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.