When Narcissism Doesn’t Look So Grandiose – “Vulnerable” Narcissism

I thought you’d be interested in this short tid-bit I’ll elaborate on in the book.

In nearly 20 years of counseling diagnosably narcissistic individuals and in two years of writing (in fits and starts!), I thought I had a pretty good grasp on definitions. That is, until I got the big green book, the Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Paging through the dense volume, I came upon the phrase Narcissistic Vulnerability. An entirely new dimension of narcissism was opened to me.

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You won’t find a distinction between grandiose and vulnerable narcissism in the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria. As it sounds, grandiose narcissism looks like the classic definition of grandiosity – supposed superiority, a lack of empathy, impairments in identity and intimacy.

On the other hand, vulnerable narcissism looks more fragile, hyper-vigilant, shy, sensitive, and depressed. It may look a bit more like Borderline Personality Disorder, but it isn’t – it is another face of narcissism.

Craving attention and approval, vulnerable narcissists may act out of a fear of abandonment, demanding love and anxiously grasping after it. This may just be the flip side of grandiose narcissism for some, a kind of ego-deflated state they find themselves in when the world isn’t admiring them or when failure comes their way. But it can harden into a chronic state of helplessness, where the narcissistic ego becomes sticky, manipulative, even self-sabotaging. This narcissism ain’t quite as pretty as the dressed-up narcissism manifesting in grandiosity.

I recall a pastor who was a self-described curmudgeon. He was constantly picking fights – often theological fights – just for the sake of the drama and the attention it afforded him, especially when congregational spectators would gather around. He reminded people often that “few people get me,” and paraded a kind of “woe is me” theology (often citing Isaiah 6 as his life verse) that highlighted his belief that “no one is good, no not one” (Rom 3:10-12). But this masked something else – just about everyone who knew him saw this as precisely the opposite, a subtle arrogance masked in words intended to show humility. He controlled through passive-aggressive means, he quietly judged all who didn’t see the world like he did, and (as his wife would later tell me) he was the most depressing, self-centered man you’d ever meet. Yet, for many who followed his weekly blog, he was a saint, a defender of truth, the last man with theological integrity.

Vulnerable narcissists secretly clamor for affirmation and adoration, but instead of claiming it as a matter of arrogant entitlement, they manipulate and maneuver in ways that are just as toxic and harmful. Curiously, this kind of narcissism manifests within systems, too, and is sometimes called “low self-esteem narcissism.” Indeed, an entire church system may be infected with this ego-deflated, manipulative, and chronically depressive state. Some churches manifest the same qualities as the pastor above, secretly proud of their low view of themselves, claiming a high doctrine of sin but failing to see their judgmentalism, control, arrogance, certainty, and more often than not racism and sexism.

If you’re following me so far, you’ll sense that this is a tough form of narcissism to deal with and confront. The “superior-victim” dynamic is sticky. The self-centeredness allows for little to no real introspection. The narrative of being misunderstood or neglected shows up in blaming everyone but himself/herself. There is a circular, self-fulfilling prophecy, a belief that it will never get better with a corresponding pull for you to make it better, ultimately by seeing how special, great, humble, misunderstood, or saintly he/she is. I see an especially significant debris field of toxicity when someone divorces a vulnerable narcissist, as he/she can switch to yet another gear of manipulation, control, and victimization. Lord have mercy.

Narcissism comes in many forms – this is just one instance of a kind of narcissism that looks different than the caricature. In the book I’m writing, I devote an entire chapter to a kind of experiment – I’m looking at narcissism through the nine faces of the Enneagram. That’s a fun chapter, and reveals even more nuance. But allow me to say this – my goodness, this is the toughest book I’ve written…even tougher than the book with “tough people” in the title! Thanks to those of you who’ve said you are praying.

Peace.

 

 

so, you’re married to a narcissist and you want to leave him?

“It’s like I was a frog in a slow-boiling kettle,” she says to me, shuttering from the trauma of having to re-tell her story again. “I had no idea what was happening to me. I didn’t like the person I was becoming – bitter, passive-aggressive, emotionally distant – but never before had I connected it to the fact that I felt unsafe, fearful, used.”

Through months of counseling, she had identified in her marriage patterns of emotional manipulation, sexual aggressiveness, mockery for her appearance, vacillations of reactive anger and lustful sweet talk, restricted freedom to work and travel, entitlement, over-spending, and porn addiction. In counseling, her husband’s fauxnerability played out in gestures of seeming repentance, but their therapist called him on his lack of specific repentance and incapacity to name long-term patterns instead of mere occasional behaviors. In time, he doubled-down, blaming her “sexual unavailability, bitter spirit, and failure to submit to his loving leadership in the home.” Resigned and eager to be free of his constant gaslighting, she filed for divorce. And that’s when he released hellfire.

I’ve told versions of this story in all of my books. Maybe you read parts of your story in it. This is because I’ve seen this, not once, not twice, but dozens of times in countless marriages, from Orlando, to San Francisco, to Holland, where I now reside.

I hear it in stories you send me through email and social media. I also hear the pain of being cast from your church families, ostracized by biological family members, ignored at work, and thrust into uncertainty. “I had to learn to use a mower and fix a garbage disposal,” one of my clients said. Even more, the scarlet letter of shame looms.

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I’ve received one-too-many “you counseled my wife to divorce me” letters from spouses and “you’re counseling couples toward unfaithfulness” from pastors. I don’t cheer couples on to divorce. As a child of divorce, I felt the pain of it acutely and still deal with the implications and disruptions today. I do try to honor the Bible’s pattern of caring for the abused, the weak, the neglected, the betrayed, and those most vulnerable. My own study of Scripture was helped immensely by both of Dr. David Instone-Brewer’s works on Scripture and divorce. He emphasizes how conservative Jesus was in his re-affirmation of the sacredness of marriage. In that day, a man could divorce a woman for just about any cause. Don’t like her cooking? Don’t care for her new haircut? End the marriage. Jesus re-emphasized the sanctity of marriage, undermining shallow notions of faithfulness.

And yet, Instone-Brewer shows how lovingly pastoral and affirming of a woman’s dignity Jesus and his followers were. Even though the end of a marriage is a rupture in the shalom we’re made for, pastoral provisions were made for those who found themselves in marriages where fidelity was broken. He highlights through a careful study of Scripture three grounds for divorce:

  1. Adultery (in Deuteronomy 24:1, affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19)
  2. Emotional and physical neglect (in Exodus 21:10-11, affirmed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7)
  3. Abandonment and abuse (included in neglect, as affirmed in 1 Corinthians 7) (via David Instone-Brewer’s short article, including his response to an inevitable critique from John Piper, here)

Indeed, in a time when we’re discovering the depths of narcissistic abuse in the church, when we’re seeing major, trusted Christian leaders revealed to be duplicitous, when the supposed “good-guys” are discovered to be abusive and untrustworthy, we can re-discover afresh just how gracious Jesus was to provide a path to freedom and healing for wounded spouses. Making provisions for the vulnerable shows just how significant marital faithfulness is to God and just how important you are to God.

That said, for every spouse I counsel, whether male or female, who experiences the bite of a narcissist in a relationship, I always encourage seeing a wise and experienced therapist who gets the dynamics of narcissistic relationships, and who both honors the sacredness of marriage and employs pastoral wisdom and agility.

In the end, Scripture from Genesis to Revelation is crystal clear in its call for dignity for victims and its warnings to the powerful. In becoming the forgiving victim, Jesus demonstrates a love that provides a pathway for healing for both victims and abusers while not-at-all denying the evil of and justice for those who don’t surrender their power. Jesus provides a path of transformation for each-and-every one one of us ready and willing to give up trying to fix ourselves and ready and willing to surrender to a death-to-the-old process, which can be humbling, even humiliating. That transforming journey is available to anyone addicted to the self-justifying, self-protecting, self-admiring self-salvation project of narcissism. I personally love to work with those sincerely committed to this work, and can testify to the power of transformation.

But isn’t it kind, loving, and so in-character that Jesus would make a way for you, you the “frog in the boiling kettle,” you the one who thought her years were lost, you who endured humiliation, you who felt so guilty and ashamed, you whose God paves pathways of freedom for wholeness, healing, and transformation? God may hate divorce, but God sure does love you.

 

fauxnerability in the church: what is it? what do we do about it?

25 years ago when I was just getting in the seminary/church/pastor game, vulnerability was not a high value. Things have changed. But with a higher value on transparency, authenticity and vulnerability in the church, there is a dark ‘flip-side’ that we need to be aware of.

Recently, I listened to the final sermon of a pastor whose affair was found out the week after this sermon, and who committed suicide not long after. Strewn throughout the sermon were phrases like “Gospel brokenness” and “unconditional acceptance” and “idols to repent of” along with admissions about the messiness of life and the power of God to transform our wounds like God had done for this pastor. Imagine the shock and sense of betrayal when the congregation found out about his year long sexual relationship with a female admirer of his who he met while speaking at a conference. The discovery was followed by days of throwing his wife under the bus for “emotionally abandoning” him. In the end, the shattered narcissistic false self led him to the tragic conclusion that if that self was gone, he was gone. And so, he acted on this belief, ending his life violently. The self-hatred was apparent in his final act.

A friend and pastor in a sister denomination reached out to me this past week in response to my last blog on narcissism, and offered a sobering reminder. He told me that many of the larger “Gospel-centered” church pastors in his denomination who, in fact, enjoy my writings or Diane Langberg’s stuff on narcissism or Dan Allender and have some passion about injustices and sex scandals are, in fact, the biggest perpetrators of narcissistic abuse. And this is what increasingly frightens me – the epidemic of fauxnerability – pastors (and many others) who are emotionally intelligent enough to share a general “messiness” about their lives (often in broad strokes admitting weakness and need), but who are radically out of touch with their true selves. They’ve dressed up the false self in a new garment – the garment of faux vulnerability, with the accompanying Gospel vocabulary of weakness, need, brokenness, dependence, idolatry and more. And they may be more dangerous than pastors who simply don’t give a damn about living vulnerably.Image result for vulnerability

When a twisted form a vulnerability is used in service of a spiritual false self, congregations are thrown into painful and often contentious seasons of gossip, opposition, choosing sides, and living in trauma and confusion. I saw it again recently. An influential church elder whose wife left him fell on the sword, confessing emotional unavailability, workaholism, and sexual addiction in a posture of ‘repentance’. He has not done the hard work of long-term therapy to root out deeper issues (which, can I just say, shows a remarkably low doctrine of sin…and I see this all-the-time among so-called Reformed folk.) He now moves from person to person, to any listening ear, sharing about his “brokenness” and “sin” in seemingly a repentant package only to groom his listeners into empathy and trust for the sake of (…wait for it….) the grand finale – a seemingly innocent, reluctant, but calculated swipe at his wife – for her impatience with him, for her raging anger, for her unforgiveness, for not willing to engage him. Before you know it, they’re all in tears. I see this happen time and again.

Commercial break for a quick and important note: When I write, I almost always receive 1-2 emails from former clients or pastors or pastors I don’t even know saying, “Why are you writing about me? I’ll sue you.” Even though my policy is to shift details to sufficiently conceal identities, I still get it…it’s always about you….which led a friend to remind me of the Carly Simon song You’re So Vain (…bet you thought this ‘blog’ was about you!) This is yet another sign of narcissism. Truth told, I’ve seen hundreds of clients, and similar storylines pop up all the time amidst narcissistic dynamics. 

So…Is there an antidote to fauxnerability? I’m not so sure. Folks susceptible to it can seem psychologically sophisticated (they know their Enneagram and MBTI and DISC) and some even go to therapy (people, there are a lot of bad therapists out there who simply polish up the false self). Like any form of narcissism, they will need to own a struggle with it and go on a long, honest journey. But, in the meantime and as we deal with this in churches, I’ll leave you with a few final observations about what to look for and do:

  • Be brutally aware of the contradictions you see in these people. They’ll be going along well, but something will trigger them and you’ll feel/see their rage or high anxiety or defensiveness, etc. Don’t let there be a “we’re all broken and have contradictions” excuse.
  • Don’t trust words, trust character change and stability over time.
  • Beware of vulnerability which focuses on the past – “I struggled with porn” or “I was such a broken sinner.” That isn’t vulnerability. Vulnerability is about showing up courageously in the present moment with how you are currently impacting someone or experiencing your inner life in that moment. These folks cannot bear the weight of the present moment.
  • Be aware of the eventual “but…” This comes out as “I shouldn’t have blown my stack like that…but…this is the weakest staff I’ve ever had, and they’re lucky they still have jobs…” or “but…as a spouse she’s never loved me the way I needed to be loved.”
  • Look for staged fauxnerability…as in, a pastor or leader who conjure up tears at will, whether during a poignant story in a sermon or in a behind closed doors pastoral counseling session.
  • Note the victim mentality. Because they are out-of-touch with inner realities, things are always talked about from the perspective of something/one outside of them or their control. Sometimes this is about how others have hurt, about a “problem” staff member, or a bad policy. They will eventually pivot to being the victim, and even present themselves as a victim of “sin” or “evil” as outside forces – “sin just got the best of me.” (hint: this is not repentance)
  • Notice the difference between their words and your experience of them. From the stage, a narcissistic pastor may tell a hard story of being abused as a child and you may feel pulled toward empathy. But in person, you will experience a sense of distance and connecting to them will feel difficult, if not impossible.
  • Note the slimy factor. Some will tell me that their narcissistic pastor or spouse or friend feels slimy or icky or…well, you know…you’ve surely felt this before!
  • Pay attention to their lack of inner curiosity. If you dare bring up the contradiction you witness, you will receive defensiveness, not curiosity. A vulnerable person is always a curious person and won’t resist your feedback.
  • Be aware of general repentance vs. specific repentance. General repentance may be “I’ve struggled with porn” while a more specific confession will not just engage behavior but a long-term relational pattern, like a pattern of misogyny or a style of relating which is condescending and dismissive. A humble person will share specifically and appropriately, to the right people. A humble person will repent ahead of hurting you, because he’s well-aware of his patterns. And he will be accountable.
  • Be aware of over-sharing – the emotional “dump” is not an act of vulnerability for some, but a way of using you as confessor or to engender sympathy or to take their side. We share more significant details with those we’re closest to, not everyone who asks how we’re doing.
  • Note how self-referential he is. Because someone who practices fauxnerability lost their capacity to mirror, to empathize, to truly be present to another, his sharing will take up all the space in the relationship. He is not sharing to connect or for mutuality.

Why Writing on Narcissism in the Church is So Hard

I was reading a description of my “INFJ” personality this week and it hit me again – I’m a mess. My head spun as a I read painfully true quotes about my personality type:

You may become easily entangled and absorbed in how others are behaving or what they think of you. 

Due to their high sensitivity, they tend to be very compassionate people who are overly generous and conscientious to the needs of others. This makes them a target for predators like narcissists who seek to exploit them. That’s why it’s important for INFJs to develop a “radar” for emotional con artists and move slowly in relationships to ward off these toxic types.

They are easily overwhelmed by bullying types who treat others with a reckless disregard or abrasiveness. The exception being, of course, manipulative charmers who can “present” a more gentle personality type at the onset, but later unmask themselves to be cruel and callous. INFJs can have a more difficult time detoxing from these types of manipulators simply because of the trauma this “unmasking” reveals.

Ouch. Of course, there were stunningly positive lines that should have soothed my self-deprecating, INFJ/E4 soul. But these, and a few choice others, sent me spiraling. That, and perhaps the fact that I’m slowly tapering off of Zoloft after 20 years.

I’ve been pastoring and counseling and teaching for two decades now. That ought to provide some sense of self-assurance, confidence, even a sense of “expertise,” as these new friends described it when I did a recent podcast on narcissism.  But as I put it in a book on narcissism I’ve been chipping away on for 2 years, narcissism’s bite stings, and it stays with you a long time. I hear those lines above and they say to me: “You’re too broken, too confused, too enmeshed, too gullible.”

For years, I’ve watched the debris field – on a personal level, in close relationships, with clergy, in clients I care about, on church staffs. I am personally involved in this book in aImage result for narcissismway I’ve not been involved with any other. But, as the INFJ article also indicates, people with my personality see things – we see systemic issues before others do, we have an eerily intuitive sense of impending crisis, we have a highly active imagination which plays out multiple possible scenarios. This makes me a pretty good counselor – one who can see the contingencies, who can imagine multiple pathways, who can assess troubling systemic dynamics. It’s also…exhausting. Thus, my on-again-off-again relationship with this book I call When Narcissism Comes to Church. 

It is coming along. Seven chapter are complete, and I think they’re helpful. But a final piece is tough – I am mindful of all of the possible pieces I’m missing, whether I’ve just neglected to follow a lead or whether I’ll be courageous enough to say the hard things or whether my own issues blind me to something or whether I’ll write something worthy of the courageous people who’ve been bitten by narcissism’s angry bite. Mindful of this during my times of contemplative prayer, these sessions have been more difficult than usual, as my sense of focus, presence, and clarity is all over the place.

So, if you’re inclined to it, pray for me. If you’re up for it, send me a note to say, “Please write on this.” If you want, send me some encouragement! If you’ve got an idea – I’m all ears. I’d love to offer the church the most helpful, the most honest, and the most challenging book I can on narcissism.