'Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus.' (Romans 16:11)
In the recent film The Apostle (1998) Robert Duval plays a southern preacher who is genuinely zealous for God. He has a gift of evangelism. In a scene, early in the picture, he bypasses a police cordon to speak to a dying man in a car accident-and brings him to faith. And yet the film is not like the story of Billy Graham-this southern preacher has some character flaws as well. In a fit of passion, he strikes out with a baseball bat and hits his wife's lover-the youth worker in his successful church. The young man goes into a coma and eventually dies.
The film is a wonderful study of a very flawed man who is deeply devoted to God. This raises a dilemma known to anyone with experience in pastoral ministry: Sometimes the most committed Christians are the most psychologically disturbed. It is possible to combine a lively faith and yet be almost totally blind about personal limitations-even glaringly obvious defects. Psychologists call this a lack of insight. I would like to introduce and then explore the area of what I call 'unconscious sin'.1
Theologians have worked out a language to describe the nature of humanity-especially in the moral realm. It is highly realistic. The key words are 'original sin' and 'sins'.
St Augustine was a good psychologist but he used theological words. He noted that humanity, cut off from God and not seeking redemption in Christ, tends to turn inward and look for sufficiency in the self. This results in being self-absorbed or self-centred. The curious fact is that a person, cut off from grace, is rarely aware of the extent of the problem or the nature of the affliction. You could of course ask family, friends or any close acquaintance and generally get a clear picture. It is like making the observation that few of us know exactly why we are hard to live with! I want to explore this part of the territory of the Fall.2
I would like to change language games. A word from psychology: Narcissism.3
A Classical and Modern Theme
This comes from the classical story of Narcissus. The most well-known version was written by the Latin poet Ovid (died 17 C.E.). Briefly:
Narcissus was the son of Cephissus, the river god, and the nymph Leiriope. By the time he was sixteen everyone recognised his ravishing beauty, but he scorned all lovers - of both sexes - because of his pride. The nymph Echo was hopelessly in love but she was hindered by her inability to initiate a conversation . Eventually Narcissus rejected her. She wasted away in her grief to a mere voice. A young man, similarly spurned, prayed that he would love himself unremittingly. The goddess Nemesis answered this prayer by arranging that Narcissus would stop to drink at a spring on the heights of Mount Helicon. As he looked in the water he saw his own reflection and instantly fell in love with the image. He could not embrace his reflection in the pool. Unable to tear himself away he remained until he died of starvation. But no body remained-in its place was a flower. (Metamorphoses, Book 3)4
I will try to distil some common traits of narcissism. These include:
· an obvious self-focus in interpersonal exchanges;
· problems in sustaining satisfying relationships;
· a lack of psychological awareness;
· difficulty with empathy;
· problems distinguishing the self from others;
· hypersensitivity to any slights or imagined insults;
· a lack of emotional depth and ability to feel sadness; and
· vulnerability to shame rather than guilt.5
Naturally the great authors have portrayed narcissism, usually in ways far more vivid than any psychological writer. A lawyer, in one Camus' novels indulged, in a prolonged 'confession' in an Amsterdam bar. He reflected on his attitude to himself and to others, 'It is not true, after all, that I never loved. I conceived at least one great love in my life, of which I was always the object... I looked merely for objects of pleasure and conquest.' He continued,
On my own admission, I could live happily only on condition that all the individuals on earth, or the greatest possible number, were turned towards me, eternally in suspense, devoid of any independent life and ready to answer my call at any moment, doomed in short to sterility until the day I should deign to favour them. In short, for me to live happily it was essential, for the creatures I chose not to live at all. They must receive their life, sporadically, only at my bidding.6
This chilling portrayal is a vivid example of a personality completely dominated by narcissism. Narcissism is here expressed in 'neon lights'.
Diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), need for admiration, and lack of empathy. Five or more of the following:
· has a grandiose sense of self-importance;
· is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power brilliance, beauty, or ideal love;
· believes that he or she is 'special' and unique and can only be understood by or should associate with, other special or high status people or institutions;
· requires excessive admiration;
· has a sense of entitlement;
· is interpersonally exploitive;
· lacks empathy;
· is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her; and
· shows arrogant, haughty behaviour or attitudes.7
In classical mythology the serpent Hydra had nine heads. Every time Heracles cut off a head two new heads appeared. In a similar way narcissism is one disorder but with different types. I have identified nine 'heads' of narcissism:8
(i) The Craver
Cravers are a bottomless well of need. It is experienced as an aching hunger. This overwhelming need places insistent demands on others-which can never be fully satisfied. Unfortunately the Craver is rarely aware of just how transparent they are with this need for nurture.
A Craver may have a haunting sense of anxiety and a terrible fear of abandonment. There is a habitual 'one down' position in relationships. This can lead to an apologetic, 'I am sorry for existing.' Another indicator of a Craver is the extravagant way they will idealise anyone in authority.
Vera dressed in a way one of her friends called 'loud'. She was certainly attractive and had no difficulties getting 'a date' but keeping a partner was another matter. There was something intense about her that led to relationships ending suddenly. She was usually surprised and somewhat mystified.
Usually what is most obvious 'behind the facade' is a clinging dependence in relationships. Partners may experience endless frustration trying to meet escalating demands. Giving is like pouring sand into a sieve. And the needs can be so overwhelming that the Craver will resort to manipulative and even exploitive ways to derive emotional sustenance.
There is at least one Craver in every church. You will know this person by how exhausted you feel after even a brief conversation. And if you fail to respond to their impossible demands, watch out!
(ii) Special Lover
The Special Lover is a 'pure' romantic.9 This person may be exciting, stimulating, expansive and fun. But the veneer may be quite thin and transparent. What is under the surface is a hidden grandiosity or an inflated sense of self. Private fantasies of uniqueness or unrivalled beauty may be savoured. But perhaps more obvious will be idealised relationships: 'Our love is special.'
Stan was a 'hopeless romantic'. He went on the TV show Perfect Match and genuinely believed that fate was at work. He described himself quite realistically as a genuine sort of person who was always faithful. He could also be amazingly selfless in a relationship, always forgiving, and yet his romances were brittle. Something would 'snap' after the quiet dinners, romantic walks and the poetry he wrote. He was almost addicted to ecstasy. But eventually reality would intrude. And it was a reality that he could not control.
The inner self of a Special Lover is often highly vulnerable to any slights-real or imagined-and bleeding wounds persist from past experiences.
Some Special Lovers are very successful and widely admired. Naturally if he or she becomes a celebrity it adds to the sense of being special because of the admiring feedback of others.10 The Christian community has many idealists, while some may be visionaries in the best sense of the word, others are grandiose and lack any sense of reality. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference, but it is dangerous to lack discernment in this area. I think that another Christian type of Special Lover is the person addicted to intense spiritual experiences-a kind of junkie for the ecstatic or the latest wave that swamps the church.
(iii) Fantasy Maker
Fantasy Maker creates an elaborate inner world. The real world intrudes, naturally, but it is exactly that-an intrusion and often resented. All the excitement is in the realm of fantasy. Often it is inner richness, outer poverty. Because of this the Fantasy Maker may have an external appearance of superficiality, flightiness, and emptiness. There may be considerable social anxiety and awkwardness.
The allegiance of the person caught up in fantasy is always to that inner world. The external impression may not be self-centred, but the "I" within is always a hero in some role or other. Grandiosity is located in the inner life. If you believe the illusion, it is to be significant, beautiful, admired, loved, and everything wonderful. It is an inflated self.
The inner world is the realm of gratification. Reality is cold and harsh-to be avoided as long as possible. Usually there is a pervasive distrust of outer reality which is often experienced as frustrating and withholding. Often such needs are so powerful that retreat is necessary. Rather than enhancing personal growth fantasy feeds the illusion of independence.
Derek was an isolated teenager. He was involved in Dungeons and Dragons. He had a couple of friends but it was based only on involvement in the games.
It is easier to be a Fantasy Maker in isolation. People tend to intrude and potentially mess things up.
Christians can get caught up in elaborate fantasy, equating faith with a denial of reality. But alternatively such an attitude can be visionary and it may be hard to distinguish. But humility is a mark of the spiritual life, not grandiosity. Perhaps it is best to pray for discernment and be sensible enough to heed: 'you shall know them by their fruits'. (Matt 7:16)
(iv) Power Broker
The Power Broker is in love with power, perhaps in lust with it and enjoys using it. Power may be expressed in angry, explosive ways-humiliating and even terrorising staff. Or it may be cold and bureaucratic. But power is the currency of relationships and used in an instrumental fashion.
Perhaps the most obvious quality of a Power Broker is arrogance. There is a characteristic attitude of contempt for 'inferiors'. Empathy is in short supply. This kind of boss does not worry about how his or her decisions affect others.
Grandiosity also lurks beneath the surface. People are used in exploitive ways. There is a sense of entitlement, 'Why shouldn't I do this? I deserve...'
Malcolm was the supreme organisation man. He was the youngest senior executive in the history of a large computer company. Naturally he was competent. The highest level of management loved the results he produced, but the cost was less obvious. Gradually his reputation was tarnished with escalating numbers of employee resignations and stress claims.
Success, status and power can be attractive. Unfortunately relationships are usually very troubled. The Power Broker has an impoverished inner life with little to give in any emotional sense. Relationships based on power can easily become abusive.
I would image that some of you might be asking yourself whether high profile pastors, evangelists or leaders of para-church ministries might be Power Brokers? Perhaps. Look for the signs of narcissism. And a trail of disillusioned and exploited staff.
The Rager is a common and somewhat obvious narcissistic type of personality. What is most characteristic is hypersensitivity to any perceived insult-whether intended or not. It is always taken personally and usually interpreted as an attack. This may be accompanied by highly irrational interpretations of malignant intent. A barely controlled rage simmers below the surface and often lashes out to injure anyone who is nearby. Violence may be part of this picture.
For years Betty ruled her family with her unpredictable explosions of anger. Gradually she alienated everyone. After 16 years of marriage Eric left. It was his 'bid for a new life,' but he then instituted a custody fight for the three teenage children. Perhaps it was surprising to no one but Betty-the children expressed a unanimous desire to live with their father.
A relationship with a Rager is always exciting if only for the fluctuations in mood and unpredictable behaviour. Members of the family will feel like they are 'walking on egg shells'. In this way the Rager can be highly controlling. The tendency to project blame is almost a 'knee jerk' reaction. The world may be seen in 'black and white' terms with a hint of paranoia.
In 15 years of pastoral ministry I have had to deal with a few Ragers. In the last church it was a good fight but I think the Rager won. I remember asking the previous rector of the parish how he dealt with this woman and he said, 'Move out of town!' Actually, as Christians we are vulnerable to unpleasant, even nasty people. There are verses like 'turn the other cheek' which we can interpret as an encouragement to be chronically nice. Passivity will never work-it is always a challenge but we must find effective ways to limit the damage in the body of Christ. Some Ragers are best exposed as the wolves that they are!
The Trickster is usually very charming and may have many social graces. He or she is engaging, smooth and inviting. Unfortunately the attractiveness is a thin veneer on a disturbed personality. Behind the 'trust me' messages there is a malicious intent. This is the personality of the 'con-artist'. There are motives of exploitation, blind entitlement and a cruel twist when the victim realises the script of betrayal.
Twenty five years ago I was converted through the ministry of another denomination. The flagship church of that denomination had a large missions budget. It was even larger than it appeared because the treasurer skimmed off over $100,000 in two years. He was the son of a respected pastor in the movement and there was a crushing sense of betrayal.
The Trickster is ruthless in relationships. He or she delights in fooling the lover with such betrayals as sexual infidelity, fraud, or criminal conspiracy. Eventually trust is shattered. This is an elaborate way to justify the Trickster's contempt of victims. The theme of manipulation is always central and the excitement is in setting up the 'con'. Unfortunately the Trickster comes in many guises and almost all hard to recognise (until too late!).
Tricksters are predators and they may see Christians as naive and 'easy pickings'. After you find out, usually too late, watch out for 'repentance' because it is usually just another ploy.
(vii) Body Shaper
The Body Shaper looks good! The values are: image, fashion, glamour, youth and beauty. This form of narcissism is so much part of our culture that it is hardly obvious.11 But what I am identifying is not just a office worker on the way to the gym for a regular work-out but a disturbance in personality. It is important to be seen and admired. The exhibition of self is all important.
There is an exaggerated need for admiration and a restless search for new worshippers. There may be a nagging perfectionism and an obsession with the perfect body.
Brent spent hours each day 'working out'. He 'sculpted' his body following the advice of his trainer. He was not interested in body building competitions, instead he would revel in admiring glances at the disco. He had what he considered a shameful secret. He used steroids.
Many Body Shapers are beautiful people. But it is only 'skin deep' and the inner world can be empty and bleak. The need for constant admiration does not diminish but can intensify to a frightening degree. It may be surprising but this can lead to both 'throw away' relationships and a deep dependency on selected partners.
I am not sure about the Christian versions of this. One of my teenagers used to bounce to Praise Aerobics, but I lacked sufficient interest to consider whether it was in any way a monument to narcissism. In all seriousness this is an area of accommodation to the narcissism of our times and as Christians we do need to think through our response. As Christians we have had conflicting attitudes about the physical body, owing more to Plato than the Old Testament. Perhaps we could develop more insightful theological reflection and speak to what is thoroughly idolatrous in our society.
The Martyr is in glorious pain. Suffering is all. Personal identity is constructed around being in pain... or being a victim... or a survivor. Pain justifies a pervasive self focus, parasitic demands and potentially exploitive relationships with others. It is only natural to trade in sympathy, especially if it is the only commodity going.
But this pain is not ordinary pain. It is narcissistic pain which takes on grandiose aspects, 'No one has suffered as I have suffered.' Such are the building blocks of identity.
Denise had a pain disorder following a car accident. Medical opinion supported a mild condition but Denise exaggerated the symptoms until she found it almost impossible to leave her house. She joined a New Age internet group that had odd views on healing.
The Martyr most easily forms relationships with someone who 'needs to be needed'. But he or she very quickly becomes unbalanced. This leads to deeply alienating friends and family who eventually feel manipulated and resentful. This frequently leaves the Martyr very much alone.
The Martyr has many Christian images that 'feel' right. There is Christ on the cross suffering for the redemption of humankind. This identification with the Saviour feels right and has grandiose aspects: 'My suffering is redemptive for others.' There is a theological emphasis-'always carrying in the body the death of Jesus' (2Cor 4:10)-and, of course, Christian history is rich in the examples of martyrs.
(ix) The Rescuer
The Rescuer is usually seen as virtuous. Such people inhabit the 'high moral ground' of relationships. They are always helpful, considerate, and nice. This attitude may be expressed in terms of spiritual ideals such as 'also go the second mile' (Matt 5:41).
Just how is this narcissistic? After all some people are just helpful. The Rescuer has an hidden grandiosity: 'It is only me that can really change things.' This may be hidden in a helping profession including psychology, social work, medicine, counselling or pastoral ministry.
Vince was working in a free legal service in an impoverished inner city area. He had an unusual zeal in his work. But as a zealot he could be scathing of other members of the legal profession who were not as motivated by his high ideals. He often worked seven day weeks, taking calls late into the night. He found it impossible to take holidays since 'My people need me.'
On a more mundane level Rescuers are drawn to unbalanced relationships perhaps with one of the other narcissistic types. Usually they will over-function in the relationship and will often feel exhaustion and resentment. The question is eventually asked, 'Why aren't my needs being met?'
In the church Rescuers are drawn to pastoral care-especially pastoral counselling and prayer ministry. Again this can be a genuine vocation and the exercise of spiritual gifts, but sometimes there is more in it for the carer than the cared for. Watch for the tell-tale signs of pride and grandiosity.
More on the Nature of Narcissism
Rarely are the nine types pure. Narcissism, like coffee beans, usually comes in blends. For example, there is the Craver who becomes a Rager when needs are blocked. Some types may be linked, such as the Power Broker-Rager, or Craver-Special Lover. Each of the types becomes more understandable when you realise what underlies the disorder. Nine heads but one Hydra.
Once the types of narcissism are more clearly identified it is important to distinguish what I see as 'warm' from 'cold' narcissism. The cold, unempathic, arrogant and distant narcissist is implied in DSMIV and has been well-described by psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg, 'Their emotional life is shallow. They experience little empathy for the feelings of others, they obtain little enjoyment from life other than from the tributes they receive from others or from their own grandiose fantasies, and they feel restless and bored when external glitter wears off and no new sources feed their self-regard. They envy others, tend to idealise some people from whom they expect narcissistic supplies and to depreciate and treat with contempt those from whom they do not expect anything (often their former idols). In general, their relationships with other people are clearly exploitive and sometimes parasitic. It is as if they feel that they have the right to control and possess others and to exploit them without guilt feelings-and, behind a surface which is very often charming and engaging, one senses coldness and ruthlessness.'12 However, some narcissistic types are highly focused on human relationships, can be empathic, usually in a patchy way and are certainly emotionally needy-most characteristic of this are the Craver and Special Lover. The coldest type is the Power Broker and possibly the Trickster.13
Since narcissism is a structure of personality, any understanding in psychological terms must look back to developmental themes. How do such traits of personality develop? I have an image that is simplistic but may help: imagine a two year old infant inhabiting a bleak interpersonal world, possibly with episodes of abuse but more likely emotional neglect. How does this child comfort himself or herself? Think about the child curling up in bed, in a foetal position, thinking 'I can only trust myself. No one will look after me.' And then wrapping the vulnerable frightened self in a blanket of grandiosity, 'I am special even if no one can recognise it.' The two themes-of pre-conscious withdrawal into the self and the compensation of grandiose fantasy-are what is most characteristic of narcissism.14
Allow me to add another dimension. I have said that the childhood environment may have been neglectful or even abusive but, ironically, childhood may be 'too good' and the child is the exclusive focus of the intrusive parent. This will lead to the same narcissistic themes in a life.
Simon described his 'perfect mother' who was always there for him, 'Yes, she may have had high expectations, but she had them most of all about herself. She had to be the perfect parent. I think that she shielded me from pain-almost as if when I hurt she hurt. We were very CLOSE, I think in ways that other children would know nothing about.'
But now to a theological note: I think that the real origins of narcissism are in the fall-original sin-the inherent tendency of fallen humanity to be self-centred and to turn away from God in guilt and shame.
A Narrative approach to Counselling
The philosopher Descartes thought before the fire and came up with his famous axiom: 'I think therefore I am'. It was an expression of abstraction and pure truth, the essence of at least one stream of later modernism. Did he get it right? I think not. The answer should be not I think but 'I have a story, therefore I am.'
All human experience has a narrative quality.15 Not only do stories shape our experience of life, but it is through story that we make sense of the world. MacIntyre notes, 'The concept of a self, whose unity resides in the unity of a narrative which links birth to death as a narrative beginning to middle to end.'16
Perhaps what is most central to who we are is our personal story. Think about the way we introduce ourselves or others, the importance of intimate sharing in friendship, and the role of testimony when lives change. This is also central to a satisfying sense of belonging in a community or a church. These are people who not only care for us, but who have heard our story.
We all have stories about ourselves. Such stories can be positive and life-giving or negative and destructive. How would you categorise the following?
Mary said, 'I know I am a Christian. There have been some dark times when my faith is all that has kept me from ending my life. But I don't think anyone could possibly understand how lonely I have felt, especially when my addiction to binge eating and purging has been out of control. I hate my body. My uncle sexually abused me when I was a child, I can't get over feeling like a victim. Maybe that is why I treat myself so badly?'
Clearly there are life stories which are still imprisoning Mary. It is a combination of how she was treated when she was young and felt powerless, and how she now understands herself as an adult. There is also a refrain of hope, but that seems to be a minor theme.
Narrative therapy, which has been pioneered by Australian social worker Michael White, pays close attention to the way language structures our understanding of reality. There is an influence by French philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. White has made an enormous contribution to therapeutic practice and understanding with concepts such as: deconstructing problems, externalising psychopathology, paying attention to unique out-comes, and building a preferred story.17 For example, he understands presenting problems as 'stories (which) are dominant to the extent that they allow insufficient space for the performance of the person's preferred stories.'18 I think that it can be argued that the recovery of narrative is an important post-modern step beyond the limits of modernism.19
Michael White is one of the most important international figures in individual and family psychotherapy. Australia is on the map in this area largely because of his creative thinking. However, what he has proposed is not the only form that a narrative therapy might take. First of all, his approach has some limitations:
· He has a very narrow philosophical base in French deconstructionism and social construction.20 He gives up any objective notion of truth.21
· An over-reliance on the use of questions in therapy, which become like a method of intrusive interrogation. I would question whether this is at the cost of empathy.
· Externalising is an important technique and it is very helpful for problems such as a specific phobia, depression and perhaps alcoholism. But what about problems for which a person needs to take personal responsibility, such as domestic violence and sexual abuse? It may also be of limited application with personality disorders where psychopathology is ingrained in the personality.
· I find the attitude towards the therapist's use of power confusing. Is it really possible to shed the expert role and have what Anderson calls 'possibility conversations'? I think that an empowered therapist is more able to help a client move from 'pathological victim to courageous victor'.22
· I have reservations about the loss of a systems perspective, which was one of the great gains in family therapy.
This emphasis on story is a natural point of integration for a Biblical and therapeutic concepts. We are the people of the story of what God has done and will finally accomplish in Christ. Theologians call it a 'sacred story' (the German word is Heilsgeschichte). One of the central themes of the apostle Paul in Romans is the way we, as believers, are incorporated into Christ and share his story (see Romans, especially chapters 5-8). All this is recognised and explored in contemporary theological circles in narrative theology.23
I have argued that the essence of narcissism is grandiosity. Or to express it in a narrative form: narcissism is an expanded story about the self, a story in which the self is special or the hero in a fantasy drama.24 Fundamentally, it is a distorted narrative. There is a stark contrast to the example of Christ as seen in the Philippian hymn, 'Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God...' (2: 5-11)
Once we can recognise that narcissism is a distorted story, this can be the locus of pathology. It is possible to deconstruct the expansive narrative and develop a preferred story-one more connected to reality.25
Steve is a 35 year old single man. Both of his parents were alcoholic. They had a turbulent relationship and 'took a holiday in the bottle' every night. Steve developed a rich fantasy life to compensate for the lack of nurture in his family. He survived as an adapting child-it was safest to be invisible.
As an adult he was left with an abiding sense of pain and inner defect. He had an intense relationship with Amanda, but after three years she left him for another man. But Amanda rarely left anyone, in a complete sense, and they remained friends, in fact have shared the same house ever since. Steve reluctantly accepted the enforced nature of their Platonic relationship. He remained 'faithful' to the ideal of their special relationship because of mutual pain which he enshrined with celibate waiting. I spelled out the dynamics of his narcissistic investment, 'Steve when you were a child you had to survive in the only way possible. You developed a fantasy world to escape and this makes a lot of sense. But as an adult your loyalty is still to the fantasy rather than what is real.'
I used the analogy of counterfeit money to explain the attraction of grandiosity, 'In the fantasy realm you can create your own money and spend it. You can be a millionaire and there is no Bank Manager to challenge your extravagance. But in the real world it is a different story.' Steve thought about this and said, 'In my family I didn't get even a $1, but now I expect to spend $1000.' I said, 'Exactly!' He was able to see the narrative dimensions when he said later in therapy, 'Harvest in the real world is slow, harvest in the inner world is instant.'
I think that it is important to use gentle humour in counselling. It helps a client own aspects of their unconscious sin which is always painful when it comes to awareness. This understanding of the 'influence of the problem' is important. Empathy is 'experience near' and makes painful realisations less alienating. It is important to articulate and understand the old story. I encourage people to use journal techniques such as writing an autobiography which encourages work between sessions. I see myself helping to question the old story, especially the narcissistic pay-offs, and consider my role to be a 'narrative editor' in this process. What is the preferred story? What would be a 'story in Christ' for this person? What would need to happen for this person to achieve greater spiritual maturity? It is a wonderful privilege to witness the re-authoring of a new story-one with Christ writing the 'unique outcomes' as well!
Once we recognise how pervasive narcissism is in our culture and even in our lives and intimate relationships, we understand that narcissism is not 'out there', but inside. Appreciate that it is 'us' not 'them'. I will say again my fundamental axiom of narcissism: It is easy to recognise it in another person, but not in ourselves. Narcissism is mostly unconscious. Perhaps this is easier to accept when we realise that narcissism does not always dominate a personality. I have had to come to terms with areas where narcissism has an undue influence, and yet I do not think that my life is completely dominated by self-focus, unconscious or otherwise. However to get the definitive opinion-ask my wife.
A Biblical Afterthought
In closing I would like to briefly use a Biblical example of a profound change in character-that of Jacob. He was born clutching the heel of his twin brother Esau. His story is one of trickery and supplanting his older brother, using hunger to rob him of his birthright and then later beguiling Isaac into giving him Esau's rightful blessing. Although we do not fully understand patristic culture this would have meant position in a large extended family, perhaps more property (cf. Deut 21: 16-17), status and honour. However in God's economy there are laws of 'sowing and reaping' and Jacob is tricked into marrying Leah before gaining Rachel his wife of choice. Clearly Jacob is not a personality dominated by narcissism, as say King Herod, but there are themes of mild grandiosity and trickery. Jacob had a sense of entitlement, as if he deserved what was not his by right. But this changes. There is a vivid incident in which he wrestled with God and there is a transformation of narcissism.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, 'Let me go, for the day is breaking.' But Jacob said, 'I will not let you go, unless you bless me.' So he said to him, 'What is your name?' And he said, 'Jacob.' Then the man said, 'You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.' Then Jacob asked him, 'Please tell me your name.' But he said, 'Why is it that you ask my name?' And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, 'For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.' The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle. (Genesis 32:24-32, NRSV).
There is some ambiguity in the reading. Did Jacob wrestle with a man, an angel or was it God? It was a struggle that took everything of Jacob's strength and then some. Some of you know that feeling of exhaustion. It is like running an emotional marathon.
It was all night long. Is not it true that our hardest struggles are through the night when sleep is impossible? Sometimes tears. Certainly unbroken anguish. Is there anytime more lonely when everyone is sleeping in the long hours before dawn? Maybe you thought that you were wrestling with difficult people or a lack or resources but like Jacob you were wrestling with God.
As Christians we have no special privileges. We face hard things just like everyone else. But I believe that there is a difference. God is interested in forming our character. You may find this surprising but I think that God is even more interested in shaping us than the success or failure of our ministry. Think of Jeremiah. Think of Job. Think of Peter.
I think that it is in failure that our narcissism is most exposed and potentially transformed. Sometimes God not only allows it but engineers it!
Jacob wrestled all night and his opponent did not prevail. The most important principle is DO NOT LET GO! Jacob held on in the struggle until he received a blessing. That is a good marker of the end of the struggle. When you struggled it was with God, whether you recognised it or not-but did you hang on for the blessing? Only you know that.
In the midst of the struggle Jacob was wounded. The divine figure 'struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint.' And later he limped from the encounter. I get the impression that Jacob had that wound for life, because it was commemorated in the Israelite practice not to eat the meat on that part of the bone.
How true of us. We emerge from the darkest of trials and may have held on for a blessing but we remain wounded. Our wounds may be hidden like internal bleeding. But we know the hidden pain and the wounds that last. Like Jacob, we limp away.
Fortunately our wounds are not where God would leave us. There is a higher purpose. I think that this is beautifully expressed in Henri Nouwen's sermon. The Wounded Healer.26 He saw that genuine ministry was born out of woundedness.
I will illustrate from the experience of a client who saw me a number of years ago. I have called her Sandy27 and have her permission to tell her story. She is a devout Pentecostal Christian. She was married to a GP who did not come to church with her. She could not understand why she was so depressed, since things were 'never better' in her marriage. She kept asking Jesus to take away her pain, but it didn't seem to work. Naturally, she blamed herself for lack of faith.
She was a 'chronically nice' person who was something of a Martyr in the narcissistic typology. She told me about a time when her husband had an affair with her best friend. She had no feelings of anger just 'disappointment' and, remarkably, maintained the friendship in spite of the betrayal.
She told me about a frightening dream. 'I was in a room with no windows. There were two bland walls. On one there was a plaque with a picture of a bunny on it and an inscription. Then I turned around and saw a real rabbit sitting there. It said, "Go on do it." "What?" "Pick up the knife." I turned in horror and the rabbit on the plaque said, "Go on. Commit suicide." There I ran outside. I was in a green playing field. There was a freshly dug grave with a tombstone, "Here lies a holy sister." I explained something of the Jungian method of the analysis of dreams and she came to realise that her 'niceness', symbolised by the rabbits, would end up killing her.
Gradually, she gave herself permission to feel. She became angry with her husband and gradually worked that through to appreciate more of the texture of her relationship with him. She was able to see both the good and bad.
She also went on a spiritual journey. A few months later she went down to the coast for a personal retreat. She had the impression, 'Don't forgive people, forgive instances.' She then wrote pages in her journal. One night she went through a 'dark night of the soul' in which she experienced Satan's accusations. She couldn't sleep but had a vision of the risen Christ in the garden. He came to her. Three times he called her name, 'Sandy'. He asked her 'Do you love the Father?' Then he asked, 'Do you love yourself?' She couldn't answer. Then Jesus put his hands on her face, 'God made you in my image and likeness, you are his work of art. Now do you love yourself?' I was amazed at this experience. Never was I more convinced of the genuineness of such an experience.
There were many confirmations of her change and growth. But the one that illustrated the 'wounded healer' was when she began to notice people at church coming to her to share their problems. They noticed that she was becoming more real. As her wounds began to heal-there was healing for others.
Jacob's opponent said, 'You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.' In the Bible, names have profound significance. The prophet's children were often named with a message for Israel. And names carry significance: Peter means "rock". And (depending on how you read the text) either he or his insight into the nature of Christ became the foundation for the church. But the change of a name is also common. Jacob becomes Israel. Saul becomes Paul. It is the result of a spiritual encounter.
In our culture names have nothing of this significance. We may decide to call a child Carrie, Zac, Annie, Molly or Gareth - but it is for fashion or sound or whatever. In the wonderful film Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner receives his name from the Indians. It reflected more than what they observed, but something of his awakened spirit in the wilderness. Have we have lost something?
I would like to suggest a kind of prayer exercise. In prayer, ask God if, after your experience of a struggle, if he has a new name for you. I mean this quite literally. After an experience of what I felt was a failure in ministry, I asked God what name was on the other side of that experience? In some pessimism I feared it might have been Icabod (God has departed!) but I finally arrived at 'You shall not strive.' I could not find the Hebrew or Greek for it, but it has a meaning for me in terms of my ambitious striving. Something changed and it was of spiritual significance.
C. S. Lewis, in his children's book The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe,28 had a wonderful image for the Fall. The land of Narnia, while under the reign of the Witch, was in 'perpetual winter'-a land covered by snow. I have tried to look at the same landscape and ask what is the nature of fallen humanity? What is it about us that still bears the imago dei, but is distorted into a parody of what God intended? I have used the psychological language of narcissism to describe styles of personality and ways of interacting in our fallen world. And I have introduced the concept of 'unconscious sin' which is a universal. In this rather meandering journey through classical mythology, psychoanalytic theory, post-modern philosophy, contemporary therapy, Biblical and narrative theology-I hope I have taken you to some of the edges in pastoral care and counselling. It is an exciting field with the possibility of finding some points of integration for very different disciplines.
The degree of spiritual insight and awareness of unconscious sin is one in which we will all differ. Ultimately, it is a very personal issue, one that touches who we are and our relationship with God. It is in intimate and hidden places that we struggle with this, but we never fully resolve it short of the new creation. But we can recognise the need for God to show us through the Holy Spirit what we can not see (John 16). We can listen to our friends who, if they are good friends, will occasionally say something spiritually relevant. If you have a spouse, you can give thanks to God, for he or she will usually point out your faults-perhaps not in ways you will want to hear! But above all I think that we can take ourselves less seriously, to allow insight into our failures and to invite God to transform our narcissism. This 'light touch' is beautifully captured by the cartoonist Michael Leunig in his Common Prayers. I will conclude with one of my favourites, though I am not even sure why it speaks so deeply to me:
When the heart
Is cut or cracked or broken
Do not clutch it
Let the wound lie open
Let the wind
From the good old sea blow in
To bathe the wound with salt
And let it sting
Let a stray dog lick it
Let a bird lean in the hole and sing
A simple song like a tiny bell
And let it ring.29
* This paper is now incorporated into: B. Stevens, Mirror, Mirror… Has Self-Love Undermined Your Relationship? Ginninderra Press, Canberra. Australia. 2000. The Rev. Dr Bruce Stevens (PhD, Boston University, 1987) is a Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in private practice. He was in full-time Anglican ministry for 15 years and continues to teach part-time as a Senior Lecturer in Pastoral Counselling at St Marks National Theological Centre, Canberra which is part of the School of Theology for Charles Sturt University. He has published two books and numerous articles.
1. C. S. Lewis made a distinction between self-centredness and selfishness. 'One of the happiest and most pleasing companions I have every met was intensely selfish. On the other hand I have known people capable of real sacrifice whose lives were nevertheless a misery to themselves and to others because self-concern and self-pity filled all their thoughts. Either condition will destroy the soul in the end. But till the end, give me the man who takes the best of everything (even at my expense) and then talks of other things, rather than the man who serves and talks of himself, and whose very kindnesses are a continual reproach, a continual demand for pity, gratitude and admiration'. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Glasgow: Collins Fount, 1988, 117. Without using the word narcissism this is exactly what Lewis is talking about.
2. An excellent book on sin is Cornelius Plantinga, Jnr, Not the Way it is Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1995.
3. Sigmund Freud, 'On Narcissism: An Introduction', (1914) in Andrew P. Morrison, Essential Papers on Narcissism, New York: New York Universities Press, 1986, 17-43. See the rest of this book for important essays by leading psychoanalytic writers.
4. The Metamorphoses of Ovid, Trans. Allen Mandelbaum, New York: Harcourt Brace and Co, 1993. A clear and readable version.
5. The psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg described the dynamics of narcissism. His clinical description is insightful and comprehensive. These clients have an 'unusual degree of self reference in their interactions with other people, a great need to be loved and admired by others, and a curious apparent contradiction between a very inflated concept of themselves and an inordinate need for tribute from others... Very often such patients are considered to be dependent because they need so much tribute and adoration from others, but on a deeper level they are completely unable really to depend upon anybody because of their deep distrust and depreciation of others.' He added, 'The main characteristics of these narcissistic personalities are grandiosity, extreme self-centeredness, and a remarkable absence of interest in and empathy for others in spite of the fact that they are so very eager to obtain admiration and approval from other people. These patients experience a remarkably intense envy of other people who seem to have things they do not have or who simply seem to enjoy their lives. These patients not only lack emotional depth and fail to understand complex emotions in other people, but their own feelings lack differentiation, with quick flare-ups and subsequent dispersal of emotion. They are especially deficient in genuine feelings of sadness and mournful longing; their incapacity for experiencing depressive reactions is a basic feature of their personalities. When abandoned or disappointed by other people they may show what looks on the surface like depression, but which on further examination emerges as anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes, rather than real sadness for the loss of a person whom they appreciated. Otto Kernberg, 'Factors in the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personalities', in Andrew P. Morrison, Essential Papers on Narcissism, New York: New York Universities Press, 1986, 213-15.
6. Albert Camus, The Fall, New York: Vintage Books, 1956. See also Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory, London: Karnac, 1993. An English psychoanalyst now living in Australia, Symington looks closely at the novel Anna Karenina by Tolstoy.
7. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders edition IV (DSMIV), American Psychiatric Association, 1994, (see 658-661).
8. Ben Bursten, 'Some Narcissistic Personality Types', in Morrison, Essential Papers on Narcissism, 381. Bursten made a significant contribution in his conception of four types of narcissistic personality:
a. The Craving personality is very demanding, clinging, and needy. There is an oral need in having to be 'fed'.
b. The Paranoid personality is characterised by hypersensitivity, rigidity, unwarranted suspicion, tendency to blame others, and envy. Anger-of all forms-is present.
c. The Manipulative personality employs deception to gain his goals at the expense of the other with a satisfying feeling of 'putting something over' the other person. The result is contempt.
d. The Phallic personality tends to be exhibitionistic in terms of sexuality. Arrogance, above all, is the feature of this personality.
9. R. A. Johnson, The Psychology of Romantic Love, London: Arkana, 1983. The author is a Jungian analyst and this readable book explores the theme of romantic love through various stories in our culture. I also address this theme in Regaining Intimacy: Dealing with the pain of a broken relationship, Sydney: Random House, 1995.
10. H. Hendrix, Getting the love you want: A guide for couples, Melbourne: Schwartz and Wilkinson, 1988. A self-help book that explores the unconscious factors that infuse romantic love. There are helpful exercises for couples to work through as well. Also H. Hendrix, Keeping the love you find: A guide for singles, New York: Pocket Books, 1992. In this later book he has an interesting developmental perspective and there are some exercises to help the reader to determine the stage at which they were wounded: attachment, exploration, identity, competence, concern, or intimacy.
11. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. A classic book on modern culture, from a psychoanalytic perspective.
12. Otto Kernberg, 'Factors in the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personalities', in Morrison, Essential Papers on Narcissism, 213-15.
13. It is possible that there are some gender differences at this point, perhaps males tend more towards the cold types of narcissism, and females the warmer? This is of course speculation and there are many exceptions.
14. One of the great analysts who has both described narcissism and pioneered in the treatment of this disorder is Heinz Kohut. See H. Kohut and E. S. Wolf, "The disorders of the self and their treatment: An outline", International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol.59, 1978, 415. E. S. Wolf, Treating the self: Elements of a clinical self psychology, New York: The Guildford Press, 1988, 39.
15. Stephen Crites, 'The Narrative Quality of Experience', Journal of the American Academy of Religion, (September 1971), 39/3, 291-311.
16. A. MacIntyre, After Virtue, South Bend: University of Notre Dame, 1981, 190-209.
17. See G. Monk, J. Winslade, K. Crocket, and D. Epston, Narrative Therapy in Practice: The Archaeology of Hope, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997; and J. Freedman and G. Combs, Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities, New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.
18. M. White and D. Epston, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, New York: W. W. Norton, 1990, 14.
19. Also see K. J. Gergen, The Saturated Self, New York: Basic Books, 1991.
20. See Peter Berger and T. Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality, New York: Doubleday, 1966.
21. H. Anderson, 'Truth is constructed through interaction of the participants and it is constructed,' Conversations Language and Possibilities, New York: Basic Books, 1997.
22. G. Monk, Narrative Therapy in Practice, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997.
23. See Stanley Hauerwas, Why Narrative? Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1989.
24. As Paul said, 'Knowledge puffs up.' (1 Cor 8:2).
25. There has been some thinking about how to recognise and correct a distorted narrative. Some factors may include 'alertness to limits', personal experience, searching for the ideals of both truth and intelligibility, appreciating that narrative requires an evaluation of character, understanding the link of narrative and tradition, and understanding the nature of an epistemological crisis in a story when schemata fail to explain and consequently the birth of a new narrative.
26. See his book by this name. Also The Living Reminder, New York: Seabury Press, 1977.
27. See Chapter 14 of my first book, Setting Captives Free: Models for Individual, Marital and Group Counselling, London: Harper Collins, 1994.
28. London: Fontana Lions, 1956.
29. Common Prayers Collection, North Blackburn: CollinsDove, 1993.