myself and another person, each with our own experiences of the situation and with equal and separate choices for how to respond to it. I can reject her analysis of the situation without rejecting her personhood. Or I can accept my own culpability for the wrong done without losing my entire self in the process.
This reciprocal personhood has broken down in a person with NPD, yet he or she continues to live in a world with other people. For the person with NPD, this loss of reciprocal personhood makes it challenging to have empathy with any depth. Our empathy for others is built on accepting them as both like ourselves and unique from us. Much of the give and take of normal relationships is built on empathy, so its loss creates all kinds of distortions. Everyday interactions are warped in subtle ways that ignore the reality of others.
As I began to recognize these patterns in our relationship my understanding only got me so far. I still had to figure out how to respond. Was there anything I could do that would be helpful for this person? Was there anything I could do to extract myself from the strange dynamic I had entered?
Exiting the world of NPD
When caught up in alternative reality of a person with NPD, these are things I have found that do not work:
- Returning the NPD person’s attack with a counterattack
- Passively allowing the NPD person’s reality to stand unchallenged
The first option reinforces his world. In my counterattack I prove that I am against him and that I should be rejected. Passivity also leaves his world unchallenged but with the added problem that I have no resistance to being absorbed into his world. It becomes my world and I take on his evaluations of me. If neither of these work, there doesn’t seem to be much room for action, does there?
After responding to the NPD person in my life in all sorts of different ways that made things worse for everyone involved, and after accepting good counsel I did eventually find an effective response. “Effective”, though, needs to be defined rather carefully here. It did not heal the NPD and it did not heal our relationship. It did, however, slowly extricate me from this alternate world of the relationship. It freed me to be available to all the other people in my life.
The process looked like non-violent resistance in the realm of interpersonal relationships. It took place not in a protest event but in the fabric of our everyday interactions. The most basic form of the practice looked like this: When presented with a distorted analysis of a situation or person I would respond dispassionately, acknowledging that I understood the analysis but that my own experience of the situation was different and that I disagreed. I would then present my world, my thoughts and experience, as a valid alternative. When I was hurt I would own it and say it but I would not return it. When I had a different vision for our future I would express it but not coerce it.
I wonder how my approach sounds to those that haven’t been in this kind of relationship. Does it sound obvious? I often wonder myself why I didn’t respond to NPD distortions this way in the first place. Or does the process sound too nice? If the world of NPD was so destructive wouldn’t a more dramatic kind of resistance be appropriate?
As for this approach being obvious, in retrospect it certainly feels that way but in the midst of the relationship it did not. The distorted world of the person with NPD is immersive, it’s all encompassing. I had in many ways lost my position as a valid and reciprocal member of the relationship. It took a great deal of work for me to learn to practice this and then to gradually reestablish my place.
As for this approach being “too nice”, all I can say is that the response I received from this approach speaks for itself. Nothing incited more ire, more vicious attacks on me than when I responded this way. It had taken away all the tools that had been used to build up the alternative world. There was no way to hear me without acknowledging that I was another person in the world with a valid perspective and status — and that was the one thing that could not happen.
This shift in my response to the person with NPD challenged my understanding of the New Testament norms of mutual submission. “Put the interests of others before your own”. “Wash one another’s feet”. “Love your enemies”. These types of verses had always resonated with me as central to the ethical dimension of following Jesus. Yet the way I had practiced them previously had failed to take into account the full subversive dynamic of the way Jesus and his followers taught and lived. How can I live out the full breadth of self-giving love in relationships that subsume or even abuse me? This is the primary question I’ll explore in the second part of this two-part series.
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