It’s Narcissist Friday!

Nearly every overt narcissist is surrounded by sycophants. You see them when you go to church, when you attend the political rally, when you watch television.  They are the ones cheering the narcissist on and running interference with his critics.  They are the ones explaining her hurtful or stupid words.  They are the ones condemning anyone who questions the great person.  They are the ones who won’t let him/her fail.

The word, “sycophant,” wouldn’t be used much if we really knew what it meant.  In fact, the history behind it is somewhat disgusting.

In ancient Greece, some politicians held themselves above demeaning those who disagreed or who challenged ideas. They ignored objections and plowed ahead with their ideas as though other opinions didn’t matter. However, they really didn’t like the ones who opposed them and wanted to ridicule them somehow. According to the stories, these politicians would surround themselves with followers willing to agree with anything the teacher promoted. These followers had no lofty ideals to maintain, no separation from ridicule or crudity. At first, these followers mocked the opponents of their masters with crude gestures and laughter. In fact, the word, “sycophant,” comes from one of the crude gestures they would make behind the back of the speaker.  They called it “showing the fig.”

Eventually, these followers went farther than ridicule. They accused their masters’ opponents of indiscretions and even crimes and found evidence to support their claims. Through the centuries, the term “sycophant” has come to mean something like a parasite, one who lives in the glory of the master and serves the master by using unscrupulous and offensive means to promote the master’s cause. The master, of course, does not officially condone these actions, but turns away from seeing them.

This history of the word “sycophant” explains something of what we see today. The teacher/politician/boss says something heretical or strange, then backs away as the followers defend his position by demeaning and attacking those who disagree. He/she doesn’t have to muddy his or her hands by entering the fray—except perhaps to offer some kind and wise word and act saddened by his mean-spirited opposition. You won’t hear the narcissist say what he really thinks of you publicly because his followers will say it for him.  They can be far more ruthless than he can.  The public figure must remain somewhat civil, but the sycophants can say the most disgusting and hurtful things.  They may even produce lies and attack opponents physically. 

The connection to politics is historical and obvious, but how does this connect to our narcissists?  At work, the narcissistic boss or employee will have supporters like this.  In a family, the narcissistic sibling or parent will be supported in this way.  The narcissist husband expects his wife and children to hate anyone who opposes him and run interference against those who dislike him. 

Even covert narcissists have supporters who intercede for them.  Your mother says the most hurtful things, but your sister tells you it’s your own fault.  Your boss is unfair in the way he deals with you, but some of the other employees think you are the problem.  Your pastor is a manipulative preacher and counselor, but the elders protect him and suggest you should leave the church.  The moment you criticize the narcissist, someone else pounces on you. 

To get these supporters, the narcissist will praise, threaten, lie, pay, blackmail, or whatever else it takes.  The sycophant is the narcissist’s dream support.  Willing to sacrifice to make the narcissist look good, the sycophant does the dirty work.  They attach themselves to the narcissist for several reasons.  Some have to, because of what the narcissist knows.  Some want to get the scraps left by the famous person.  Some still believe the narcissist loves them.  Some will be ready to step into his position if the narcissist fails or if the narcissist is promoted.  This is the relationship the narcissist cultivates.

The problem with sycophants is that they won’t let the narcissist fail.  We watch the big man or the influential woman and see incompetence, arrogance, and laziness.  We watch for them to fail.  We wait.  But nothing happens.  The narcissist continues to prosper because the sycophants interfere.  They hold off criticism.  They compensate for inability.  They attack opposition.  The narcissist does not fail because they serve him/her well.

Yes, sycophants are fickle.  Most of them will quickly transfer their loyalty if the power base changes.  But don’t hold your breath.  Narcissists are good at finding and creating their support.

Now, if you have been such support for a narcissist, covering their lies or compensating for their failures, don’t feel too bad.  Part of the “superpower” of the narcissist is to get people to support them.  They manipulate what others think of them, and it can take a long time to see the truth.  Even when you do see the truth, you may not know how to get out.  To stop your support might be risky.  So, do what you can as you can.  If you are out, don’t get back in. 

In fact, in a day like ours, we should be careful about throwing our enthusiastic support behind anyone, at least at first.  Take the time to know the person.  Don’t let yourself be manipulated into being “on their side.”  Hold your judgment until you are confident that you are not being deceived.  Sometimes that can take a long time, too. 


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9 responses to “Sycophants

  1. Paul

    Dave, based on your knowledge and observations, can narcissists poison long term friendships, particularly between Christians, so much so, that those former “friends” now interact with rejection and even venom?

    • Yes! I hear that all the time and in almost all forms of narcissistic relationships. Church members turn against friends. Co-workers become enemies. Even friends people had before marriage will sometimes stay with the narcissist after the marriage breaks up. A confusing and frightening effect. Even much later, when these friends are abused by the narcissist themselves, they don’t know what to think of the ones they rejected along the way. They rationalized their actions and, even though they may feel sorry, don’t know how to explain why they did it. Some still feel angry even apart from the narcissist.

  2. E

    It’s a year since we left the budding “celebrity pastor” we followed for nearly seven years before waking up. I credit these posts for guiding me through that, and ironically my husband’s health issues that surfaced as the mental and spiritual abuse heightened. If my husband hasn’t become physically ill from serving a narcissist, we may still be there. Through the entire ordeal, which was long and fraught with drama, what repeatedly hurt us the most were the blindly loyal followers of the pastor, the ones who either turned a blind eye to the abuse or did nothing when we told them some ugly truths. The smear campaign that followed just after we left the church is hard to talk about. I didn’t start a blog defaming the guy. We didn’t go to the local news. We just left. And we told a few so-called trusted people why. What followed that is the most hurtful. Some people flat out refused to believe it; others reframed the pastor as a misunderstood victim. The worst was when we were called liars and “deceived by the Enemy.” The abuses we witnessed were denied, reframed, ignored, or just explained away. People who seemed to honestly listen to our story returned to the church and took over positions we once held there, as if they had been rewarded for their loyalty. Others acted like they were our friends, then dropped off the face of the Earth. Later we would see how they were involved in the ministry even more and (surprise) with unwavering support from this narcissistic pastor. “He is just hard to get along with sometimes. He is just a visionary; not as good one-on-one.” We heard all the excuses for why this man was allowed to be a wolf among sheep. The people who support and hide the narcissist are the worst in my opinion.

  3. Yes, it can sometimes take a long time to figure out what’s going on. It took me 50 years to finally see my pastor/husband for who he really is and the destruction he’s perpetrated. Thank you for addressing this particular issue. Though I grieve over the years I spent as his sycophant, I now see it as a wave I was unable to battle. But now that God opened my eyes, I’ve released the feelings of stupidity and guilt. It’s taken me nearly 2 years to make my way out. The papers are filed and the process should be completed in 30 days. Hallelujah. Trust me, I will NOT go back in there.

    • E

      Wishing you the best through this difficult time. It takes courage to do what you are doing. I hope you will have supportive people around you, but even if you don’t that doesn’t mean you are making a mistake. In fact, with a narcissist it seems everything we do is a mistake. But it’s not. Taking steps towards freedom and to heal from the abuse is never wrong.

  4. C

    Kind of like the narcissistic mother-in-law and her narcissistic son. Both using, or rather, “grooming” their children and grandchildren as these sycophants. As someone who has finally recognized this disfunctional toxic family dynamic, it angers and hurts me to my core. I can only trust that Jesus knows and that comforts me.

  5. Your timing, again, is amazing. we are watching the previously 3rd in charge of the catholic church being sentenced today. His sycophants are loud and aggressive.

  6. Carla

    As a minister, I’ve experienced a narcissist and a sociopath. In seminary they didn’t talk about this. Without the assistance of a supportive friend and the research I was able to find, I wouldn’t have been able to continue in ministry.

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