Lessons in narcissistic personality disorders

This piece was published a month back in the Church Times.

ABUSIVE church leaders are in the headlines. The reports range from horrific instances of serial sexual abuse to cases of everyday bullying, manipulation, and making threats. The Church is grappling with the problem, but seems to be struggling to find ways of managing it. A crop of newly published books venture to offer an explanation.

The central insight that they offer is that positions of leadership, as well as self-appointed positions within groups, can attract a certain kind of person: they are those with a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). It happens in the secular workplace, too, where its prevalence has been analysed, and, to some degree, exposed in recent years. But that has not yet happened in churches, where there is good reason to think that people with this type of ill-health are active, too.

Clinically speaking, someone with an NPD has a personality that works to maintain self-esteem by gaining affirmation from outside of themselves, and to expel from within themselves what they cannot tolerate about themselves. It is a disorder, because this personality structure profoundly and routinely affects their capacity to form relationships.

It is a widespread problem in the general population. One large study, from the United States, estimated that rates ran at about eight per cent among men, and four per cent among women. These levels rise in workplaces, and, among managers, rise still further. The research also highlighted that NPDs are one of the most under-diagnosed mental-health conditions.

RELIGIOUS organisations may be particularly attractive to sufferers, who may be pulled in by the deference shown to ecclesiastical hierarchies, or the trappings of office. Others may be drawn by the opportunity to turn humdrum responsibilities into exercises of power: a virtual tyranny can be run by an NPD in charge of sets of accounts, say, or sets of church keys.

To date, the evidence for this kind of behaviour is mostly anecdotal. Little research has focused on the Church explicitly, either, although what data there is forms the backbone of Let Us Prey: The plague of narcissist pastors and what we can do about it, by R. Glenn Ball and Darrell Puls. They quote a striking statistic: “[At] any particular time, approximately 20 per cent of all churches in the United States are experiencing active internal conflict, ranging from a small fire to conflagration.” That’s tens of thousands of congregations, and the authors believe that NPDs may be a common factor.

They conducted their own research. They sent questionnaires to church leaders in a mainstream Protestant denomination in Canada. The returns were startling, suggesting that more than 30 per cent of ministers “met the diagnostic requirements for a finding of NPD, both overt and covert”.

This is not to say that all the pastors were potential disasters. Many individuals will manage — and mostly hide — their problem. But, none the less, the figure is arresting.

THE extent of it would not surprise Robert I. Sutton, the author of The Asshole Survival Guide. The vivid title reflects the frequency with which the Stanford management guru has been asked for advice on how to deal with NPDs. Churches and temples provide many cases in point.

A similar sense of the scale of the issue comes in another book, Toxic People: Dealing with dysfunctional relationships, by Tim Cantopher. It, too, highlights the way in which church groups can attract the toxic individuals of the title. “Don’t get me wrong,” Cantopher insists. “I’m not giving an anti-religious, secular message here. I’m a believer myself who was schooled for ten years in a Catholic monastery by some lovely Christian people. What I’m saying is that membership of an organisation founded on good principles is no guarantee of goodness.”

It is highly likely, therefore, that the Church in the UK employs many leaders with an NPD. It is equally likely that members of the clergy are regularly contacted by sufferers to whom they are trying to minister. So it is worth pausing to consider the nature of the complaint in a little more depth.

A CRUCIAL first point is that there is a good kind of narcissism. It is a basic element in any happy life. It is the type of love which enables you to like yourself. With it, people can feel comfortable in their own skin. They can forgive themselves, tolerate their faults, and relate to their darker side rather than try to suppress it in shadow.

In short, they can get over themselves, and that enables the type of love which Iris Murdoch identified as “the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real”.

It is why love of neighbour is so tightly linked to love of self; and why, in Buddhist circles, it is sometimes remarked that you have got to be a somebody before you can be a nobody. The person who short-circuits the connection between self-acceptance and other-love sets himself or herself up for a fall. He or she will burn out, break down, or gradually fill storehouses of anger and resentment.

THERE is a trickier kind of narcissism, however. It arises from a difficulty with self-love. In the most embedded cases, as with NPDs, it manifests as an inability to like oneself. The pain of such people is not that they love themselves, but that they are engaged in a constant fight to do so.

When it is intolerable, they develop strategies that attempt to bury the self-loathing and hate. Some will become omnipotent in their behaviour: they try to create a reality in which they are loved (adored?). A Twitter-hungry politician might fall into this category.

Others will try to charm those who surround them. They need people to feed love to them. The waspish comedian may be suffering in this way.

A third type regard themselves as perpetual failures. On the surface, their life may appear to be OK: they will have work, family, and enough cash. But none of it satisfies, because nothing ever feels enough.

The first two types are the ones who can make their way to becoming religious leaders. The omnipotent NPD will be the person who is inclined to confuse himself or herself with his or her image of God. As Ball and Puls explain, this individual will not perform the work of the Lord, but will, rather, become the lord of the work. He or she may be a priest, a secretary, or a churchwarden, but will, in effect, insist that everyone around services his or her needs.

Such people will not say as much, of course. They will be convinced that they are doing the work of the Lord. But their colleagues and congregations will gradually sense that something is amiss. The feeling will grow that these individuals implicitly believe that their word is as good as God’s word, that their vision is God’s vision, that their command is a kind of latter-day Holy Writ.

The second type, charming narcissists, are different. They need audiences, too, and so will seek out places where compliant groups can be found, as in a parish. But they want something else from it. As Sutton explains, this type of narcissist craves constant praise and flattery; he or she desperately needs to believe that he or she is beloved.

Again, however, a dark side is present. It will become apparent that these individuals are fragile souls. They are thin-skinned. They will break down when challenged too many times during a meeting, perhaps erupting in what is called “narcissistic rage”. They will be intolerant of even mild attempts to question their performance or judgement, and will nurse wounds for years, even decades.

TREATING NPDs is hard. The reason is twofold. First, the origins of the self-loathing are buried deep. Sufferers are likely to have been abused in some way themselves, often as children. That will have left what is sometimes called a “basic fault” in their personality — hence the phrase “personality disorder”.

Second, individuals with an NPD generally do not want help. The more omnipotent types will be unaware of their need. The charmers will be, secretly, terrified of what they suspect is wrong, and will hide their pain out of shame.

Outside of psychotherapeutic treatment, Sutton says that there is only one certain bit of advice for handling NPDs: avoidance. The question to ask yourself is whether you like the individual you are dealing with, he says. If you don’t, then don’t have anything to do with him or her.

He calls it the “no-asshole rule”. It is a philosophy that has the benefit of being clear. “We all want a life where we encounter and are damaged by as few assholes as possible, we want the same thing for those we care about, and we don’t want to behave like or be known as assholes,” he writes. Although the advice is clear, however, it is not always practicable, especially in a church.

Cantopher offers more. He argues that it can be useful to understand what is going on inside people with an NPD, and so glimpse what is implicitly driving them. It is important to emphasise that this is not to cure them: change will take more than that. But understanding can help with forgiveness, and that is good, because it may limit the fallout from conflicts.

THERE is another side to this advice, too. People with NPDs tend insidiously to spread their distress. It is one of the ways in which an NPD is recognised on mental-health wards in hospitals. For example, a doctor may be convinced that there is nothing wrong with the individual concerned, while a nurse is sure that there is, because he or she is faced daily with abuse or attack.

The difficulty is that the people around someone with an NPD can be readily drawn into the dysfunction, too. Clear boundaries are a must. And this is difficult for churches, because they are groups that value, and probably idealise, empathy, inclusion, and tolerance. It is hard to tell someone with an NPD that he or she must resign or leave. Those who do deliver this message will almost inevitably feel guilty.

Ball and Puls are also clear that the advice generally offered to parishes is likely to exacerbate things. Church authorities typically attempt to deal with the conflicts caused by the presence of someone with an NPD by focusing on the symptoms. An archdeacon may demand that there is a public apology for the harsh words that have been repeatedly uttered. A bishop may make an attempt at a reconciliation.

But this focus on symptoms misses the underlying causes of the behaviour. They remain untouched, ready to reignite the anti-social conduct. If NPDs are as prevalent in churches as they are in the wider population, then that needs to be acknowledged. The Church’s problem with various types of abuse, as well as everyday parish breakdown, will not lessen without it.