It’s Narcissist Friday!
(This is a post I wrote a couple years ago. There have been some questions about narcissism as an illness or physical condition recently and this may help. There is significant debate among the professional community as to the nature of narcissism, but there is wide agreement that it is very difficult to treat.)
In many ways it would be easier if we could think of the narcissist as sick. If we could point to a mental illness or a chemical imbalance, we would have something to blame the behavior on. We could excuse the cruelty by saying, “Oh, he can’t help himself because he is sick.” Then our desire for compassion would be justified and we could feel better about ourselves as we help a sick person and endure his or her abuse.
Unfortunately, narcissism doesn’t fit the concept of an illness. For whatever reasons, narcissists have chosen and continue to choose their behavior.
(Now, I have to post a disclaimer here. I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist or a mental health therapist or counselor. I am a theologian who has done a great deal of counseling over the years as a pastor. So what I tell you is based on my experience and on what I have picked up from others. You are encouraged to do your own research on anything I teach.)
Professional therapists use words like dysfunction, illness, disorder, and disability to refer to different causes of behavior or sensations. These words are often used interchangeably, which makes definition all the more confusing for the rest of us. In general, illness or mental illness refers to a condition caused by some biological agent. The agent could be a genetic anomaly, an injury, a chemical imbalance, or some other outside influence. While many forms of mental illness may lead to narcissistic behavior, the behavior itself doesn’t prove the illness.
Narcissism has been classified as a personality disorder by some. All that says is that it is out of sync with what is considered to be normal behavior and perspective. But it also suggests that narcissism is a choice. That choice may be based on disturbing childhood experiences, but it is still a choice. I believe that fear is the primary cause of narcissistic behavior, but the fear does not need to be current. In other words, acting in a narcissistic way is how the narcissist learned to deal with fear throughout his life.
Addictions are particularly difficult to overcome because they are often the intersection of several types of problems. What begins as a need to fit into a group or feel better can become a physical dependency through drugs or alcohol. Those who deal with drug rehabilitation must work through both the biologically-caused illness and the psychologically-caused disorder. To further complicate things, we now understand that repeated actions can create something very similar to physical addiction. When we talk about people addicted to eating, shopping, gambling, hoarding, or pornography, we refer to behaviors that have become so ingrained that stopping them takes serious desire and effort.
It is my opinion that narcissism is a type of addiction. The narcissist has chosen and continues to choose his behavior because he believes it works for him. Over the years he has gained enough from this behavior that he continues to use it even in the face of negative consequences. It is his default conduct and he has learned to apply various techniques in different circumstances. It may be that he has done it so often and has convinced himself so strongly of its value that he simply no longer thinks of it as a choice. In other words, it just comes naturally to him.
A simple observation from the Bible has become a well-known saying in our culture:
“As he thinks in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7)
Because the man thinks his narcissistic behavior works, and because he has invested so much into making it work, he has become a narcissist. Whether the clinical definition fits him or not, he acts out of his perspective. That perspective includes such concepts as the usefulness of others and the promotion of a certain self-image. He acts this way because he thinks this way.
This is a very brief overview of my perspective on narcissistic behavior, but it reveals some important thoughts. These are some of the ideas I use as I counsel and write on this subject.
- Narcissists are accountable for their actions because they are free to choose otherwise.
- Narcissists can change by “unlearning” certain ideas about themselves and others.
- Carefully applied negative consequences for narcissistic behavior may be helpful.
- Those in relationship with narcissists are victims or objects, rather than caregivers.