“There is a desire in many people in the modern world to see themselves clearly. But if you listen to them, between the psychological cliches and the chatter of false intimacy, what they’re seeing is a certain limited image that they have partly projected and partly excavated, but which is terribly limited in proportion to the vast immensity that’s actually within them.” John O’Donahue
One of the hardest things about writing a book on narcissism, and thus on “narcissists,” is the reduction of a human soul to a label. In my work prior, I’ve tried to honor the complexity of human beings. I’ve often said that each of us is both beautiful and broken, hiding and hidden in Christ, accessible and utterly inaccessible. I sit with people for hours, for years even, pondering the mystery of this, the beautiful mystery of you.
The soul is vast, expansive, mysterious, complex, and even unknowable at some level. Who of us truly knows ourselves? I remind people of this each time I teach the Enneagram, recognizing that we (in the West, in particular) are consumers of quick-fix tools that give us control. Tools are good. But they cannot tell the whole story. Knowing that you’re a 1 or a 4 or a 8 really doesn’t tell me much about you at all. But with curiosity it can begin a more expansive dialogue about you – your story, your passions, your uniqueness.
Psychological insights and categories are merely tools, too. Recently, a man confessed to me that his work and sleep schedule were impacted by “trauma.” He attributed the trauma to the national news, and he compared his trauma to a woman who’d been through sexual abuse, in fact. It was confusing, and so I probed further. After some time, we determined together that he wasn’t suffering from trauma. He was borrowing a word he’d heard tossed around on social media, and in so doing he was trivializing the stories of real trauma sufferers. What we did discover together was that his habits of hours of video games, porn, and Netflix were a nasty cocktail, rendering him soul-sick, at some level. Why had he become so addicted? That was a mystery to which we’d now attend. But it was important for us to take time to name things well, and not claim labels or diagnoses just because they’re bantered about on Twitter.
I was unfollowed and unfriended by a so-called expert in biblical and psychological understandings of narcissism recently because I was seen as too soft on narcissism. Once applied, the label of “narcissism,” for this person, is a label of wickedness which is irreparable. She could not believe that shame undergirds the narcissistic persona, or that a true self, imaging God, resides most deeply in one who is narcissistic. In a sense, to be a narcissist was to be irredeemably wicked. The label became the ultimate definition, and even damnation, of a human being.
Elinor Greenberg writes
Nobody is a Borderline. Nobody is a Narcissist. Nobody is a Schizoid. This may seem a strange way to begin a book on diagnosis, but it needs to be said. When we diagnose, we are describing a pattern, a particular Gestalt, never a person. All people are unique. Labels, however well intended, cannot do justice to human complexity.[i]
I’ve wrestled with this insight, even as I’ve decided in my writing to continue to use the psychological label “narcissist.” I think we can do this while holding the complexity of each image bearer.
The dualistic mind prefers easy and tight divisions – us vs. them, bad vs. good, grace vs. legalism, sick vs. well, unhealthy vs. healthy, busy vs. rested. This kind of labeling gives us power. But often when we label, we refuse to admit our own complexity. Some of the most (seemingly) psychologically savvy folks I’ve known over the years have been master labelers, quickly diagnosing a pathology or naming an Enneagram type, and yet I’ve known some of these folks to be quite unaware of their own control issues or pathological patterns. The desire for mastery, especially mastery of the soul, may reveal something about our own pain and brokenness.
I feel a greater weight writing this book in part because of the humility it demands. What’s my agenda? What am I missing about my own secret motives for writing? What is my own need behind definitions and labels? I find myself more and more cautious, wanting to honor complexity without minimizing the real harm done by toxically narcissistic people. It’s not easy.
And perhaps this invitation to humility, to a recognition of the vast spaciousness of each soul, is the hard work demanded of us today in a time of instant-definition. As O’Donahue says, we know so very little about each other from the images we project. I’m still learning things about Sara after almost 25 years of marriage. What makes each of us live and vote and love and eat in particular ways is an extraordinary mystery.
As always, there is a dance in this. I stand in awe before mystery. I seek not to label or judge, but long to know another at her depth. And yet, I’m given tools which, when used well, help me to help others, by naming patterns and personas which block vulnerability, stifle intimacy, and even threaten safety. I recognize the paradox of this even as I realize that there are depths of my own soul I’ve never explored. As so, I stand in humble awe, and yet I proceed, with the care of a surgeon with a scalpel.
[i] Elinor Greenberg, Borderline, Narcissistic and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration and Safety (Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016), 3. Thanks to my friend, writer and therapist Heather Drew, for introducing me to this helpful book.