The Ultimate Pragmatism


It’s Narcissist Friday!


Narcissism is a choice. I realize that there are people who would disagree with me on this “diagnosis,” but I have neither read nor experienced any convincing evidence to the contrary. Maybe the choice was made long ago and has now become a pattern, a default, for the narcissist; but it is still a choice and the narcissist is both culpable for his/her actions and accountable for change.

Narcissists don’t change because they don’t want to change. Narcissistic attitudes and actions are useful to them, more useful than the alternatives. Even when faced with severe negative consequences, the narcissist will adapt and, through projection or blame, push away the change that is suggested. Some may make minor changes when their normal narcissistic behaviors become less useful, but those changes will be made for self-serving reasons, rather than any empathic concerns.

Perhaps we could say that narcissism is the ultimate pragmatism. It begins because it works and it is maintained because it works. And here’s a scary thought: it spreads because it works. Narcissistic behavior is becoming acceptable in business because it is easier and more productive. Empathy causes problems in business. Self-serving promotion is considered not only normal, but necessary. Cutting off relationships, using others, pushing blame and consequence to others, and enlarging personal accomplishments are all normal parts of business today.

Sadly, the same is true in many other areas of life. Narcissism–or the behavior associated with narcissism–is becoming normal in personal relationships, in churches and other organizations, and in social media. It may be because we have become a media culture, with young people learning life skills through television or other media. It may be because there are increasing numbers of us, and we all want to live in the same places. It may be because the last couple of generations of parents became more focused on themselves (perhaps for the same reasons) and young people have grown up in more of what we have called “dysfunctional” homes. Whatever the reason, a cursory glance at our culture would be enough to conclude that narcissism is becoming not only normal, but desirable.

Perhaps I don’t have to do any more convincing along this line. Perhaps it is so obvious that no one would disagree. Perhaps the qualities of narcissism—self-promotion, fantasy superiority, need for admiration, exploitation of others, sense of entitlement, lack of empathy or desire to care about the feelings of others—are so much a part of the normal lives of young people that no one especially thinks of them as problematic. When even those who are not narcissists accept narcissistic behavior as normal, the difficulty of dealing with those who hurt and use others may become insurmountable.

A culture of narcissism will only serve to validate and encourage the narcissists. Remember that they are the ones who have been doing this all their lives. They are very good at being narcissists. The pretend narcissists, the ones who want to use the narcissistic characteristics for their own gain, will soon find themselves being used and abused by the masters. The only real change is that the narcissists will no longer be seen as abnormal.

There is debate on whether Hollywood leads and promotes cultural change or simply reflects that change back to us. Dr. House was the narcissist we hated to love. The characters on House of Cards attract and repel us at the same time. The plot line of 50 Shades of Grey is surprisingly enticing in a culture that claims to stand against sexual abuse. None of these shows promotes the kind of culture that serves to lift people up and learn to love; yet they are increasingly popular and increasingly intense. We are being (or have already become) desensitized to narcissism.

Why? Because we are a culture that worships pragmatism. Whatever works. Whatever works to get me a job—lying, cheating, blaming, boasting—is worthwhile. Whatever works to make me feel good about myself—using others, cutting off friends in need, over-spending, dramatizing the events of my life—becomes important. We have been taught that our goals, even the sub-conscious ones, are more important than the truth or the relationships of our lives. And the way to accomplish our goals, in a narcissistic culture, is through narcissistic behavior.

So what do we do? I wouldn’t want to end this post on a negative thought. There are things we can do. First, don’t be surprised at what you see. The person who cuts you off in traffic probably hasn’t even thought about you or the fear you might feel. The friend who lies to make whatever points she thinks are important probably doesn’t even see the problem. Just because this is wrong and contrary to the values we hold does not mean that the behavior should surprise us or overwhelm us. Of all people, those of us who have dealt with narcissism should understand what’s happening around us.

In relationships, especially, we can call out the behavior. We still claim to hold positive values in relationships. So we have the right and responsibility to help others maintain those values. Narcissism still hurts others, no matter how normal the behavior seems. Hurting others is still not acceptable. Speak up against abuse and lying and cheating and compromised values. (And don’t feed the bank accounts of the 50 Shades people!)

But there’s more. We can smile more and be more kind. A thousand little acts of kindness to show the world that narcissism does not rule everyone. Affirm relationships. Tell people that you value them and are grateful. For so many, the characteristics of narcissism have been adopted because they are afraid or have been made to feel unimportant. Thank people. See people, especially those who have been invisible in the past. Do things narcissists wouldn’t think about doing, especially for the sake of others.

Here are a couple of simple examples. The next time you stay in a motel, thank the cleaners when you see them in the hallway and leave a tip with a word of gratitude. You just spent $150 on a room and you expected it to be clean. A couple of bucks might make someone’s day. Wave at the next police officer you see. Thank a nurse. Open the door for an older person. You know what I mean. Do little things that gain you nothing for people who may never connect with your life again. That’s not narcissism and it’s not pragmatic; it’s love.

We are called to be salt and light in a world of people who are afraid and want to be accepted. It costs us nothing to be kind and gentle and grateful. Let’s be anti-narcissists.


Filed under Narcissism, Relationship

19 responses to “The Ultimate Pragmatism

  1. Cynthia

    I love this post! Thank you!

  2. New Creature

    Thanks, Dave. This is a wonderful way to overcome some of the powerlessness we feel in relationship with our Ns. There IS something great we can do to work against their tide! May the Lord change how I see and treat others today.

  3. Debbie

    Amen. It feels so good to do those little things for a person you don’t know. And it feels good to recieve them.

  4. Cecilia K

    Enjoyed this post, Dave, because of its truth. It is depressing when you see and think about how society is growing ever-more narcissistic and will only get worse until Christ comes back, but I do appreciate your suggestions for how to combat it.

    You reminded me of possibly The most baffling aspect of my ex-boyfriend’s behavior when we were dating…as you said, the fact that negative consequences never seemed to deter him from continuing in his outrageous, obnoxious behavior. He was very persistent about wanting to marry me, and I kept thinking, Clearly, your approach is not working, so why don’t you Try Another Approach???? Like, being kind, compassionate, selfless, etc., for example? But no. Just the same old garbage kept coming out. And sure, as everyone else here has probably experienced, he did show those characteristics Sometimes, but it was probably mostly, if not always, for self-serving reasons.

  5. If Narsissism = lack of empathy = hard hearts , it may very well be a decision but not their decision. “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens who he wants to harden” Romans 9:18 . If we count narcissists among “the all things which work together for good” perhaps God uses them for good things that are far beyond our comprehension .

    • Kerry, I suspect you will get some “push back” on your idea because it almost suggests that God is responsible for both the narcissism and the abuse the N gives to others. That may be what you want to say, but I would disagree with that. I do not believe that God is the Author of sin.

      However, I wrote on the connection between “hard hearts” and narcissism a while back. You might be interested in reading that post. Basically, if God hardens hearts in the same way we harden eggs (by leaving them alone) then I would agree; and I would agree that God uses the N’s in our lives for good things. None of that excuses the narcissist for his/her choices. Here’s the post:

      • Still Reforming

        THIS — > “if God hardens hearts in the same way we harden eggs (by leaving them alone) then I would agree; and I would agree that God uses the N’s in our lives for good things. None of that excuses the narcissist for his/her choices.”

        BINGO! Give Pastor Dave a box of chocolates! Thank you, Pastor Dave!

      • Not so sure that God leaves N ‘s alone the verse before Romans 9:17 says that God raised Pharaoh up for this very purpose. But you may be right as The N’s that I know absolutely feel judged by men and abandoned by God. The big question is what differentiates the bitter wounded from the inspired wounded from the Narcissist?

      • SS

        This has absolutely nothing to do with this particular post, but I read all your posts Dave and they are tremendously insightful! I was in a relationship (dating and then friendship) with a N for 2 years. The last 8 months I finally discovered what exactly was wrong with her. It has been extremely eye opening to say the least. Here’s my question, I am an analyzer, an external processor and one who wants to understand things by nature…I keep finding myself doing these things with people who have been friends with the N and we end up comparing notes and stories. After each phone call, I feel so convicted…extreme conviction and questioning whether I’m participating in gossip. I DON’T WANT TO BE A GOSSIP…but I keep finding myself doing this with the people who have had friendships with her in the past. Is THIS gossip, or is this part of the process of healing???

  6. Penny

    Bravo, Dave. Soooo needed, so necessary.
    I read somewhere that “the person who is not nice to the waitress/waiter, is not a nice person”. My narc is not nice, does not even pretend to be nice; she is the Queen, & demands to be “served”, to be the center of attention. She will do this in “socially acceptable” ways: she will complain about a meal she didn’t prepare, a table she didn’t set, dishes she doesn’t have to wash, dessert she would never make for another. The coffee is too hot, the drinks need more ice, the room is too drafty, the music is too loud, the sauce too spicy, the potatoes aren’t done, the butter too hard. She wants a milkshake in a Chinese restaurant, or a cheeseburger in a seafood restaurant, or tortilla soup in an Italian one. There was no “happy meal” anywhere with her. If SHE was inconvenienced by unexpected company, she would would serve a blob of pudding on paper plates with paper towels for napkins & tap water for drinks, in plastic cups. She would resent having to clean up after guests so everything was disposable. It was beneath her to serve others anything.
    This was so unfamiliar to me. I was raised to be grateful & to be aware of others’ efforts on my behalf, which leads to having empathy on others. I was painfully aware that the person waiting on me was working hard to feed a family, not to feed me. When I travel, I am often distracted knowing that those who work in a resort could probably not afford to stay in the hotel where they work. I am not special, but I do regularly thank those who are cleaning the ladies room in the airport, or the young man with Down’s Syndrome bagging my groceries, or the middle aged woman helping me exchange white socks for men’s extra large pajamas for my Dad when he was dying. These are REAL people, & I enjoy talking with them, and being kind, knowing the kindness I show them may be the only kindness they receive that day. “Kindness is its own reward”
    Not so with the narc. Sadly, not so with the narcs in churches. I have lately experienced the creeping narcissism within our churches, and the I-Me-My-Mine mentality. Those in “leadership” prefer to focus primarily on activities, not relationships, and those activities are designed to make them look good rather than to be real. Any messy, difficult, or painful situations are quickly dismissed, ignored, or worse: those struggling with the messes are blamed for bringing it to the attention of leadership. Churches offer a quick fix, but if that doesn’t work, the long haul is too much trouble. Whistleblowers are not tolerated, but blamed b/c they have the potential for making the church look bad, and tarnishing their public image. It’s almost like they all got a memo that read “Be so busy acting happy that you refuse to be bothered to be real”.
    Churches are “busy”, so very, very busy, but too busy to be bothered with being real. Too busy to bother with those who are hurting. Too busy to worry about wolves in the sheepfold. Too busy to be anti-narcissists.
    I want to be an anti-narcissist.
    Thanks Dave.

    • UnForsaken

      SweetJane72, Penny, you both say a lot that makes sense.

      For years I’ve struggled to live my own story, only to find I was being Too nice. By not being true to myself, I played into the hands of more Narcs.

      But this is not what Dave is talking about. Having an open spirit towards God, He show us when best to share it with others and we find joy flowing from a surprising inner stream. Totally anti-narc. The Ns I know are not nice…..deep in their hearts….but they are socially acceptably ‘nice’, as you say. And as Ns, they must borrow our niceness, since they have “run out” of theirs! A Narc has no inner stream or ‘overflowing cup’.

      I love the topic of the busy blind. Many people, church goers, etc. are too busy to be real because they are obsessing. I’ve read that when we obsess about anything it is because we cannot bear to look at ourselves. We can be too afraid to want see what we are, what we want, or what is surrounding and destroying our lives. We want to be happy, so we tell ourselves we Are. This kind of denial only begets more denial and untruth. When I see the people who could have stood by me or at least asked questions, I see this. And I see who I was. I never want to be that person again. Living in fear is lonelier than being alone.

      More on Narc pragmatism. At least one N I’ve known used to go around bragging about how pragmatic he was as if it was a godly virtue. Pragmatism in moderation can be a good thing – doing the right thing for the right reason – but this was proud excess. How can we not see through these destructive patterns? Today I heard a N pastor telling a “funny” story from the pulpit that held every sign of manipulation and yet people thought it was charming! He did what worked and with such a winning way, not one saw through it. I realize there are many of us with a big teaspoon of flair and charm, that it’s not confined to Ns – Thank God! It was the points in the story that bothered me.
      1 He made someone feel they owed him. ( just a joke )
      2 He badgered them.
      3 He deceived them into thinking they had done something ( good ).
      4 He revealed to them that in actuality he had been the one to facilitate it.
      5 He showed them they couldn’t do without him.
      6 He used it as a test to see how stupid they were and how great he was.
      7 Happy ending: He married the girl.
      We can all laugh now because it worked and made up for doing it the wrong way. It reminded me of one of those ‘innocent’ old tv show plots that is conveyed so adorably you hardly catch how underhanded it all is. Sorry, not a cute story!

      On a lighter note: Thank you, Still Reforming, for the reminder of a great song. There is nothing like being too serious about Ns! They would love us to take them seriously. It’s funny to me how pop music has taught me so much in my search to hear what God has to say. He truly teaches in mysterious ways…it’s mind boggling! 😉

  7. Still Reforming

    Anti-narcissists. I like it! Well done, Pastor Dave.

    And yes, it absolutely HAS to be a choice because they WILL be held accountable on the Day of Judgment (unless the Lord gives them a new heart). If it were not a choice, I do not think they could be held accountable.

  8. SweetJane72

    Beautiful and profound post…and for me, very connected to last Friday’s post about “controlling the story.” For those of us who have experienced (and continue to experience) narcissism on a very personal level, the importance of defining ourselves through our own words, actions and choices cannot be overemphasized. It is only by being keepers of our own truth that we can live as authentic individuals, rather than as characters inside another person’s story. For me, that is an incredibly empowering concept; it gives me a sense of freedom and control that I have not experienced in many years. Thank you.

    • Still Reforming

      SweetJane72 – I agree with you wholeheartedly about the importance of defining ourselves in our own words and choices and actions. I just discovered this oldie but goodie song (“You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore). Maybe you’ll enjoy it too:

    • Rachel K

      Me too! I am still in the middle of processing this one. Even though my seriously abusive N no longer lives with me and our children, the residue of his effect on all of us is still here, like the ripples in a lake after a stone is dropped in. I had thought, naively perhaps, that the negative feelings he left behind would simply disappear over time. What I am now realising is that it is a piece of conscious work that requires real effort on every level (physical, emotional and spiritual ) to be able to choose to live without these effects. Mindfulness, I suppose, in working to counteract what has been the status who for so long. Perhaps this is being an anti-narcissist?!
      Keep working on it friends!
      Praying for all on the blog comments and readers too.
      Thankyou Dave for another inspired and inspiring post.

  9. 38 years and counting...

    You are right, Pastor Dave. Narcissism is a choice most often begun in childhood as a learned way of coping, then the choices become pure evil through adolescent rebellion. At least, this is the conclusion I’ve come to after 38 plus years of marriage to a sociopathic-covert-narcissist. He was saved by faith in Christ about 4 years ago while in a support group for sex addicts… Not the first support group for sex addiction he’d attended. The first group he used to broaden his exploits as he learned from the testimonies of the other addicts. My point in commenting today is that my narcissistic husband has repented. He makes a choice everyday to live by faith in the forgiveness of sin in Christ Jesus. I learned of his double life after he was saved. He may have been the best and most abusive covert narcissist to dodge prison… A preachers son who thought he was his own god and god over everyone who had the misfortune of knowing him. Our five children and I are devastated as we continue to learn we have been nothing but objects used to hide his lying, adulterous ‘other’ life. He clings to Christ and is in God’s Word daily. I have tested his faith often because he had claimed to be saved all those years and even served as deacon, elder and short term missionary. He is a different man. He loves me and the children now, however, at times forgiving him for the 35 years of over whelming abuse is coming hard. Our five children carry a lifetime of his abuse on their souls. His lying is pathological though lessening as he lives daily in God’s reality and his memory is damaged from living multiple lives. When he first came to Christ and began revealing the extent of his abuse he didn’t appear to me to have real remorse. Over these past three years of counseling it has become evident that he is a changed man though damaged from living (successfully) a duplicitous life of unchecked sin using his family and the church to successfully project to the world that he was a good Christian. His narcissistic charm was indeed magical. I’m so very glad he is saved. However, the carnage of his immoral and abusive life will follow our family to our graves. He is forgiven but, for his family and himself the consequences of his choices continue to be as painful as the depth of his overwhelming abuse through the years of cold hearted self-love. Please don’t judge me too harshly as I struggle to learn how to forgive and heal. He overwhelmed me with abuse from the day we married in 1976 until four years ago. These last four years have been abusive simply because his lack of humaneness has been evident even in his confessions. He is growing in sensitivity and it is remarkable to witness the change in him and I can only credit the change to the super natural, saving-power of Christ Jesus crucified.

  10. DDJO4

    Let’s be anti-narcissists! I couldn’t have imagined that people like this really exist. I didn’t want to know. I still cannot fully grasp what happened to me. I am 33 years old and have been in several abusive relationships that lasted for years. I have two children with an abusive man to whom I was married 5 years. I have overcome some very traumatic and extremely hurtful experiences. Just when I turned my life right side up after all of it I met the most wonderful man I’ve ever known. I just knew it was my turn to be happy. WRONG. The last 8 months are a blur. I’m left with my heart splattered on the floor and my head still spinning. I don’t even know who I am. I struggle to even define or describe how I feel. I’m a completely different person. I’m lucky that it was only 8 months however I can’t understand how such a short time has changed me forever. I knew there were bad, mean, abusive, and hurtful people in the world I met and continue to come across a lot of them but this is by far the worst kind. Now I know what pure evil is and I feel it still linger around me even though he is long gone. It makes me grateful for my ex-husband because I know at the very least, he has the ability to empathize and take responsibility for his wrong doing. It makes me want to help everyone, love everyone, and hold my kids tighter at night. I have obvious codependent traits that I struggle with but now am grateful even for my worst shortcomings because it could be so much worse. I have the ability to LOVE and thank God every day for it. What better way for us to fight back, than for all victims to come together and do the opposite the narcissists in our lives did. Show the world they didn’t take away the good in us.

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