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.

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

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.

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him … Luke 24:30-31

Are you happy? If not, do you know why?

Several things can make us sad and stress us out. Illness, family problems, financial set-backs have their place in our day-to-day contentment quotient. But all things being equal are you a generally happy person, satisfied with the life you live?

Many of us would have to answer “no.”

Peter Moskovitz, in his article America’s Search for Happiness is Driving Us Crazy, reports that we have a multibillion dollar happiness industry bent on helping us find contentment, yet over forty million of us have diagnosed anxiety disorders.

We are obsessed with happiness, yet not finding it. Perhaps we aren’t finding it because we are pursuing it the wrong way.

Read Mercer Schuchardt suggests as much in a recent CT Mag article, The Future of the Church is Analog Not Digital, when he wrote, “The most important and biblical pieces of technology in a church today may not be the projector and the amplifier, but the crockpot and warming plate.”

Schuchardt’s peice struck a chord in a song the Spirit has been singing in my soul for some time. I hear it in Sunday School as Jamie Laine leads us through Ray Vanderlaan’s excellent video series, Becoming a Kingdom of Priests in a Prodigal World. I see it in the faces and hear it in the stories of friends attending our Alpha Course this fall. I read about it in books like Rosaria Butterfield’s Openness Unhindered and articles like Peter Moskovitz’s interview with Ruth Whippman, author of How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.[1]

If the song had a title it would be something like: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND, (but somebody already took that one). The chorus would be:

Sit at table with new friends,

Make room in your life for them,

You never know what God may grow,

By simply inviting them in.

Corny, I know, but it gathers up the power of God at work community. Let me explain.

Whippman notes that, “If there was one thing that’s consistent in happiness research it’s that the main source of our happiness is our relationships with other people in our communities (emphasis added). It kind of cuts across class, race, gender, age, and everything. But the focus in America is very much on happiness as kind of a personal, individual journey; looking deep inside yourself, about mindfulness, about your own thinking. All of that being inside your own head, and remaking your own thoughts from the inside.”

Here’s the thing, as long as we pursue happiness as strictly personal, as a goal only to be achieved as individuals, we will remain isolated, empty, and anxious. Happiness is found in community, in common purpose, in shared successes and sorrows, the great and the small threads we weave with others to create the fabric of a meaningful life.

I know the objections, “Other people rub me the wrong way!”  Indeed they do, but the point is, we need them to. Their idiosyncrasies reveal the cracks in our characters that Christ has yet to fill and force us all to pursue him higher up and farther into life in the Spirit.

More to the point, the life, the Shalom, that flows from the Spirit of God cannot be found, or lived, or shared in isolation. Technology can deliver a sermon to your “personal device” (see the irony?) but cannot include you or others in the body of Christ. Only you can do that as you commit to be there, both body and spirit, and to welcome others to the table.

[1] Whippman is the author of How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, and the interview can be found at:  https://flipboard.com/@flipboard/flip.it%2FBDcPRo-americas-search-for-happiness-is-drivin/f-869a36fce5%2Fvice.com

VICTIMOLOGY 101

 

What do Islamic terrorists, LGBT activists, and the rioters in Charlotte all have in common? One would think nothing at all, but dig a little deeper and you will find an underground stream running through our culture that nourishes all three.

Welcome to Victimology 101.

The Jihadist rationale for violence depends in part on a doctrine that paints Islam as the victim of infidel oppression. So let’s say you’re the editor of a satirical French magazine that publishes some unflattering cartoons of Mohammed; or you’re a priest of another religion operating in territory claimed by Islam; or you’re a passenger on a plane that represents the prosperity and freedom of an infidel nation. Bang, slash, crash, boom you’re dead and it’s your fault for insulting Islam. That’s Victimology.

The LGBT rationale for imposing its agenda on photographers, bakers, florists, wedding venues, and most recently every public school in the nation regarding who can use what bathroom, is the same. “We’re victims! We have the right to impose our views on everyone in the country!” That’s Victimology.

The rioters in Charlotte, and other municipalities where police have been forced to use force have destroyed businesses, property, and lives for the same reason. “We’re victims!” They cry, as they perpetrate their scorched earth path to power. That’s Victimology.

Adherents of Victimology have at least three things in common.

First, their pain is their fame. They glory in victim status and expect everyone else to comply. Any attempt to diminish their status is met with indignation, anger, or accusations of insensitivity or oppression. Any attempt to persuade them of a need to change behavior in order to change outcomes is met with multiple rationalizations and blame shifting.

Second, they count on cultural co-dependency. “Compulsive rescuing, called co-dependency,” said Robert McGee, “allows the dependent person (or group) to continue acting destructively and keeps him or her in need of habitually being rescued, so that the pattern continues.”[1] We are suffering from national co-dependence. We rush to fix the problem when stepping back, taking a second look, and figuring out how to help the victim help himself would be better.

Third, emotion equals truth. No one is totally objective. But the adherents of victimology have no objectivity whatsoever. Thus, any appeal to dispassionate reality has little to no authority and is often twisted in order to validate the victim’s outrage.

“Now hang on,” you reason. “Some bad stuff has happened to Muslims, Gays, and Blacks at the hands of bad actors.” Of course it has. Welcome to the fallen planet, where power corrupts, racism lives, and gender-disordered people are hated for something that feels out of their control.

Any society worthy of the title civilized would want to address obvious inequities and open oppression of the strong against the weak and marginalized. I for one am glad to have learned what I have about Islam, same-sex attracted people, and racism by the conflicts we’ve endured over the past two-decades. But the missing truth is that you do not help one class of victims by creating another. That path is as old as mankind and littered with the rubble of civilizations.

Thankfully, there is a better way.

The most successful reconciliations in history are those that adopted and adapted the doctrines of Jesus Christ. Why didn’t the American Civil War continue as a perpetual guerrilla battle after Appomattox, as Jefferson Davis commanded? Because Christian Generals like Robert E. Lee wouldn’t allow it. How did South Africa overcome the rancor of Apartheid? By applying the doctrines of reconciliation taught in the Bible and applied by men like Desmond Tutu. Why did Rwanda not continue in a blood-bath of retaliation after the Tutsi’s defeated the Hutu’s in 1994? Because Christians led the way in reconciliation.

What can we do when we see Victimology at work?

First, refuse to buy into its precepts. Don’t participate in the pain is fame game, cooperate in cultural co-dependency, or acquiesce to the myth of emotion as truth. But just as important, be a student of Reconciliation 101. Do not take revenge. Let God be the judge. Forgive your enemies, as you have been forgiven. Be kind to those who oppose and oppress you, and look for ways to serve the greater good.

[1] McGee, Robert S. The Search for Significance. Pg. 63.

THE DEACON & THE HOOKER

It’s a simple story told in Luke’s characteristically lucid style.[1] Jesus is dining with a Pharisee named Simon. Picture him as the successful, well-dressed chairman of the deacons and you’ll be in the ballpark. A woman steps haltingly into the room. Her name is not given but it is not needed. Everyone knows her, the local hooker. She is not composed, not there to impress or seduce. She is weeping with gratitude, on her knees over the feet of the reclining rabbi from Nazareth, pouring out years of pent-up guilt, little rivers of happiness and shame, down upon his ankles and between his toes. She bends further and wipes the watery dirt away with her hair. Then she withdraws an alabaster jar of expensive perfume and empties it on his feet, rubbing it in with her hands as the sweet aroma fills the room.

Simon is aghast. The Pharisees were known for their righteousness, their religious purity and high moral character. They were the successful middle class evangelicals of their day. They didn’t hang out with sinful people nor approve of those who did.  Scenes like this were too much for such men. “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is…” he grouses within.

Jesus knows exactly what she is, a broken woman experiencing forgiveness and freedom from guilt and shame for the first time in her life. But Jesus also knows something else: what Simon is, a successful man in need of humility, a man every bit as lost in his self-righteousness as the hooker had been in immorality. The only difference between the two is that the woman knows her sin and knows she needs a savior. Simon’s success blinds him to both.

Jesus tells Simon a story of two forgiven debtors, one who owed eighteen months wages and one who owed about two months. “Now which of them will love the forgiving moneylender more?” He asks.

Simon can’t help but answer, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

Then Jesus says the most important thing in the whole story, the thing that reveals who he really is. “Correct!” He looked at the woman. “See this woman? I came to your house yet you have not offered me the least of common courtesies. But she has not ceased, since the moment I walked in, to show me the greatest love and devotion. Therefore I tell you, her sins which are many have been forgiven, for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

In other words, “Simon, in the grand scheme of things I’m the lender, I’m the one that everyone is indebted to. I’m God. Your achievements in life and religion matter not at all. Your relationship to me is all.”

And as if to put an exclamation point on it he turns to the woman with something only God has the authority to say, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

It isn’t what we’ve done or not done in life that determines our salvation. It isn’t how religious we’ve been or how irreligious, our successes or failures. The only thing that matters is our ability to acknowledge our sin, to own the guilt and the shame, to the one who “holds the note” on it and trust him to forgive the one and remove the other. Then every room we enter will be filled with the aroma of our love for him.

[1] (Luke 7:36-50)

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.