- Written by Margaret Bernhart
We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment. –C. S. Lewis – The Screwtape Letters
Narcissist is not a word Ben associated with himself. Rather, he saw himself as an innovative plastic surgeon with a calling to emancipate beauty by giving new life to children taunted for their deformities, hope to teens whose faces met unforgiving windshields, and a fountain of youth to Baby boomers searching for longevity. When he wasn’t injecting toxins into facial fissures, tucking and tying, his thoughts acquiesced to financial opportunities and flashes of cosmetic brilliance. Conversing with others was often a bore as it collided with his mental obsessions, requiring him to carry on two conversations at once-his thoughts and appearing engaged with others. Though his eyes dulled while listening to others, they shimmered with the indebted accolades of his patients. His monetary benevolence to his alma-mater and political organizations allowed him to rub shoulders with the elite as he called them, people like himself. His subdued strut at church veneered his self-importance, which was nourished by the attention of the pastor and parishioners alike. His status, influence and power only reinforced his inflated and fragile ego, fueling his sense of omnipotence. It didn’t hurt that his wife and son helped maintain his successful image.
Ben met his childhood sweetheart in high school and didn’t marry Barbara until he was in his residency program. Though his heart pined for her, he didn’t entertain a serious relationship with her as she was too much of a diversion to his insatiable ambitions. He eventually married Barbara for her beauty and because she made him feel good. It was a plus that her low maintenance style and sweet disposition catered to his needs and required little of him. Ben could remain the boy who never grew up. It didn’t dawn on him that he had something to offer his wife as she fit snugly into his world. Things got rocky for a while when Barbara wanted children and Ben avoided discussions by stonewalling her with financial excuses. Finally, he conceded, reasoning that if he gave her what she wanted, she would be more inclined to give him what he needed most–her devotion. A business deal was consummated. His son was born on his birthday and to his surprise Ben fell in love with this blue eyed, dark haired boy. Ben’s interest lasted for a couple of months, until he realized he had been dethroned. He remembers little of the first five years of Patrick’s life as he didn’t know how to relate to such an imaginative boy, since the concept of play was foreign to Ben. As the years flew by and Ben’s practice flourished, it became evident that he didn’t know his son and he made an effort to spend time with him. Patrick soon became an extension of his own dreams and ambitions. Ben obscenely indulged and overvalued his son, causing his wife to feel threatened and excluded by the duo.
Envy’s lure was the root of Ben’s competitive spirit as he was driven to acquire all manner of status symbols–a house with a four-car garage, beach cottage on the cape, BMW, plasma screen home theater, a membership at both an exclusive fitness club and the wealthiest metropolitan church in the city listing a who’s who in its membership. When it came to friends and advisers in the legal and medical fields, Ben strategically chose the best, an incarnation of his own grandiosity. Ben never divulged his secret glee when a colleague’s marital relationship hit the skids or medical practice was struggling. The news only affirmed his superiority and inflamed his disdain. He resented younger colleagues who hadn’t paid their dues and appeared to have an easier and more affluent lifestyle. Gratefulness was an unknown emotion to Ben. For he lived with a sense of entitlement and was ticked off when friends wouldn’t do him favors or he had to wait in line as others did and wasn’t shown the deference he felt he deserved. Once he overheard a business acquaintance comment, “Getting ol’ Ben to reciprocate what he got from others was like shaking hands with Venus de Milo.”
It never crossed Ben’s mind to desire a real friend, as that meant need which was a sign of weakness. The only companionship he sought was his wife’s and if he was honest, it was for what she gave him–sex and a sense of self-esteem. He was oblivious to understanding her hurts and desires, dismissing her complaints and blame shifting by saying–“That’s how women are.” He hated her repetitive comment, “Every argument becomes about you. I can never have a need.” Her words mystified him. Recently, his racquetball buddy canceled their weekly match because he was grieving the loss of his father. Ben thought, how inconvenient. He rarely felt emotions other than anger. His wife’s words hung in the air, “You never look happy, only driven.” Imagine, he thought, someone filled with as much passion as I have being anything but happy. And besides, I work long hours for my family. Ben considered himself unique and special. Few understood him and he could blame his lack of recognition on that. He wondered if fame came to the brilliant only after they died.
Ben worked out to keep his body in shape. As the advancing years took their toll, he could feel his attention wandering to other women for affirmation. He hated to admit it, but his marriage was now the one on the skids. And in the middle of long and sleepless nights, a voice would taunt him–The sham of being a winner is over. Anxiety would begin to rise in his chest, clutch his throat, his heart wound pound and his head would spin. Ben would choke down the fear and try harder to lose himself in the intoxicating dreams of endless opportunities. Eventually he would fall back to sleep as he had done all his life.
We are all closet narcissists with varying degrees of Ben in us. Narcissistic Personality Disorder parallels so closely the human condition that it gives an enlightening view of the enormous struggle mankind has with self-absorption. Deplored in all cultures, egocentricity is the nature of young children and considered a stage teenagers grow out of, however it is viewed as disgusting in adults. Its main features are grandiose self importance and overestimation of talents and accomplishments; intoxication with fantasies of brilliance, power, beauty, success and ideal love; view of self as special and only understood by other superior individuals; craving for admiration; sense of entitlement; interpersonal exploitation; hypersensitivity to evaluation of others; lack of empathy; jealousy; and arrogant behaviors and attitudes.
Otto Kernberg, a leading theorist on narcissistic personality, describes the disorder this way:
These patients present an unusual degree of self-reference in their interactions with other people, a great need to be loved and admired by others, and a curious apparent contradiction between a very inflated concept of themselves and an inordinate need for tribute from others. Their emotional life is shallow. They experience very little empathy for the feelings of others, they obtain very little enjoyment from life other than from the tributes they receive from others or from their grandiose fantasies, and they feel restless and bored when external glitter wears off and no new sources feed their self-regard. They envy others, tend to idealize some people from whom they expect narcissistic supplies and to depreciate and treat with contempt those from when they do not expect anything (often their former idols). In general, their relationships with other people are clearly exploitative and sometimes parasitic. It is as if they feel they have the right to control and possess others and to exploit them without guilt feelings-and, behind a surface which very often is charming and engaging, one senses coldness and ruthlessness. Very often such patients are considered to be dependent because they need so much tribute and adoration from others, but on a deeper level they are completely unable to really depend on anybody because of their deep distrust and depreciation of others (Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism).
A recent New York Times poll indicates that 73% of Americans believe that people are naturally good and 85% believe that we are free to become anything we wish to be (this “becoming” taking place apart from God’s grace). A majority of Christians now affirm the philosophy of our narcissistic age and deny the central doctrine of Christianity. Far better we acknowledge the ugly truth about our egocentric nature and that all sacrificial acts are invariably tainted with self-serving motives, rather than delude ourselves into thinking we are more altruistic than we really are. Although there is no cure for self-absorption this side of heaven, understanding our flawed humanity and embracing the good news of the Gospel can lead to brokenness, repentance and a freedom to love with a new focus. C. S. Lewis says,
In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that-and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison-you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you. That raises a terrible question. How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshiping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people…The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether (Mere Christianity).
By examining the characteristics of narcissism, we can more readily see the battle and how to assault this adversary of our soul-narcissism becomes a mirror for what not to be. Dr. Larry Crabb, Christian psychologist, offers a definition of health that cuts to the heart of narcissism, “…people are normal to the extent they are happily ruled by the internal disposition toward radical other-centeredness, just like the three Persons of the Trinity.” Paul summarizes it this way:
For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and motivated by the Devil. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and every kind of evil. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no partiality and is always sincere (James 3:13-17 NLT).