Beyond Narcissism – To Behold the Face of God

Perhaps the most difficult personalities encountered in anyone’s life are those that can clinically be labeled “narcissistic.” It refers to a very describable disorder that can be diagnosed but treated only with difficulty. The narcissist is critically handicapped when it comes to recognizing and respecting boundaries. They want to run your life (and will). Everything in the world revolves around them simply because their own boundaries are so non-existent. Being in relationship with a narcissist can often be toxic. They often make us feel that the problem belongs with us, not them. We can begin to question our own sanity and judgment. There are popular articles on the topic that I think are very helpful to those engaged in such situations. There are also spiritual questions that can be very problematic.

At the core of a narcissistic disorder is shame – overwhelming shame. The source can vary greatly but is generally found early in childhood. It might even have a bio-neurological basis. Shame is said to be the most unbearable emotion. It is how we feel about ourselves and can be excruciating in its pain. For the narcissist the pain of shame is truly unbearable – so they refuse to acknowledge it.

I have engaged narcissists from time to time in a pastoral setting. I recall one case in which the person involved refused to accept a particularly factual description of a situation to be the case. The efforts to make me agree with them were endless, including numerous office visits, letters, and phone calls day and night. They could not be wrong.

Strangely, the ability to bear shame is essential in the experience of God. God does not try to shame us or make us feel bad about ourselves. Shame is simply an objective reality in His presence. Hence, Isaiah’s description:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!” And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.

So I said: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts.” (Isa. 6:1-5)

Beholding God in His glory, Isaiah also sees himself in the truth of his own being. He experiences a sort of revulsion that should not be understated. Other encounters with God in Scripture describe people falling on their face, unable to look at the wonder before them. This hiding is an inherent part of the experience of shame. There are no excuses to be offered.

To this must be contrasted the description of our salvation as “beholding Him face to face.” This is an image of total transformation, in which our likeness to God is so complete that we are able to see Him “without shame, and with a good defense before His dread judgment seat.” The journey from Isaiah’s experience to this final blessing is the journey of salvation.

However, the journey to beholding Christ face to face can only begin at the point of Isaiah’s experience of shame. As an old man in A.A. once said, “The only thing you need to know about God is that you’re not Him.” It is also that which we need to know about everyone else in our life. The boundaries that rightly separate us from one another are properly marked with a healthy shame, an instinct that says, “You’re out of line and have crossed a boundary that should not be crossed.” Love requires such a recognition and respect. There can be no freedom in the coercion and compulsion that marks the boundary-lessness of the active narcissist. You cannot love me until you understand that my life is not yours and does not exist to make your life complete.

“Crossing the line” with another person should bring us up short, with a small nudge of shame (which we generally call “embarrassment”). It should provoke a small apology (or large, depending). It is a matter of respect and is utterly necessary in the life of love. We should not excuse ourselves, “Oh! She knows I don’t mean it!” These trespasses are small injuries. Some endure such injuries on a regular basis and become so accustomed to them that they simply expect them. But their souls are required to shrink in such circumstances, as they draw back from the pain of frequent injury.

I once read a book that described a certain form of narcissism as the near perfect embodiment of evil. If so, the person suffering from such should be treated as though they were possessed. For the pain inside that world is even greater than the pain outside. Imagine a life without awe or wonder, without love for the other, with no sense of anyone other than yourself. It is a form of psychological hell.

I once pondered the question of how such a person could be saved (I had a pastoral possibility confronting me). I could not think of a means of repentance that such a personality could undertake. It was, for me, one of life’s unsolvable mysteries, perhaps a salvation that can happen within the depths of a soul trapped within the confines of its own endless shame. I have seen many “hate” pieces written about narcissists. They are probably the most poisonous relationships ever encountered. It is a test of compassion, I think, to put oneself in their shoes and to imagine the agony of such an existence.

It is an act of true compassion to pray earnestly for their salvation and for our own deliverance from our refusals to love. It is also a reminder that, despite the toxic nature of some shame, there is a core of healthy shame that is utterly necessary to our existence as creatures and our ability to love. It reveals to us both what we are and what we are not. Both are equally necessary.

 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



Posted

in

, ,

by

Comments

235 responses to “Beyond Narcissism – To Behold the Face of God”

  1. Larry Blain Avatar
    Larry Blain

    Thank you, Father. As you point out, narcissists have a very great need for our prayers, for otherwise their souls are completely lost. We must pray for them, even while protecting ourselves and others against their demands.

  2. Reader John Avatar
    Reader John

    Father,
    For an interesting interview and title, Google “Malignant Self-Love.” The person interviewed suffers from this this disorder.

  3. Margaret Avatar
    Margaret

    Very timely article to our personal lives, Fr. Stephen, thank you and Praise God! I take this as an encouragement to continue in prayer because Our Lord IS the Lover of Mankind, just is Our God is our Creator — He knows how we are made as you describe here. Lord have mercy on all dealing with Narcissism within themselves or within those they love.

  4. Fr. David Abernethy C.O. Avatar
    Fr. David Abernethy C.O.

    Excellent piece! Narcissism indeed as a personality disorder is a deep wound and I agree the only healing is to gaze upon the Face of God and experienced oneself as looked upon with the eyes of Love. To encourage others to come before God in that vulnerability is so difficult for sometimes the wound is so deep that there is a hatred for God for even creating them. I imagine that you have experienced how necessary it is to be willing to enter into the Hell of their internal life with them and show that you are not frightened or repulsed by it. God bless you Father. You work is beautiful.

  5. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    There are two things that I try to earnestly and emphatically convey when I make an apology to someone.
    1) There are no excuses to be made.
    2) The person receiving the apology is NOT obligated to forgive.

    A narcissist cannot even acknowledge the possibility that they stepped out of line. That is NO WHERE on their radar. And they will even claim insult and injury if you even suggest that they were out of line. The only thing that you can do to protect yourself from a narcissist is to straight up and down tell them ‘I have to restrict my interactions with you to ONLY those that are absolutely necessary.’ And you have to hold that line like God told you to do it because if you don’t do that they will use whatever allowance you give them against you.

    The reason I tell people that they are not obligated to forgive me is because of the nature of insult and injury: Control. More often times than not when we slight our brothers and sisters there was something over which we were struggling for control. If I apologize for a wrong that I have committed with the expectation that you are obligated to forgive…then who is still in control? So, in order to concede control I have to accept the possibility that forgiveness will not be granted and that is OKAY. It is within the rights of the offended party to not relent.

  6. Samuel Lopez De Victoria PhD Avatar

    A lot of clergy leaders are narcissists. Very sad. Implying that being the most mature in Christianity means you get up in front of a crowd and talk about God, is a strong temptation to power, gain, and pleasure. Hence it attracts many clowns and narcissists.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Samuel,
    I saw an article that wrote about narcissists and their presence in occupations. Teachers, clergy, and some other things were very attractive. I’ve known of more than a few cases and they are tragic. However, your characterization of “a lot” seems inaccurate or exaggerated. There are some.

  8. Cliff Kirk Avatar
    Cliff Kirk

    Upon reading the book “The Sociopath Next Door”. I became convinced that the only salvation for the narcissist is to be placed in an environment that favors the group over the individual. For example, the incidences of this disorder happening in the eastern world is far less than here in the west. It would seem that the more individualistic a society is the more narcissists are born into that society. From what I understand from science, that would be considered an adaptive behavior in terms of evolution. But a strange adaptive behavior, since narcissists and sociopaths are born that way. Our society teaches us not to ever make a mistake. So people have begun to acknowledging that they don’t, but become fully aware of the faults of others. So when another person makes a mistake around them they have no empathy to forgive them. They are the perfect creatures living in an imperfect world. This is what is being encouraged in our society, and it’s at the root of our division as a nation.

  9. Catherine Avatar
    Catherine

    I just read The People of the Lie and I think that may be the book you are referring to. It is a fascinating read.

    As far as the narcissist, there is one way they can become able to reach for redemption. That is, they suffer what’s called a narcissistic injury so bad that their personality completely breaks down and they have to rebuild it from scratch. This is rare, but it can happen. An experience like this can kill someone. They can be driven to suicide, it’s beyond what most people can imagine. But it can be done.

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for an inspiring blog.

  10. Thomas B Avatar
    Thomas B

    Thank you Father Stephen. You have spoken the Orthodox truth about a very unorthodox disorder and behaviour. Some of the comments are dragging the discussion to a tangent: it’s not about good and bad guys. It’s about the salvation of mostly broken souls.

    We are all broken to an extent and if I may, starting with myself, I’d say I am a narcissist compared to a crucified God. The trouble with this disorder is that it can cause immeasurable harm to people under the control of these people who like themselves so much.

    I worked for a narcissist in the business world at least once. His shame was known to few and now I have sympathy for him, but you have to be a saint to worry about a man like that. The scores of human beings that he has put through hell on earth get left with deep wounds. You can resign a job, but you can’t run away from the despot that controls everything about your life.

    My prayers are with the victims; God has a plan for the evil one.

  11. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    I was once in a relationship with a narcissist. The only way to help myself was to completely block him from my life. The only way to help him is to continue to pray for him. May God help us to love others in spite of our brokenness.

  12. Athanasia Avatar
    Athanasia

    My husband has had two narcissists as bosses. It has taken an enormous effort to heal from the shame, bullying and feeling of incompetence those two pushed on him. It was very hard, as the spouse, to watch him fall into the pit and just as hard to watch him climb out. I’m still working on forgiving those two people for their treatment of him.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Athanasia,
    I have worked with people and helped them get out of such situations and relationships. The aftermath requires lots of healing. God give your husband grace!

  14. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Fr Stephen,
    You have written beautifully on this subject. Thank you.

    I have considered the possibility that some sort of toxic shame must be the seed for the development of a narcissistic personality. It seems from your writing that this is likely the case. I can’t imagine what soul damage might happen from being in a parish with clergy exhibiting this disorder. I pray that we are spared of this, or that the Church hierarchy would laicize such clergy if they are exhibiting these characteristics. God help us.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    I’ve known of a few deposed for spiritual abuse. It is tragic when it happens.

  16. Thoughtful Spouse Avatar
    Thoughtful Spouse

    Father Stephen, please delete this comment if you feel it doesn’t add to the discussion. I’ve been married for eighteen years to a person who may or may not be a narcissist, so I am a bit hyper-aware as to how the word is used in pop-psychology.

    One of the most important pieces of information that I’ve collected on my journey was from a wise clinical psychologist. She made sure that I understood that narcissism is a diagnosis of exclusion. All humans go through a narcissistic phase of development– we call that adolescence. Some (perhaps more in our current culture of neurosis?) get developmentally stuck in that stage. For all intents and purposes, they act like “narcissists.”

    The difference between a “real” narcissist (with NPD) and someone who presents as a narcissist is simply this: There are people who present as narcissists who may, given time and effort at personality development, overcome their disorder/illness/malfunction/immature personality. The true diagnosis of narcissism is reserved for those cases where therapy and relationship and effort and so on have no effect. Of course, that information by itself is of little help (and can be quite dangerous) for people who need to leave dangerous relationships for their health and safety.

    I feel like this is a very important distinction in our culture, where so many unpleasant people are quickly labeled as narcissists . The etymology of shame is even the same for both groups of people— but the decisions and judgments we make about them can be dangerously premature in our own efforts to justify our own boundary setting.

    In my own experience, I have come to the conclusion that the only answer to personality disorder (whether temporary and able to be alleviated or potentially life-permanent) is a miracle of repentance and grace. In that regard, my life and marriage are a great experiment of grace. For which one of us can judge the repentance of another, especially a known liar?

    Father, your observations about shame and boundaries are spot on. My spouse can do amazing contortions to avoid feeling shame— and can lie earnestly that that is not true, that of course they know of their own shame. It is deep compassion for the wounded child that I married (along with an extensive psychological skill set!) that keeps me willing to approach the altar of sacrifice.

    Thank God that prayer is not nothing. It is perhaps the only action we can take on behalf of another.

  17. John D. Kemp Avatar
    John D. Kemp

    Father Stephen, while I do not believe I am a narcissist, I do think I may be one in transformation. I’ve been trying to follow Jesus since 1/19/70. I became a very depressed & self destuctive personified my 30’s. It is hard to even think about it. I have experienced overwhelming guilt that still will plague me to this day. When I look in the mirror I can not look myself in the eye. I’m praying & working to see myself with the eyes & mind & heart of Jesus. There is to many other things to write. I was in therapy for over 7 years the last time. For about 30+ years I thought about suicide every day multiple times a day, but my fear of Hell & ECT kept me from doing it. I’m on meds but I’m not sure if they help that much. I seem to be making progress & have to remind myself that all my sins are forgiven. That’s enough for now. Thnx.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    John,
    God is with you. May He give you grace and strengthen you. Don’t hesitate to reach out as you work through a hard time. We don’t have to do these things alone.

  19. Paula Avatar
    Paula

    Fr. Stephen,
    Your addressing this issue is appreciated!
    Please expand the idea of the N person being “boundaryless”, as
    I have considered the N person having very strong boundaries (d/t the N defending his own opinions & desires; being active toward self-needs, passive towards others’ needs; being unwilling to negotiate, etc.)!
    It is a tenacious “standing up” for the self, defending the self to the point of having “walls” (boundaries).
    I will look forward to your reply,
    and again: thank you for this post, and the blog in general.

  20. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    John,
    You said you have to remind yourself of being forgiven.
    One solid and very traditional counsel is this indeed! To focus on the foundation of the sense of having ‘been forgiven’. That it is an unwarranted given, to be accessed through thankfulness. Even the holy prayer of ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me’ can be said from the assurance of that foundation. Father Zacharias of Essex is fond of saying that God eventually leads us to a place where we ask for forgiveness mainly for this: that we cannot possibly thank Him enough for his forgiveness which is a given.
    It leads to a holy combination of -the seemingly disparates– remaining joyful and serious, trusting and watchful.

  21. Paddy Avatar
    Paddy

    Fr. Stephen,

    Your articles have been enlightening and nourishing to me for the last few years since I discovered your blog—thank you! They’ve helped me understand more about my strained relationship with my mother, but this one on narcissism has been devastatingly accurate and helpful. Helpful, because it gives order and understanding to my mother’s state of mind and behavior towards others and especially us, her family. Devastating, because you’ve shown just how serious and difficult it is to interact and respond to a person whose narcissism and toxic shame color all their interactions.

    I have made many mistakes in trying to use logic, argumentation, and even weaponizing shame to get her to see how her actions and words are hurtful and inappropriate towards her family. Obviously, these have only made things worse. The only helpful thing to do has been to pray the canon to the Theotokos Softener of Evil Hearts.

    Lord have mercy on my mother. She raised me well, in the fear of the Lord.

    And let Lord have mercy on me a sinner.

  22. Janette A Reget Avatar
    Janette A Reget

    I think that Saul was most likely a narcissist. On the way to Damascus, he had to be knocked off his horse and blinded, completely helpless, and totally dependent on others, in order to turn away from the “old man” and be born again. He then was able to open up to Jesus and his own humanity. Paul was willing to endure anything for Christ. that is a complete transformation.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Janette,
    Narcissistic personality Disorder is a serious clinical problem. St Paul had serious sins in his hatred of Christians, but I do not think it is of use to speculate in this direction.

  24. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    I can’t help but think that we all have the potential for narcissism and that it is the knowledge and contemplation of this which allows people like St. Paul and the Fathers to genuinely bemoan the fact that they are chief of all sinners. Otherwise it would just be false humility. I didn’t say this eloquently but the idea helps me understand their disposition a bit better.

  25. William Avatar
    William

    Drewster2000,
    I agree on the potential for narcissism. As I read this article, I kept thinking to myself, ‘Oh no! he’s describing me!’ So I found an online narcissist test (obviously not the most accurate or scientific of things–certainly not leading to any kind of genuine diagnosis). I scored very low, but I still see things within me that scare me…

  26. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you Drewster and William. Your comments and Fr’s article remind me that the heart’s ability to repent is itself a gift we should be thankful for.

  27. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    John Kemp…my heart goes out to you. I thank God for Father’s blessings to you and Dino’s encouraging words. May God’s love carry you through.

  28. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Since I’m not a psychologist, I can’t really say for certain I even know well what Narcissism means. Additionally, diagnoses are those “label” things, where life is lived on a spectrum — and a responsible diagnosis must be made under particular conditions that have to do with medical ethics that are meant to preserve the human dignity of the patient. Kind of like that tricky command to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

    But we do know that the founders of psychology were fascinated by mythology, and we can learn something from the myth of Narcissus, the man who fell in love with his image in the water. In this I can speculate that what becomes all-important is image, even a mask. And there we can come to Christ’s railing against the hypocrites (“beneath the mask” — “actor” as in the ancient plays where masks were worn to indicate characters) of His own day, and the challenge to each of us to live humble lives. As far as I can see, to love God with one’s heart, mind, and soul is to stand before God and understand something of how we measure up. I say “something” because I really don’t know how it’s possible that I could know in an instant every single shortcoming or flaw I need to deal with — thank God faith is a journey and not an instant’s understanding. I suspect that what we’re talking about here is the mask that keeps us from acknowledging our own blindness to ourselves, for which humility is a remarkable antidote. Humility also gives us a key to knowing God’s love for us, opening a crack in that door of God’s glory, and thus healing in so many ways. God’s love is so key to healing the deep shame. My 2 cents.

    I have personally known at least one now-defrocked clergy whom I could describe as someone living with a mask and very blind to his own internal life. He was a ruthless martinet to his parishioners, and in my opinion, over-zealously pushed confession even onto children in ways I felt at the time were violations, boundary crossings as Father puts it. Isn’t it odd how those who struggle with the kind of toxic shame you describe, Father, so often push that kind of shame onto others? I won’t state here what ripped the mask off and so preserve anonymity, but his hypocrisy is still firmly in place. (Do not worry, thank God that at least had nothing to do with children as far as anyone knows.)

  29. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Also I think sometimes we mistakenly conflate regret with repentance. There’s far more involved in repentance. Seeing oneself as the chiefest sinner is the first step, not the last step of repentance.

    In order to till ‘the dirt’ of my soul to receive God’s seed, my confessor suggests regular scripture reading. But he uses a different description of this endeavor, which is more like washing the soul of ones sins with Christ’s words. Still the work is before us to commit ourselves to living and doing Christ’s commandments.

  30. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father…that picture of the baby pressed up against the image of Christ is beyond words precious. I can see why you chose it for this article. Sure, if only we can be like that child in innocence and trust…and more, that Christ is with that child in all that he is going to encounter in this life, including wounds of cruelty and shame. He bears those very wounds. Something inside that child, though he can not express it, is drawn to Him…he “knows” Him. If I was there when that child did that, I’d completely melt…

  31. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Seeing oneself as the chiefest sinner is the first step, not the last step of repentance.

    So true!

    John, may God hold you in His love. I often wonder how God could love me, given my sins. But this last week during Liturgy I was overwhelmed with His love in the midst of prayer. Too often we think in terms of “measuring up” when we need only be thankful that He reaches down. God does not abandon us, whom He loves. May his Grace be with you in all things.

  32. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    I read this in Jude just yesterday. Thought it pertinent to the discussion.
    Jude has earlier described them as, “ungodly persons who pervert the grace of our God….looking after themselves; waterless clouds, carried along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame….”
    And at the beginning of his letter he states to believers: ” …contend for the faith, which was once for all delivered to the saints.”
    It’s a powerful one page epistle that ends with a glorious benediction.

  33. William Avatar
    William

    Dee,
    If seeing myself as the chief of sinners is merely the first step of repentance, I must confess that I haven’t even begun. Lord, have mercy.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    All,
    The mechanism of narcissism, as I understand it, is certainly common to everyone. It is really only a matter of degree. And the key, and a reason I chose to write about it, is in the experience of shame. Shame is the “unbearable emotion” according to psychologists. And, in its toxic form it can truly be crippling and soul-crushing. But, importantly, the notion of “healthy shame” is essential. The Elder Sophrony taught, “teach them to bear a little shame.” That is perfectly healthy. Not just that I know my sin, but that I can bear (a little) to reveal it to another. And this is key in confession. It’s not the revealing it to God that matters (what is there that He does not always see?). It is the mechanism involved in revealing it to another human being.

    In confession, the Church intends to create a space that is utterly safe and utterly compassionate (it is more than tragic if this is every not so). In that safe place, we can dare to reveal just a little of our shame and receive the powerful assurance and grace of absolution. It is the slow healing that enables us, in time, to behold Christ “face to face”. Indeed, it can be said, that, in confession, when the shame has been revealed, forgiven and comforted, we are able to lift our eyes to Christ and see Him “without shame.”

    Christ’s Pascha reveals humanity at the very depths of its shame. It’s not the pain we inflict on Him, it is the mocking, scourging, and public shaming. It is the sound and actions of us placing our shame on Him. And He bears it: “I did not turn my face from the spitting and the shame.”
    And Pascha reveals how utterly He forgives. At the very apex of that shaming He says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He even makes excuse for us! Such compassion!

    O LORD, You have searched me and known me.
    2 You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off.
    3 You comprehend my path and my lying down, And are acquainted with all my ways.
    4 For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O LORD, You know it altogether.
    5 You have hedged me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me.
    6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it.
    7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?
    8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
    9 If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
    10 Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me.
    11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me;
    12 Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You…
    (Ps. 139:1-12)

  35. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Janine….Thanks so much for your comment. I wanted to say something as well about the “labeling” aspect of these manifestations of deeply wounded souls which you expounded on and said very well.

    Because of our own wounds, shame, guilt we are appalled at and distance ourselves from ones who we see as narcissistic, I think it is partly because their love of self hits too close to home. Granted, their behavior is damaging to the core, to themselves and to others. And I certainly do not judge those who wish to be avenged of this evil.
    As for the extreme illness of full blown narcissism, (as a retired nurse) it helps me to look at it as different stages of an actual bodily wound. There are those who are still reeling from the initial penetration, the wound fresh and sore. If a physician is unavailable, for whatever reason, the person is somehow going to deal with this painful wound himself. Behavior can become animalistic, as animals instinctively self-preserve. In a similar way, all of us bearing our wounds are at different stages of healing. And blessed are those who trust in a Physician. So even though there is great evil in full blown narcissism, even to the extent of wonderment of their salvation, I see the barrier quite porous between myself and them.

  36. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father…I just read your comment after my post. Thanks so very much. (I have goose-bumps…)

  37. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you for all of that enlightening comment, Father. You just made me realize something. So often shame has to do with a social stigma, what has been placed upon us. In coming to a loving Lord (or even in a good confession) I often find that shame misplaced or at least mistakenly internalized in particular ways, needing adjustment so to speak. So often shame is crippling because it keeps us from moving forward, growing spiritually. For me, anyway, what you say about learning to bear the shame has been crucial to my life. In that sense, falling humiliatingly and embarrassingly on my face in public ways has spurred me to find God’s love — and certainly made me learn about myself and how much I need God’s guidance. But really, its healing is exchanging a worldly way of judging for God’s way of true judgment.

    Also, one other thing: in this context, to bear our crosses also means we’ll bear a burden of shame placed upon us by the world. When Jesus speaks of tribulation and persecution, He’s speaking about an unfair burden of bad judgment that we are called upon to bear in His name. If Satan is the accuser, then the way to undo an unjust accuser is to bear the shame God’s way, with faith and following His commandments (and calling upon our Advocate). This is what brings true judgment. So much to wrap one’s head around.

    Thank you so much Paula, once again. It’s good to learn you are a (very compassionate) nurse, and what you say about wounds makes an enormous amount of sense to me, and is something more to think about deeply too.

  38. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Clinically diagnosed narcissism is regarded as virtually unrecoverable. Real narcissists arent just selfish or self-centered. Clinical narcissism is deeply pathological. It isnt shame and our own wounds that cause us to avoid them. Avoiding a narcissist is necessary for your own well-being.

  39. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Genuine narcissists are sociopathic.

  40. Sophia Avatar
    Sophia

    Bless, Father.

    And if you’re married to a narcissist?

  41. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sophia,
    Marriage to a narcissist can be extremely difficult, even toxic. I would encourage anyone in such a situation to seek help and counseling.

  42. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Father,
    How do you discern between the two sides of the narcissistic personality, as Dino and Simon are delineating? Athonite monk/Freud.

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dean,
    I don’t think it’s particularly possible in most situations. I have, on a rare occasion, encountered a narcissistic personality that had overtones of demonic activity, but I simply backed away and left it alone. It was years ago and well above my understanding. But, if you’re dealing with a good clinical therapist, I think things are well enough in hand. Freud, Jung, etc., are really quite passe – their work having long ago been debunked in clinical studies (for the most part). If I refer someone to a therapist – it is to someone trained in Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which is pretty straight up without weirdness. Fr. Alexis Trader (of the Holy Mountain) has an excellent book on the subject (he’s also a trained therapist). For what it’s worth, I generally avoid folks who style themselves “Christian Therapists.” Too often there’s more bad theology mixed with poor psychology. I’ll take a secularist over that.

  44. Sophia Avatar
    Sophia

    Father,

    Therapy for the non-narcissistic party?

  45. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Fr. Alexios Trader’s blog is also excellent.

    http://ancientchristianwisdom.com

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sophia,
    Yes. Chances are, the narcissistic person will resist therapy or not benefit from it. There’s sort of a “Catch-22” in narcissistic personality disorder. The disorder makes it almost unbearable to admit that there’s a problem that is the narcissist’s fault. As such, they want no help. The therapy for the non-narcissistic party is to help them cope with it, or garner the strength to get out. A relationship with a true narcissist (and not someone who is only “sort of narcissistic”) can be very debilitating and destructive for a person. They lose confidence, oftentimes, and doubt themselves. Much of this is on account of how they are treated.

  47. Mark M. Avatar
    Mark M.

    Father,
    Your comment about Christian therapists made me smile – I was pursuing that in Protestant seminary when God unwound the Reformation for me and made it clear that it was either the Church or the Abyss. And what I saw in the best of my colleagues was that the wounded-and-now-healed wanted to heal. God grant them wisdom to do help and not damage (as was discussed somewhat in the last article).

    Janine’s comment about Narcissus was apt, and self-love is perhaps the primordial sin, as Ezek. 28:17 suggests – and we might also note that there it’s conjoined with trade, luxury, and violence. And so the only answer is to forget yourself and look at Christ, like the child in the picture. That this can happen so spontaneously with children versus agonizingly and via deep self-searching for adults is a mystery, but I suppose it’s why we are to become as a child. A child does not have a snake hiding behind a mask of pious words.

    It seems this is also at the root of a lot of the self-abasing counsels of the fathers, some of which have come in for a lot of discussion on these pages. Yet I may profit if I actually think of every single other person as better and closer to God than myself, rather than *trying* to think like that so that, really, I can feel like if I think that way then I’m actually better than them… if you know what I mean. We are called to simplicity, not duplicity. The dipsyuchoi – the two-souled man – is condemned in James. But oh how hard it is to be a one-souled person, and harder still to direct that one soul to God…

    Thank you for an apt and penetrating post. God grant me mercy to look at Him !
    In Christ,
    Mark M.

  48. Sophia Avatar
    Sophia

    Father,

    That had been my experience, that the narcissist has no interest in therapy and the non-narcissist goes for their own well-being. And if marriage is a sacrament, a means to salvation, shouldn’t the non-narcissist just deny themselves, have compassion for the narcissistic spouse and… stick it out? Or is there a possibility of separating without divorce?

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sophia,
    The details of how it is handled will vary. I defer to their parish priest and counselor.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark,
    My, perhaps less-than-charitable judgment concerning “Christian Counselors,” is probably governed by the fact that most (in my area of the world) are Evangelicals, and, as such, have a very poor grasp of healthy theology. Many of the assumptions of Evangelical thought are simply flawed. I’ve had people who said they only wanted to go to an “Orthodox therapist.” I think that’s flawed as well. God to a good therapist, whatever their background – and work it together with your priest. That’s the best route, if counseling is needed.

  51. Sophia Avatar
    Sophia

    Father,
    Of course. Thank you for the post, the blog, and your responses.

  52. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thanks, Mark M. I’d like to add one caveat to your comment about my post: I think there’s a distinction between love of “true self,” if you will, and love of the mask which enables our selfishness and hard-heartedness. As you say, the whole point is to find the gaze of Christ and Christ’s guidance to who we are in all dimensions — our identity in Christ, in Creator. Maybe, really, the biggest problem is that love means something quite different than “self-love” describes.

    Ironic that the mask hides us from ourselves, but that’s the conundrum!

    I knew well one person whom I think could be described in the terms discussed here. She was brilliant. Toward the end of her life she suffered from dementia, and the carefully crafted mask wasn’t able to be maintained. Her language skills began to disappear. Slowly as the disease progressed, old memories of bad behavior surfaced along with guilt and shame she could hardly bear. I encouraged her simply to pray to God, “Please forgive me.” A person who hadn’t given much thought to God for most of her life told me afterward with relief, in the voice of the young girl she once was, “Oh I feel so much better!” So… the illness worked hopefully to help for the new life toward the end of life in this world. Deep help also came in the form of a small church bible study with sincere friends.

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Janine,
    Thank you for sharing that story! It is often the sort of thing I imagine when I think of the healing of a soul after death. So much that is endured in this life, even within personalities, represents wounds as serious and real as a missing limb. That a relatively minor loss might reveal hidden depths is very instructive. God sees the truth of who we are, beneath everything that might hide it. It reminds us of the utter necessity to practice kindness and gentleness.

  54. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father Stephen…in your response to Janine’s wonderful story you say:
    “It is often the sort of thing I imagine when I think of the healing of a soul after death .”
    I just want to say from the depth of my soul that I want that to be true. Because where you say “That a relatively minor loss might reveal hidden depths is very instructive “….yes, and who can know those hidden depths but God. I’ve considered both sides of the issue…yes there is a healing after death, and no, here and now is the only chance we have…and I am familiar with the interpretation of various scripture verses. But…then I don’t know what to say…I just pray…that’s all we can do…
    (Sorry, this is a big aside…I am just glad you brought that out.)

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Paula AZ
    I cannot speak of details that I don’t know. I can only speak of what makes sense and the nature of my hope. There are a very few Fathers (Nyssa, Isaac of Syria) who speak about change after death. There’re probably others that I don’t know about. But I am particularly mindful of the role our bodies play in what we encounter of another person in this life. In the case that Janine shared – a small diminution in the part of the brain set the soul free towards repentance. I cannot imagine that such a hindrance is allowed to define our souls.

    Instead, God sees what we do not see. He can see, for example, an inner struggle on the part of an injured soul (of whatever sort), that no one outside of them knows, and might not even be fully known by the person themselves. I think frequently in this vein on the passage from Wisdom:

    Wisdom 3:1 But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.
    2 In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction,
    3 and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.
    4 For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality.
    5 Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
    6 like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.
    7 In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble.
    (Wis. 3:1-7 RSV)

    It is echoed in 1 Cor.:

    12 Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw —
    13 each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.
    14 If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.
    15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor. 3:12-15 RSV)

    These seem to be referring to something of the same thing – and to something after death. It is not, I think, a description of “purgatory” as described in the Roman Catholic Church, but something else – at least that’s how Orthodox Tradition treats it. But the fire is refining in nature – a fire that reveals. I think that many will be surprised to see what has been wrought in them in this life.

    But I have no theories or special revelation. I have a hope – that rests in what I know of God – and the few hints that have dropped along the way.

  56. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    ” a small diminution in the part of the brain set the soul free towards repentance. I cannot imagine that such a hindrance is allowed to define our souls.
    Instead, God sees what we do not see…”
    You know, these seemingly small events, like the instance of this woman’s words (repentance) that were said in a moment of time, a little ‘blip’, unbeknownst to the rest of humanity, except for Janine who was ever blessed to witness this, shows the incredible wonder of God’s love for us…Father, I can’t even describe how these things touch me…He is so good…and I get speechless…tearful…that’s why I can not imagine that “you have you last chance…better take it now” kind of thought. No, I just can’t. Some people, like that woman, have indeed been through the fire…such pain…we should not “expect” them to do anything but rage! So thank you Father…yes, for your hope too and for the scripture verses. They are beautiful and very powerful. Your thoughts on this are well thought out…mine, they just come from the gut…well, some thought, but mostly gut. Thanks again.

  57. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “and the few hints that have dropped along the way.” ….Well, I bet that helps! I like that Father…sure would like to hear about that someday 🙂

  58. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I have a friend who has worked in the judicial system with victims fleeing domestic violence (almost all are women). He has worked inside and outside the penal system to help violent offenders. And in his 35 years of experience he has never seen someone he would identify as a narcissist seek help or accept help. His advice to anyone married to a narcissist: Get out! As much as we might fancy ourselves as living a cruciform life and accepting that all things are sent down from above this is not a cross to be underestimated. A narcissist isnt just someone that is hard to live with or even abusive. They are naturally good at manipulating people while maintaining a flawless public image. A narcissist has zero capacity for self-reflection. They are conscienceless. They can hurt you and then convince you that it was your fault they hurt you. They dont accuse you, but by subtle innuendo they get you to accuse yourself. Their ability to self-servingly reimagine entire episodes of personal history with you will occur at a speed faster than you can recall it. In short, a narcissist will undermine your sanity.

  59. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thanks Father & Paula again. I have often wondered if Dementia/Alzheimer’s isn’t related to approaching death and our state of being (sorry, I’m kind of incoherent as to where I’m going with that). Watching things kind of “unpack” wasn’t just revealing, but an opportunity. I guess I have my personal theories, but the main thing I would say was remarkable was that despite the ongoing loss, there was still learning going on.

    It was also a reinforcement that life is life, each moment counts, our judgment isn’t the whole story — and that with God all things are possible. You can’t count people out until God says you’re done, and as the saying goes, it ain’t over til it’s over!

  60. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    If you stand in a burning building, youre going to get burned.

  61. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    The ones who suffer the most for our misguided sense of piety are the children.

  62. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Simon,
    You are dead on in recognizing NPD and how to deal with it….Experience being the best teacher, but so sorry you had to learn it that way! 😢

    There was an article years ago that helped me know what to do when I was confronted with a case where something close to this disorder seemed to be in play in a couple of people in whose orbit I found myself briefly caught. The traits of the person with NPD were included in that article and can also be found in numerous descriptive articles on the web. I could not find that article (which actually was a three-part series), but I found this one which could be helpful in many of the same ways:

    http://goodguyswearblack.org/2013/11/22/signs-in-a-congregation-that-a-leader-has-covert-narcissistic-personality-disorder/

    I was glad to learn from my Priest that at the OCA All-America Council coming up later this month, the topic of spiritual abuse will be under discussion. That is a hopeful thing.

    May God bless all efforts to expunge this sort of dynamic from our midst!

  63. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Dean,
    I do not see my previous comment displayed and therefore assume it might have elicited responses that led the conversation away and consequently was deleted? Not sure.

    NPD –and one’s dealings with it– viewed solely from the psychologist’s angle (I imply the ‘committed secularist angle’ here), is a different perspective in some respects from the Spiritual angle. We cannot lose awareness of that, neither can we underestimate scientific findings. It’s not one or the other but both.
    Cognitive Behavioural Therapy might have a great many things in common with Philokalic thought –as often explained by Father Alexis Trader– but it can also have key shortages –as often explained by Fr Alexis again.

    I have been amazed at the astounding depth of discernment of certain Spiritual guides as it almost approaches the legendary spiritual insight of a Saint Porphyrios (discerning spiritual activity where one has proof that things are hormonal or chemical and reversely discerning physical issues where others believe things are purely demonic within seconds).

    So, without such charismatic discernment I do not think one can differentiate with complete reliability.
    The truth is that both NPD as well as numerous subtle ‘controlling oversensitive megalomania subtypes’, based on our passions, exist; we cannot say: “let’s put these exact specific persons on an exiled island then!”

    My earlier comment on interpreting Narcissistic PD, [as with all disorders] it’s ‘comorbidity’ with other issues, its many subtypes (often affecting ‘at some point’ in life), the historically shifting diagnostic thresholds of psychiatry, the often disputed reliability of its [again historically changeable] ‘psychiatric diagnosis manuals’ etc, psychiatry’s examining of only the hereditary, genetic, biochemical, psychological, social, environmental factors of causation, while being totally unaware of the Spiritual realm and its comingling with our psyches, was based on Father’s previous article:

    An important insight within all of this is that what we ourselves see is not the full extent of the story. Human history is not entirely human. When Pilate questions Christ, he assumes that he is a key player in a human drama. But the true drama is being acted out in the heavens. The entire cosmos surrounds what happens on Golgotha. Our daily lives are no less intertwined in the business of the heavens.
    This unmasks the foolishness of modern thought. We have reduced our world to the merely secular, presuming that we ourselves are the driving force of history and that the outcome of things is in our hands. The Church, however, has its “citizenship” in heaven (Phil. 3:20).

  64. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Dino, It isnt about exiling the narcissist. Its about being healthy. If you are in a burning building and you get severely burned, you will deal with those wounds the rest of your life. If you want to avoid that trouble then get out of the burning building. It does not matter what the underlying determinants are of the narcissistic behavior. Following up on the burning house analogy, it doesnt matter whether the fire was started by demons or by a person , the house is burning so get the hell out. You dont need to pray to God about what to do. There are some things in life that the brain He gave is a sufficient enough resource.

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    My own answer in the matter would generally agree – if its genuinely a situation of NPD, it’s likely to be destructive to all involved and there is simply a need to get out. However, as a priest, I can’t just leave it there and speak responsibly. That is why I earlier answered that there was a need for counsel and support. Most people who are in the situation have had their own confidence deeply undermined and are sometimes only able to extract themselves with help. I’ve been involved in those situations and know just how difficult the work is.

    It is also important to have good counsel. The word “narcissist” gets thrown around rather easily in our culture and it is important, particularly when dealing with major life-changes to have some support and guidance. I do not think anyone (as I read the comments) is suggesting any sort of misguided suffering, sticking it out, etc.

    But, I have had some conversations with practicing psychologists (some just this week) on their experience in treating NPD. There are rare successes, but there was more success than I had known. Marriages are only one circumstance. There are also job related situations and others as well. Most pastors have had at least one experience with this in a congregation (far more common than the other way around). Thinking about it and understanding it is essential to finding a way forward that does as little destruction as possible.

    Finally, as in the last thoughts in the article itself, is the concern for the Narcissist themself. Is there any help? Is there a way to nurture repentance? What is to be done with such a soul? How are they to be understood?

  66. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    My comments regarding dropping the narcissist like isnt directed to anyone here nor are my comnents about sticking it out for the sake of bearing your cross. HOWEVER, you have a wide base of Orthodox readers most which probably read your articles but never post. What I am attempting to communicate to women who may be wondering what to do and are too afraid to ask is to assure them they arent crazy, you are in as much danger as you think you are, and ‘Yes’ it is okay to leave in order to protect yourself and your children. Narcissism always results in the abuse of those around them. Abuse is intrinsic to the nature of the disorder.

  67. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Simon,
    We are in agreement on that. I would go even further and say that one ought to use their brain and protect themselves even from the non-clinical cases and ‘unless we have been given the grace to bear martyrdom, we can become culpable if unreasonably exposing ourselves to it’ – as the classic advise goes.
    I wouldn’t argue that if the building is burning you mustn’t run out!

    The concern with the narcissists’ salvation per se –rather than victims of their toxic behaviour– ought to make us, if we care, more vigilant and zealous in our own spiritual struggle, even for their good: the discernment needed to know how to help is to be found in great holiness.
    Saint Paisios whom we celebrated on yesterday would –as a blanket statement in his prayers- cry out to God about all sinners and sufferers: “if only I was as holy as You had planned for me, I could help save them all, but it is my fault for not being that holy that they perish…”

  68. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    I think you cannot forget that if you have family members who display the characteristics Simon suggested, just walking away isn’t always a perfect solution. Healing may take place in a number of ways. And more than that, faith may take us into areas that “justice” won’t. It’s always important for a person to protect himself or herself from harm. But love works in different ways than a kind of common self-interest would suggest. There are many toxic relationships between parent and child, but an elderly parent, for example, becomes dependent and helpless. In that case, someone has to discern what their faith tells them. It isn’t black and white. And frankly, I believe in all aspects of my life, yes, I do need to pray to God what to do. I have found that contrary to what it seems your assumption might be about prayer, Simon, God does not suggest we subject ourselves to abuse, and rather leads away from it and to sanity.

  69. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    I would add to my previous comment that, particularly in cases where one’s sanity or stability is threatened, prayer helps to create a sense of order and clearer sight — particularly if you are dealing with a manipulator. This, at least, is my experience.

  70. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Dino, I understand the intention of your comments. But, please, keep in mind the general readership and that there are probably many women and some men who exhibit patterns of codependency and will misunderstand what you intended. If codependent persons hear the words “if only I was as holy as You had planned for me, I could help save them all, but it is my fault for not being that holy that they perish…” they will internalize that sentiment and stay with their narcissistic partners with the understanding that the salvation of that person is their responsibility and if only they were as holy as God had intended them to be then that person would have been saved and things would be different. AND they will be motivated by shame to do so. That short prayer will in the mind of the codependent partner illicit feelings of guilt because if they were ‘as holy as God planned for them to be’ things would be different and; therefore, ‘it is my fault.’ That is exactly what a codependent person will hear. When we discuss these kinds of issues we have to be sensitive to the needs of the people with the greatest degree of vulnerability to these issues.

    People who are married to narcissists are married to them for a good reason: They were targeted by the narcissist. The narcissist doesn’t plan the targeted attack–they just do it naturally. A well-rounded person with a healthy self-esteem will find a narcissistic person unbearable. A codependent person will almost certainly mistake narcissist traits for strengths. However Paisios’ prayer is to be understood it should NOT be understood as implying that the marriage and the salvation of the narcissist is the responsibility of the codependent victim.

  71. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    ” It isn’t black and white. ”
    Indeed! Nothing in this world is black and white. Nothing! Within ourselves and without….
    and even with split second life saving decisions, when we cry out “oh God!” or “help!” or are in mute fearful silence with the heart toward God…it is still prayer. There is never a time we need not pray. Never.

  72. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    With the glorification of martyrdom that I see in Orthodoxy…I can easily see a man or woman thinking, ‘This abusive relationship is my cross and I must bear it.’ Almost every Orthodox book I have read has something about the acceptance of suffering in one’s own life and embracing the cross of selfless sacrifice for the love of others. Even Dino’s comments imply that grace may be given to someone to endure the behavior of the narcissist, which is abusive. But, somehow I have totally misunderstood all that. Frankly, the degree of cognitive dissonance I’m feeling right now is blowing my mind. ‘God does not suggest we subject ourselves to abuse’–Really?? Every Orthodox martyr and most of the saints willingly subjected themselves to abuse and death–and some even ran to it when they just as easily could have run from it.

  73. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Simon, I think you’ll find in reading the Gospels, for example, that Christ picked His battles. There was a time when He had to face His suffering, and before that it was “not His time.”

    In life, there are times when suffering or injustice is inevitable, and sometimes that happens because we love and because we are faithful — it’s the way the world will meet our faith. There are times to bear humiliation. But God does not tell us that this is all we “deserve.” Within that context, we understand why we bear suffering and the love that prompts us to forbearance, patience. It is a question overall of spiritual growth, really.

    I believe you have spoken here of your love for your child, for whom I’m sure you make sacrifices. That does not make you a fool. Caring for a child can mean losing sleep, missing work, doing all kinds of things that are not simply in our own self-interest. And how parents do suffer for their children, and there are children who suffer for parents. Love is not about rules and legalism.

  74. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “Every Orthodox martyr and most of the saints willingly subjected themselves to abuse and death–and some even ran to it when they just as easily could have run from it.”
    What I have read is in times of persecution some Saints were martyrs and most ran to the hills, caves, wilderness, to hide. That’s how I understand it. Point being, again, there is no cut and dry answer.
    There are many ways to embrace our cross.
    I don’t know what you are looking for Simon. I think I can safely say we do not disagree with your point that we need to protect ourselves….

  75. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I say this this with all sincerity and then I’m going to absolutely leave it alone. I always feel like I’m dealing with double or triple speak when I’m talking with Orthodox folks. I understand that things can be complex and layered. That isn’t difficult to understand. But to glorify martyrs and martyrdom and a cruciform life and then act as if somehow you have been totally misunderstood when someone suggests that an Orthodox person might stay in an abusive relationship if they think they have the grace to do so seems like a contradiction in terms.

  76. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    St Paisios made a point of explaining that a weakness of those who haven’t consecrated their entire being to Christ with the renunciation that that implies, is that they inevitably “belong to some, more than they belong to others”. Such partiality is proof of spiritual work still needed.

    Haven’t consecrated their entire being to Christ…hmmm…so are you implying that if someone had consecrated their entire being to Christ that there is no suffering too great?

  77. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    I agree. Much of the language of the cruciform life and martyrdom can be way too easily misunderstood and cause great damage to certain souls. The Cross always assumes a certain voluntary aspect. You’re very much on target viz. the narcissist. The victim has been targeted and often drawn unwittingly into these abusive relationships. Indeed, in my pastoral experience in these settings, it has almost always been the case that the victim has a false idea about their call to suffer or endure, or has been berated into thinking it’s their fault, etc. The first thing, for me as a pastor, is to strengthen the health of the victim so that they can see clearly enough and have enough strength to get out – and then to endure the onslaught that inevitably begins.

    These situations are toxic and are not the stuff of martyrdom, per se, other than the case of every victim in every situation. The boundary-less existence of the true, clincial narcissist, is not a safe place for anyone. It is not the place for endurance. They can be loved, but from a distance – i.e. behind proper boundaries.

    The background (too often unspoken) surrounding martyrdom presumes a lot and can too easily be misunderstood. The tradition surrounding martyrs is quite early and comes out of a world in which the martyrs have little or no choice. The writings are to strengthen the community for such suffering and endurance. Translated into our present setting, it can be twisted into very wrong things – to a kind of masochism that is itself sinful.

    One of the reasons I stress the need for support and counsel is to obviate the mistaken notion that we must endure such relationships. Of course, there are priests and pastors, poorly-trained, who might wrongly counsel such nonsense. It’s more than a pity. It’s a tragedy. Your words are spot on.

  78. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    I believe Saint Paisios’ implication on that matter is merely that you cannot have true love without renunciation first. It’s a very classic notion to be found across all patristic thought.
    Of course, to the measure one has achieved the end of all virtues (divine, cosmic love), suffering is perceived less from the point of view we think of it (i.e. from the center of the ego) and more from an entirely different angle (that of love: the Cross of Christ). That is kenosis. It is the suffering of God, which we cannot properly call by that name.
    Parsing further and further when we have limited experience of these realities of God’s grace can easily lead to misinterpretation though.

  79. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Thanks Janine, Paula, Simon, Dino,
    You know before this article by Father and comments , I did not know the term NPD. Looking back, my brother in law, who we buried 8 mos. back, suffered from this disorder. I just always thought he suffered from jerk-itis! My sister suffered terribly with him for 57 years. She should have left him years ago. Simon says they unknowingly target their victims, seeking one who is codependent…or one quickly becomes that. I look back at an incident which occurred shortly before their marriage. He and my sis fit his description to a “T.” Yet, like Janine’s friend, his suffering with cancer tilled the soil of his heart before dying. He never admitted wrong in his life, always had the last word. Yet he changed through cancer.
    I usually took him to treatment. I actually saw this once powerful Marine brig sergeant break down and weep asking the oncologist, “Doc, why aren’t I getting better?” I spoke at his funeral. Oh how I pray he is accepting our Lord’s love toward him in this moment! And sis loved him through all this. I never loved him in life, didn’t even like him, but my heart too softened toward him seeing his suffering …I loved him those last few months. It was mentioned above that we don’t run toward suffering. But when it presents itself to us, at the Opportune Moment, through God’s grace, we accept it.

  80. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    It is also a pity that in English “martyrdom” lacks the clarity of ancient Greek that created this word. In the original it means “witnessing”. A martyr is an indisputable witness testifying to Christ’s joyous trampling down death by death. It’s not some miserable dolorous submission.

  81. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Good points Simon. In reading the stories of many of the Marytrs it is clear that the people who do the torturing and killing certainly have a narcissistic component to their personalities.

    So, as noted, it has to be on a case by case basis. Seeking one’s own safety and sanity and for one’s children is going to be the rule.

  82. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Simon, the discussion I was having with you was about the need for prayer and discernment in all circumstances. I took issue with the suggestion that it was not, and expressed my experience that my faith helped me out of abusive and manipulative circumstances. And yes, indeed, there are times I have suffered for love because I felt it was appropriate.

    I do not think it’s appropriate to conflate in that same conversation other things you may have heard or your impressions from others who are Orthodox that are not even relevant to the point I was making. I cannot answer for others nor for your impressions of things you may have heard elsewhere.

  83. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thanks for that story, Dean

  84. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Elder Aimilianos had a great pedagogy on this. He counselled joy and watchfulness first. The first counsel to one who is considering going any further than this basis (of joy and watchfulness) – e.g. who sees a zeal being stoked inside for ascesis or for suffering for those in need – would normally be the same again: ‘gauge your joy!’ If it ‘goes down’, things are suspect. If it increases, you can continue without fear – but (this important) only with a blessing from such a pedagogue. He would often, advise distancing from certain situations (as Father explained) and a little endurance in other smaller things.
    Joy and watchfulness also naturally disolve our attachments to anything that isn’t God.
    He would always clarify that we can only really love if we love with God’s love.

  85. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Dino, very true about “witnessing” vs. “martyrdom.” It has been a very important distinction and discernment for me.

  86. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Early in the comments stream I referenced the pre-communion prayer that says ‘I am the chiefest of sinners’. Certainly this prayer could be read as endorsing an abusive relationship by a victim of such relationship. I pray that this does not happen but I can certainly see how it could. The existence of these prayers are to stimulate the heart to look to God for repentance and to turn one’s life around to walk in the life of Christ. Victims in relationship with someone with NPD, need to be able to say to themselves that maintaining the ‘status quo’ of that relationship endorses or worse, sanctions the abusive behaviors. Not only for the sake and soul of the victim, but for the abuser as well, the relationship must be dissolved.

    I’m grateful to both Simon and Fr Stephen for their clarity to be careful and clear regarding the ‘making the boundaries’ around such personalities. The tragedy of such a personality in the clergy is tragedy beyond measure regarding the number of souls that might be ‘caught up’ in this dysfunctional relationship. I’m grateful also that this is rarely seen.

  87. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    At July 12, 2:12 Fr Stephen describes his thinking about appropriate therapy methods. As a scientist and Orthodox person I endorse these methods as well.

    Last for those who have the strength to leave, I shall also endorse what Simon said, it is definitely right to leave such relationships. He described a burning building as metaphor—an apt description. For those who doubt themselves, please get help. From pastor and therapist if possible.

  88. Thoughtful Spouse Avatar
    Thoughtful Spouse

    Am I the only person who is weary of divorce being the only acceptable answer? Someone decides that your spouse is too far gone, and then everyone washes their hands of you. You’re just an abuse victim, and you should leave. Doesn’t anyone else see how disempowering this can be?

    I’m not arguing that divorce or separation isn’t the right answer in other cases (specifically in cases of physical violence– but NPD (or HPD) and physical violence (ASPD) are not always co-mormid). But it’s become such a go-to, pat answer that there’s no real help left for those of us who seek to forge a different path. In the years that it took me to learn how NOT to be a victim (by changing myself), I have had to constantly explain my behavior to well-meaning people who, in their opinions, thought I should pursue divorce. Heck, I would have had much greater community support if I had.

    Please don’t construe my comments as supporting that people suffer in marriages unwillingly. But, as Fr. Stephen and Dino have said– willingness to bear a cross with love does not automatically mean codependent. Often, people’s good-will efforts to “help” just end up being the blind trying to lead the blind.

  89. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thoughtful,
    Your comment is indeed why I preferred to say (as I did originally) that this stuff needs to be approached with counsel and support. Blanket statements are simply problematic.

  90. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Please forgive me Thoughtful Spouse. Your comment suggests the strength you have. God bless your relationship.

    My response is the in regard to unchecked behavior and the typical inability of those around it to deal with it in a healthy way.

  91. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Now I will add a confession of sorts. Early in my life I let something happen to someone young and innocent. I did not stop ‘the perpetrator’, for want of a better description, because in part I was in denial that such a thing was happening. The fallout from such a denial is a scar on the innocent person’s life. The fact that I let it happen is a difficult cross for me to bear. I have confessed it to my confessor and now here. I am more ‘vigilant’ now. But I also pray to God that I will not have a hardened heart. We are taught self-emptying love in the Orthodox Church. May God grant this to us and strengthen us to say and do God’s words and God’s will.

  92. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Dee,

    These are fragile things you speak of. Thank you for using discretion. I suggest continuing to do so.

  93. Thoughtful Spouse Avatar
    Thoughtful Spouse

    Thank you, Father Stephen and Dee, for your kindness. Something I’ve thought recently– that it’s only a Christian who can say without cognitive dissonance, “I love someone who hurts me.” Transformed by Christ’s love, it becomes a statement of hope..

    God bless you and yours, too, Dee.

  94. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Dee, Such burdens are the worst. I sympathize deeply with you. Thank you for sharing such a difficult experience.

  95. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Forgive me for thinking aloud.

    I’ve been thinking about this topic in my own mind for awhile now – long before this article. At that time I was wondering if the original, ancestral sin of Adam and Eve was a sin of narcissism – the desire to something greater than what was offered by God. I’m not sure I see a deep seated shame there though.

    Stemming from that thought, I could see how most of the sins I commit arise from my own belief that I deserve something that was either taken from me, denied me, threatens me, or that I just don’t have. That supported my original thesis, but I’m not sure that shame is necessarily the motivator in all of these cases.

    I have even wondered if narcissism is the “Sin that leads to death”, mentioned in 1 John 5:16, as it is the one sin that the guilty party sees as having no need for repentance, and being the first sin of man, is the most primal to humanity.

    I see it as a common thread, but Fr has stated that clinical narcissism is truly different, so I’m not sure how to organize my thoughts anymore. I don’t know if clinical narcissism is truly different; I wonder if its about degrees, more than about something that you either have or don’t have.

  96. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Dee…I don’t know what to say…when my heart is touched words usually sound awkward. If you were in front of me I’d just give you a hug. But due to this unique mode of communication I have more time to think and respond, so I say this:
    I always see it as bravery when people disclose a deep struggle with tact, which is what you did…with a sensitivity for all involved, including the hearers. I admire that. And after all, we are a loving community here despite our squabbles and disagreements…isn’t that what families do?! In that respect you didn’t have to share your burden with us and we’d care for you just the same…but you did. And in doing so the family bond actually strengthens. Right? It sure helps me to understand you just a little bit better. And most of all, to sympathize with you. Forgive me for such an analytical response…I just thank you and pray God’s grace for you and all involved.

  97. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Dee, I’m so sorry for that burden. Many prayers, and I can sympathize. But on a positive note, it truly sounds like you have really made positive growth from there. And I will congratulate you on that. Sadly our innocence learns from experience (and there are those who deliberately manipulate that innocence) and you are not alone. The pressures are sometimes unimaginable to us and it is easier to blame ourselves for what happens.

    Thoughtful, it seemed to me striking that it was the two obviously “female” commenters here who kept insisting things aren’t necessarily black and white. And I agree, it is somewhat of a putdown to the usually female spouse who seems to bear this burden to wonder why she can’t see that she should leave. But really, none of us knows the fullness of a relationship well enough to judge that altogether. The view from the inside is different. I had a friend who went through many many rounds of counseling with her spouse, until finally it was time to part. (He went from bad to worse.) But she gave it all the fullness of her generous and gracious spirit — and she would not be the awesome person she is if she had not done that, from my point of view. She lives a filled life and continues to really bloom in her independence and with a full family including grandkids and career. Her mother went a different route, with an equally splendid, loving, and gracious spirit, nursing her husband after an accident left him stricken in the last couple of years of his life. (She was also a second Mom to me.) Who is to judge? There is no one alternative for anybody.

  98. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    PS we keep speaking about marriage, but narcissists with the personality traits described throughout this post and comments are not just husbands. They are also wives, grandparents, fathers, mothers, children, grandchildren, and a host of other relationships. It is just not always a simple cut and dried method to self-protection and the best outcome; it’s a trade off and a process, and sometimes impossible to completely disentangle for all kinds of reasons.

  99. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Matthew,
    In that we are describing what is a psychological disorder, it would be incorrect to think about it as a sin. It is a disorder whose consequences are quite sinful. But sin is not a legal problem – it’s simply the work of death within us. It manifests itself as the things we call sin. The things that have the most serious consequences in their destruction of the soul are those things that involved a long, persistent, fully cognizant exercise of the will against that which is good. The “sin that leads to death” is never really defined. I personally think that it has no definition, because it is not just one thing. St. John’s statement simply said that there is such a thing as a sin that leads to death.

  100. juliania Avatar
    juliania

    Father, this was a powerful subject, and I appreciate your insights into the disorder, as you have just described it. This was your initial paragraph that most affected me:

    “I once read a book that described a certain form of narcissism as the near perfect embodiment of evil. If so, the person suffering from such should be treated as though they were possessed. For the pain inside that world is even greater than the pain outside. Imagine a life without awe or wonder, without love for the other, with no sense of anyone other than yourself. It is a form of psychological hell.”

    To me, there is a subtle distinction between “an embodiment of evil” and one who is possessed, and in seeking an example in the Bible I find the disciples unable to cure such a one, having to ask Christ why, having seemingly been delegated the power, they had failed. His response was, I think, that something on the order of an intensity of fasting and prayer was necessary.

    When something like this is occurring in a person we love, helplessly to recognize the parameters you describe is indeed to stand at the edge of an abyss. Our response can only be that of the disciples, and yet in that case Christ did heal. My thanks to everyone who contributed to this thread.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!


Latest Comments


Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast



Categories


Archives