Tag Archives: narcissistic patterns

Collateral Narcissism

It’s Narcissist Friday!     


We used to say that if you worried about whether you were a Christian it was evidence that you already were. In other words, only a believer would be concerned about being a believer.

From time to time people tell me they are concerned about being narcissists. They look at themselves and see a variety of characteristics they don’t like. Now that they know about narcissism, they wonder if it might describe them. All they know is that they don’t like what they see in themselves. My first thought is that those who are concerned about being narcissists probably aren’t narcissists.

It isn’t unusual for people in relationships with narcissists to begin seeing narcissistic behaviors in themselves. In fact, those who are concerned about this have probably been infected by a narcissistic system, a sort of loop that pulls victims into the narcissist’s way of thinking.

For example, we know that narcissists drain people of energy, enthusiasm, and life. You spend a little time with your narcissist and come away feeling diminished somehow. The narcissist has taken something from you for himself. That’s how narcissists get their energy and passion. They take it from others.

But what do those others do when they are drained? Where do they refill their energy? Well, some look to still more others. You know what I mean. The dad yells at the mom, the mom yells at the kid, the kid yells at the dog. The common factor is the yelling. Narcissism, or abusive behavior, filters through the family or organization.

And how do you defend yourself against a narcissist? Being kind will just get you hurt. Sacrificing yourself will just feed the narcissist more. Standing up to the abuse may cause it to intensify. Instead, you build up defenses by not caring, being distant in heart or in body, and by depersonalizing the narcissist. We could argue that the only real protection against narcissism is narcissistic behavior.

Children of narcissists sometimes exhibit narcissistic behavior simply because that’s what they learned as they grew. The only things that worked were those things that used others. This is why organizations can become systemically narcissistic. Employees learn what gets people ahead. If they can’t find another place to work, they will have to learn how to play the game.

Think about this: narcissists desire a fantasy life where everyone serves them and adores them. So they set up, in whatever ways they can, a life where this happens. They begin to make changes almost right away: in their spouses, churches, workplaces, etc. The system they set up will look like the way they think. As they try to make everyone love and bow to them, they are also setting up a system where false love is received, false work is honored, and false morality is rewarded. People who can’t or won’t fit in are discarded or weakened until they change.

But listen: being caught up in the system does not mean that you are a narcissist. The narcissist is simply so large in that system that it becomes difficult for you to see yourself separate from him/her. You lose something of yourself in every exchange, but you gain something of the narcissist.

Yes, I know. That sounds frightening. But once you realize what is happening and decide you don’t like it, you are free to do something about it. You can choose to leave the system (and the narcissist) behind. You can choose to work to regain your identity. It will take work, but it can be done even within the system.

The point is that narcissists do tend to infect others with their thinking and behavior. But just because you are beginning to act like one does not mean you are one.  Perhaps worrying about whether you are a narcissist is evidence you are not.


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Seeing the Light

It’s Narcissist Friday!     


How long did it take you to see the light? Some have lamented that it took 40 years for them to see the truth and do something about it. So many wish they had separated from their narcissist before they had kids, signed that contract, moved their family for the new job. They kick themselves for not seeing the light sooner.

“Wasted time.” That’s what they call it. Time in which they could have been happy. Time in which they could have accomplished some of their dreams. Time that was lost to fear and sadness and turmoil.

Listen: I don’t believe that was wasted time! Every moment of my life has been used to bring me to where I am today. Maybe I didn’t accomplish all I wanted when I wanted, but I am here now and glad of it. I didn’t like all the things that have happened. I certainly didn’t choose some of those things. I wish some of those things hadn’t happened. The journey has not taken me where I thought it would, not even where I wanted to go, but it has brought me here. And it is still going.

I remember an old conversation where one person was encouraging the other to go back to school. The other said it would take four years to get a degree. “Do you know how old I will be in four years?” The first person responded: “How old will you be in four years if you don’t go back to school?”

Learning the truth, seeing the light, is good no matter how long it takes. You have accomplished so much more than most people. You have looked at your circumstances and have made a decision. Maybe you decided to make some drastic changes. Maybe you decided to stay in those circumstances with the new understanding you have. Whatever you decided, you did it. You made the decision. That alone says you are free.

We often hear of people who were imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit. When the real perpetrator is discovered, the innocent person is set free. Sometimes they get a settlement for the time they wrongly spent in prison. I suppose some are angry, perhaps bitter, for the wasted time. But I am always impressed by those who say they are just grateful that the truth was finally discovered. Those are the ones who will continue their lives. Those are the winners.

I put many years of service into an organization, sacrificing time and energy, only to find that the organization cared little about me. They took the contribution I gave, then wrote me off. I have been through my anger, even with hints of bitterness, but the truth is that I grew and learned during those years. Yes, I was hurt. Yes, at times I wonder if the sacrifice was worthwhile. I can still feel the anger, if I want. (They still send me requests for money.) But I have moved on.

Whatever I went through was nothing compared to the pain some of you have felt in the years of marriage and family struggles. Your injuries are deep and the scars severe. But you are moving on. You have become free, either in or out of the relationship. I am humbled by your strength and determination. You have seen the light.

It’s always surprising how senseless regret can be. It’s not like you can go back to change anything. Nor should you regret what others have done to you. You didn’t do those things. You might mourn the losses you have experienced. You might grieve over what might have been. But those feelings eventually lessen and go away. Grief is a process of finding yourself after loss. It may take time, but it does happen. Keep moving on.

Regret is telling yourself that you should not have done certain things. Even if you are partially responsible for the troubles you have suffered, so what? You can’t undo them. Forgive yourself and find the way to health and better decisions. There is no reason to punish yourself, and you are not given the freedom to punish anyone else. Regret is a way of bringing up uncomfortable things of the past and feeling bad about them over and over. It is a form of self-punishment. Move on.

Are there things you wish hadn’t happened? Of course. Some of them were serious. Some hurt others. Most hurt you. But now you see the truth. Now the truth has set you free. So give yourself permission to move on.

Do you need permission from someone else? I hereby give you permission, in the name of the Lord, to move forward with your life. I am not going to tell you what that should look like, what you should do with your life. Let the Lord lead you. I simply say that you can move on.

Maybe it comes back again to the old Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, 
The courage to change the things I can, 
And wisdom to know the difference. 

And let me add one more line:

And the strength to move on with my life, leaving the regrets behind.


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Borderline vs Narcissism


It’s Narcissist Friday!     


I have been reading a book that ties borderline and narcissistic personality disorders together as though they are the same. The author often uses a short-hand indication—BP/NP—to refer to both disorders together. In fact, the author considers both of them to be “mental illnesses.”

There are a limited number of personality and relationship disorder symptoms. It is easy to view a set of symptoms and come to an inaccurate conclusion. Non-professionals often jump to a diagnosis based on just a few observations. Professionals, however, are not supposed to do that. This author, a psychological professional, should either have a very good reason for making a connection like this, or should stop doing it. The two disorders are quite different.

To be fair, this author acknowledges the differences. The purpose of the book is to help those who have to care for people with these disorders. The “acting out” of these problems does often look the same.  Both project, manipulate, lie, and use others.  The caregivers may experience very similar stresses.  Yet, linking two different disorders together minimizes the peculiarities of each.

Now, I have to say at this point that I do not consider myself to be a psychological professional. I am a theologian and a counselor with many years of experience, but I do not hold advanced degrees in psychology. For me to suggest that a card-carrying professional is being irresponsible may be for me to step outside my jurisdiction. So you take my thoughts for what they are worth.

Borderline personality disorder is a recognized set of symptoms and is considered to be a mental disorder. It is characterized by emotional instability and self-damaging behavior and thinking. BPs are often considered hyper-reactive, anxious, and unpredictable by those who live with and work with them. They consider themselves to be empty and broken. They have difficulty maintaining relationships, and the relationships that continue in their lives are stressed and disturbed. BPs lean toward being self-abusive and even suicidal, with a higher degree of Munchhausen’s than the general population. They can be paranoid and impulsive. To put it in more general terms, BPs depersonalize and damage themselves. In doing so, they hurt the people around them.

Now, by all means, don’t just take my word for this. If this interests you, check it out. Just google “borderline personality disorder” and read the descriptions in Wikipedia or some of the mental health sites. Those who suffer from this disorder, along with their caregivers, suffer truly.

The jury is still out as to whether BP is a mental illness, and medications may be used to soften symptoms that would cause the person to harm themselves, but there is no treatment other than counseling and therapy. Some of the types of therapy used with BP are also used with narcissism. That appears to be the primary link between the two disorders.

Narcissism, on the other hand, is rarely considered a mental illness by professionals. In fact, some seem to doubt that it is even a disorder in the same way BP and others are. Some professionals consider narcissism to be more of a choice or a style, a personality type. The reason for this is that narcissists don’t appear to be in any danger of hurting themselves and can live healthy, even productive, lives as narcissists. The fact that others are hurt along the way is an “unfortunate consequence” of narcissistic choices.

Yes, there are similarities. Both narcissists and borderlines seem impulsive, emotionally unstable, and self-focused. But the differences are significant. Narcissists hurt others with intent to protect themselves. BPs hurt others as they hurt themselves. Narcissists will not admit to their brokenness. BPs see themselves as broken and act on that belief. While I suspect that many narcissists view life and relationships as empty, I doubt they view themselves in that light. BPs will often refer to being and feeling empty. Both dabble in magical thinking, fantasies of how life ought to be. In the narcissist’s dreams, however, we are all servants making his/her world great. BPs just long for a world that feels good.

If I had to pick one difference to underscore as definitive, I would say this: Borderlines depersonalize themselves. Narcissists depersonalize others. Perhaps an argument could be made that these are just two different ways of handling the same inner fears, but the people who deal with these disorders in relationships will see them as quite distinct.

Here’s another way of saying it: Narcissists have victims, while borderlines are victims. We don’t say that the narcissist is a victim of his disorder. His victims are the people he uses. But borderlines use and abuse others only because they are so victimized themselves.

This is simplistic and professionals would probably not like my assessments. My point here is that it helps no one to combine two obviously distinct disorders as though they were the same. It would be easy for me to believe that BP is a mental illness. The self-destructive behaviors alone indicate illness, rather than choice. Narcissism, on the other hand, seems so much more like a self-protective choice, a life where others are used and abused without regret in search of some personal goal.

Perhaps someday I will be proved wrong, but I still believe narcissism is a choice. Yes, it was made in response to early challenges. Yet it has been maintained by choice. Abusive and self-serving thinking seems right to the narcissist. The pain of others means nothing, because others mean nothing.

And every narcissist act is a choice.


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It’s Narcissist Friday!     


There are many things about narcissism that seem to make no sense. Unless you can see the thinking patterns of the narcissist, the acting patterns may look random and confusing. You find yourself asking, “What in the world is this now?”

I don’t think I have ever met a self-employed narcissist. I suppose they might be out there, but most of them seem to work for companies or organizations. (Of course, a narcissist could own a company and consider himself self-employed, but I am referring to someone who actually works by himself.)  It would seem that they would like to work by themselves; after all, no one else will ever measure up. But narcissists don’t like working by themselves—because they actually would have to do the work.

No, the narcissist secretly loves the hierarchy of an organization or a business. They like structures they can see and understand. I have noted before how the narcissist can walk into a room and instantly categorize every person present. They know instinctively who is worth knowing and who can be ignored. They know which person has power and which does not. And they like knowing these things. These things are important to them.

I know that narcissists chafe in a hierarchy, unless they are at the top. They struggle with authority. They want to be the ones who are noticed and admired. If there is a “totem pole,” the narcissist hates having anyone higher. They are usually vocal about their frustrations.

At the same time, the hierarchy structure establishes the game plan for the narcissist. Knowing what the ladder looks like and how to move up sets the goals and strategy for the narcissist. The newly hired narcissist will understand that system better than most of those who have been with the organization for a long time. While the rest of the people just do their jobs, the narcissist is focused on climbing that ladder.

There are other things the narcissist likes about hierarchy. There is an inherent competition in any hierarchy. From the military to the church to the boardroom, people compete to be noticed and advanced. Narcissists not only love competition, they excel at it. As I have said before, all human interaction is competitive for the narcissist.

In a hierarchical system, rewards are offered as motivation. The reward might be advancement or recognition. The narcissist sees rewards as rightfully his. If someone else is rewarded, they didn’t work as hard as the narcissist and don’t deserve the reward. “Pretty soon,” the narcissist thinks, “that reward will be mine—as it should be.” This competition for rewards gives meaning to the narcissist. Simple work, for the sake of providing for a family or contributing to society, has no value for the narcissist. The only reason to try harder is to receive the reward.

The narcissist knows that two kinds of people get noticed in a hierarchy: the shining light and the squeaky wheel. If the narcissist cannot be the best, he/she will be the most critical. This is easily seen in organizations like the church. If the narcissist cannot be the most spiritual person because of superior service or knowledge, then he will be the most spiritual because he sees and points out the faults in others. It doesn’t matter to the narcissist that people like him; what matters is that they know him and respect him. He wants attention; he doesn’t really know what to do with love. Admiration is more important than gratitude. Besides, others will give love and gratitude when he reaches the top. On the way up, he just needs to be noticed.

Hierarchies also offer a clear system of authorities and servants. Those above are authorities; those below are servants. The narcissist will move quickly into any kind of leadership, just to have servants. She will become the leader of the committee, and the others will do the work. It will be clear that she is a leader. Soon, she will be head over a department, then the organization. Her servants will make this both possible and pleasurable.

Because everyone is vulnerable in a system based on performance, which almost all hierarchical groups are, the narcissist’s inadequacy is covered. Narcissists are notoriously poor at actually doing their jobs. They are great at getting others to do their work, and they excel in offering excuses or explanations for inferior work. We might expect that the narcissist would be especially vulnerable in a hierarchical system where everyone is watching. But that is exactly what covers the narcissist—everyone is watching everyone. Any failure, any compromise, any indiscretion can be exploited, and no one knows the dirt on others like the narcissist. The narcissist will be able to use the dirt of others to cover his own dirt. Timely comments, veiled threats, anonymous reports, ominous hints—these are weapons in the narcissist’s arsenal. Many people can relate how a narcissist climbed the ladder of the hierarchy simply because everyone was too compromised to confront him.

I understand that narcissists consistently complain about whatever hierarchies they are part of. They really do chafe under authority and struggle with the weaknesses they see in others. But they love the game. Notice what kinds of jobs narcissists have. Notice what kinds of churches and organizations they join. They need the challenge of being noticed in a group, of rising above others. A simple place where people care about each other and believe their work to be of value would be boring for the narcissist.

Here’s a short and fun clip I think you will understand and enjoy:




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The Swoop

It’s Narcissist Friday!     


The little prairie dog has carefully prepared his den. He pokes his head up from his hole and decides to get more supplies. Everything is quiet. When he feels confident, the prairie dog steps out of the entrance and runs across the small field. Suddenly a bird of prey swoops out of the sky to grasp him in its talons. Everything changes because of that swoop.

You have nearly completed your project. A lot of hard work is coming to an end. Very soon, you will present your accomplishment to your bosses. But, just as you are about to finish, the narcissist swoops in to help. You were careful not to include him in the project, but somehow he knew just when to arrive. Now he stands by your side as the bosses look over your work. He answers the questions they ask. It’s as though he shared in the work all along. But he didn’t. He will only share in the praise and attention.

Like the bird of prey, the narcissist will hover over unsuspecting victims. After the work is done, he will swoop in to take what he wants. Usually it’s the glory, or the right to say that he helped. What seems so unethical to you is just opportunism to him.

Many of those who work for narcissists have had their boss take credit for their efforts. When the hard project is done, the narcissist steps in to take over. As far as the superiors are concerned, the narcissist has done it all. If your name is remembered, it will be for helping. You will wonder where he was the whole time.

Parents will do this to their children. I once saw a father take credit for his child’s accomplishments at graduation. He even put down the child as he patted himself on the back. Moms will come at the end of a painting or cleaning project and act as though they are worn out by the work. From that time on, it was “our” work, and “we” deserve the credit. I have seen people join committees near the end of a large project and take credit for the work of the committee.

I call this the “swoop.” Out of nowhere, the narcissist swoops down to get his prize. He/she has been hovering and waiting until just the right moment. And there is almost nothing you can do about it.

You really can’t complain to the higher-ups that your boss didn’t do the work. You can’t criticize the leaders for letting the narcissist join the committee at the last moment. Nor can you tell your mother that you had the job almost done and didn’t need her help. Not if you want to be nice. Not if you want others to think of you as nice. That’s what the narcissist counts on.

The company system says that you get paid to make your boss look good. The family has always let your mother get praise for work she didn’t do. The organization is just happy to have another warm body on the committee. Nobody really cares but you.

There are some things you can do. You can watch for the hovering narcissist. You can fudge the end time for the project, saying that you will be finished on a certain day and then finish early. You can communicate with those who matter earlier in the process so they know that you are the only one(s) working. But the narcissist will still try.

The bird of prey does not always get the prairie dog. But the swoop works often enough that it is the primary pattern. Besides, there are other prairie dogs.


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Shouldn’t I try to help?

It’s Narcissist Friday!     


Recently I read an article that gave an overview of narcissism. It was okay. It captured many of the problems narcissists present and shared some of the professional perspectives. But the thing that frustrated me was a two-pronged message: yes, you should try to help your narcissist; and no, there is nothing you can do.

That kind of dilemma is designed to bring frustration and failure. The article seems to put some burden on those who are in relationships with narcissists because the poor narcissists are so broken that we really should have compassion on them. But then it says narcissists resist change and cannot be changed without their participation.

Narcissists draw people who have empathy. These caring and kind people usually become their victims. Because they want to help, because they care, these victims will keep trying and keep overlooking offenses and keep blaming themselves. These are people narcissists can use.

So when an article like this says that we should care enough to try to help the broken narcissist, we want to try. We have always wanted to help. We have sensed the pain of the narcissist from the beginning. We have believed that enough love could turn the narcissist’s heart. But we fail. Every time.

So let me say it again: you cannot, will not, should not be the savior for your narcissist. He/she will change only by choice and only by serious or dramatic intervention. You have never been in a position to do what needs to be done to help your narcissist. That’s not why you are in the narcissist’s life. You are there to be used, not to help. I know that is harsh, but it is reality.

You have choices. You can leave the relationship or stay. You can, if you are strong enough, negotiate some reason into your relationship. You can give up and let the narcissist use you. You do have choices—but the one choice you do not have is to fix the narcissist. There is nothing you can do to help.

I believe that the Lord could change the heart of the narcissist. I also believe that the Lord will not do it unless the narcissist desires the change. I believe good, long, strong counseling could mitigate some of the narcissist’s cruel behaviors. Again, this is only by the consent of the narcissist. So, yes, I believe a narcissist could change.

But I do not believe you will change your narcissist, no matter how much you love or how much you sacrifice.

And there it is. Hard reality. I wish I could say something else, but facing the truth is the beginning of your freedom.


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What Do You Think?

It’s Narcissist Friday!     


When the narcissist asks for feedback, be very careful!

There are many old jokes that center around a wife asking her husband if a certain outfit makes her “look fat.” The poor husband must be very careful how he answers. The wife, of course, may simply be asking for his perspective. The husband feels like there must be a trap somewhere.

When we began raising children we picked up a piece of advice that was very helpful. Parents should answer only the question that was asked, nothing more. Sometimes parents begin explanations, thinking the child is asking about some uncomfortable topic, when the child is only asking something simple. The key is to answer with the simple answer only, rather than the long explanation. If the child wants more, he will ask for more. If not, any further explanation would be unnecessary or even confusing.

Sometimes narcissistic bosses or parents will ask a question that seems to put us in uncomfortable positions. In fact, most narcissists will do this from time to time. It’s really a simple question, one asked by normal people with good intentions. And it is a question we long for from the narcissist.

“What do you think?”

That’s right, the narcissist may ask for your opinion. You will feel honored, even important. You may appreciate the chance to offer your thoughts. Your opinion has not been valued until this moment. Now’s your chance.

Don’t do it!

Here’s a rule to remember: narcissists do not want your opinion. They don’t need your opinion. Instead, the question, if it is not a set up to make you look bad, is a desire for affirmation. Remember that the goal of the narcissist is your focus and loyalty. They always want your affirmation.

So you have to be careful to answer the real question, not the one you heard. The words they said, coming from someone else (not a narcissist) would mean something else. But the question always revolves around the need for affirmation with the narcissist. Instead of truly asking for your opinion on a choice or an issue, the narcissist is asking if you remember your place or if you can give a word of praise.

“I think there’s a reason you are the boss.”

“I think you look great.”

“I think I am willing to go with whatever you choose.”

“I think you know what you are doing.”

Now, these are just examples, of course. Your response will have to fit your situation.

And someone will say, “But I can’t lie!” I understand. But you should understand that this is exactly the set-up some narcissists will use against you. They will ask your opinion because they know you will give it, then they will use it to show others how stupid or rebellious you are. They will use your opinion to put you down. They will twist your words and hurt you with them until you submit.

If it isn’t a set-up, it is still not a sincere request for your opinion. It is an opportunity for you to say the right thing, whatever will affirm the narcissist. If you don’t say the right thing, you will be punished. You will be put down, made to feel ashamed, or face retribution.

If you are prepared for that kind of conflict, then speak your mind. Share your opinion. Be honest and forthright. No, the narcissist does not deserve your submission. No, the narcissist does deserve to hear the truth. But you have to be prepared to pay the price.

Otherwise, learn to answer the real question.


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