- An exaggerated sense of self-importance (exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements);
- Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love;
- Believes he/she is "special" and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions);
- Requires excessive admiration;
- Has a sense of entitlement;
- Takes advantage of others to achieve selfish ends;
- Lacks empathy and ability to feel remorse;
- Envious of others or believes that others are envious of him/her;
- Shows arrogant, haughty, patronizing, or contemptuous behaviors or attitudes
Part of the problem in making a diagnosis of narcissism is that many of the characteristics identified in the disorder are considered normal. For example, a narcissist has an “exaggerated sense of self-importance.” But what does this really mean? Exaggeration is a difficult word to define. And we are continually told that we all need to feel important. So, how can narcissism be a problem? The term “exaggeration” attempts to salvage that but what does it mean? To talk too much about it? But if a person doesn’t talk about it does that mean it doesn’t exist in his/her thoughts? Everyone wants to be important—even those who don’t talk about it. So, how can exaggeration be measured?
It is not coincidental that as the definition of narcissism has changed so there has been a dramatic increase in the emphasis on self-esteem—not just by secular theorists but even by religious instructors. Thus, a generation ago, popular television preacher Robert Schuller proposed that “self-esteem” was the “new reformation” needed for the church to advance into the 21st century.
This book was called, “Self-Esteem: the New Reformation” and attempted to deconstruct 2000 years of Christian teaching on the nature of faith and belief, calling for a “new reformation” centered not around God but man. One of his most staggering assertions was that "Classical theology has erred in its insistence that theology be 'God-centered,' not 'man-centered'" (p. 64). Schuller reserved particular animus for Martin Luther and John Calvin who espoused a doctrine of sin we call “total depravity.” What is sin? For Schuller it was related to low self esteem.
"... the core of sin is a lack of self-esteem. ... Sin is psychological self-abuse. ... the most serious sin is one that causes me to say, 'I am unworthy. I may have no claim to divine sonship if you examine me at my worst.' For once a person believes he is an 'unworthy sinner,' it is doubtful if he can really honestly accept the saving grace God offers in Jesus Christ" (pp. 98-99).
With statements like this from presumed moral authorities, is it any wonder the concept of narcissism is in such disarray?
Some of the greatest resistance to the Schuller-esque teaching came from an ironic source: a psychologist who made no particular faith claims of his own. His name was Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University. In one of his most quoted projects he dealt with four “myths” about self-esteem. What made Baumeister’s work so interesting is that it was research driven:
- Higher Self Esteem Boosts Academic Performance - He studied the link between good grades and self-esteem in school age children. It’s become almost indisputable in most public education circles that if self-esteem improves so will academic performance. Baumeister demonstrated that there is no link between the two.
- Higher Self Esteem Reduces the Threat of Drug Abuse - What about drug abuse, promiscuous sex and other socially destructive behaviors? Again, the accepted wisdom is that what abusers really need is just to feel better about themselves; that they are driven to these forms of behavior because of low self-esteem. But the research does not bear that out.
- Higher Self Esteem Reduces Bullying and Aggression – Neither is there a link between aggression and low self-esteem. The playground bully is not really suffering from a poor self-image. He may be but Baumeister found no evidence to suggest that it was the cause of the aggressive behavior.
- Higher Self Esteem Boosts Job Performance - When he turned his research attention to adults, he studied their job satisfaction and job performance. The results were not at all what was predicted by the conventional wisdom. Baumeister concluded:
One can almost detect the sadness in Baumeister’s words. Since the days of Alfred Adler (the colleague of Freud), self-esteem has been viewed as the magic pill that will make everything better. Adler himself believed that self-esteem conflicts result from power differentials between small, helpless children and the giants around them. As children are empowered by these “giants” they can take their place alongside them. That’s what self-esteem tries to do.
But there’s a problem with the logic and the evidence. As Baumeister demonstrated, taking their place alongside the rest of humanity does not occur through self-image enhancement but through behavioral output. In fact, if self-image becomes the standard—feeling good about themselves—it tends to undermine social development. In practice, this means people who focus more on themselves focus less on others.
It would be unfair to suggest that Baumeister is accusing all those who emphasize self-esteem of creating narcissists. However, his research points in that direction and highlights the need to look even more deeply into conflicted self-image, not ignore it or explain it away. This is especially important for Christian theorists and therapists and underscores the age-old warning that “he who stands should take heed lest he falls” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
In fact, the Bible has much to say about narcissism. It doesn’t use that term, of course, but the warning about its consequences is everywhere, including the criteria for identifying it. What term does it use? It simply calls it “pride.” If we want to be technical, we can call it “sinful pride” to distinguish it from the more innocuous variety. But it is pride nonetheless. And from a clinical standpoint, this means we must view pride, hubris, arrogance, selfishness and egocentrism as forms of narcissism. I propose a three-fold criteria for diagnosis:
The Deceived Self
Self-image is an important issue in human and social development. There is no escaping that. We must not minimize the effects of a “poor self-image.” However, we must be careful to define it. The terms “self-esteem” and “self-worth” are generally used without qualification or definition. This is part of the reason for so much confusion.
“Worth” and “esteem” are value terms. They describe levels of importance. In mental health, “self-worth” and “self-esteem” generally mean a person likes himself, feels good about himself and doesn’t demean or put himself down. Often such discussions center around the role of “shame” in self-awareness.
So, what is the basis for such a perspective on the self? Clearly, it is the unbiblical notion that we should like ourselves and feel good about who we are; that we should not demean or put ourselves down. There is really nothing to be ashamed of since we’re really not that bad. But this is not a biblical perspective. Therefore, narcissism and pride are the very result of the therapeutic messages intended to change them.
What is the alternative? The biblical alternative to Robert Schuller’s “self-esteem gospel” is a view of the individual self rooted not in good feelings but in truth. The problem with self-image is not that a person puts himself down or doesn’t like himself. The problem is an erroneous view. In other words, a narcissist is deceived about himself.
At the heart of narcissism is a false view of the self that discounts or rejects the truth about who we are and what we need. According to the Bible, God created humanity not to live by himself or for himself but to live in loving community with others. An example of how this worked out in practice is from general system theory: the laws of triangulation.
According to system theory, whenever you have two people in a system there is likely to be stress. That's because in the process of being together they are competing for the same resources. Those resources may be material (food) or social (attention). But the very basis of the system is utilization of resources to advance the system. A profound need of the two members of the system is to restore stability, safety and predictability whenever something comes along to disrupt it. Change is stressful and frightening. And the most natural thing to do when feeling afraid is reach out to someone else: to restore your grip.
This is what human systems do also.
The Desperate Self
One of the most profound needs of the self is validation. Validation means we are acknowledged to be a person. We derive our sense of self not simply from quiet reflections and ruminations but through various social interactions. From earliest childhood we look to others for safety and security in the face of overwhelming dangers and fears. When a child finds that desired safety in a parent or older sibling he eventually develops healthy “attachment patterns” in other relationships as he learns that there are ways to manage the stresses and changes around him.
Meanwhile, the self is desperate. The danger, pain and failure in our world is so intense and overwhelming we will do almost anything to get it. This is the intensity of the drive for self-validation. And the reality is, desperate men do desperate things.
This is the reason so much circumstantial evidence seems to link criminal and psychopathic behavior to those with self-image conflict. It's because they are desperate to deal with the pain inside. The problem is not the existence of pain. The problem is how they try to make it go away: at the expense of others.
The Destructive Self
That leads to my third criteria for narcissism: a desperate individual will be inclined to destroy others to save himself. You remember Charles Darwin and his theory of survival: survival of the fittest. In this world, with limited resources, there will always be competition for who gets what. The stronger will prey upon the weaker. And, according to Darwin, this process drives natural evolutionary development. Now, I happen to reject Darwin's evolution. But I think he was right about survival. In fact, I'll go even farther than he did and suggest that survival—what I call self-protection—is what drives all natural life forms. And if self-survival is at the core of our being, that means we are all narcissists to a greater or lesser extent.
As I write this article there is a massive snow storm blowing through the East coast. As large storms often do, the combination of cold and power outages and clogged roads will most likely result in many deaths. That reminded me of the infamous tragic story of Donner Pass—another storm situation that ended in the loss of human life but also demonstrated my point about self-protection.
You may have read about it. It was back in the 1840s and a few dozen travelers got stuck in a terrible snow storm and were forced to winter there at Donner Pass. They were totally stuck by the conditions and were at risk for dying, without food and shelter. As the days and weeks rolled on they became increasingly desperate. And destructive. Somehow they concluded that it was better to eat the dead people than to die themselves and so that's how the remaining people survived: cannibalism. My point in spoiling your dinner today? That depraved individuals will resort to just about anything to survive. Sure. This is an extreme and bizarre story. But it simply illustrates the human condition. What drove them to eat their friends and family? Narcissism.
I could go on but I need to leave you with some hope. And there really is hope for the narcissism in all of us. That hope comes in the form of a solution that is extraordinary in its simplicity and effectiveness. What drives the narcissism in all of us is not only our need for survival but our desire for validation. We don't just want to live. We want to live well. And that means we want others to notice our accomplishments, to respect our abilities and to affirm our achievements. I'm reminded of how the Apostle Paul handled the deep-rooted narcissism at the church in Corinth; a narcissism that was destroying the very foundations of the church. The specific issue there was factionalism and conflict between various individuals, based, of all things, on who their spiritual mentors were.
Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)
Some were followers of Paul. Some were followers of other spiritual leaders. The problem was not the spiritual leaders but the way they were using them to feed their own selfish ambitions.
So, notice what Paul said to them:
This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. 2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. 3 I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. (1 Corinthians 4:1-4)
It is easy to miss the power of Paul's instruction, in part because of language. So let me paraphrase it.
I know you are focused on which “spiritual mentors” you have and think that makes you important. And for those who claim to follow me, you may think I even care about your loyalty. But I don't! It's not that I don't care about you. But it doesn't matter to me whether you think I'm special or not. It doesn't matter to me even if I think I am special! The only opinion that matters of me is the one from the Lord.
This is really the secret to conquering narcissism. It involves a death to our desire for self-protection, self-gratification and self-validation strategies. How can we do that? Only when we care more about finding protection, gratification and validation in our relationship with God rather than ourselves or others.
I never said this was going to be easy. But I will say it's really quite simple. Sadly, most will not take this route. And even among those who name the name of Jesus Christ, they will generally continue to nurse and nourish the cannibalistic beast within. But this doesn't undermine the truth nor the power of Paul's simple solution. And even though none of us will probably be successful at slaying the beast, we can make progress. And my plea for you today is that you would try.