“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.

Image result for broken self imageAnd 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.


8 thoughts on “The Beautiful Mystery of You

  1. Shame certainly undergirds the labels mentioned. And often those labels bring on even more immense shame, sense of othering, inadequateness, not enough/ too much, madness, anxiety to someone who may already be emotionally dysregulated.

    Trauma is real. And in my experience as a patient in therapy Trauma is very little understood and therefore not honored/ handled with the great, gentle, tender-care it requires. Empathy requires so much of us. Presence, Integration of our True self, Compassion, death to/ setting aside ego.

    Trauma work is not for the faint of heart.

    I have tried to look at DSM labels as a constellationnof symptoms. The symptoms are certainly true to my story, but the label and shame/ stigma may not be. Be very careful labelling, better yet, keep listening, living, loving, holding space, breathing. Point the person back to their Truest self/ identity. This fills in all the cracks, broken pieces, mis-shaped identity brought on by cycles of trauma.

  2. The complexity of who we are can be mind boggling and so we label. It reduces our world to a manageable size. However, every label holds both truth and falsehood, the one informing, the other misinforming and how do we trust the label and hold it loosely enough to allow us to admit we were wrong?

  3. Thank you for this Chuck. Discernment is not the same thing as judgement. We are to become wise and discerning. We are not to become the final judge of anyone’s final condition, that is for God alone. Early Christians were scattering at the news of Saul who was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples”. Good idea. Protect yourself from evil. Be wise. Call a spade a spade. God threw Saul down and blinded him, and told Ananias to welcome him. Ananias reminded God of who Saul was. God said, “this (Saul) is my chosen instrument to carry my name…” Ananias went, placed his hands on Saul and called him “brother”. Crazy story? Yep. We need to wrestle with it though, and I appreciate your courage to resist the temptation to trade evil for evil.

  4. Thanks for sharing this Chuck. So appreciate your thoughtful writing as I explore the complexity of my own journey. Always feels like there are new layers being discovered. That is a joy but also causes me to fear at times when I think I had it all figured out! Looking forward to reading this new book and praying for you as you put it together.

  5. Thank you for this sensitive piece. As I read it I thought of my daughter who was in an emotionally abusive marriage with a narcissistic husband. It was helpful to her healing to be able to put a name to her husband’s behavior and to see from her reading that her husband’s behavior fit a certain pattern. This finally helped her, with the assistance of a skilled therapist, to counter the messages that she had been receiving that the problems in the marriage were “all her fault.” Her example reminds me that this is a complicated area

  6. Thanks for this Chuck! I’ve often wondered about the labels myself. Having had a family member with a mental illness, who HATED being diagnosed BECAUSE they were labels – has given me extra senstivity to this issue. For decades now, I have referred to mental ilness just as I would a physical illness. For example: “He has depression.” “He has schizophrenia.” “She has bipolar.” We would NEVER say, “She is cancer.” or “He is a broken leg.”

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