How can I know if I am a narcissist?
In the ancient myth, the hunter Narcissus was acclaimed for his beauty. Many sought Narcissus romantically, but he spurned them all. One day on a hunt, Narcissus paused to rest by a pool of water, stooping for a drink, he caught sight of his own reflection. He fell in love with his reflection and stayed by the pool staring at himself for the rest of his life.
The American Psychiatric Association defines narcissistic personality disorder as, “a pattern of need for admiration and lack of empathy for others. A person with narcissistic personality disorder may have a grandiose sense of self-importance, a sense of entitlement, take advantage of others or lack empathy.”[i] Do you have some narcissism in you? I do.
The most discussed personality disorder of our day is narcissism. A brief foray into Google Trends (always a fun rabbit hole to go down) shows that through the early 2000s, narcissism was searched about as often as some of the more well-known personality disorders. In 2015, that number began to rise and by 2022, it rocketed way above any other psychiatric disorder search.
That aligns with my own experience as it is now a regular occurrence for me to hear a counselee accuse someone else of narcissism.
On the one hand, I’m wary of such labels. Labeling can lead toward demonizing or improperly categorizing others, and treating them as hopeless cases. On the other hand, there are two ways in which this focus on narcissism can be helpful. The first comes within the clinical community itself. While I have reservations about the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, there have been some causes for encouragement. One source of encouragement is that in the latest edition (V, published in 2022), many disorders have now begun to be understood on a spectrum. The old method of “you have X” or “you don’t have X” has been replaced with a more nuanced understanding of these diagnoses on a spectrum. Fortunately, this offers a more accurate and biblical understanding. A second reason for encouragement of the focus on narcissism has been to spotlight the ramifications of self-importance and entitlement.
Chuck DeGroat’s When Narcissism Comes to Church has been helpful for many navigating concerns about narcissistic tendencies in their pastors and those who have been injured by the narcissism of those in church leadership. DeGroat warns those of us in non-denominational churches where the hill-charging leader tends to be particularly revered, “I’ve most often seen bullies in nondenominational contexts, and many are the founders, planters, and entrepreneurs who guard their churches and organizations like the extensions of the narcissistic ego they are.” The reason that such a leader can gain credibility is that, “Narcissism can be interpreted as confidence, strong leadership, clear vision, a thick skin.”
It’s easy to think about leaders we know (from near and far) and shake our heads condescendingly at them, “Narcissists.” We look at pastors who have used churches to climb up to more prestigious opportunities. We consider pastors who have gutted accountability structures so no one can stand in the way of their dictates. We look at pastors who act as if their church is the only church, whose appetite for growth appears to be less about reaching the lost, than bigging the biggest possible following they can. DeGroat paints the picture, “Those who are diagnosably narcissistic may be talented, charming, even inspiring, but they lack the capacity for self-awareness and self-evaluation, shunning humility for defensive self-protection. Christian psychologist Diane Langberg says of the narcissist, ‘He has many gifts but the gift of humility.’” We smile smugly, “Yup. I know that guy. He’s the narcissist.”
But then I consider my own heart. I look at my impulse toward defensiveness, how easy it is to inflate my importance, to allow church vision to trump church family. I care more than I should about how many people read my blog, and not enough about how I can better serve my readers. I take things personally that have nothing to do with me. I am quick to feel disrespected by exhortation from a brother in Christ rather than charitable toward him. I can lack empathy. I see Nathan’s bony finger pointing straight at me. “You are the man” (2 Sam. 12:7).
Would you forgive me for my narcissism? Would you forgive me for the small and big ways I have hurt you?
James doesn’t mince words when it comes to the narcissist (does he ever?). Those who have selfish ambition are running their plays straight out of the Enemy’s playbook, he warns. But to turn away from selfish ambition and walk in the way of wisdom will reap great rewards. He says,
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:13-18)
What are the remedies for a narcissistic heart? Wisdom, meekness, truth. We must uproot jealousy and self-ambition. What are the blessings of a wise and selfless heart? Purity, peace, reasonableness, mercy, and a harvest of righteousness. Don’t we long for those things! And so, I pray. “God, humble me. Teach me the path of meekness. May I see others as you do, and may the grip of selfishness on my heart become weaker with every passing day.”
May John the Baptist’s prayer be ours, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
[i] “What are personality disorders,” Psychiatry.org, accessed 8/17/2023. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/personality-disorders/what-are-personality-disorders.