In her summer release, President Donald Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, a clinical psychologist, describes her uncle as a “narcissist” with a complex and pathological relationship with his deceased father. Her diagnostic sequitur, though hardly original, carries the sting of coming from a family connection. In another story closer to home, a longtime Taylor University philosophy professor, was released from his position after refusing to take down a YouTube video of himself singing a folksy tune called “Little Hitler.” The first lines are, “There’s a little Hitler inside of you, there’s a Hitler inside of me.” The song, of course, uses shock value to draw attention to our human capacity for evil. My goal is not to make a political commentary nor to comment on academic freedom. Instead, I want to draw a connection between these two events and suggest like the song that, “There’s a little narcissism inside of you and a little narcissism inside of me.”
To use such language of one’s brothers and sisters in Christ is hardly congenial, so let me briefly explain. Narcissistic people often look exactly as one would expect—they highlight their accomplishments, inflate their role in “successes,” and respond to criticism with vitriolic defense. But some years ago, scholars discovered another type of narcissist and termed it “vulnerable narcissism.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, both groups were improperly affirmed during their formative years. Like the regular type, the vulnerable narcissist is self-focused and handles criticism poorly. The difference is that instead of trying to convince the world of their inherent value, the vulnerable type turns inward, trying to convince themselves that they are worthy.
A colleague and I recently conducted a study that examined vulnerable narcissism, maladaptive perfectionism, and self-compassion. One of our findings was that those struggling with vulnerable narcissism are also highly prone to maladaptive perfectionism. It makes sense when you consider the fact that they’re trying to prove their worth to themselves. High standards can be constructive but become maladaptive when they launch people into a cycle of setting high standards—that they don’t reach—and feel worse about themselves because it confirms their deepest fears—so set new and higher standards. That is, feel better by trying harder. Mary Trump’s book title was right on target: Too Much and Never Enough.
But we also learned that exercising self-compassion, or in theological terms—grace—towards one’s self could interrupt the narcissistic struggle. Self-compassion needs to be defined carefully, however, or it simply becomes another way of falsely affirming the self. Applying self-compassion or grace that is rooted more in the Giver than the recipient is a far more substantive intervention. We can interact more compassionately with ourselves, in other words, because Christ is compassionate toward us.
Henry Nouwen wrote,
“I am more and more convinced that we will find the peace and joy of Christ when we let him truly enter into the deepest places of our heart, especially those places where we are afraid, insecure, and self-rejecting”
“[Christ] is a source of life and is truly able to touch you deeply so that you can go beyond the success-failure syndrome. I really believe that it is possible for you to develop a simple life of prayer that can give you that “holy indifference.” By that, I mean the place where you feel so truly safe and so well held that the ups and downs of your life aren’t able to distress you or excite you. I have personally found much help in…repeating…the prayer of St. Francis, ‘Make me an instrument of your peace. . . .’ When I let these words enter deeply into my consciousness, … I am moved beyond the places where exultation or depression dwell.”
I suggest there is a “little narcissism in all of us” in the sense that we are all longing for deep affirmation. There certainly is a continuum, and some have a greater need because they have not historically been loved well, but the dynamic, I believe, is universal. By allowing the grace of Christ to reach our places of deepest insecurity, we slowly move toward “holy indifference,” or the light yoke of grace offered by our Savior.
Lewis Smedes ends his book, Shame and Grace, with a postscript that is beautiful in its simplicity. Among a list of shame-releasing statements to affirm as one’s own are, “I believe that grace has set me free to accept myself totally, and without conditions, though I do not approve of everything I accept.”
As a social work professor, I often tell students that a healthy view of sin is necessary if they are to sustain themselves after entering into the darkest human experiences with others. But an emphasis on sin can also mean that we are distrusting and awkward when it comes to dealing gracefully with ourselves. Many of our students, and I might suggest many of us academics, tend to work harder when we feel unaffirmed rather than to, once again, receive a grace that has no relationship to our abilities. Yes, there is a “little narcissist inside of us,” but that’s not all; there is also the spirit of grace.