Listener Questions about Narcissism with Chuck DeGroat

As a follow up to last week’s conversation, Dr. Chuck DeGroat returns to the podcast to answer listener questions about narcissism with Dan and Rachael. How are we to engage a person who might be a parent, spouse, or spiritual leader who has narcissistic characteristics? How do we engage a narcissist with wisdom? And, on a larger scale, how do we recognize the symptoms of a narcissistic church culture?

We are deeply grateful for our community, for your bravery in asking these vulnerable questions. We ask that as you listen to this conversation, pay attention to what it stirs in your body and give yourself the care and space you need to engage.

Listener Resources

Episode Transcript

Dan: We have the privilege of having Dr. Chuck DeGroat back with us to engage a number of the questions that you as listeners have offered. But before we launch into that, let me just say that when we look at Scripture, there’s no direct category of narcissist or narcissism. And yet, all you need to do is to look particularly in Proverbs at the category of the fool, and you begin to see, oh my goodness, there are so many overlapping categories. You see in the Proverbs that the fool is impulsive, that there is this sense of deception, that there is a commitment to his or her own way and no other way. There is a desire to, in one sense, wrap others up in their own violence. There’s a deep commitment to burning the house down, to destroying anyone who stands opposed to them. So we’ve got categories clearly in the Proverbs. If you just want to look at two chapters: Chapter 12, Chapter 26 of Proverbs, will give you a lot of these remarkable, really revelatory categories about the nature of what it’s like to engage a fool or, in this case, a narcissist. But, Chuck, Rachel, here’s the difficulty. Proverbs 26:4 and 26:5. 26:4 basically says this: If you confront a fool, you will become like him. But the next verse says, if you don’t confront a fool, he will be wise in his own estimation. So you’ve got really a very playful conundrum and paradox here. We’ve got to deal with narcissists. But if we do, we’re in a heap of trouble. So, what we want to do today is to just invite you, Chuck, to help us think through how particularly are we to engage a narcissist who might be a parent? A narcissist who might be a spouse, or a spiritual leader, or even a congregation that’s narcissistic. And then before we end, I also want to make sure that we talk about the reality that what we saw on January 6, in the cataclysm of overwhelming the propriety of the Congress and the House, was a narcissistic mob. We’ve got to have these categories in order to do the work we want to do to grow the Kingdom of God, and our own life and maturity. So welcome back, Chuck. And welcome Rachael.

Rachael: Well, before we jump in, I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you to our listeners for providing us these questions that just help us have some insight into how this material is landing and the places it’s reverberating in your hearts and your bodies. And so just know, though we may not get to address verbatim every question, your questions have deeply informed the conversation we’d like to have. And we’re so grateful you took the time to reach out to us. We know that’s such a vulnerable risk and that these are deeply enstoried and embodied questions. So thank you.

D: Indeed. Thank you, Rachael. So, Chuck, help us out of this biblical conundrum.

Chuck: [laughs] Yeah. Thanks, Dan. I love how you know, have offered this contradictory scripture and serve it up and say, okay, let’s make sense of that. But I do love, you know, I think just to set this up as well, and we want to look for these truisms, these principles and scripture that are normative and for all time. And the reality is that they’re housed in existentially situational realities. Peoples’ lives, contexts, geography, ease, people groups. And so we all, in the work that we do, get questions like, how do I do this or what do I do in this situation? And we look for Scripture. You look for the proof text, right? Well, that’s the verse that will help me to do what I need to do. And I think that what you’re getting at is you’re inviting us to wisdom in this, that there’s not a particular Proverbs text that tells us what to do or what not to do. But we have to find wisdom in the midst of it. So that’s what we’re going to try to do today, I think we’re going to try to find the better part of wisdom in your questions.

D: Oh, Amen. I did serve you up a rather narcissistic question. I do believe it’s a parenthesis, but in the middle, there has to be the development of wisdom. So take us in. How does one largely engage with wisdom? People who are impulsive, who are angry, who are deceptive, who in some sense, if things do not go as they wish, will resort to violence of some form or another. That sense of literally it says in the Proverbs, the fool will burn the house down.

C: Yeah, so we could between the three of us probably come up with some helpful categories to help people rather than going, you know, situation by situation, this is what you should do. One of the things that I say to people when they ask me questions about what I do in a situation like this, the first thing that I say is you need to spend some time speaking to your therapist or spiritual director. Someone who can invite you into what’s going on in your body right now. I love how Rachel set this up: We’re aware that we’re relational and embody people’s questions. There’s a lot going on inside of you. When folks ask these questions, we want to realize that there’s a lot animating them, that their trauma responses: fight, flight, or freeze. Fond. And we need to be in a space where we can find our way to wisdom. In other words, not react but reflect so that we can act wisely from a place of reflection and not reaction. So that’s often for me a first piece of that. But that means doing the hard work of paying attention to how you react. What in your own story, your own trauma story, activates you, and what do you need to do to show up wisely and well and so that’s the first piece for me, that seems to be really important. And I look over some of the questions that people ask about: How do I relate to my narcissistic mom or my spiritual leader? We need to do our work first so that we are paying attention and we can show up with awareness and intentionality.

D: Amen to the Amen to the nth degree Amen. So often what we want to do is have a manual or a method, but that actually increases the madness because we’ve not done the work first of dealing with what I would say two categories. Freedom from. Until there has been freedom from the narcissistic web, there’s not a lot that I can advise you to do. The question is, how can I help you step away? Not, maybe literally, but step away from the kind of drowning effects that often the narcissist has. So again, that’s not a once and finished, but a growing sense of: Can we help you move from the bind, the onslaught of what narcissism tends to bring? But that’s not enough. There has to be freedom for. That is, a commitment to, how do I love? How do I engage? But I don’t want to work toward that until there has been freedom from. So if those two things are part of the labor of engaging the question, and I think there are other things that obviously could be said. Rachael, anything you want to add?

R: Not at this juncture. It’s interesting, I’m putting myself in the places where I haven’t encountered narcissism in ways that do feel like drowning. And that really painful work of disentangling. And the profound sense of shattering, like annihilation of your own self that comes once you refuse to play by the rules. So I think I’m remembering the slow, painful, kind of consistent process of the rescue of God. I would say that came, but how much healing takes time and how to hold that when you feel like you don’t have time for healing. And so I think I’m sitting in that place. So people saying, I get that, but I’ve got to make decisions now. I’m trying to figure out, like, what steps do you take now? So I appreciate both of you bringing a sense of there is work you have to do. There’s also a movement of sometimes needing to kind of freedom from something, just how incredibly scary that is, even if it’s scarier to stay the terror of setting up boundaries.

C: Yeah, that’s right. I remember reading back in the late nineties, a book by a well known, esteemed, world-changing scholar named Dan Allender called The Wounded Heart, and he talked about categories of powerlessness, ambivalence, and betrayal. And little did I know that the journey from those three to faith, hope, and love would be continuing on 23 years later, right? I mean, sort of giving me the handbook to show me how to get out of this, to that, as quickly as possible. I ended up writing a book about 10 years later about finding God in the wilderness places. How an 11 day journey from Egypt to the promised land took 40 years. You know, it should have been an 11 day journey, right? And how for many of us who are involved in this, I think what trauma does to us is that it puts us in a place where we need to know now, we need to get out now. We need to respond now. There’s so much anxiety, right? I need the fix. And so at least part of what we need to do in the very beginning is to address that anxiety on the surface. And when we do that, then we have the opportunity to invite people to the deeper story. I was talking to a woman the other day who was betrayed once again by a spouse, a second narcissistic spouse. This time she went all in. This time she gave her whole heart, and she’s wrestling with well, there’s a part of me that is still working through some of the old stuff, and yet there’s a part of me that’s in the land of faith, hope, and love. You know, I’ve tasted the fruit of the new space, the new land of faith, hope, and love and I do the dance back and forth, sometimes back into ambivalence, powerlessness, and betrayal. Other times I feel myself dipping my toe and maybe my whole body into this space of transformation and freedom. And I like to identify people like that sometimes, you know, what’s the work that I need to do with them? Some of them just need to awaken to the narcissistic dynamics in the first place, and they need to connect the dots. Others have gone on their journey long enough to be able to say, I think I’m rooted enough to be able to engage this narcissistic leader or spouse or parent. I’m going to have a hard conversation. I don’t know if that makes sense, but some people are not ready to engage the hard conversation because they haven’t done the work.

D: Yeah, you’ve got from my standpoint Luke 14 that talks about before you go to war, you must count the cost. And before you build a building, count the cost. And I think in those two things, having been part of building one home, we did our best. But boy, we were ridiculously far from what it was actually going to cost financially and personally. But you’ve got to have a plan. You’ve got to have some assessment of benefit, liability of cost ratio. That may sound very transactional, but I think it’s a very important category. What will you lose when you engage that narcissistic parent or spouse or pastor And can you afford to? And I don’t mean to say that you should always be in the answer of yes, I can afford to because I have Jesus. There are, as you put it so well, Chuck, there are just plain and simple seasons in our life where we’ve got to have enough wisdom to go. I’m not ready to run a 10-K. I’m just walking a mile. I’d love to run a 10-K at some point, but now I just need to continue the training to be in that position, to be able to indeed afford the cost.

C: Yeah, and with that training, it feels like things slow down. I mean, I’ve experienced this as a therapist, and over time things have slowed down a little bit. This movie illustration is getting old and it dates us. But in The Matrix, Neo in the beginning of the movie is sort of bombarded by the weapons. But towards the end of the movie, he sees the bullet coming at him very, very slowly, and he’s able to kind of grab it and touch it, toss it away, and I think with the narcissist thinking about my own work, things have slowed down. I could see it coming in, I think. At times for people who have done their work things slow down, and it’s like, oh, he’s gaslighting me right now. I can see it happening. I’m watching it happening and I can choose to respond in a particular kind of way where there are some who are not quite there yet and it’s coming in and it’s doing harm and they have to step away. They have to step out of the situation.

D: Oh, yeah, it does date us, but nonetheless, it brings it back home to that question of all right, assume that a person has been in and continuing to do that work of being able to slow down the rage on the part of the narcissist, the gaslighting, the commitment to deception, to the impulsivity, etcetera, etcetera. I know there’s no method, but what processes do you hope for a person as they’re engaging a narcissistic parent? Spouse? Pastor?

C: Well, at least a part of this. We used the language of doing the work, right? At least a part of this involves connecting the dots of your own story. And you, you two do this all the time. This is your work, right? It’s astounding to me the number of people who have not connected the dots of their own story, who cannot see that what’s going on in the present moment is somehow in some way connected to earlier parts of their own life story. So, story is one part of it. A second part of it is awareness. And when I think about awareness, I think of everything we’ve learned about trauma in the last 10 or 15 years. Awareness of what’s going on in my body, not just aware of how this connects to dynamics in my own story. But now I’m becoming aware of, every time I walk into the room with him, my heart starts beating, my hands start sweating, my mouth gets dry, I get a headache. I can’t sleep at night when I’m around him. So now I’m beginning to pay attention to how my body is activated in that particular kind of space. So I need to do some bodywork. I need to do something about what’s going on so that I can slow down my autonomic nervous system and connect to my window of tolerance. I think the third piece is relationship. So story, awareness, and relationship for me is kind of the holy trinity of this and relationship is who are my people? Who do I have around me? Who’s on my phone A friend, you know? So I call up Rachael and I say, Rachael, I walked into the room with him. My heart started beating. He gaslit me. I walked out. I’m not sure if I should leave or stay or, who are my people who know me and who are able to sort of invite me to wisdom in that particular moment or situation? I think those are the spaces that we need to work in and, you know, in my work, I can sometimes identify when people are stronger in one or another, and they need to do a little bit more work on their story, But they’re kind of aware of what’s happening in their body. But all three need to happen for someone to be able to be in that place where they can actually stand their ground, you know, and show up well in the face of narcissistic abuse.

D: Mhm. Yeah. And as you think about, and you put it so well earlier in terms of geography, the particularity, the localness. What do you see uniquely about dealing with a parent that’s different from dealing with a spouse, than dealing with again a pastoral figure?

C: Well, the conversation about narcissistic parents is a conversation in and of itself, right? Because we have to. We have to talk about harm, the wounding that we’ve experienced. Oftentimes, when I work with folks who have a narcissistic parent, there is not a high degree of self-awareness. I mean, oftentimes there’s so much trauma response, anxiety in the body, in those early years, that the work that I’m doing in the very beginning is just getting them to wake up to what’s animated, what’s alive, how they hold anxiety in their bodies. They’re not even yet ready to talk about their story. And chances are, if you ask them about their story, they’ll defend the narcissistic parent, but there’s often a profound sense of emptiness in a child of a narcissistic parent. There’s not a sense of this is who I am. Everything that I am is in connection with how you view me, and they oftentimes become people who are highly dependent on others, codependent. They can even become narcissistic themselves in the sense that there is not a well-developed core or true self. And so, the work that we have to do in and around how we’ve been parented is significant to take seriously the harm that was done and how we show up today. Let alone the conversations that we could have about pastors who are narcissistic, other kinds of leaders, right? I mean, you guys do this work all the time with folks.

D: Well I agree. Dealing with a narcissistic parent, in some ways, I think it is agonizing because there are so many historical roots. You’ve got so much debris that falls underneath the surface. I would say the debris with a spouse is so agonizing. I do not want to in any way minimize that, the sense of being sexually violated, used, the sense of not being heard or humiliated by that narcissistic spouse. But there are so many roots deeply entangled underneath the surface that, because it’s so normalized, it’s so hard to actually say, this was violating, he was humiliating, or I’ve been given powers to be, in one sense, a mirror on their behalf. And therefore there’s some degree of complicity that I don’t know if I want to give up the blessing I have by being in relationship with them, being the mere back to them of their glory. So, that’s a tough realm.

C: Yeah, so tough, so tough. The hardest one to set a boundary with, to break away from because these are the people who raised you so It’s exceptionally painful. Rachael, you were going to say something.

R: Honestly, where I’m at, I’m holding the questions of people who go– and I know we can’t answer this for people, but we’re talking about really abusive kind of persons, family systems, relationships, and I know so many people have that question of, how do I know when to stay and stand up to fight for something? How do I know when it’s the safest and most wise thing I could do is to depart? And I know in some ways that’s what we’re trying to get out with this conversation of, you have to, there has to be enough safety in yourself, enough personhood in yourself to really have the capacity to stay in context. So I think I am aware of even in my own growing up just how often the church said the only option is to stay. That’s what love is, but not actually addressing power dynamics and structures that are going to continue to wreak generational havoc. And then when we start talking about narcissistic systems, whether that’s religious systems, white supremacy, you know, whatever systems we want to talk about, where narcissism is a huge core of that system, it starts to just feel really overwhelming. And, there’s almost a sense of, where can I go? That, you know, I can find restorative places to in some ways be born again, to be given back parts of myself that maybe were not nourished, so they really are so atrophied or they were just shattered. And obviously, you know, we can’t necessarily answer that question for people, but I could just hear people saying, okay, yes, I want to love well, you know, and it’s almost, it’s work that takes different, even freedom from and freedom for is almost like a different direction.

D: I don’t want to complicate things, but that’s where I go back to Chuck’s book When Narcissism Comes to Church. There’s a section where he looks at the Enneagram and he begins to help you differentiate what kind of narcissism are you up against? And even if these categories are not very clear at the moment for people, an eight is going to be very different than a three. How you engage requires some degree of diagnostic wisdom. What kind of person am I up against? And how do they create binds, networks of complicity where there is a threat of shame or fear or rage? And where you begin to look at your own pattern in the midst of that structure. Those are the places where there’s got to be, and using a physical metaphor again, you’ve got to begin to train. You’ve got to begin to not just go in a major confrontation, because that would be a marathon. You’ve got willing to do little, little, little work that may not seem to be particularly dramatic, but back to that phrase: faithful with the small before you attempt any movement to the large, right?

C: That’s right. And, you know, I had a client say to me once I trusted your gut for the first two years we were together until I could trust my gut. You know, I mean, there are folks who I’ll ask so what does your gut tell you? I don’t know. What? My gut? I don’t know. I’ve never learned to discern. I’ve been in narcissistic environments for as long as I’ve known. And so now I find myself in a marriage. I don’t know what to do. So this is where community is involved. Good, honest relationships. A therapist you can trust to help you. Well, let me help you discern. I think what I do in that situation is, so and so, you know this isn’t perfect. I mean, all three of us know that when we offer a way forward to a client we’re kind of throwing the dart and hoping that land someplace close to the center, you know, and we have to be ready to say, I think I blew it on that one. I think we moved too quickly or I think we moved too slowly. But I’m also aware. I mean, you were saying, Rachael, the kind of the prevailing wisdom back years ago was to stay in the relationship, right? Just to submit, or to honor your spouse. And I think probably for many of us, we’ve tried to help people to discern when to leave, how to leave, and how important it is to leave at times. I’m also mindful that there are folks I’ve learned a lot from. Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who lived and died in Auschwitz. Etty Hilesum, who became a young contemplative who actually decided to move. She had an offer to get out of the prison camp, she was able to leave because of some connection she had. She said no, I will stand in solidarity with my people. I will move toward the suffering. I’ll move toward the pain. And there are some who have done the work and are transformed enough to say no, I can actually move towards the pain, move toward the suffering. I know my gut. I’ve got a sense of who I am, my core is strong. I’ve got good relationships. I can stand in a way that others might not be able to stand in. And so this is so situational.

R: Well, that just makes me think of my black brothers and sisters who I hear preach on Esther. They preach so differently than many sermons I have heard. And I’ve heard my friends saying, you need to find your inner Esther and Mordechai and that is a sense of calling. That is a sense of knowing the places we might be called to stay and to resist. And again, I think that takes incredible discernment, incredible healing, and incredible wisdom.

D: Yes. If we can help people in one sense not be bound to shame for extricating themselves so that there is a freedom without a false responsibility or loyalty, but on the other hand, just extraction as we’ve been underscoring, it gives space and containment. But often what I find is then people shutting down the potential to be able to return to engage the narcissist, be it a structure or a person, with far more attunement. Narcissists are, generally speaking, not people who are just selfish. But in some sense, as you put it so well, Chuck, they lack a core. They lack the ability to operate with a sense of true self. So to invite a narcissist, narcissists can change. There can be repentance even if it is infrequent and not as fast as we would all prefer. There really is a calling to engage. But again, not at a cost of you remaining in a web that deprives you both of human flourishing, but also the integrity of what it means to love.

C: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.

D: Before we get much further, I’d love for you to address one of the questions, I’m going to read it in particular. You talked about what narcissism looks like in a person. What are the symptoms of a narcissistic church culture? What is the most consistently observable clue that this problem is shifting from being an individual issue to a systemic issue?

C: Yeah, I’m glad you said that. I was thinking that same thing because, you know, we, in our work, deal individually with people quite often, but I’m aware that we’re embedded in systems and that the mom that you’re struggling with who might be narcissistic might also be caught up in a larger thing. She might be caught up in a conspiracy theory right now. You know, she might actually be listening to shaman and, you know, wondering about how we might overthrow the government. And so we, this is where it gets really tricky, right? And I think I may have mentioned in our last time together the work of Jerrold Post. Jerrold Post talks about the mirror hungry narcissist, but then he talks about ideal hungry followers, right? The ideal hungry followers, what I like to say is they’re looking for an answer to a deeper question. In other words, when they come together within a group, when there’s this kind of groupthink, when there’s this collective narcissism there often is a shared question. Shared deep need, profound insecurity. We’ve come together because we, our group of people, have been left out, and we have a need for justice. And the only way to get that justice, because it’s not going to happen through typical politics, is to overthrow the government. You know, this is how people go from your ordinary neighbor next door who waters or flowers every Tuesday afternoon to full-on conspiracy theorists because they’re trying to answer a deep question. Another way I like to say it is Dan, you’ve been so helpful with this is that we have to be re-storied, not just restored, but re-storied. In other words, narcissism lives within a collective story that makes sense out of the world. And so we, as our group again answering a particular question about a pervasive problem in society that can only happen if we become the church militant. And so now we’ve departed from Orthodox Christianity, the way of Jesus. That’s what I call Orthodox Christianity, the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, the way of suffering servanthood. And now we believe we’ve got to take up arms in order to enact the kingdom in the world. And you get there because you’re living in a particular story that makes sense out of the world where we’ve been denied. We’re no longer center stage in the story anymore, and we’ve got to take back our, we have to make America great again. That’s literally kind of how the narrative goes. We’ve got to take back the America of old where we were in power. ‘m talking at 50,000 ft. Maybe we need to bring it down a little bit, but I’ll stop there and see what your reflections might be.

R: I think just to say, I think about how, from the individual to the systemic, is when there’s a sense of here are really defined boundaries of who’s in and who’s out. And when the people you can trust to tell the truth and to see the way start to become fewer, start to become personality-driven, and start to become people who use threat and fear as the primary motivator. So when you’re looking at a narcissistic church system, where theology is being used to determine who’s in and who’s out, where theology and scripture and spiritual formation are being used to determine who is right and good and who’s evil and dangerous and threatening, instead of what we know to be the story of God, who is rescuing us from these powers of sin and death and saying the way of Jesus is to know that you have to flip that power on its head by following the crucified savior of the world, who took a stand against the powers of empire and the powers of death of this world, and in a way that did not let fear and hate be the shields and the weapons through which Jesus would accomplish God’s purposes for all of creation. And so to me, when I start to see a church system that uses fear to keep people in line and to keep people following, that’s one of the first places I’m going to go, something is wrong with this system, not just this person, but the way in which we’re all being asked to function.

D: So well said. I mean, this is where a conversation about structures of capitalism for me comes in. Because the moment you have a product to sell, you want your audience, whether it’s a church or soap, to believe that this is the best product you could possibly ever have. The moment you start that process of going, we’re the best. We do things unlike anybody else. I mean, sales to some degree, begins on a platform of narcissism versus being able to say, look, what we do, I’m sure there are others who do as well, if not better. In fact, we acknowledge that in some ways, our brokenness makes our own place in the world, at times difficult. So it’s hard to be in a world in which everything is being sold as the best, and the demand to be the best, But when you add conspiracy as the access to knowledge, and again not to be too boring here, but you know there is such a Gnostic edge to Christianity. Such a kind of we have a knowledge that other people do not have, but again, that’s not scriptural. But Paul is having to deal with Gnosticism in Colossians. That kind of, we got something that you don’t have. We’re already in that attendance of a kind of power-oriented against that excludes, that heightens who we are, and lessons who you are. So that, to me, is the simple category. Any structure that heightens who we are and lessons who you are is in and of itself narcissistic.

C: Yeah, yeah, I’m ready for the altar call. Good preaching that way. Thank you.

D: We two males, semi at times, narcissists, now lean to you and say: Save us now.

R: Only Jesus saves. I think again, where there’s just a profound lack of humility and a capacity to hold the tension that we are all in need of a savior and that we are called to an imagination oven abundant kingdom that is not yet and has come, and I think in the particular current climate we find ourselves we’re witnessing the fruit of narcissistic structures in so many different collective personal collisions. I feel in agony and a terror because I know the powerlessness of being at the mercy of narcissistic people and structures. We all do, to some extent. And that, to me, is where I am finding a renewed call to enter my baptismal identity. Not one that says, well, I guess I’m just going to be annihilated, because that’s what love looks like, but one that says: No, love looks like I am not motivated by fear. I am motivated by the love and imagination that Jesus has set forth. Meaning, if today is the day I die, it’s a good day to die, and I’m going to fight with everything in me for the revelation of who Jesus is. The true Jesus to come forth. So I am feeling the particular agony and urgency of this moment, to say there are so many people who are being misled by a false Jesus, and false ways of following Jesus, and I would not claim that I’m not being misled. I’m in the midst of having to decolonize, to deconstruct much of my faith as a way to be more faithful and to grow and to learn and to repent. So I wouldn’t perceive to say I know the way. I can look around right now and say there are many people who are being manipulated, gaslit, and their fears stoked to a fever pitch, and what I know to be true is there is no fear in the love of Jesus. Because perfect love casts out fear. It doesn’t rouse up fear to use as a weapon.

D: Yes. Well, I think the only thing that the two of us can say to that is Amen. Amen. Thank you, Chuck, for joining us. Thank you so much.

R: Thank you for your labor, your work.

C: Thank you for those words, Rachael. My soul is full. Thank you so much and I think you just demonstrated it, in your humility, in your invitation. Not demand, not grasping. Thank you. So good to be with you.