YOU MIGHT KNOW A NARCISSIST IF: Defining & Dealing with Difficult People

Are you dealing with an average, run-of-the-mill jerk, or a bona-fide, nth-degree narcissist? Paul Meier and Eleanor Payson may be able to help you.

Psychiatrist Paul Meier, M. D., founder of Meier Clinics and author of over seventy other books, published a best seller back in the nineties titled, Don’t Let Jerks Get the Best of You: Advice for Dealing with Difficult People. The book breaks people down into three categories: First degree, second degree, and nth-degree jerks. It includes advice on how to identify and deal with the average jerk (1st degree), and the jerk within–how many people did you cut off in traffic this morning?—as well as the narcissists (2nd degree), and sociopaths (nth-degree) among us.

Meier’s is a great book, user-friendly, mostly non-clinical and entertaining vocabulary, and illustrations that strike home.  Eleanor D. Payson’s 2002 book, The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping With the One Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family, is less so, but still helpful. Payson, who holds an M.S.W. and has been a licensed marital and family therapist for over thirty years, addresses issues faced when dealing with narcissists in chapters entitled: “Seeing the Emerald Forest for the Emerald Trees,” on identifying people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), and “Follow Your Yellow Brick Road,” on finding the boundaries of self.

If you’re dealing with a true sociopath–think Saddam Hussein–you don’t need a self-help book; you need an escape route. But how do you know if you’re in a relationship at work, or at school, or at home, with a 2nd degree jerk or even, as Payson might say, a person truly afflicted with Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

A few clues from Meier and Payson (pronouns interchangeable):

Narcissists are highly controlling, focusing attention on themselves most of the time. He has a grandiose sense of self-importance, truly believing in his “special” status, and isn’t afraid to let others know it. She’s also vindictive, remembering every slight, intent on ultimate payback. He almost never apologizes or takes responsibility for being wrong. His ego is too fragile for that. And he always has a blame-shifting explanation for his abusive behavior. She operates with a quid-pro-quo mindset, a flatterer who enjoys helping and protecting popular, successful people, as long as they understand that “they owe her.” He lacks empathy, but more than that, he is cold and ruthless when challenged. She is never vulnerable, never open with anyone about her shortcomings, but can be quite sexually seductive and even exploitative. He doesn’t believe rules apply to him and he uses others to advance his own agenda.

Narcissists, or 2nd degree jerks, are not to be trifled with, and if you are prone to co-dependency you will need more than a self-help book to deal with them. But these books are a good place to start. Meier, who holds degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary, writes from the biblical worldview and therefore communicates more hope for change. He has seen the power of the Cross of Christ at work in narcissists and their victims. Payson is less hopeful, but still helpful in identifying not only the abusers among us, but also the coping mechanisms best suited to stopping their harmful behaviors. Both books are worth adding to your summer reading list.

EXERCISE IN TYRANNY: Marriage and Freedom of Conscience

A beautiful wedding is a microcosm of cooperative community. Everyone exerts him or herself to the utmost to insure the bride and groom have their day of unalloyed joy. Friends fly in from far-off fields, florists outdo themselves arranging flowers, planners and facility managers push to make the venue flawless, and photographers find the perfect pose to freeze each moment in time. It all costs money, but ask the vendors and they will tell you, it is never only about the money, but about being part of something money cannot buy: the mystical union of husband and wife. When it all goes right, and even when it doesn’t, everyone sheds a tear or two of reverent joy.

Imagine what it would be like, what it would do to the spirit of celebration, to force someone who did not want to be there, who could not in good conscience participate, to do it anyway? What if, for instance, you insisted on bar-b-que for the reception, and your caterer politely declined because she is Hindu? Would you really want her to be there? Would you take her to court and attempt to shut down her business if she refused? Of course not! That is not a microcosm of cooperative community, but an exercise in tyranny.

That is what is happening to a fine lady named Barronelle Stutzman, a 72-year-old grandmother and floral artist in Richland, Washington. Barronelle serves everyone in her community, regardless of race, nationality, sex, religion, or sexual orientation. She has long sold flowers to, and considers herself a friend of, many same-sex oriented people. But because of her Christian conscience about marriage, she could not agree to use her artistic gifts to create custom-arranged flowers for a customer’s same-sex ceremony.

Because of that, the State of Washington brought suit against Barronelle, and the Washington Supreme Court has now ruled against her for running her floral shop, Arlene’s Flowers, according to her Christian conscience.[1] She stands to lose not only her business, but also her home, and all of her retirement savings paying fees and penalties. Alliance Defending Freedom is appealing Barronelle’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The people behind the prosecution of Barronelle Stutzman, and other small-business operators like her,[2] are well-funded, well-connected, and cleverly led. Their avowed purpose is not only to stop all dissent, but to force everyone to celebrate their view of human sexuality in general, and marriage in particular. They attack small-business operators who do not have the funds, nor the customer support base (remember the failed attack on Chic-fil-A?) to fight back, and bring suit in courts favorable to their cause because judicial precedent tends to spread from state to state. [3]

What is our redemptive stance in the face of such tyranny?

First, pray for those who disagree with us. We cannot stop people who choose to disregard God’s good order of creation, but we can be kind, loving, respectful to them as persons, and prayerful.

Second, refer customers, like Barronelle did, to other vendors who can serve with a clear conscience.

Finally, follow Barronelle’s example and take a costly stand. Scripture teaches that “ … those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar.”[4] We should not participate in something that so directly contradicts God’s design. But that is not the only reason to stand with Barronelle. The social pressure of millions of believers who refuse to “go along to get along” will speak volumes to judges and legislators. Persecuting a grandma with a small business is easy; suing a hundred million people, not so much.

Watch for Barronelle’s case during the next session of the U.S. Supreme Court. Stand with her in prayer. Support her with your funds, letters to editors, legislators, and judges. It is not just her freedom of conscience that is on the line, but yours as well. If it falls, there will be no cause for celebration.

[1] http://www.adflegal.org/detailspages/blog-details/allianceedge/2017/02/16/washington-supreme-court-punishes-barronelle-stutzman.-what-now

[2] http://www.adflegal.org/detailspages/case-details/masterpiece-cakeshop-v.-craig See also http://www.adflegal.org/detailspages/case-details/telescope-media-group-v.-lindsey

[3] Harris, W.C., Slouching Toward Gay Theism: Christianity and Queer Survival in America; Bruce, Tammy, The Gay Gestapo, WashingtonTimes.com, March 2, 2014.

[4] 1 Corinthians 10:18

BEATING SEVEN YEAR BURNOUT

The Seven Year Itch, a 1955 Billy Wilder film with Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell, surfaced an idea that had burbled along for some time in pop culture. To wit: married couples experience a decline in satisfaction over the first four or five years and, by year seven, tensions have risen to the point that they either divorce or adapt to each other in new ways. Some social scientists pooh-pooh the notion, but others have documented the phenomenon.[1]

Well, you may want to file this under “for what it’s worth,” or just hit delete, but I’ve been in the people business a long time and I think they’re on to something that affects not just our marriages, but every aspect of life. Calling it the seven year enthusiasm curve or passion cycle may be more accurate. Take your pick, but knowing what it is and how to deal with it can definitely increase your quality of life, may help you make better job choices, and might even save your marriage.

The burnout cycle in a nutshell: First, initial enthusiasm about a new idea, person, job, or ministry. We find something or someone new and fall in love. Second, energetic commitment to it, we go all in. Third, sustained effort for two or three years, we work hard at the new thing or new love and enjoy it. Fourth, inevitable problems emerge and the new thing starts to feel old, the gears grind, effort required increases as enjoyment declines. We hang on a couple more years, wondering where the love went. Fifth–and this can happen anywhere between years five and seven–the thrill is gone, baby, burnout descends, and we start looking for something new to relight the fires of passion, or else begin casting blame for our unhappiness.

The end of the cycle can get ugly in all kinds of ways. People have affairs, start fights in churches, or jump from job to job, seeking long-term satisfaction at the price of instability and upheaval. (I first learned about this cycle not from the movies, but from a theology professor who had observed the dynamic in some of the more emotion-based expressions of Christianity).

But even if it doesn’t deteriorate into shouting matches, unconscious acquiescence is not the path to peace and happiness. So how do we beat the seven year burnout? A few suggestions:

First, plan to bail before you fail. Some things do not require life-long commitment and work better if we plan ahead to step aside at a predetermined time.  I did this as a soccer coach. I was never very good at it, and when my kids were done, so was I. Ministry tasks, volunteer roles, hobbies, these and many more, benefit when we recognize the limits of our humanity and plan to move on to new things before passion becomes drudgery.

Second, identify your non-negotiables and plan to replenish your energy. Think of marriage. Think of calling, be it ministry, law, medicine, or business. If it is something worth keeping, it is worth the effort to build emotional and spiritual recovery and renewal space into your life to sustain it. God’s gift of Sabbath is part of this, as was the year of Jubilee for Israel, each occurring not so coincidentally I think, every seventh day and seventh year respectively.

Third, develop long-term goals and short-term objectives that move you toward the goal, and then take time off to celebrate when each objective is met. Celebration replenishes energy.

Finally, and most importantly, build your life and learn to draw your strength, day by day and year by year, on the only one with an infinite supply of energy and passion: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.[2]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_seven-year_itch

[2] Hebrews 13:8

ONE RING TO BIND THEM

Glenn T. Stanton’s The Ring Makes All the Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage

Ask any pastor what the toughest part of his job is and, second only to funerals of the young, he will tell you “counseling broken marriages.” Nothing else wreaks more emotional, spiritual, familial, and financial havoc than divorce. No wonder then that we are always on the lookout for resources to help couples, especially pre-marital couples, prevent that disaster. Glenn T. Stanton’s THE RING MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE (Moody Publishers, 2011) takes aim at one of the preeminent pre-cursors to broken marriages today: pre-marital cohabitation, and does so with pinpoint accuracy.

Stanton is the director for Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, and a leading spokesperson on marriage and family issues. He can also be heard on the weekly “Breakpoint This Week” podcast, hosted by John Stonestreet.

At fewer than one hundred and fifty pages, The Ring is an easy read, incredibly well-documented, and highly practical for couples or individuals who want to think carefully and act wisely as they approach marriage. Each chapter has large-print summary quotes for quick review along with five or six insight-inducing questions at the end.

The book is also a great example of science “catching up” with scripture. Anyone familiar with the biblical understanding of marriage knows that sex before marriage is sin and cohabitation is not equal to marriage. The mid-twentieth century sexual revolution and feminist movements undermined that message, and cohabitation has skyrocketed as a result. Most couples just sort of slide in to the arrangement, not intending to commit sin so much as failing to see why it matters. But social scientists have been tracking the results of that sea-change for fifty years and the results support the biblical view. A few of the findings are indicative:

“Marriage matters, not just because it is preceded by a wedding that costs us or our parents tens of thousands of dollars, but because the nature of the relationship itself makes a difference in ways you probably never imagined.”

“Even if (cohabiting) couples consider themselves essentially “married,” they know that without a marriage license, they are freer to exit the relationship at any time. This lack of security in the mind of each partner affects how they deal with each other.”

“Marriage involves things the cohabiting couple–or at least one of them–would rather not deal with. This is why cohabitation even exists.”

“People with cohabiting experience who marry have a 50 to 80 percent higher likelihood of divorcing than married couples who never cohabited.”

All of those findings are important, but the one that stood out most, because it is the one that I deal with most often in counseling, is that cohabitation, even with someone you eventually wed, sets up unhealthy relationship patterns that carry over into the marriage. Cohabitors have fewer and weaker conflict resolution skills. They are less likely to be supportive and self-sacrificing. Most notably, “the lack of relational clarity is likely to foster more controlling and manipulative interactions to try to keep the relationship together and get the partner to do what the other desires. As a result, cohabitors are much more likely to report a sense of relational instability than their married peers.”

Any married person would benefit from Stanton’s book, but I highly recommend it to young men and women contemplating marriage, as well as to those who haven’t yet found that special someone. Read it, and protect yourself from a world of hurt.

 

THE CAT’S IN THE CRADLE

Three little towheaded girls tossed me back two decades last Sunday. I was waiting my turn at Dairy Queen while their mom patiently absorbed and sorted through their excited chatter to find just the right treats. The other graying men standing near me were all smiles, utterly charmed by these beautiful innocents who couldn’t have been more than four or five years old.

My three daughters, all grown-up now and making lives of their own, came rushing back to me just as charming and sweet–full of happiness and curiosity as little girls. My heart gave a lurch as I yearned for just one more of those long gone days.

But life and time doesn’t work like that, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to encourage you younger dads and moms to enjoy those fleeting moments with your kids. I know you need the encouragement because I know the pressures you face and how easily they distract you.

Children require nurturing in every way. Every day is one of learning, testing, trying, and needing, so very much needing your attention. “But there were planes to catch and bills to pay, he learned to walk while I was away,” to borrow from Harry Chapin’s poignant hit, “The Cat’s in the Cradle.” It is all too easy to let the pressures of providing, the stress of disciplining, and the other demands of life rob you of the joy of the moment, the excitement of the ice cream shop, the thrill of the zoo, and the silliness suffused in the life of a child.

Don’t miss those minutes, moms and dads. Don’t let your preoccupation with your boss, your business, your spouse, or yourself distract you from the tangible joys that are already yours in the lives of your children. Give thanks for every minute that they are home, for the time will come, and all too soon, when childhood waves goodbye.

As the mom and her girls turned away from the counter, treats in hand, our eyes met and I smiled, “I had three just like that. They are beautiful.” She just beamed, God bless her. And God bless you too, moms and dads, as you nurture your kids. Thanks for sharing them with us.

FLABBY-BRAINED BELIEVERS?

The bathroom scales hounded me back to my Nordic Trak last week with the words: “You are a middle-aged blob who eats too much and exercises too little!”

OK, it didn’t actually say that because it can’t talk. And no, I’m not going to tell you what it read either (I am vain that way). Let it suffice that I sweated through my first thirty-minutes in about a month on the twentieth-century torture tool and I’m headed back there today.

I wonder, however, if there was a scale for the Christian mind that could talk, what it would be saying to the people of God? I’m afraid it would report that many of us have flabby brains.

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body,” said Joseph Addison, but far too many of us read nothing at all.

If you’re ready to get your mind back in action here’s a list of recommended reading that will equip you to think Christianly about life.

Suffering

SUFFERING AND THE HEART OF GOD: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores, by Diane Langberg, PhD. Langberg, who has worked with Rwandan genocide victims, is a globally recognized expert on trauma, particularly that special evil suffered by sexual abuse victims. She is theologically solid, clinically expert, and personally compassionate. I’ve heard her speak and read her previous book, On the Threshold of Hope. I guarantee that if you do not already know a sexual abuse victim, you will and you will want to know how to help. Her books will help.

Marriage

SAVING YOUR MARRIAGE BEFORE IT STARTS: Seven Questions to Ask Before (and After) You Marry, by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott. The Parrotts are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. I’ve been offering per-marital counseling since 1995 and I’ve yet to find a better resource.

RECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES: Healing for Troubled Marriages, by marriage and family therapist Dr. Jim Talley. Talley’s work became my go-to for counseling couples in crisis many years ago and remains so today. It is simple, clear, and concise. Read it five years into your first marriage and you probably won’t have a second. Find him at drtalley.com.

Giving Wisely

TOXIC CHARITY: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and how to reverse it), by Robert D. Lupton. Bob, the founder of FCS Urban Ministries, moved his young family into inner-city Atlanta in the late seventies and stayed. He “has developed two mixed-income subdivisions, organized a multiracial congregation, started a number of businesses, created housing for hundreds of families,”[1] and is a friend of our family. He is also an excellent writer and teacher of the ideas he promotes. The book is an easy and useful read.

Biblical Worldview Thinking

HOW NOW SHALL WE LIVE, is the late Chuck Colson’s and Nancy Pearcy’s magnum opus on biblical worldview thinking. If you have no exposure to the genre and five hundred pages doesn’t frighten you, begin here. It is compelling and easy to follow.

THE GOOD LIFE, also by Colson with Harold Fickett, is much shorter and more about answers to the questions we all have, like: Why am I here; how can I find significance? But all of Colson’s works are infused with the worldview rubric and this one will challenge you to choose carefully.

Culture War

CULTURE MAKING: Recovering Our Creative Calling, by Andy Crouch. Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, makes an excellent case that it is not enough to condemn culture, nor to stand aloof and critique it or naively copy it, still less to unconsciously consume it. If Christians want to return to the cultural influence that helped build Western Civilization, we have to create better culture. CULTURE MAKING is the best book yet on how to do that.

ONWARD: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, by Russell Moore. Moore is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a man who, like Albert Mohler, is an energetic, entertaining, and articulate defender of the faith. ONWARD is a quick, compelling read that roots our cultural engagement squarely in the Gospel and never strays from it.

Perhaps you are thinking, “I don’t have time to read serious books.” If so remember World Magazine and World Radio, both of which will keep you up-to-date with the latest biblical worldview thinking in a highly portable format. Go to getworldnow.com for a free three month trial. The daily worldview update, Breakpoint, with John Stonestreet and Eric Metaxas is also excellent.

Brains, like bodies, get flabby without exercise. What would our imaginary mental scales say about yours? Time to get to work!

[1] From the book cover.

BAGPIPE BLESSINGS

Fog deep and cool shrouded the road and the massive, borrowed 1975 Lincoln Continental that we drove down the mountain. It was the morning of our marriage, a day or two into our honeymoon near Banner Elk, North Carolina. I could barely see past the hood ornament, doing my best to follow the yellow lines a few feet at a time, wondering if I should turn around.

That’s when we heard the music; bagpipes? Yes, unmistakably, bagpipes, the sound rising from the mists, enchanted. We could not see the player until we were almost on top of her, the fog and the switchbacks conspiring to keep the young lass from view until suddenly; there she stood on a small rise, in front of an old stone church barely visible, surrounded by tombstones, blowing a blessing on us. The road curved again and just as suddenly she was gone, the notes of Amazing Grace trailing after our tail lights.

We looked at each other and smiled in awe and wonder at the sweetness, that God would give us such a gift on such a day.

Many days have passed with many mountains sweet and valleys bitter, between that one and this and I see that drive as a metaphor. Life unwinds before us, a mountain road in the morning mists. We get glimpses here and there of the highlands and of cool meadows near rushing streams, feel the blessing of those things, and are drawn by them to take the journey. But mostly, like the lass on the hill, they show up unexpected; bagpipe blessings blowing in the breeze. We cannot see beyond the hood ornament, we do not know what waits around the next bend.

Live long enough and we will meet with bitter disappointments, hurts too deep to bear. If we had known they were coming, we would have turned around, never taken that road. Having retreated, however, we would have missed the bagpipe blessings, the sweet things hiding in the morning mists.

The lessons? Never fear the fog, to live the life God has called you to, to take the journey into the unknown even when you cannot see past the hood ornament. Never linger in the bitter curves, the painful unexpected turns of life. Keep moving, keep trusting, and keep listening, for you do not know what blessings lay hidden in the mists.

We found that little stone church again last week on our vacation. Thirty-two years, many mountains and valleys later, we remain blessed by God, enchanted by grace, and following his road. May he give us thirty-two more.