Friday, May 13, 2022

The Dangers of Relational Narcissism

To catch up on the earlier articles that explore small groups through the book The Other Half of Church by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks, click here to navigate to the first article within the series.

Have you ever been a part of a small group where an individual aggressively dominated the conversation in a manner that made you or others uncomfortable? Did such a person cause you to reconsider attending one of the meetings or possibly even the rest of the group meetings, altogether? What if there was a way to protect the group from narcissism but also rebuild and empower those who have a tendency to exhibit narcissistic behaviors? Authors Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks and their book The Other Half of Church can help as they outline some strategies that help to equip us in addressing this type of character dysfunction. Let us view their perspective through the lens of a church’s small group ministry.

Relational Narcissism
While the Webster’s dictionary definition of narcissism is egocentrism or love of one’s body, Wilder and Hendricks offer a different perspective of the character dysfunction from a relational perspective. Here, they offer a description where a narcissist is “someone who is unable to metabolize shame in a relational way…they lack empathy, have a strong need for admiration, and want to be the biggest personality in the room.” Perhaps this description fits the previously mentioned person who aggressively dominates the conversation in a small group. Or perhaps there could be a quieter member of the group who directs their narcissism more towards individuals who can be used to achieve a certain goal. Regardless of how an individual exhibits narcissism, our authors explain that ongoing relationships are one of the best tools that a church can use to address this challenging behavior.

Previously, we explored what toxic and healthy shame are and the importance of nurturing a culture where healthy correction was utilized within the small group community. It is through this perspective that Wilder and Hendricks interpret narcissism to be a “shame disease” at its core. They explain that when we learn to think that all shame is “toxic shame,” we resort to non-relational strategies (such as retreating, silence, hostility, self-righteousness, blame, etc.) in order to justify ourselves and to avoid any further shame from exposing us. And when narcissism is given an opportunity to be expressed, it grows to breed more narcissism among others within the church as the “relational soil” of the community is slowly depleted. It is here where we begin to witness all of the previous articles in this series converging to form a holistic framework, one that proposes a church’s small group ministry to be the most effective vehicle for facilitating healthy and transformational relationships within our communities.

Resisting Enemy Mode
Even if we ourselves are not being overtly narcissistic, we still must take caution in how we actively perceive the other members of our small groups and our fellow churchgoers. Jesus says in Matthew 12:34 that “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” If we are not actively pursuing the Lord in our own spiritual lives, then how might we view our brothers and sisters in Christ when they don’t express love to us first? When our “relational circuits” are running as they were intended by God, we are operating in what Wilder and Hendricks refer to as “Relational Mode.” However, when we are unable to share in the pain of others or unable to spread hesed love and joy among others, we are in a brain state that Wilder and Hendricks refer to as “Enemy Mode.”

While “Predatory Enemy Mode” is the more extreme expression of intentional hostility that blatantly uses other people for personal gain, “Simple Enemy Mode” is the more elusive state of the heart that interferes with our ability to connect with others and prevents us to view them as anything other than problems to be solved or avoided. It is this mode that we must especially be wary of. If not noticed, Simple Enemy Mode could convince us to skip small group because we don’t want to listen to that one member of the group exhibiting narcissistic behavior, or it may even prevent us from wanting to join a small group altogether if we are not in a state of the heart that desires to minister to other individuals. When in Simple Enemy Mode, we tend to judge others’ intentions and argue aggressively in an effort to have them adopt our viewpoint (hardly helpful if trying to contribute to a welcoming small group environment). While it is difficult to know what exactly causes us to find our way into Enemy Mode, what is exciting is to know is that attending a small group is what allows us to break away from this mode of thought.  

A Culture of Correction
When we regularly attend small groups, we are able to keep our relational tanks full. It is here when Wilder and Hendricks note that “in order to love my enemy, I must have sufficient joy and love so it overflows to others.” In other words, when each of our small groups embody a community of joy, hesed love, group identity, and healthy correction, it corrects narcissistic behavior within group members by training the other group members to love on each other in such a powerful way that narcissistic individuals become completely disarmed. Wilder and Hendricks add that when a community as a whole is trained up to love on these individuals without giving them a free pass for their dysfunction, a culture of correction is established that “lowers the intensity of shame because everyone has their character corrected” on a frequent basis. After all, Jesus exhibited this strategy perfectly, most notably in how He unashamedly corrects Peter in Matthew 16:23 but also lovingly redeems him in John 21:15-19 (only to then once again correct him a few verses later). In Christ-like fashion, let us develop the capacity to love difficult people so that we prevent narcissism from growing within our respective communities. Let us recognize small groups as the ideal way to challenge us appropriately so that we may be able to facilitate spiritual transformation in a powerful way. Through our small groups, let us uplift one another and encourage one other to be humble servants for the kingdom of God as we bless one another abundantly.

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