part 2 :: dealing with difficult people :: narcissists

January 12, 2011

In the previous post, we looked at some very basic contours of the narcissistic personality.  In fact, I said we’re all narcissistic to some degree.  Some of the great leaders, politicians, pastors, and influencers have narcissistic tendencies.  Honesty requires that we see our brokenness and admit it honestly.  In interviews with potential counselor hires over the years, I’ve always asked, “What personality disorder would you most identify with?”  It’s always very encouraging to me when someone answers, “Oh, I definitely struggle with narcissistic tendencies.  It’s been a big part of my own work in therapy.”

That said, how do we deal with narcissists, in our church or organization?  In Bold Love, Dan Allender provides helpful categories.  Again, categories are just that…categories.  They are inherently limited.  But Allender argues that people can be understood in three basics ways:  as normal sinners, as fools, or as evil. I’ll discuss these in the context of the narcissist.  (In this post, I’ll switch to the feminine pronoun not because women tend to be more narcissistic, but because I used the masculine pronoun in the first post.)

The normal sinner has been hurt and hurts others.  She is aware of some of her stuff, but blind to other aspects.  Relationally, she is far from perfect.  She’ll be disappointed if, for some reason, she’s not not allowed into the inner circle of power.  She’ll enter a room monitoring, looking for the most important person.  Her first thought in a difficult situation might be, “How will this affect me?”  However, when honestly challenged by a friend, she’s quick to own her stuff.  When told by her boss that she is going to need to relax into a secondary position without authority, she’ll feel like a failure, at one level.  And she’ll be disappointed.  But it won’t slay her.  She’ll see her own stuff wrapped up in it, and say, “This is probably best for me…a necessary part of my growth.”  When she does become the boss, she is open to feedback, noticing that her continual default will be to expect compliance.  She’ll own her own lack of empathy, and continually work on growing as a leader.  The normal sinner, in fact, is a part of the messy and often dysfunctional family we call the church.

A fool is far more difficult.  When challenged, her reaction is defensive.  When confronted by a boss, she might say, “I have to be this way because you are so hard to work with.”  Her gravitational pull is always self-focused and self-centered.  In a group, she can be empathetic for the sake of greater sway with others, ultimately asking about another to bolster her influence.  She needs to be close to power.  Her self-promotion makes complete sense in her world, but is strangely uncomfortable for everyone around her.  In fact, she feels entitled to be a leader, an influencer, out-in-front.

Because of all of this, she is very, very difficult to challenge.  In an honest conversation with a fool, you find yourself talking in circles.  Your words don’t seem to penetrate to an honest, self-reflective core.  Over time, you recognize that there is a certain futility to ongoing challenge or confrontation.  In marriages, this can be extraordinarily difficult.  The lack of empathy and level of reactivity, when not honestly acknowledged, can be soul-crushing to a spouse.  But responding reactively doesn’t help.  Powering back at the person doesn’t help.  It only further ignites the inner protector, a part of the person charged with protecting her more vulnerable parts.  However, merely accepting narcissistic behavior that is abusive is not-at-all noble.  Whether in a marriage, a business setting, a church, or some other community, foolish behavior can destroy community.  It is not appropriate to ignore it, or deem it part of what it means to be “messy” as a church or in a marriage.  God is concerned for the victim ( (Exod 22:22-24; Deut. 10:18; Ps. 10:14; Ps. 68:5; Ps. 146:9; Isa. 1:17; Jer. 22:3).  And power, used manipulatively or in a self-serving way, is universally condemned.  The story of King David is a fantastic example of this, particularly in his exploitation of Bathsheba.  A fool needs to be confronted, but this process can be very messy itself, and often is not done well.  (I’m aware of screwing up many, many situations where a narcissistic fool needed to be dealt with).

An evil person is almost always impossible to deal with.  Now, the word evil may irk some.  If you are reading this and don’t profess faith in a God of kind or believe in the supernatural, then understand evil as sinister – Hitler-like.  Because the evil person is clearly twisted in her ways.  While the fool is blind, ignorant, lacking self-awareness and often too broken and habitually manipulative to see her ways, the evil person is completely cut off from any capacity for care or empathy.  Often, these people are deemed “anti-social” in psychological parlance.  In their presence, you feel a sinister, cold, and calloused vibe.  The person in relationship with an evil narcissistic must protect herself, and the church faced with this kind of person will often struggle to be compassionate but ultimately need to part ways because of the scorched-earth destruction left behind.

With all of this said, the fool is the most difficult person to deal with.  A normal narcissist is a repentant narcissist, continuing to struggle but self-aware.  An evil person is sinister, and all of us can agree that these people are very scary.  The Tuscon shootings are just another reminder.  However, fools frustrate us.  They demand our time and energy.  They can appear repentant at times, and then engage their old patterns in the next breath.  We find ourselves drawn in by their seeming self-awareness at one moment, and then repulsed by their selfishness in the next moment.  In Christian communities, we’re particularly aware that compassion and forgiveness is required, but we’re often at a loss as to how to do it.

I’ve written some on dealing with abuse before.  Clearly, to answer this for every context – marriage, business, church, etc. – would be impossible.  However, it’s important to remember a few things:

1.  Be clear – You’ve got to be clear with what you are experiencing.  The foolish narcissist will make you feel crazy.  Reality and truth is twisted.  Words become tools to hurt and confuse.  You’ve got to find a way to stay centered and clear about the truth.

2.  Be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove – Remain tenderhearted.  Pray for the person.  Have compassion on the broken inner person within the fool, the “little boy” or “little girl” who may have been hurt or wounded early in life, and who has reacted with power and manipulation.  However, be wise.  Compassion does not require you to lay down your self.  Wisdom demands a kind of artful engagement…and artful disengagement where required.

3.  Get community around you – To stay clear and make wise decisions, you need others around you.  There are two people you don’t need, however.  You don’t need the person who says, “Jesus requires us to love everyone and lay yourself down not matter what comes at you.”  That’s a twisting of the Gospel message.  You also don’t need the person who blames everything on the other, and refuses to engage you with your own participation in the process of sin.  No, you need honest friends who can call you on your own stuff, but also help you see the clear foolishness of the other.

In the end, love demands that we take brokenness and sin seriously at every level.  Responses that either minimize brokenness and sin, or react with pure self-righteous vengeance miss the Gospel.  In-between, we find the difficult and wisdom-demanding work of loving broken people.

A book recommendation – Rid of my Disgrace - newly released and written by a good friend.  Though written about sexual assault, it is a great primer on the Bible and victimization by a thoughtful theologian who engages the mess everyday on the front lines.