dealing with difficult people :: narcissists

January 12, 2011

The vote is in.

And what I’ve heard is that many of you (with many pastors responding!) want to hear some thoughts on dealing with the more difficult people you come into contact with.  Maybe you are a friend.  Maybe you are a spouse.  Maybe you are a pastor.  Maybe you are a small group leader.  Maybe you are a manager.  Regardless, you’ve met people who simply exhaust you, requiring more energy than you can muster up.  Part of you wants to be compassionate.  But another part wants to snap, raging at a person who seems to suck the life out of you and out of your organization.

Let’s begin with the narcissist, and follow in the coming weeks with borderlines, histrionics, obsessive-compulsives, anti-socials, and many others.  Though I despise labels, at some level, they are in common use, and provide us with some capacity for conversation despite their limitations.

First, let’s acknowledge that all of these exist on a continuum.  We’re all narcissists to some degree.

Second, here’s how I spot a narcissistic (and I’ll use the male pronoun for convenience, though I’ve counseled many female narcissists).  A narcissist, derived from the Greek ναρκη (numb), is one who has been robbed of a God-given desire to live for and love others and is entranced by his own image.  A narcissistic is a self-worshipper.  He can look like the image-driven salesman, or the arrogant entrepreneur, or the success-addicted pastor, or the self-interested politician.  We’ve seen this in John Edwards and Gavin Newsom, in Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh.  They are men and women who feign empathy, appearing to be for others, but who ultimately live for their own good.  They enter a room noticing the most powerful person in the room, only to see life as a competition that must be won.

But then we meet the narcissistic in the church.  He’s an influential person, often.  He plays the game of relationships well, appearing charming and interested.  He approaches you at the community group, and asks questions about you. But soon the gravitational force pulls towards him.  He monopolizes time, appearing sincere at first but increasingly self-serving as time goes on.  He’s optimistic, unless he’s relating to people who knows well (his wife, or an employee, or a child).  In these cases, he becomes condescending.  In your group, he is interested and up until the tide turns in a direction he disagrees with.  And then you see an anger you didn’t expect.

Most people think they’ve screwed up when confronted by a narcissist.

In his marriage, he appears put together, loving, and quite happy.  But you begin to notice a distance.  His spouse seems to fall into place as if it were a duty, not a delight. Behind the scenes, she feels less-than-human.  But few know it.

In his ministry, you find his personality compelling, until you experience his wrath.

In is friendships, you find him boasting of his accomplishments, but rarely interested in your life or struggles.

He is disconnected from his own pain, insecurity, and fear.

And ultimately, this is what narcissism reveals.  Manifesting in power, a lack of empathy, a sense of superiority, a cynicism about failure, a penchant to succeed, the narcissist cannot fail, in his work, in his relationships, in his friendships.  And yet, underneath his powerful and impressive exterior, he is deeply insecure.  He doesn’t know this.  We can only pray he realizes it in time.  But nevertheless, it’s there.  He cannot fail.  He cannot become what he despises…powerless, ashamed.

I’ve worked with narcissists for 14 years.  I find that some will never, ever give up power for the sake of relationship, vulnerable relationship where real honesty and humility can exist.  But I’ve found often that men and women who struggle in these ways long to shed the narcissistic posture for a taste of authentic connection.  More often than not, I’ve just got to be honest with a narcissist.  And what this entails is sharing what I see and feel.  I’ll often say, “I find myself wanting to admire you, but I feel disconnected from you.  I feel like you’ve set us up to be competitive but I don’t want to be.  To be honest, I just want you to find one safe place where you don’t have to be on.  Maybe we can have that.”

My sense is that narcissists are not aberrations, zits on the face of a beautiful person.  They have stories, like you and me.  Many have been hurt in their early years, and have coped by becoming tough, powerful, and crafty.  But I’ve found that the toughest customers are as insecure and afraid as I am.  We’re all human, after all.  We give the appearance of strength and invincibility, but most of us are phony’s.  This is all-the-more reason for a Messiah who became weak so that we might know real strength.

But narcissists, to be sure, will annoy you, frustrate you, and sometimes sabotage your group, your church, or organization.  The question is:  Will you give them an opportunity to see their sin, and own it?  Now, saying that, most narcissists will resist.  But I’ve known many a “repentant narcissist,” as Dan Allender calls them, who have not only seen their own stuff but have turned into extraordinary and humble contributers to a larger vision.

Don’t give up on the narcissist.

His lack of empathy and penchant for power is hiding a deep, deep insecurity underneath.  Very few people take the time to be curious, to ask about his story, to move into his life.  Many will resist.  But, in those times when a narcissist owns his stuff, repents, and begins to change, you find some of the most significant, giving, influential, and humble people in your church.

After all, God is in the business of redemption.