I have long struggled with the question of why I find a certain person I should love so very unlikable. While I knew their very presence rubbed me raw, I was unable to put my finger on just why they could not see how toxic their personality was. Recently, someone shared an article with me on narcissistic personality disorder and I was astounded, with each symptom I read, how well the description fit.
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (ESV)
What is Narcissism?
Narcissism gets its name from ancient Greek mythology. In one version of the story, Narcissus was the extraordinarily beautiful son of Cephissus and the nymph, Liriope. When they were afraid his beauty would come to harm their son, Narcissus’ parents consulted Teiresias, a soothsayer, who assured them that Narcissus would live a long life as long as he didn’t come to know himself.
As a young man, the handsome and proud Narcissus was unable to make a meaningful connection with anyone, spurning everyone who approached him because he believed they did not love him adequately. As a result, he left a trail of inconsolable, heartbroken young women, and one or two young men, behind him, even driving some to suicide in an effort to prove their devotion to him.
One day, as the fable goes, Narcissus saw his reflection in a pond and became mesmerized by his own beauty. He soon realized that he was destined to a life of loneliness and would never find anyone to love him as much as he treasured the reflection of himself. Unable to look away from his own image, he pined at the pool’s edge until he died of hunger and thirst.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
In an in Psychology Today, Preston Ni, M.S.B.A, describes the pathological narcissist “…as someone who’s in love with an idealized self-image which they project in order to avoid feeling (and being seen as) the real, disenfranchised, wounded self. Deep down, most pathological narcissists feel like the “ugly duckling,” even if they painfully don’t want to admit it.” Narcissists will even attempt to hijack the emotions of the people who love them by announcing, “I’ve given you so much, and you’re so ungrateful,” or, “I’m a victim—you must help me or you’re not a good person.”
The Narcissists We Know
“My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
Most of us can point to at least one person we know who has serious narcissistic tendencies, someone who seems to neither know nor care that they suck the life out of a room or a project or a conversation simply by entering it. As Christians, we assume that God puts these difficult people in our lives so that we can direct them in the way that they should go.
Deciding the best way to help the narcissist I know understand how their behavior was outside of God’s plan for his people, I threw myself down the Google rabbit hole and read article after article about how the disorder presents itself and how those suffering with it are unable to see themselves as others do.
Narcissists, I learned, may have grown up feeling abandoned, not experiencing unconditional love, and not having the love they felt for others mirrored back to them. As a result, their existence is focused on filling the emotional void with an image of themselves that they want the world to see, rather than coming to terms with how their pain has affected them.
With each new link, my Google University education solidified in my mind that the diagnosis I had made was accurate.
- “Monopolizes conversations and brings every discussion around to focus on themselves” was an obvious symptom.
- “Makes fun of or belittles others to build up their own image” was also damning.
- “Becomes impatient or angry when others don’t agree with their ideas” was nail in the coffin.
- “Reacts with fury or contempt, condescending toward anyone who points out their behavior” another.
- And with“sets unrealistic goals and blames others when unable to reach them,” the hammer struck its heaviest blow yet.
- “Experiences emotional meltdowns when faced with stress or when trying to adapt to change” was something I had witnessed more times than I cared to remember.
- “Becomes depressed and sullen when yet another project fails to produce perfection” could not have been more obvious.
I thought, what an awful, selfish existence. Thank God I am not cursed to live this way!
The Narcissist We Refuse to See
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
At the end of that long, damning list of characteristics of self-absorption I read “has deep, secret feelings that make them feel insecure, ashamed, vulnerable and humiliated.” I reread that line at least a dozen times, trying the description on for size, uneasy at how well it fit me. With these words draped over me like a cloak of lead, my eyes traveled back up the list of symptoms which now seemed tailored just for me.
“You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,” (ESV)
It was when I read about the pain felt by those who so desperately wanted to feel loved by the narcissist, , that I felt the true weight of my vaingloriousness. Oh, the ways I used my children to manipulate my husband to do what I wanted him to do! How I beat my chest and tore at my clothing and screamed obscenities at the world when no on acknowledged that it was I who made the meals and I who did the laundry, cleaned the house and raised the children! What despair filled my soul when time and again my book submissions were answered with rejection letters. And the grass around my feet should have burst into flames with the heat of the anger I directed toward my husband the day he felled the elm tree that landed on my garden fence.
Who knows the number of the inconsolable, heartbroken people I have left in the wake of my selfishness?
As Lutheran Christians, we are familiar with the 3 uses of Gods Law: To curb, to mirror and to guide the behavior of His people. While the Law does not justify me before Him, it does mirror my sin to me, crushing my ego with guilt, and allowing the Gospel to rush in to cover me. The penalty of breaking the Law is both personal and communal, meaning that, while I am delivered from the eternal consequences of my narcissism through Christ, it still has earthly ramifications which corrupt relationships, especially with children, who are often doomed to repeat what they know.
We Don’t Always Like What We Are Commanded to Love
“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” (ESV)
I have discovered that while it’s true that God tells us to congregate that we might be filled with is gifts and care for and guide one another on the journey, it’s entirely possible that God allows difficult people to enter my life to be a mirror to my own behavior, to humble and convict me of my own sinfulness that grace might do its work in my conceited, beggarly heart. While I may not like the company of narcissists, I’m more like them than I would like to believe. God commands me to love them anyway and to direct them to the mirror of His Word, that they too might begin to be humbled by the reflection they see and discover that Christ fills with joy what was once a vacuum of shame.
For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. (ESV)
Lord, grant us humility in Christ that we might live for each other as He Lives for us. It is His humility which has saved us from the narcissistic hypocrisy that is fills our nature. Help us to love Your Law in that it reminds us that, while we are not free from sin, we should still strive daily to live as You have commanded us for our own good and the good of all mankind, especially our children. Amen.