Narcissism & Religion
Our Narcissistic/Codependent Society
In today’s show we discuss narcissism & religion and why the ministry and other leadership positions can pose a danger for leaders and their congregations.
On Sound Cloud:
STEVE: Welcome to our Narcissistic-Codependent Society. I’m Steve Cooper, and with me is my wife, Kim.
KIM: The premise of this show is that our Narcissistic and Codependent Society creates not only financial irresponsibility and debt, but also emotional irresponsibility and debt.
STEVE: Kim, before we get started on today’s show, let’s talk a little bit more about that — emotional debt — now, what does that mean exactly? I mean, what would it look like to declare emotional bankruptcy?
KIM: Well, I think emotional bankruptcy would be another way of describing mental illness or a nervous breakdown, or even such tragic things as suicide. And I guess divorce would be something you could describe as emotional bankruptcy, where both parties have reached a point where there is nothing left to give — where, you know, there is nothing left.
STEVE: Yeah, we have a lot of people who write to us when they are at that point, Kim. They are sometimes in their second or third failed marriage before they realize they just can’t jump into blaming the other person anymore in their life, and that they really have no idea how to get their emotional needs met.
KIM: Mmm. Yeah. I think that kind of bankruptcy — if you want to call it that — often does happen when a second, or particularly third marriage starts to fail and people start to feel desperate that they don’t know how to get their needs met. And I think what really probably shows to me fairly clearly that these are roles we play, is the fact that I have noticed a lot of people will tend in their first marriage to play the narcissistic role, and then in their second marriage they may play the more codependent role. And when they realize neither of those roles are working, I think that really can be a point where a lot of confusion and desperation do sort of start to set in.
STEVE: Yeah, I guess both parties are just trying to squeeze something more out of each other, but neither have anything else left to give.
KIM: Well, if they are lucky, you know, they find us at that point (laughing) and they start to see that they need to leave their fantasies that they had about love and relationships behind and maybe learn to balance the give and take a bit better.
STEVE: Mmm. So today we are taking on a very big subject, Kim, and that’s the subject of narcissism and religion. So, how do you want to start this? Where do we get started?
KIM: Well, not by analyzing religion. (Laughing.) That’s I don’t think our role or realm of expertise, but I think it is important we do talk about how religious leaders can often show signs of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
STEVE: Yeah, and a big part of narcissism is that inconsistency between a person’s professed morals and their actual behavior.
KIM: Yeah. You know, we have seen a bit of that lately with ministers, unfortunately, haven’t we?
STEVE: Yeah, we’ve had a lot of ministers wives contact us over the years, writing to us, emailing us saying that their husband’s congregation would be shocked to know how their husbands really treat their families at home and in private. And, of course, we all know about the misdeeds of certain clergy who profess celibacy but are in fact acting well outside of those vows, and totally outside any moral decency as well.
KIM: Mmm . . . yes, it’s unfortunate but true. And, I guess this really gets into a danger area with leadership in general — whether it’s clergy or politicians or lawmakers or judges or police or even teachers — but anyone in a leadership role starts to believe that they are above the law and the rules don’t apply to them. That is a point where this danger of this sort of double life kind of behavior really can come in. And these are really definitely signs of narcissistic behaviour.
STEVE: Well, there is obviously some kind of serious wound there, when this happens. Like in the current US presidential race for example. We have two candidates who are acting like they don’t have to be accountable for some very serious, basic stuff that they really should be very open and transparent about.
KIM: Mmm. I think it is important that the public is asking to maybe see Trump’s tax returns, and wondering why Hillary has been let off on charges of some fairly serious things that other people probably would have got in a lot more in trouble for. And, you know, without taking sides in politics our selves, I think these are questions that the public really does need to ask. Because this really is at the heart of narcissistic behavior when people do start getting the idea that the rules don’t apply to them, and that they are somehow above the law. And this role of leadership that they are in is about superiority over other people, rather than it actually being a more nurturing role, or being actually about their responsibility toward the people that they are actually meant to be leading.
STEVE: So I guess in that leadership role with Trump and Clinton, I guess, is a good example. We can all relate to that, because we all know about those people. But, you know, people in that leadership role within a church structure, it’s a very similar situation — where they are seen as leaders, they are expected to do a lot of talking to big crowds, and they are expected to carry with them a certain level of persona, and they have a lot of expectations on them, Kim.
STEVE: And surely that creates some kind of split in that narcissistic model that we understand?
KIM: Mmm. I think there is a little bit of conflict in that role that ministers have with their congregation. You know, there is on one hand a need for humility and nurturing and caring for their congregation’s spiritual, often emotional, and sometimes physical needs, and then there is also the need for them to be charismatic and be a showman, and that helps fill the collection plates, and helps keeping people coming back to church. And so, you know, I think it really does take a special calling for someone to balance those two well. But I think it is very important that it is balanced, and that people are careful — whether they are religious or not religious — any leaders that we choose to follow, that we are careful to maybe not expect so much of the charismatic out of them . . .
KIM: (Laughing.) . . . and, you know, also understand that our leaders need to be people who are responsible, and who are supportive of their congregation and not just people that are out there to razzle-dazzle us. Because, I guess, as you were sort of putting it, that does put a bit of pressure on them, hey?
STEVE: Yeah, well there is a contract there, I think we could talk about, Kim, a little bit. Which is that we really shouldn’t expect our leaders to be too much of that role — to be the evangelist all the time.
STEVE: Obviously, our leaders have to be left alone to be people as well. And we as supporters or followers — however you want to describe us, who are not the leaders — we have a responsibility not to place too much expectation on them.
STEVE: Don’t you think? And I think maybe there is a carryover there with that pattern into our relationships with each other. We shouldn’t be expecting one person to do all of that very draining type, motivational, kind of — what’s the other word for motivational? — to be that initiating spark of activity and fun . . .
STEVE: . . . and leadership and motivation — and all of those things. We have to be able to see that whoever is in that role of leadership needs to be respected as a person as well, not just expected to be somebody above us.
STEVE: We shouldn’t expect them to be above us.
KIM: Well, maybe we should be thinking about that when we vote people into those positions or when we choose which congregation we are going to join. (Laughing.) But I think the narcissistic type is actually quite happy to come and fill in and take on that role.
STEVE: (Laughing.) Right.
KIM: I don’t think that it’s really fair to blame their congregation for putting that pressure on them.
But, you know, I think just taking it to another level a little bit deeper is that while we might see these ministers behaving badly, if you want to call it that, that they are just taking from the congregation — they are taking money, they are taking the attention, and they are taking the glory — and that this is sometimes on false pretenses, because maybe these people are not as moral or as spiritual or as well balanced as they are pretending that they are. Really deeper than that is the fact that really the narcissistic personality is the one that loses in the end. Even though it seems like they are getting everything and they may have just sort of tricked or conned everybody. There really is a terrible sadness and a terrible debt — again back to this emotional debt idea — that is accrued in playing that role. And many narcissistic individuals end up at the end of their career financially bankrupt and alone. And, on a psychological level, what is going on with this? This is really a disorder where people hide from themselves; where they create a false persona, a false character or a false identity that they sort of fall in love with, or they are enamored by, or they project to the public because it works to get them a lot of attention. But they are hiding from the truth — and the truth is there is really some lack in their interpersonal skills, and that really they don’t know how to connect with people on a genuine level. And the narcissistic character that they create actually helps them hide from that fact and not actually do the work they really should be working on to maybe just improve their personal skills and form healthier and better connections with people that are based a little bit more on genuine give and take.
STEVE: That sounds a little bit like the story of Narcissus from Greek mythology, Kim.
STEVE: It’s almost word for word.
KIM: (Laughing.) Well, he fell in love with his reflection, didn’t he? That was the curse. He fell in love with his own beauty.
STEVE: But he was cursed because he wasn’t able to form quality connections with the people around him in the story.
KIM: Mmm. They were upset with him.
STEVE: Yeah. And his congregation — or his neighborhood, his village and the people around him — didn’t feel like he had a good understanding of what the give and take was.
STEVE: He wanted to take everybody’s adoration and affections . . .
STEVE: . . . but wasn’t giving anything in return, and it was creating this terrible imbalance.
KIM: That’s right.
STEVE: So that was why the curse was eventually placed upon him, because of that terrible behavior that got him into a lot of trouble.
KIM: Mmm . . . And really, in the story, it was him that was cursed in the end, and I think it’s important we remember that. Because often it’s too easy to sort of see people who are behaving as con men or charlatans — whether they are in ministerial positions or whether they are politicians or people who are misusing their roles of power, to see that maybe they have somehow won some advantage because they have the flash cars or their wife has fur coats and diamonds, or what have you. But really in the end it’s they themselves that lose the most.
STEVE: And that’s not how we build a positive and stable family and stable community, by allowing somebody to just perish with their own madness, is it?
STEVE: We do, we have to reach out and help each other.
KIM: That’s right. But I think this danger can go right through into families, not just congregations and leadership—you know, that people start feeling they are above the law, or that their role isn’t based on responsibility and nurturing, but their role is actually based on, “Because I am the leader I must be superior in some kind of way”, and “I am just owed this respect”. And, you know, maybe with some religious leaders they start to feel that rather than being called by God to the position, maybe they forget and start thinking that they are God — I’m not sure (laughing).
But there is definitely a danger in that occupation, but it’s obviously not the only occupation where there is this danger. We often see it at home as well with fathers who can think, you know, just because I’m the man of the house I am owed deference, so I should automatically be in a role of leadership, because I’m the man — without actually really thinking about what the responsibilities are of being a husband and being a father. And if they are not abiding by those responsibilities, well, you know, they don’t really have a right to be insisting that they be paid deference to, or that they can really remain in that role of leadership. Because really it’s got to be about responsibility, not just feeling that you are in charge because you are superior or you are better than the people around you.
STEVE: Yeah, to offer humility and understanding is a much better way to become powerful in your family.
KIM: Well, that’s the healthy form of leadership.
STEVE: Yeah (laughing).
KIM: And if you start feeling that you’re the leader because you are superior and you need deferential treatment, by definition that is narcissistic.
STEVE: Wow. So thanks, Kim.
In our next show, we will be discussing the issues of codependence and religion, and maybe take a different look at some of these same topics we have raised in this show.
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