Tag Archives: Narcissism

Is your empathy really self-serving?


Empathy, or feelings of understanding or identification with another, seems to be a primary vehicle of human expression of love and compassion. In the world of therapy, empathy seems the foundation for all good counselor work. Sure, we can act in kind, compassionate, yet robotic ways but knowing that someone gets you and helps you is better.

But this begs two questions: Are empathy and altruism connected and parallel? And, is our empathy really self-serving? Taking the second question further, could our empathic responses be destructive to the very people with whom we want to help? Psychologist Paul Bloom thinks so (short video of his contra empathy point of view). While I think his argument against empathy is seriously flawed and really merely an argument against naïve, superficial, and self-serving do-gooderism–a significant problem in our society where we solve problems on emotion and often without taking the time to understand either cause or consequence–the bigger question is whether or not we ever really have concern for others outside of self-interest. And if we discover that all empathy is self-serving, does that deny the Christian virtue of self-denial and voluntary submission to others?

What is at the heart of our empathic, altruistic behavior?

We all have numerous instances where we have witnessed self-sacrificing behavior. The reason these instances stand out in our memories is that they are unusual and somewhat rare experiences. But consider the more run-of-the-mill expressions of empathy. You see a GoFundMe page for a friend in need and you give. Your church is seeking donations for Thanksgiving baskets and you buy groceries. Your neighbor is sick and you mow her lawn. Do we do these behaviors for them? Or do we do it, in large part, for ourselves?

Josh Litman’s paper “Is Empathy Ultimately Just Narcissism?” seeks to summarize the research literature about whether empathy and altruism are positively correlated and whether empathy is really about the other or about self-interest. His answer? Empathy and altruism may not be all that connected. Empathy is better understood as feelings of “oneness” or connectedness to the other. When I identify more with someone, I’m more likely to feel empathy and do self-sacrificial for them.

In conclusion, this paper defends a non-altruistic, egoistic strain of empathic concern. It might be heavy-handed to call it narcissism, but evidence has shown that empathic concern is certainly motivated by self-interested factors rather than selflessness.

Could this be the reason why more people changed their Facebook profile images to a French flag after the Paris bombings and far fewer chose a Turkish flag after the most recent airport bombing? Do we more closely identify with one group over another and thus feel more empathy and make more statements of support and care?

Does this proclivity to more strongly identify with some more than others reveal self-interest and self-concern? If so, does that make our caring of others all about ourselves and cause us to suspect the warmth and empathy we get from others?

So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:19, NLT)

Oneness and love in the created and the Creator

I think empathy can be self-serving (I care for you because I want to be cared for) but I do not think it must be this way. Rather, I would argue that we have been designed to understand our world by means of our experiences. Because I understand what it could feel like to lose my home to a flood I am moved to donate time and talent to help rebuild a home. Because I see your humanness, I am able to empathize with your losses and then consider what possible ways I might respond.

Oneness does help us empathize. But empathy is not the same thing as love. True love, as an action verb, requires a willingness to expend self for the sake of another. True love enlarges the population you are one with. So, straight people find themselves in the experiences of gay people; Christians in the experience of Muslims; liberals in the experience of conservatives. True love moves beyond simplistic understandingfile-nov-02-12-21-19-pms with oneness and best reflects the character of God who self-sacrificially loves beyond measure, choosing to take up our infirmities as his own.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Phil 2:5-8, NIV)

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.(Heb 4:15, NIV)

 

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Filed under counseling, counseling skills, love, Psychology, Uncategorized

Useful Book on Narcissism


Craig Malkin of Harvard Medical School has written a popular, easy to read book on the topic of narcissism and its opposite end of the spectrum, “echoists.” Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad–And Surprisingly Good–About Feeling Special (Harper, 2015) is worth your read if you think you might be on the spectrum or if you live with someone who does.

In the beginning he sets out to destroy the myth that narcissism is always destructive and that all narcissists act the same. To help describe the continuum of egocentrism Malkin defines the low side as “echoists,” those who have too little of it who feel special in becoming invisible to others only known for the help they offer to others. Further, he also describes narcissism as something that may ebb and flow, rather than a consistent trait. Malkin describes the continuum well with many real life examples. With a better understanding of the spectrum, it may help us look more closely at less pathological forms of egocentrism and be less likely to lump everyone together.

Worried that you might be a narcissist? Want to see where you fall on the spectrum? Try out his assessment tool.

In his book he describes the root causes and the experience of being around subtle and extreme forms. Unlike other researchers, he outlines ways that egocentric people can grow empathy toward others. This idea flies in the face of conventional wisdom that a narcissist can never change,

The problem is we’ve all had it drummed into our heads that narcissist can’t change. They think they’re perfect just the way they are, the argument goes, so why should they even try? But unquestioningly accepting this idea backs us into an impossibly tight corner….We’ll fall silent or vent our anger, or…we’ll try a little of each. And none of these reactions will make the relationship any healthier

When we withdraw, by swallowing our words or walking on eggshells, we only strengthen people’s narcissism. In fact, echoists and narcissists often pair up to create a “love” that’s toxic to them both.

What can we do? For those who are not extreme narcissists, one way to encourage growth is to validate their experiences even while we say “ouch” letting them know we are hurt. Too often our anger or our silence is the primary response. While validation and pointing out our pain is not a guaranteed solution, combining validation plus vulnerability can enable some to experience compassion for self and other at the same time.

Check out the book!

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Institutional betrayal: Secret ingredient to PTSD


We live in the world where human frailty and pathology is viewed in individual terms. When we see sickness we imagine that the person must have some weakness in biology, faith, or behavior. Rarely do we think about the role the system or community has played in the development of that person’s pathology. This is true when we think about a person diagnosed with PTSD. We therapists hypothesize about individual factors (personality factors, early childhood experiences (a slight nod to external causes) and neurobiological risk factors) and situation factors (the frequency, duration, and intensity of overwhelming trauma events) when we try to answer the “why” of the development of PTSD in a person.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it fails to take into consideration of known research that suggests that environmental response to an individual’s trauma experiences may be a determining factor in whether PTSD or chronic traumatic reactions form.

In the most recent American Psychologist (2014, 69:6, 575-587), Carly Parnitzke Smith and Jennifer Freyd write about the concept of institutional betrayal. Traumatologists recognize Freyd’s name as the researcher who developed “betrayal trauma theory”, pointing to the especially toxic form of PTSD caused by those who were supposed to be safe and protective. These begin to examine “institutional action and inaction that exacerbate the impact of traumatic experiences…”

How can an institution betray a victim?

When a person trusts that a system designed to defend, respond, protect, or seek justice will do its job after an interpersonal trauma, and when that system either chooses not to respond (omission) or worse, chooses to lay blame at the feet of the victim (commission), institutional betrayal occurs. Examples include law enforcement accusing rape victims of “asking for it” with their clothing, church leaders allowing offender clergy to “leave with their reputations” or refusal to investigate a case of date rape when the reported offender is an important leader in the community.

In summarizing a couple of studies, Smith and Freyd point out that institutional betrayal after a trauma experience leads to higher rates of dissociation, sexual problems, and health difficulties. This is even more likely when the trauma takes place in an environment where protection of the members is trumpeted (i.e., church or military).

What are the common characteristics of betraying institutions?

Smith and Freyd note several characteristics found in institutions at greater risk for betraying members.

  • membership requirements to define in group identity. This produces a need for members to act in ways to maintain such an identity
  • Prestige (both leaders and institutions). Prestige produces both trust and fear, dependency and power
  • Priorities. “Institutional betrayal may remain unchecked when performance or reputation is valued over, or divorced from the well-being of members.” As the authors note, maintaining reputation as a priority will lead to neglect or attack of those who challenge reputation
  • Institutional denial. Blame a few bad apples, avoid institutional blame or responsibility

Those institutions that do make efforts to prevent abuse within its community may still yet fail to respond well. They may fail to use adequate screening procedures, normalize abuse, fail to utilize or follow appropriate response procedures, punish whistleblowers, and aid cover-ups.

What to do?

Smith and Freyd argue that transparency (about past actions/failures to act as well as power structures) and priority to protect the well-being of all members will move institutions away from the risk of betraying individual members. I would argue that the shift to protect moves from the institution as a whole to protection of the most vulnerable.

Let me recommend a few resources that have appeared here in the past:

  1. Diane Langberg’s 5 part video about narcissistic leaders and the institutions they lead. She too describes systemic narcissism.
  2. Why some spiritual leaders abuse (and systems allow it)
  3. Narcissistic systems
  4. Resources to combat narcissism one person at a time

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Filed under Abuse, personality, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychology

The Wonderful False World of Conferences


I’ve just returned from four plus days of conferencing with the American Association of Christian Counselors. I am told about 7500 of us were there. I had the good pleasure of presenting, listening, discussing, learning, and debating. I renewed old acquaintances and made new ones that I hope to keep up with long after the conference. As one who loves learning and debating, conferences are nearly required activities. Sure, I get my continuing education credits (CEs) met but even more so, I get to try on new ideas and debate old ones. It is 4 days of stimulation of thoughts, ideas, and feelings.

But it is also false.

At conference hotels, someone makes all your meals, cleans up after you, makes your bed, refreshes your towel and makes you feel important when the concierge asks, “anything else I can do for you.” During and after sessions where I am the presenter, I have all sorts of folks who want to solicit my opinions and wisdom. They seem to like me and some even want to emulate me. They ask me for coffee and my business card so they can connect more later. Conferences also include plenty of socializing. Everyone is happy to be there, wears their good clothes, has interesting things to say, and seems to be the most reasonable people on the planet. No one seems to have much emotional or relational baggage at these conferences. There are no kids to reprimand, fights with spouses, and conflicts to navigate.

Oh, and when the main speakers appeal to our work as “kingdom critical”, I am reminded that I am indeed important to God and the world. Without me, the world as we know it would not exist.

You see the falseness when conferences scratch that itch for intellectual and relational stimulation and tempt us to believe that this is how life should be. My wife and children don’t hang on my every word, aren’t interested in being my concierge, and no one freshens up my room for me when I leave for the day.

Don’t get me wrong. I love conferences. Ideas flow afresh. Collaborative arrangements solidify. My mind and heart are filled. But, I also need to remember that I and the rest of the attendees aren’t really as special as we imagine. This is a Sabbath from the real work and not where life is really lived.

It was probably good that one of my presentations was on the topic of narcissism. I might need to re-read my notes again.

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Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, self-deception

AACC 2013: Narcissistic Leaders and Systems


Today, AACC’s World Conference begins at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. This morning, Dr. Diane Langberg and myself will be running a pre-conference workshop entitled: Narcissistic Leaders and Organizations: Assessment and Intervention. I will start us off with a meditation from 1 Kings 1 (ideas I first heard from a sermon by Phil Ryken last year). We will review current explanations of narcissism as well as an emerging model that may be helpful for those who are trying to move beyond seeing narcissists as only arrogant and exploitive.

Can a system be narcissistic?

Yes. Here are some of the features.

  1. Leader exudes god-like status and does not share power; surrounded by yea-sayers, unwilling to tolerate disagreement, accept mentoring and willing to scapegoat others when failures arise
  2. Constituents gain self-esteem/identity from the organization and love of the system is the highest priority; insider status provides immeasurable value
  3. There is an approved way of thinking, one must take sides for/against; constituents justify dictatorial behaviors of leaders
  4. No toleration for admiration of competitors
  5. Inability to assess own weaknesses

But, here is a most interesting fact: most collective narcissistic systems are NOT filled with individual narcissists! There is something  “in the water” that brings non-narcissists together to develop these 4 features (as written about by Golec de Zavala and colleagues in 104:6 of the the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology):

  1. Inflated belief and emotional investment in group superiority
  2. Required continuous external validation and vigilance against all threats of loss of status
  3. Perception that intergroup criticism is a threat and exaggerated sensitivity to any form of criticism
  4. Intergroup violence can restore positive group image (violence may be verbal as well as physical

Why teach counselors about narcissistic systems?

Counselors often interact with church and parachurch systems by consulting with the system, counseling leaders, or advocating for an individual client. It is good to be able to (a) recognize some of the unhealthy egocentric patterns (blind spots) leaders and systems develop, and (b) offer help to individuals and systems that do not get the counselor sucked into the system or unnecessarily alienate the system. I have had the opportunity to work with a significant number of churches and have learned that there are ways to help and ways that I can get in the way, especially if I begin to attack a long held belief system. For example, if parachurch organization A has had a string of CEO/Board conflicts, then I as a counselor may have to navigate some long cherished beliefs about the system when asked to consult on their next hire.

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Filed under "phil monroe", AACC, biblical counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling skills, personality

Narcissism in the Bible? A sermon by Philip Ryken


A few weeks ago, I attended a conference at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) where Dr. Philip Ryken was speaking/preaching. Dr. Ryken is a friend from our student days at WTS and is now the president of Wheaton College. His sermon was on the first 10 verses of 1 Kings 1. While the purpose of the talk was not to identify narcissism in the bible, the passage clearly points to egocentrism and all of the distortions and deceptions that come with building one’s own kingdom.

In the passage we see that Adonijah sets himself up as king even has his father, David, is still alive. What does he do that reveals narcissism?

  1. “I will be King.” He demands power
  2. He does not know humility or correction (sadly the passage says that his father never confronted him thus probably building egocentrism)
  3. He gathers people of influence to promote his position
  4. He buys an entourage to improve his public standing
  5. He gives the illusion of submission and faith (sacrificing sheep to look like he is doing the right thing)
  6. He makes sure not to include people who will speak the truth (does not invite Nathan the prophet)

Let me encourage you to listen (for free) to Dr. Ryken’s message as he describes in better fashion these features of building our own kingdom.

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Filed under Biblical Reflection, deception

“Do you know who I am?” and other self-important acts


In the last little bit we’ve been subjected to lots of signs that famous people tend to fall into the trap of self-importance (or, is it a requirement to be self-important to run for office or seek the limelight?). What signs do I refer to?

  • Taking pictures of certain body parts and emailing them to others
  • Having no apparent qualms about serial cheating while in the limelight
  • Declaring, “Do you know who I am?” and believing that if the other person did realize the importance of the person, that they would give better treatment or allow the famous person off the hook

But we too suffer from the same struggle of self-importance. While I’ve never thought someone would treat me better if they realized my greatness and I’ve never thought it would be cool to send a risqué pic of myself to someone, I have thought, “How dare you treat me this way! I deserve better than this!”

Or how about these ones:

  • inching your bumper so close to the car in front of you so that the car wanting to merge into your lane can’t.
  • cutting in line at a store because you have to get somewhere soon
  • expecting others to praise you for routine work done
  • thinking that everyone is thinking about your gaffe or your entry into a room (this may be experienced as prolonged embarrassment and desires to flee)
  • worrying about fairness about chores and whether you’re doing more than another
  • ruminating on your unsung value to your company

What other acts of self-importance are you prone to? What do they say about your sense of self? We’d like to believe that the Congressman from New York or a drunk driving actor acting oafishly are cut from a different cloth and act in ways that you and I would never consider. But, in fact the root of their foolish behavior is (a) seeking self-importance and the acclaim of others, and (b) failing to see the value of self-denial.

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Filed under Cultural Anthropology, News and politics, Uncategorized

More on Narcissism


Hadn’t read my Monitor on Psychology (Feb 2011 edition) til this morning and saw that the cover story is on the possible rise of narcissism in young folk these days. Now, this magazine is popular and doesn’t go too deep into reporting on research…and I haven’t followed up on the studies to read them for myself, but…

  • one study has 80% of middle school students scoring higher on self-esteem in ’06 than ’88
  • Another shows an increase in the lifetime prevalence of NPD
  • However, no nationally representative samples comparisons have been done to really shed light on whether a rise is truly taking place
  • One meta study of 85 studies (between ’82 and ’06) suggests an increase of narcissism among college students

The article goes on to muse about whether materialism and social networking lead the way toward narcissism but also wonders whether the decrease in availability to easy credit will lower the self-promoting trend a bit.

In an ironic twist, it appears that the DSM 5 may not include NPD as a diagnosis. Rather. It will include a more general diagnosis (see below taken from the DSM5.0rg site). Strangely, one of the “types” is NOT narcissism.

The essential features of a personality disorder are impairments in identity and sense of self and in the capacity for effective interpersonal functioning. To diagnose a personality disorder, the impairments must meet all of the following criteria:

A.    A rating of mild impairment or greater in self and interpersonal functioning on the Levels of Personality Functioning.

B.    Associated with a “good match” or “very good match” to a personality disorder type or with a rating of “quite a bit like the trait” or “extremely like the trait” on one or more personality trait domains.

C.    Relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.

D.    Not better understood as a norm within an individual’s dominant culture.

E.    Not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).

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Filed under counseling, counseling science, personality, Psychology

Resources about narcissism?


Cover of "The Drama of the Gifted Child"

Cover of The Drama of the Gifted Child

A few weeks ago I was asked about resources on the topic of narcissism, things a person struggling with some of the features might read to better understand their inner world. I didn’t have any really great “lay” materials on the topic so I’m going to poll the audience. A perfect entry for Valentine’s Day when we celebrate those people who make us feel special!

Narcissism is an ugly word if it is used about you, as in, “you’re so narcissistic!” This usually means someone sees us as being self-centered.

The truth is…most of us have a touch of it at times. We desire affirmation, we fantasize about being recognized for our achievements, we want to be special (or at least seen that way), we have times of feeling entitled and may even manipulate the feelings of others to get what we want. Our focus on self may limit our empathy towards others. We may be haughty. All of have some of these features some of the time. Some of us have these features most of the time.

Having these feelings doesn’t mean we are personality disordered. But, our willingness to acknowledge and work on being more other centered MAY reveal whether we meet diagnostic criteria. Meaning, if you can admit to the problem and improve your capacity for empathy then you probably aren’t meeting criteria for a personality disorder.

What causes narcissism?

The simple Christian answer is sinful self-focus. But since ALL of us are sinners and flawed…can we be more specific why some people seem to struggle more with the problem, why some have an enduring bent  or a fixed pattern of relating to the world? One theory suggests that narcissistic features arise out of a lack of mirroring which results in a deep fear that we aren’t special…or worse, are worthless. There is likely some truth to this. However, it seems that some narcissism is encouraged in a me-first culture.

Resources?

So, what resources do you know that get at some of these experiences, desires, feelings of narcissism that could help a person be more aware of their impact on others.

Here’s a few reads I know about:

1. Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller. A classic psychodynamic read about our emotions. She does a nice job illustrating the fears/cravings of narcissism and borderline features and how we all have a touch of these. Not necessarily helpful in what to do about the experience but good to delve into the experiences of depression, grandiosity, denial, and self-contempt and what these do for us.

2. Re-inventing Your Life, by Jeffrey Young. In particular, look at chapter 16. In fact, if you follow the link, you can search “entitlement” in the “search inside” box on the left and once you get results, scroll down to the one on p. 314. You can read a bit of the chapter to see how the authors do a good job describing the common symptoms of narcissism.

3. Anatomy of Secret Sins, by Obadiah Sedgwick. Well, not exactly about narcissism but definitely about uncovering our true self-centeredness. Sedgwick lived between 1600 and 1658! Excellent read on the problem of self-deception.

If you try to search for books on this topic, you will discover (not surprisingly) most are written to those who either have to live with the person or are trying to get free of them. Few are written to the person with the problem.

Any resources you might add to the list?

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Filed under Christianity, conflicts, counseling, counseling science, personality, Relationships, Uncategorized