Collective Narcissism in Churches
In His book When Narcissism Comes to Church, Chuck DeGroat shares about a unique phenomenon that occurs in organizations: Collective Narcissism:
Churches are particularly susceptible to a phenomenon called “collective narcissism,” in which the charismatic leader/follower relationship is understood as a given. Sadly, in recent years we’ve witnessed too many instances of charismatic Christian leaders gaining a massive following, both within the church and on social media, only to be exposed as manipulative, abusive, and dictatorial. Jerrold Post argues that a mutually reinforcing relationship exists between leader and follower.
The leader relies on the adoration and respect of his followers; the follower is attracted to the omnipotence and charisma of the leader. The leader uses polarizing rhetoric that identifies an outside enemy, bringing together leader and followers on a grandiose mission. The followers feed off the leaders certainty in order to fill their own empty senses of self. Interestingly, in this mutually reinforcing relationship, both are prone to a form of narcissism.
A Different Perspective on the Narcissus Myth
In his important book When Narcissism Comes to Church, Chuck DeGroat makes an important connection between shame and narcissism by looking at the myth of Narcissus.
The myth of Narcissus tells the story well. While often told as a tale of excessive self-love, it is precisely self-love that Narcissus was lacking. It’s a story of being stuck, immobilized, fixed in a death dance. In his youth he ran free, hunting in the forest, loved and desired by young women. But he would let no one touch his heart. This is the wound of shame. One who is ashamed cannot connect and cannot become vulnerable. He is immovable, untouchable.
Narcissus finds himself thirsty one day and makes his way to a clear pool for a drink. In the water he sees his reflection, an image so striking that he reaches in to embrace it. But the image is lost when the water is disrupted, as it is with each future effort. Leaving Narcissus all the more desperate. Immobilized before the pool, he pines for the image that will never return his love and eventually succumbs to the neglect of his basic needs.
… Narcissus is trapped in a vicious narcissistic feedback loop. The name Narcissus comes from the Greek narc, which means numbness—a kind of stupor. It is the sting of addiction that Narcissus experiences.
The Origin of the Term “Gaslighting”
In His book When Narcissism Comes to Church, Chuck DeGroat describes a common tool employed by narcissits: gaslighting:
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that draws its name from a 1938 British play called Gas Light. In the play, a man named Jack Manningham terrorizes his wife, Bella, by making her doubt her perception of reality. Bella is comforted only by the one reality she can trust—the dimming of the gas lights that correspond with Jack’s afterhours antics.
Among his antics, Jack hides household items and blames her for misplacing them, which throws her into perplexion and self-doubt. Her only shred of sanity is in the gaslights flickering flame, and the audience is held in suspense as she vacillates between self-doubt and clarity.
The Origins of Narcissism
In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a handsome young man who caught sight of his reflection in a pond, fell in love with his own image, toppled into the water and drowned. So “narcissism” is an excessive love for oneself, an unbounded admiration of “self.
Taken from The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling by John R. W. Stott Copyright (c) 2010 by John R. W. Stott. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Narcissism in the Pulpit?
A colleague of mine often says that ministry is a magnet for narcissistic personality—who else would want to speak on behalf of God every week? While the vast majority of people struggle with public speaking, not only do pastors do it regularly, but they do it with “divine authority.”
The Problem with Narcissus (is Not What You Think)
People often think of Narcissus as the symbol of excessive self-regard, but in fact, he exemplifies the opposite. As the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino observed in the 1500s, Narcissus did not suffer from an overabundance of self-love, but rather from its deficiency. The myth is a parable about paralysis. The youth, who first appears in restless motion, is suddenly rooted to one spot, unable to leave the elusive spirit. As Ficino remarked, if Narcissus had possessed real self-love, he would have been able to leave his fascination. The curse of Narcissus is immobilization. Not out of love for himself, but out of dependency upon his image.
Solving the Narcissism Epidemic
Recently a group of researchers conducted a computer analysis of three decades of hit songs. The researchers reported a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. In line with their hypothesis, they found a decrease in usages such as we and us and an increase in I and me. The researchers also reported a decline in words related to social connection and positive emotions, and an increase in words related to anger and antisocial behavior, such as hate or kill…
Our first inclination is to cure “the narcissists” by cutting them down to size. It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to teachers, parents, CEOs, or my neighbors, the response is the same: These egomaniacs need to know that they’re not special, they’re not that great, they’re not entitled to jack, and they need to get over themselves. No one cares…
The topic of narcissism has penetrated the social consciousness enough that most people correctly associate it with a pattern of behaviors that include grandiosity, a pervasive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. What almost no one understands is how every level of severity in this diagnosis is underpinned by shame. Which means we don’t “fix it” by cutting people down to size and reminding folks of their inadequacies and smallness. Shame is more likely to be the cause of these behaviors, not the cure…
We need to understand these trends and influences, but I find it far more helpful, and even transformative in many instances, to look at the patterns of behaviors through the lens of vulnerability. For example, when I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose. Sometimes the simple act of humanizing problems sheds an important light on them, a light that often goes out the minute a stigmatizing label is applied.