Narcissism through a Trauma-Informed Lens

Dr. Chuck DeGroat, PhD, LPC

For the twenty-five years I’ve been in practice, there has been an all-too-slow awakening to the reality and ubiquity of abuse in the church. While occasional scandals highlighted instances of abuse and coverup, only in recent years with the advent of the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements has there been a larger-scale awakening to the more pervasive realities of narcissism in the church, spiritual abuse, toxic systems, abuses of power, racial trauma, and more. In many ways, this awakening is embedded in a larger cultural reckoning with systemic patterns of harm and historical repetitions of these patterns, often sanctioned (wittingly or unwittingly) by churches and institutions that claim allegiance to Christ. 

With this recent reckoning, there is an understandable collective trauma response among those harmed by churches or pastors. Some people become enraged and punch back (fight), others step away completely from the church (flight), and still others spiritually bypass for the sake of getting along or preserving the peace of the church (fawn). Amidst this, I’ve been engaged in work with pastors, many grappling for the first time with their own obsessions with achievement, approval, affection, and attention in systems that practically expect narcissistic leaders.  

I wrote When Narcissism Comes to Churchto present a more nuanced understanding of what the DSM describes as a personality disorder. I attempted to provide a lens of both compassion and accountability through de-pathologizing and then re-framing narcissism more developmentally. Though it may not ease the suffering of a survivor of clergy abuse, those who demonstrate the classic characterological features of narcissism are themselves sufferers, hidden behind defensive walls, their primal shame disconnected or dissociated. Their adult style of relating reveals their early ego-injuries, now manifesting in grandiosity and entitlement, attention-seeking and ingratiation, manipulation and fauxnerability. Seemingly personable public parts of them operate by day, charming and pleasing and sometimes even bullying the sheep, while hidden parts carry unbearable shame, even the threat of a kind of psychological annihilation, as Patricia DeYoung notes in Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame

A trauma and shame-informed understanding of narcissism led me to engage my therapeutic work with those on the narcissistic spectrum with more curiosity, compassion, and courage. Indeed, while all good therapeutic work reckons with how we’ve been hurt and also how we hurt others, this dynamic is escalated in my work with spiritual leaders whose positions of spiritual authority and power can be a source of grace and blessing but can also be a source of immense harm. Those most elevated on the narcissistic spectrum are also the most defended, walled behind a seemingly impenetrable psychic armor which protects the most vulnerable parts of themselves. If I can provide a safe enough space for the armored parts to relax, we can often find our way to wounded and weary parts that carry immense burdens and long for healing. Ideally, the client discovers that his narcissistic way of getting his needs met doesn’t work and, in fact, sabotages his own joy and hurts those he was called to help. He may even discover a more original, authentic self within – the true self.   

However, approaching this work from a trauma-informed lens can be confusing for those who’ve been harmed by the protective and defensive psychic structures of someone demonstrating narcissistic traits. “Can we not call evil what is evil?” one person wrote to me. Another said, “I don’t care what happened to him when he was a little boy…I care that the little boy is harming me now.” And so, while maintaining a posture of compassion and curiosity, we must also be engaged in conversations of accountability and boundaries, for his sake and for the sake of those he’s harmed. And this delicate balance in the therapeutic work is where things can get tricky, as therapists can feel like the work of compassionately attending to the vulnerable parts of the client and courageously attending to the protective and defensive parts that bully, scheme, manipulate, and coerce is at odds. In therapeutic work, this delicate balance can be tricky. The work of compassionately attending to the vulnerable parts of the client can seem at odds with courageously attending to the protective and defensive parts that bully, scheme and manipulate.

Christian trauma-informed care, in many respects, moves beyond the rigid black-and-white categorizations which make for neat-and-clean diagnoses. While the language of personality disorders can still be helpful to name a general pattern of relating, trauma-informed care invites us to look deeper still to the developmental story and even more to the core of a person, sometimes called the true self, that place where resilience resides, where God’s image abides. This is where all good therapeutic work is more than a job – it’s a calling – to see through to the treasure, even in those who some might consider hopeless, even evil.

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