Every time I teach on narcissism and describe the narcissist, people find that they know someone very much like the person I describe. And almost every time I teach this, some people end up feeling guilty that they dared to think of others in a negative way. Then comes the question: Aren’t we all narcissists in some way?
Now, I don’t want to disrespect that thinking. Of course all sin is connected and we all suffer from the same problems. Jesus taught us that we are all murderers, all adulterers, all capable of any sin and in desperate need of a Savior. There is a sense in which we are all narcissistic. The flesh, that system of living which we developed apart from Christ, is necessarily concerned with the promotion and protection of itself. So, yes, we are all narcissists in some way.
But there are a couple of important things that we should acknowledge. One is that most of us have learned to control our narcissism. What I mean is we learned early that other people do exist and they have their own concerns and lives. In order to make life work, we learned that there were boundaries we ought not to cross. Some things are private and we must allow others to have their privacy. We learned that cooperation is reciprocal. That means that we give and others give and we give again and they give again. Relationships work because we respect the fact that we need others and they are free not to help us. We learned that part of maturity was the realization that we don’t get everything we want in life and usually that isn’t someone else’s fault. We learned to actually be sorry for the things we did wrong and to empathize with the pain of others. We learned that we were not really the center of the world.
The narcissist did not learn these things. He learned to manipulate others and use them to get what he wants. She learned that others are wrong and cruel when they don’t acknowledge her as the center. Narcissists are usually quite intelligent and very skilled in social interactions. They know how to move people. But people are toys or tools or obstacles. Others are not real living beings in the same way the narcissist is.
Most of us are capable of love. We may not love as we ought, but we know that love means sacrifice for the good of someone else. We know that love means putting ourselves and our desires in second place. The narcissist doesn’t understand love. Love is saying what needs to be said and doing what needs to be done in order to get what the narcissist wants. On the surface, the narcissist will appear loving because he has learned to do that and is very good at what he has learned; but those who depend on the love of a narcissist will eventually realize that there was nothing there. It was all a lie.
Bottom line: the narcissist is broken. Broken in different ways from most of us. Broken in ways that have not adapted to Christian society. Broken in ways that hurt others.
There must be some kind of continuum, a “narcissism line,” that allows for increasing narcissistic behavior in individuals. Some are certainly less narcissistic and some are certainly more. But there is a point at which narcissistic behavior and thinking become abnormal. It may be difficult to determine that exact point in any particular person, but having that point often gives us the understanding we need. It enables us to look at a person and say, “Now I understand. That behavior isn’t normal. There is something wrong with her, not me.”
We don’t like to call people names (or at least we have been taught that it is wrong), but we can still look at behavior and attitude and acknowledge that they are wrong. Understanding narcissism will help us understand more about ourselves and the others with whom we live and work.