The Path

It’s Narcissist Friday!     

 

Most professionals agree that narcissism begins quite early in life.  The child may be ignored, abandoned, coddled, or abused—but he/she lacks the normal and appropriate nurture of parents.  Other siblings in the same home may be treated differently or may learn to cope in different ways, but some will choose a narcissistic path.  They learn to get the attention and support they need by manipulating parents and siblings and, later, friends.  They might decide that being hurt and needy will work.  They might learn that being loud and irritating will work.  Or they might learn to be devious and scheming to get their needs met.

Now, I understand that parents of narcissists sometimes find this hard to accept.  But the truth is that we all lack parenting skills, particularly those specifically needed by certain children.  If we raise all our kids the same, we fail to meet special needs.  If we try to deal with each one differently, we may be viewed as playing favorites.  The problem is not always in the parenting.  The problem is in how each child views their own upbringing.  It may be a long time ago, but we all remember times in our childhood when we felt alone or afraid or unloved.  We each had to learn how to deal with those feelings and those needs.

So, some children set out on a path that leads them into the darkness and loneliness of narcissism.  Children try things.  They learn what works and what does not.  They are not good judges of why and how certain things work, of course.  Nor are they aware of the long-term risks of certain behaviors.  All they know is that certain things seem to work better than others.  That begins a journey on a long path.

Years ago, there was a management teaching called “GMP” – the Greatest Management Principle.  It was very simple.  People will repeat the behavior that is reinforced.  In other words, if a certain behavior is practiced regularly—positive or negative—something is reinforcing that behavior.  Find the reinforcement and you may be able to change or encourage the behavior.

Narcissistic behavior is readily reinforced in a culture like ours, even in most homes.  Busy parents give in to the loud or needy child.  Disciplining a headstrong child is challenging, and a cooperative and quiet child is easy to leave alone.  So, some learn to fight, while others learn to work the system.  Once on the narcissist path, the child finds a great deal of reinforcement.

Of course, not all such behavior is reinforced.  Sometimes there is discipline, but some children simply learn that occasional discipline is the price to pay for the behavior that, more often than not, will work.  Children on a narcissistic path often face resistance.  The loud child in the classroom may not be liked by the other kids and the teacher may have to devise some kind of punishment.  But if that child believes the path is right for him/her, the loud behavior will continue (or it will be subdued until a better time).

This is what I mean when I say that narcissism is a choice.  It is a path that is chosen, a way of looking at others and self.  Eventually, the distance between the child and others will grow and more abusive or manipulative behaviors will assert.  Narcissists learn to use others from the beginning of the path, but their methods are refined and intensified as the years go on.  By the time the child is an adult, he/she is convinced that narcissistic behavior is not only working but is necessary and right.  Arguments to the contrary fall on unbelieving ears.

So, why do some children in a family become narcissistic, while others do not?  By my study, no one really knows.  It might be easy to assign some genetic predisposition or some chemical or mental/emotional imbalance, but almost none of the professionals believe that to be the case—except, perhaps, with those narcissists who become malignant sociopaths.  Instead, some simply choose a path.  Along the way, the darkness grows, but the child doesn’t notice or care.  As long as the chosen path seems to work, at least enough to provide reinforcement, the hardness of heart and the distance from others will grow.

Then can this path be changed?  Can the person who chose narcissism be convinced to choose another way?  Well, there are some who claim to be able to help narcissists change.  I think the only change will be utilitarian, behavior change for the purpose of personal benefit, and I don’t think heart motivations change as easily.  And there is nothing easy about changing narcissistic behavior.

 

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I’m Here!

It’s Narcissist Friday!     

 

Many years ago, a family came to our church with a young boy who would open the door of the church and yell, “I’m here!”  Every week it was the same.  I began an experiment.  Each time he would say that, I would ask him his name as though I didn’t know it.  And every time, he seemed shocked and offended that I didn’t know his name.  He would shout his name at me.  Eventually I stopped because I could see that it was truly an issue with him.  His need to be known and welcomed was so great that he had to announce his presence and make sure everyone saw him.

The family moved away before I could watch the boy grow, but I have always wondered.  The parents seemed kind and appreciative.  They gave him attention and discipline.  Some of it was the exuberance of life that a child has, but it was more than that.  His brother had no such need.  Nor did his parents.

So, was this the beginning of a narcissist?  I don’t know.  I do know that narcissists expect you to know they are with you.  We are all supposed to notice them.  We are supposed to remember their names.  In fact, we should be happy they came.

The need for attention is part of the basic definition of narcissism.  If the narcissist cannot get it by announcing his presence, he may “act out” to get it.  I have seen adults do some foolish and obnoxious things to get attention.  Even when most of the room finds their behavior disgusting, they get the attention they need.

You see, it didn’t bother this young boy that he sounded silly when he shouted, “I’m here!”  It didn’t concern him that no one else did such a thing.  The fact that his embarrassed parents tried to get him to stop meant nothing.  All that mattered was that people should see him and appreciate him.  The few people that would laugh and welcome him provided what he wanted.

I have wondered what he would have thought if some of us had preempted his announcement with something like, “He’s here!”  I think he would have been happy.  It may have made him feel superior, worth more than others.  After all, people didn’t make a big deal when others entered the room.  His announcement may well have been a way of telling people that they should notice him.

Narcissistic adults, particularly those we consider “overt,” do consider themselves to be of greater value than others.  That’s another part of the basic definition.  They should have special privileges and special voice.  The fact that others fail to see this superiority does not negate it.  If they have to announce it themselves, they will.

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Organizational Integrity

It’s Narcissist Friday!     

 

Narcissistic organizations can often be identified by what used to be called the “good old boy” system. Favors and positions are granted on the basis of some secret parameters that are indiscoverable by those not in the system. In other words, certain people seem to get ahead in spite of incompetence or conformity. Leadership is made up of those who are not leaders, at least not in a way that builds others. Instead, major leaders in the narcissistic organization are chosen for their looks or for the image they bring to the organization. How minor leaders are chosen will seem to be a mystery.

In my experience, it doesn’t matter whether leaders are chosen by election or by appointment in the narcissistic organization. The goals of the organization will be accomplished either way. And, somehow, the goals of the organization are different from the goals of the members of that organization.

Many people have joined organizations—churches, clubs, even businesses—only to find that these organizations change over the years. The values and standards become something less than what they were. The church that once stood strong for the truth is now willing to compromise Scripture and tradition. The business that once held to high standards of honesty and transparency now seems to focus only on what will make more money. The club that once was open and welcoming and respectful of others is now filled with cliques and gossip and comparisons. Things are not the same, and it is a mystery how they changed.

No matter how hard you work for the organization or how well you contribute, you are never chosen for leadership. Instead, the ones who are chosen seem to be prideful and willing to use others. Once in a while a good person slips in, but he or she doesn’t seem to last long. If you are chosen for leadership, you may owe certain people or there may be certain expectations of you that were not in place before.

Years ago I became part of an organization with a good reputation. I was honored to be a part of it. However, I was told quickly that the organization was a “good old boy” network. That meant certain people had more respect and privilege than others, based, I thought, on their connections within the group. For the most part, I was right, but there was more to the story as the years went on.

For the next 30+ years, I worked for the organization and sacrificed time and energy for it thinking that I was somehow contributing to a greater good. I held a minor office because I was willing to work. Any greater office was out of reach because I was not one of the “good old boys.”

At the same time, I watched as this organization began to compromise more and more of its principles, even to the point of changing its list of core values. Some of those chosen for leadership had little or no previous connection with the organization. Some were of questionable character but looked good up front. I noticed that dishonesty became almost a leadership requirement. Self-promotion and projecting superiority replaced any idea of sacrificial service.

What I came to understand was that the changes happened gradually as those in leadership began to think of themselves above whatever rules or values the organization held. Candidates for leadership were evaluated by how they could move the organization toward some unacknowledged goal. Values could be compromised as long as the person desired would serve to further that goal.

To put it more plainly, some among the leaders had decided that the organization should grow at almost any cost. New leaders were chosen (elected or appointed) on the basis of their usefulness in helping the organization grow. Solid workers who had done well over the years were ignored simply because their loyalty to the “old” values limited their willingness to compromise. Compromise would be necessary for growth to happen.

So, when you look at your church or business or club and wonder why things have changed so much, ask what the goals are. How do the current goals (even if unofficial and unspoken) contrast with the goals when you first came? You may well be able to pinpoint the time or the leadership that began the compromises and changes.

When an organization is willing to compromise (fudge, equivocate, accommodate, etc.) its values, watch out for the narcissists. The ideal organization—in the mind of the narcissist—is one that claims high and strong values but is willing to “bend” those values behind the scenes. If certain people get treated a little better than others, if some can get by with things or get more privileges, then the narcissists will come in like flies. And the organization will welcome them if the goals of current leaders are different from the stated goals of the members.

Do you wonder why some churches seem to slip toward the “dark side”? Do you wonder why a good business becomes one that sees its customers as only sources of money and its employees as tools to be used? Do you wonder why your club has become exclusive and judgmental? As you begin to see narcissists in leadership, ask what goals were changed along the way and why the doors were so open for the narcissists.

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Medication?

 

It’s Narcissist Friday!     

 

We all try to make sense of why narcissism happens. The person who seemed so loving and attentive is now cruel and manipulative. Maybe something is wrong. Maybe it’s a disease or maybe something was broken before and only came out later. We try to rationalize the cause of the cruelty.

The first stage of grief is denial. When we begin to realize that what we thought we had was false or is now gone, we feel we have to come up with some kind of excuse. No one could or would choose to be that cruel, we say. No person could treat another that way, we say. There must be a cause, we say. Once we face the reality of what happened, we want to explain the reason it happened.

At first, most people think they misunderstood. Then they often wonder if they did something wrong to deserve the treatment. Once they go through that process of self-examination, they begin to look at the offender. Something must be wrong. Some terrible upbringing, some kind of chemical imbalance, some genetic defect. There must be some way to explain this terrible behavior.

When we see others behaving inappropriately, we sometimes realize that they suffer from a psychological or physiological disorder. Those who suffer from Bi-polar Disorder or Tourette Syndrome have medications that can help, why not narcissists? Well, sometimes anti-depressants are used to mitigate narcissistic behavior. Certain medications will help with fear and anxiety and reduce the negative interactions in relationships, but they don’t change the thinking of the narcissist.

In other words, if your narcissist is plagued with feelings of paranoia or obsessed with unreasonable goals or compulsive about appearance, medication might help. Anti-depressants tend to pull emotions toward a more reasonable center, but they don’t change the decisions the narcissist will make when he/she feels threatened. They may simply help the narcissist to feel less threatened. There is no denying that, in certain circumstances, that use of medication might be helpful.

However, there is no medication to cure narcissism. Most behavioral medications are not meant to cure anything. The best they can do is help the person handle the stresses of life so that he/she behaves reasonably. And almost all of them depend on the willingness of the person to cooperate with this help.

Would your narcissist take medication to be a better person? Most already feel they are better than everyone else. Is your narcissist depressed or worried? Most are not or would never admit it. Their narcissism is a tool they use, not a disease they suffer. If your marriage counselor or your pastor would dare to suggest that the narcissist might be helped by medication, would that persuade him?

Now, I understand that unwillingness to admit a problem does not mean there is no problem. My point is that medical treatments are almost always dependent on the participation of the “sufferer.” We hear stories all the time of those who truly are helped by medication and won’t stay on it. Considering all the narcissists I have known, I don’t know any who would accept a diagnosis that would warrant medication. In fact, most narcissists will only go to counseling on the hope that their spouse will be changed.

Read the literature. Do the web search. From Mayo Clinic to WebMD they all say the same things. Yes, narcissism might be helped by medication. No, medication will not change the narcissist. The only effective therapy for narcissism is counseling, talk therapy. Even that has limited success for most. In most cases, the only real change will be behavioral.

The more I read, the more I counsel, the more I believe that narcissism is a choice. Somehow, sometime, the child decided that others were not real enough to hurt him. This was probably not a conscious decision as much as it was a way of looking at others that made things easier. From there he learned to handle relationships by manipulation and without heart connection. As an adult, the thinking process is so entrenched that it has become subconscious. Could a good counselor take a narcissist back to those early choices and help him/her see other ways to deal with the pain and fear? Yes, I think so. But a good counselor means one who will take the time and handle the manipulation, and one who has the opportunity to keep the narcissist in the chair.

Treating the narcissist is not an easy task. Since therapy is voluntary (unless somehow demanded by authorities), most narcissists will not participate. Those who do almost always play so many games with the counselors that the counselors become frustrated and the sessions are useless. And among those very few who will take therapy seriously and try to change, most will only be able to change behavior. It may be possible to make significant progress into the thinking of the narcissist, but such “success stories” seem to be very hard to find.

And medication? Well, it seems to me that the narcissists are those who drive others to medication.

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Do We Need Narcissistic Leaders?

It’s Narcissist Friday!     

 

The word out there is that we need narcissists as leaders in our current culture. This is no longer a “nice guy” world. Today, we are told, we need people who can make decisions quickly and without regret. Today’s leaders must be ruthless and aggressive. People who care are slow and compromised. When things have to get done, narcissists can do them.

There was a day when the small town had one grocery. The grocer’s children went to school with everyone else, and people had accounts they could pay off over time. Eventually, the town grew to benefit from two groceries. Even then, the competition was friendly and relaxed. Many people went to both stores, depending on what each could get from their suppliers. When one store ran out of a product, boys who worked for the store would run over to the other to get it as a service to the customer. The two stores had accounts with each other.

But then the chain store came to town. The little groceries couldn’t keep up. The manager’s kids might have gone to the same schools as the rest of the kids of the town, but they might have lived in the next town. The owners were from far away. No one had personal accounts at the chain store. If you didn’t have money, you would have to use a credit card. Otherwise, the chain store simply didn’t care.

For the most part, prices were better at the chain store. So most people liked having them come to town. The distance from the owners and managers didn’t really matter as long as the prices were lower. As the town grew, other chains came in and other private shops disappeared. Soon, everyone expected that distance from the owners of a store. It was just what was.

But, behind the scenes, where shoppers had no access, the chain stores competed with great intensity. Eventually, the chains were bought by larger corporations. Those corporations answered not to shoppers, but to stockholders. Shoppers were a necessary bother. They had to be a part of the system, but they were seen as categories and groups, rather than individuals. The corporations could not afford to focus on people, they had to think about money.

Of course, Mr. Johnson down at Johnson’s Grocery had to think about money, too. In fact, he probably thought about money a lot. But he also thought about the people who came to his store. He had to carry certain products and perform certain services for individuals. People were important to Mr. Johnson, as important as money. In fact, money and people were not disconnected.

The grocery I visit most is a Kroger store. Kroger is the second largest retailer in our nation, just behind Walmart. Kroger handles nearly $120 billion each year through its 4000 or so stores. It has about 450,000 employees. That’s a long way from Bernard Kroger’s grocery store on Pearl Street in Cincinnati. Even the original street is now somewhere under interstate highway 71.

I suppose this is progress. We might long for the days that used to be, but we aren’t going back there soon. Nor would we want to go back all the way. Things might have been slower and more personal then, but they were not necessarily easier. At the same time, we didn’t seem to have so many narcissists.

There are about 500 companies in our country with revenue (sales) of $1 billion or more. Many more with sales over $100 million. That’s business in the US. This is what people are talking about when they say we need narcissistic leaders. The competition among these businesses, for sales and for investment dollars, is intense. They have neither the time nor the interest to focus on people.

Now, you say, a lot of stores focus on people today. The staff is friendly and helpful, the prices are great, the product lines are wide—American business is very interested in me and what I like. Sadly, American business today is interested in us as groups. They gather as much information, without regard to privacy, as they can about you and me. They do need to sell product to generate money. But we are all calculated as categories. If one category is dropped in favor of another, that’s just business.

What kind of leader could make a decision that would negatively affect a large group of customers? What kind of leader would sell an inferior or compromised product just to generate more sales income? What kind of leader would close stores that are needed in communities just to save money? What kind of leader would use, abuse, or push out large numbers of faithful employees? Do you see why people say we need narcissists in charge?

I know that not all those in charge of large companies are narcissists. I also know that not all the decisions made by narcissists are good for the companies they work with. But we can see that the distance from people in business has created a favorable environment for narcissists.

And this is just business. We have leaders in many other capacities. Let’s not get started on politics. When was the last time you sat down and shared your concerns with your representative? And then we have churches, big churches, where no one except staff and major donors ever get an audience with the senior pastor. Schools, charities, banks, and so many other organizations have grown to the point where the leaders never have to connect with the people they are thought to serve. That disconnect from people, with the promise of power and money and prestige, is very attractive to narcissists.

So, do we need narcissists in leadership? I suppose we could ask if this is really leadership. It’s more like ruler-ship or some kind of oligarchy. Narcissists don’t care about leading. They only care about others serving them. Apparently, our growing culture accepts the fact that what benefits narcissists benefits the rest of us. In other words, someone has fallen into the trap.

No, I don’t think we need narcissistic leadership today. I think even leaders of large corporations could stop often to think about the people they serve. The large groceries and the large churches could make a point of making their leaders accountable to people. They could stop rewarding leaders with ridiculous salaries and severance packages (Perfect for the narcissist. Imagine a job where you get rich just for being there. If you fail, you get richer!) In fact, they could begin to hold leaders accountable.

Will it ever happen? Maybe. Maybe not soon, but there is a weariness among the people that longs for connection to others. Small businesses are popping up all over because people like to know those who serve them. I don’t expect large companies or even churches to go away soon, but we are getting tired of narcissists.

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Television People

It’s Narcissist Friday!     

 

The Sin of Unbelief continued…

 

The people on television are not real. Right? Like the comedy family that makes fun of each other. Or the afternoon drama people who seem to have so many problems. Or the little kids who appear to be starving. Or the prime-time law enforcement people who seem to catch all the bad guys. Or the politicians who keep promising things they don’t deliver. Or the news people who seem so smart. Or the families of those killed in that terrible accident. Or the people paid to protest. Or the late night movie people who don’t have any color. Or the sports stars who seem to do such stupid things off-season. None of these folks are real, right?

Uh… hold on…

One of the most serious problems with television people is that the mind must sort out reality from fantasy. Yes, some of these people are real. Some are actors. And some you think are real may not be. But you don’t know for sure.

We have probably all known someone who was so connected to a certain fictional character on a television show that they became depressed when the character got married or was killed off. Actors often tell of delusional fans who don’t realize the actors are not the same as their characters. Sometimes the mind just cannot make that distinction between fiction and reality.

Most of us do a pretty good job of keeping these things separate. We can tell what is real and what is fiction on television, unless someone is deliberately trying to deceive us. And we know the difference between television people and real people.

But this is actually a fair illustration of how the narcissist sees people. The distance television offers, distance from caring or real relationship, is the kind of distance the narcissist tries to maintain from real people. The homeless person on the street is no more real than the homeless person on the comedy show or on the news. No one would expect the narcissist to give money to the man acting like a homeless person on television. So why would you expect the narcissist to feel any more compassion for the one he passes on the street?

He has no more interest in the drama or concerns of his neighbors or co-workers than you do in the lives of the people on the television drama. He remains separate from emotional involvement with real people, just as normal people remain separate from television characters.

There is, of course, one difference. The proximity of relatives, co-workers, friends, and other real people means the narcissist can use them. If he could use television characters, he would. But real people can be used without regard for their desires or pains, as if they were not real. So the narcissist might choose to know a lot more about the drama of real-life people if he thinks that knowledge will serve him. He might even give to the homeless person if he wants others to think of him as generous. But there is no heart, no real connection, in any of this. He would feel just as good about giving to the starving children on television if he could get others to notice. He might even lie about giving to a fake charity, if others would be impressed.

Now, I am not suggesting that the narcissist can’t tell the difference between people on television and people in real life. What I am saying is that the difference doesn’t matter, at least as it affects the narcissist’s heart.

Like I said, this is just an illustration designed to help us understand how narcissists see others. We have a sense of what that distance is like when we watch television. Even then, I suspect many of us are closer to the television characters than the narcissists are to the real-life people around them.

But I want to close with a question. It has been my impression (not the result of study) that the narcissists I know aren’t very interested in television, particularly in fictional drama. I would be interested to know if others have noticed this, or if I am wrong. I suspect that covert narcissists might find it easier to insert themselves in fictional drama and feel superior, but overt narcissists would see little value in it. They get their entertainment from watching and manipulating others.

If this is true, then I would suggest that narcissists don’t need television. They have us.

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The Sin of Unbelief

It’s Narcissist Friday!     

 

Many understand that the greatest sin against the Lord is unbelief. Charles Spurgeon called it “the parent of every other iniquity.” While faith opens the door to grace, unbelief keeps that door closed. All that God wants to give remains apart from the unbeliever. The Bible reveals a God who is alive and personal. In other words, He is a real Person, and we relate to Him as a real person. He is with us. He loves us. We can talk with Him. He cares about what happens in our lives. At the same time, He has His own thoughts and purposes. He is more than an extension of ourselves. God is a real Person.

There are those who think God is some kind of idea or a controllable force. Some thought God could be contained in an idol. Others simply don’t care whether God exists or not. I remember one young lady telling me that God could take a flying leap. All of these are forms of unbelief.

But do you realize that the greatest sin against other people is the same – unbelief? What if you looked at people only as tools to serve your life? What if you did not believe they had their own thoughts and desires and pains? What if you didn’t care? Unbelief is not just thinking the other person isn’t real, it is thinking that the reality of the other person doesn’t matter.

Narcissism may seem to be all about the self, but the sin of narcissism is the depersonalization of others. When others don’t matter, even the ones who should be closest, then the actions of unbelief cause pain without regret. The narcissistic leader and parent and friend and (sadly) spouse can use others and hurt them without concern. Nothing matters if the person isn’t real.

Depersonalizing others comes out of a self-centered focus that moves the offender to see only his or her own value. The only opinions that matter are his own. The only ideas that matter are her own. The only pain that matters, the only desires that matter, the only fears that matter—are those of the narcissist. No one else even exists in comparison.

This is not just a desire for independence. It is more than self-esteem. This is beyond what normal people need. This is flagrant disregard for others in the pursuit of self. Not a bad definition of narcissism.

I should add here that I think this is something so deep in the narcissistic mind that it is not a conscious choice. In other words, the narcissist doesn’t look at each person and choose to see them as unreal. That comes naturally now. The only way the narcissist found to cope with the struggles of life was to live and think as though no one outside of himself was a real person.

This “sin of unbelief” in personal relationships is devastating. It never allows the kind of connection or interdependence the rest of us enjoy. At the same time, it protects the narcissist from the pain that relationships can bring. But only the narcissist. No one else is protected from his/her behavior.

Let’s face it. Other people are real. They have their own needs of time, energy, and resources. They have their own perspectives. They could look at the same thing as you and come up with different solutions or conclusions. That makes life harder, I suppose, but a lot more interesting. Unless you think you are always right, you learn from listening to others.

And, if others are not real, then you have to be right. All the time. No one else is worthy to doubt you or question you or even instruct you. Sound familiar?

 

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