In a recent article in The Atlantic, Arthur C. Brooks advises readers on how to identify and avoid the “superficially appealing” narcissists who come on the scene — publicly and in our personal lives. 

Specifically, he points to the “Dark Triad” type of malignant narcissism — a term coined by psychologists Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams. 

Such persons, he notes, appear charming, wonderful and fascinating — the kind of person you want to have as a friend, colleague or leader. But after a while, you start noticing something different. 

They display a bit of selfishness and cover their insecurities with bluffing and bullying.

“The traits to look for are self-importance, a sense of entitlement, vanity, a victim mentality, a tendency to bend the truth or even openly lie, manipulativeness, grandiosity, a lack of remorse, and an absence of empathy,” writes Brooks.

Even the most astute of us can fall for such persons, putting our trust where it proves to be misplaced.

While these traits are not listed among the biblical fruit of the Spirit, they show up within Christian communities. 

Dark Triads, he notes, make up about one in 14 persons. So they are clearly among us — often in or aspiring to leadership roles with their charm and promises.

Narcissism, “the egotistical admiration of oneself,” allows for treating others in disrespectful and unethical ways when beneficial to one’s identity as a leader. 

“At work, such individuals tend to exaggerate their own worth, show a distrustful attitude toward colleagues, act impulsively and irresponsibly, break rules, and lie,” writes Brooks.

This article came on the heels of my receiving a copy of pastoral care professor Chuck DeGroat’s book, When Narcissism Comes to Church.

“We swim in the cultural waters of narcissism, and churches are not immune,” writes DeGroat, a former pastor who teaches at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich.

The narcissist, he notes, “cannot tolerate the limitations of humanity.” 

Yet this desire, he said, dehumanizes the narcissist and wreaks havoc on relationships. 

“The face of narcissism seems to work in Western culture, and sadly it’s a face that many church-goers look to for spiritual inspiration and motivation.”

DeGroat said his studies in recent decades helped him to see that shame is “the jet fuel for narcissists.” 

Crediting authors Donald Capps (The Depleted Self: Sin in a Narcissistic Age) and John Bradshaw (Healing the Shame That Binds You) for their insights, DeGroat writes that persons with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) disconnect from their core feelings and true selves in effort to shield themselves from shame and pain.  

“Understanding narcissism’s underbelly has been the most important revelation for my own work with pastors, ministry leaders, spouses and organizations,” writes DeGroat. “…This revelation invites us to take narcissism with a deadly seriousness, but also to envision a compassionate path forward.”

In church culture, a narcissist may be described in positive terms like charismatic, gifted, confident and compelling, leading to a lack of accountability when charges of abuse arise. 

“My work … persuades me that the narcissism in many young men in particular is baptized as giftedness in a way that does a great disservice to them and ignores deep wells of shame and fragility lurking within,” writes DeGroat.

Narcissism is no one’s whole self, writes DeGroat, sounding a note of redemption, but it is real. Naming a person as a narcissist, he said, is not a definitive label but “a description of a pattern of living and relating.”

He advises using the term wisely, with both honesty and compassion. But certainly not ignoring or excusing it.

“The narcissistic mask is an armor of self-protection that both defends the fragile self within, but offends, oppresses and alienates the other,” DeGroat said. 

Simply shunning other people is not a very compelling or realistic strategy, notes Brooks in The Atlantic article. So he advises looking for their opposite.

Arriving on the same day as DeGroat’s book was Richard Foster’s, Learning Humility: A Year of Searching for a Vanishing Virtue. 

The contrast in the attributes of narcissism and humility was observed immediately.

Contrasts are essentially choices. And each of us gets to choose how we will live — and simply branding oneself as “Christian” really doesn’t say much about that choice.

And how others choose between a life of self-absorption, self-service and self-preservation — or a healthy self-esteem rooted in humility — deserves our attention and honest evaluation. Otherwise, we fuel their narcissism to the detriment of ourselves and others. 

Foster, who is widely known as the author of spiritual discipline classics like Freedom of Simplicity and Celebration of Discipline, has a timely word for us:

“Humility is the virtue desperately needed in our day of raging narcissism. It is the one thing that can conquer our all-consuming pride and provide a solid foundation for developing a genuinely good life.”

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