It’s Narcissist Friday!
Last week I wrote about how narcissists adapt their environment to fit their needs. For the most part, narcissists are opportunistic, taking advantage of existing conditions. In other words, the environments they create around themselves were already open to their influence in some way.
It should follow that the rest of us could create an environment where narcissists would fear to tread. Could we build our families, organizations, churches, even friendships to prevent the narcissists from entering in?
Well, this is another topic that should be sufficient to fill a good book. In fact, Jeff VanVonderen’s book, “Families Where Grace Is in Place,” might be a good suggestion for parents. I am sure there are other books that might talk about healthy relationships in churches.
So let’s consider an ideal. There’s nothing wrong with seeking the ideal, as long as we understand that we may not accomplish it. Trying will bring us closer than not trying. We also understand that it is more difficult to repair a broken structure than to begin fresh and right. The following thoughts should apply for any of the relationships we talk about here (family, marriage, work, friendships, church, organizations, etc.)
Narcissism seems to thrive in a culture of performance. When love and acceptance are given on the basis of performance, people suffer from insecurity. No one knows if they have done enough or if they will do enough tomorrow. When people are on edge, weakened by anxiety and fear, the way is easier for the predators. Comparisons and competition give the narcissists opening for control.
It isn’t that narcissists are good performers. They are rarely good parents or friends or co-workers. Narcissists are usually not good at their jobs. But they have an amazing ability to make others see them as good performers. Narcissists take credit for work others do, they use others to get their work done, and they offer excuses when they fail. But somehow they appear to be superior to others. If you have ever been on a team with a narcissist, you will remember how the narcissist was able to take credit for the team’s work. You may also remember how the narcissist wasn’t able to make the meetings or the workdays or spent the time “managing” rather than doing anything useful. Yet, somehow, the narcissist came out on top when everything was finished. In a culture of performance, the narcissist will succeed.
Families where acceptance is based on performance, where love is a reward for work well done, will likely raise narcissists. Some parents create competition between children, where those who “do well” are viewed as superior or more valued than the others. Narcissists do not learn how to do well in this environment; they learn how to compete and how to make others view them in the best light.
Churches where spirituality is measured by certain qualities or quantities of performance will attract narcissists. They will find their way into positions of leadership and power because others will see them as spiritually superior. No, they will not be superior and may not even meet the minimum levels of performance, but others will still see them that way, and they will succeed.
Friendships based on performance may be doomed from the start. When people remember who gave what gift and measure their reciprocation based on the perceived value of the gift, the narcissist will win. When time or service or energy is the measure of the friendship, the narcissist will win. No, not by superior performance, but by manipulating the relationship so that the other is always on the defensive. When the narcissist gives a gift, for example, the reciprocated gift will never be enough, never be equal in value. When the narcissist performs a service, the reciprocated service will never be sufficient. Those who find themselves in that kind of friendship will always lose.
Even at work, where performance often reigns, competition and comparisons among co-workers encourage and enable the narcissist. Some bosses keep their employees on edge, wondering about their jobs or rewards, worried about being accepted. Narcissists are notoriously bad employees, but some bosses never see the truth because the narcissists are so good at manipulating the competition.
So how could we create an environment where the narcissist would find no opening, no welcome? One way would be to end any form of acceptance or love based on performance. Children who know they are loved, even when they do poorly or wrong, will probably never grow up to be narcissists. Friends who are valued for who they are, rather than what they do, will support each other in ways narcissists would never find comfortable. Employers who value their people and avoid competition among their employees, may find that a coherent and supportive team will achieve far more, and the false accomplishments of the narcissist will be revealed.
And churches/pastors who understand the love God has for each person, regardless of sin or performance, and who teach that to their people, will provide an atmosphere of support and acceptance the narcissist will find revolting. The true message of the gospel is not about our performance, but about His love. Because we are all dependent on His work and His love, rather than on our performance, there is no way for one to be superior to another. When the highest leader is, at best, a servant of all, there is no power or prestige for the narcissist to covet.
This topic is far larger than one post can handle, so we will come back to it. Yes, I believe it is possible to consider a narcissist-proof culture. We may not achieve it, but we can move toward it.
On this humbling day we call Good Friday, I leave you with words that speak of God’s heart, words that encourage a new culture in our relationships.
Dear friends, we should love each other, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has become God’s child and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love to us: He sent his one and only Son into the world so that we could have life through him.
This is what real love is: It is not our love for God; it is God’s love for us in sending his Son to be the way to take away our sins. 1 John 4:7-10 (NCV)