It is always their “birthday.” Today, tomorrow, and the next day are dedicated to their interests and desires, so don’t expect that you will be known or understood. No empathy here. No room for guilt either. If you interfere with the party, expect to receive their anger. That anger might come at you as a bully who wants power and control or one who doesn’t even have time for you, so they turn away. Expect lasting grudges. Perhaps, if you are penitent, you might be able to get back into an orbit that surrounds them but they will not move towards you in return. It is always their birthday, but they never seem to grow up.
There are different versions of this self-absorbed style, commonly called narcissism. They are all maddening. Some are dangerous. And this very real problem is worth much more time than I will give it here.
As a catalyst for thought, I read Disarming the Narcissist by Wendy Behary¹. Though not a Christian book, I was helped by her kindness and insight, and she actually rekindled my interest in engaging those who fit the narcissist description. Rather than review the book, I will identify a few of the points that helped me rethink how to love those who show this level of entitled self-interest.
Say “no” to your anger. Your anger will not help you or the self-absorbed person. If you expect the other person to actually be moved by your anger and change—you will be disappointed. In fact, your anger will be interpreted as further evidence that you are the problem. Instead, you need a calm and measured engagement that invites discussion.
If you are feeling great pain and rejection from the narcissist’s predictable outbursts, you also will be unhelpful, unless you are able to seek the good in that person, even in the midst of your pain. We believe God gives grace for this, and we expect that our own growth here will be hard fought.
Somehow, people who fit the narcissist description can make fools of us all in that they know how to irritate us and we begin to act like them. Instead, conversation will be more productive if there is at least one thoughtful person in the room.
See the other person as a child. I have found this helpful; it limits my expectations. It’s similar to how I view people who have a long-term history of addiction: the addiction essentially shields from the challenges of life that mature us, and the addict is easier to understand as a twelve-year-old rather than a forty-year-old. Though this could be an affront to most children, the image fits more than it doesn’t. The benefit is that you will be more patient with the person if your expectations have been adjusted.
Practice your own empathy skills. Empathy is the ability to step into someone’s world in a way that the person feels understood. It is not approval of that world, but it is an understanding of it. An apparent absence of empathy is what is most difficult about narcissist-types. They do not understand either your world or their own. In response, we redouble our efforts to grow in empathy, to which there are so many ingredients. Here are three:
- Know their story. When someone is hard for us to understand, it is helpful to know something of the culture of their family. With narcissism, we might find a history of being spoiled or deprived, or parents who were preoccupied in their own selfish worlds and never affected by the good deeds of their children.
Don’t expect such discussions to help the person directly though. Those who lack insight are rarely enlightened by their past. More often, they see past hurts as no big deal and resist our attempts to suggest long-term patterns. But these insights encourage our own patience and kindness.
- Assume that they are normal human beings. Amid all the boasting, entitlement, and “I don’t need you or anybody else,” expect to find people who would like relationship but act in ways that push people away (which confirms to them that they can never really have relationship). Expect people who fear failure and, in response, blame others when things go wrong. Expect people who don’t know how to deal with or express their struggles. This all comes out as meanness and covert behaviors. Sometimes addiction becomes a way to ward off the discomfort within. Expect people who are alone and living on that unsettling ground of the opinions of others.
- Look for good. When someone is demanding or showing off their greatness for our affirmation, it is hard to offer anything good. But empathy looks for the good. If someone is often talking about their achievements, look for “unadorned” good such as an inadvertent interest in another or other kindness you notice. After hearing someone’s complaints about how the world is not serving them as it should . . . Sometimes it is hard to find the good, but if you pray for love that sees the good, you will see some good.
Among the helpful features of Behary’s book were words that someone could speak, which bring together empathy and wisdom. Here is a response by a wife, spoken with preternatural calm, to her fuming husband (not me, a different Ed).
“You know, Ed, I don’t believe a word of that. It’s not that I think you are lying. It’s just that I know you, and I know how difficult it can be for you to tell me that you miss me. When I’m distracted, like this week, you often feel as if you are unimportant to me. I can understand how upsetting that must be for you. But there is no need to put me down or blame my job. You aren’t giving me a chance to care about you when you speak to me that way . . . I’d like to start the conversation over. How about you?” (pp.158-159).
To speak to a self-absorbed person like this might not bring instant repentance, but you might have helped.
I am raising a number of issues and questions in this brief reflection. How do we help self-absorbed people? How do we help their family and remaining friends? And how might we be helped by secular literature? Secular literature is most helpful when its descriptions of difficult-to-understand behaviors are coupled with years of experience and when its practical suggestions come close to the wisdom and love we find in Scripture. With the behaviors that are called narcissistic, we know that the Spirit can change us and teach us more about how to love wisely, and we invite all comers to give their ideas on ways to love.
¹Wendy T. Behary, Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed, Second Edition, New Harbinger, Oakland CA, 2013.