Wednesday, September 21, 2011

two books about narcissistic personality disorder

I grew up in the orbits of close family members with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and developed abnormal views and expectations about relationships. I knew something was wrong, but could not figure out for decades what that thing was. I've sought counseling to figure out what was wrong with me or with my family members. The ethics of Christ, including his emphasis on forgiveness and forbearance, probably hindered my quest and my counselors input. But as serendipity would have it, while killing time in the local library, the cover story of a recent Psychology Today was about spotting a narcissist. I had explored the topic a bit before this article and had found information on this topic, but I still had not been empowered as a victim of narcissists. Narcissism is everywhere, and all of us have narcissistic tendencies, but I learned that someone who has NPD has no ability to distinguish between their selves and others. To someone with NPD, everyone around them is an extension of them. It's very weird, and can be emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually destructive to their children, co-workers, employees, and lovers.

One psychological website recommended a few books, one of which I bought, The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family after looking at half a dozen and comparing the reviews on Amazon. As soon as I started the book, I was ready to start underlining, but after the first couple pages, I realized everything was worth highlighting, and I put the pen away. The reality is everyone is broken, but some are more broken than others. Eleanor Payson didn't bother with trying to explain how this disorder might arise, but focuses on how the disorder affects different relationships and how to assert your distinct self. An early illustration in the book that was very helpful for me is the NPD person might view me as an arm, and if I disturb his order of the world, then I am perceived like an itch on his arm, something he might scratch or brush off. As far as he is concerned, the assertion of my rights, is a discomfort that needs to be swatted, like a mosquito. However, I need to stop seeing myself as a mosquito, as I was raised to believe, but as an equal human being fully entitled to my feelings and fully entitled to reject abuse. Of course this will lead to more conflict. Payson provides examples and guidance in how to assert yourself in different relationships: to parents, to lovers, to supervisors and co-workers. It really doesn't matter if your convenience store clerk is a narcissist because you can buy milk from him and leave the building, for a total of 5 minutes of interaction per week. But these other relationships involve power, time and emotion. This book has plenty of anecdotes from her counseling experience yet remains concise and quick to read. If you are involved in any sort of dysfunctional relationship, I recommend this book as a short introduction to this topic.

I also bought a second book by a Christian woman, Sister Renee Pittelli, called Narcissitic Predicaments. She does not write from professional training, but from her own terrible experiences from her childhood and as someone who started a ministry for those traumatized by these kind of relationships. I cannot recommend this book though. Although she has found healing and recovery in her own life, the bitterness with which she writes, although rightly earned in light of the suffering her family put her through from early childhood through her late 40's, stains her writing. Although the NPD person causes great pain and suffering, they are not necessarily choosing to do that, they are barely able to empathize with others, since they barely comprehend the concept of "other."
People with NPD do have empathy for one person: themselves. They have a constant need for narcissistic supply: admiration, praise, and, at the very least, attention from others. (This is why they sometimes go into professions like politics, acting, and the helping professions.)
Without this professional perspective, Pittelli only has one understanding of them, evil. Although I can empathize with her, I believe she ends up dehumanizing the offenders, not too much unlike the offenders can't humanize those around them. She likes to use many verses, sometimes out of context, to justify some behaviors that seem contrary to Christ's ethics. She believes that one should only forgive those who apologize. This is not an uncommon belief, even among Christians, but I agree with the aphorism that unforgiveness typically results in bitterness. Bitterness, a wise friend tells me, is like drinking deadly poison and hoping someone else dies. Previously on this blog, I wrote about the Lord's prayer and concluded that forgiveness is the relinquishing of my rightful claim to justice. I develop that some more here but Jon Acuff has an amazing anecdote about forgiveness in a Viet Cong POW camp.
The bad taste of bitterness that flows between the lines of Pittelli's writing was emotionally draining for me as I read the book. Sometimes, I needed to put it down for a day or two, so that I could find my spiritual equilibrium again. I didn't want to retain her bitterness. I don't believe she thinks she is bitter, and towards the end of her book, it diminishes, but her commitment to unforgiveness until repentance leaves her no other emotional option. This book could serve as a warning to Christians who are tempted to choose unforgiveness. I can, however, recommend the last chapter to everyone who is beginning to escape from the NPD person. I also can recommend the middle of the book where she gives 102 questions to analyze a relationship. At the end of the book she shares 6 lessons we will learn when we start making boundaries and treating ourselves as the individuals we are: 1) they will lose their ability to affect us emotionally, 2) they are not normal and never were, 3) they may never change but we will, 4) there are safe people out there who aren't out to hurt us, 5) we will recognize abnormal sooner and protect ourselves, 6) healing takes time, including moving through the stages of grief.

I am only beginning to learn these lessons. I finally do have boundaries to prevent emotional damage. I'm learning that not every family is as whacked as mine. Jesus saves but does not always heal others. I'm learning to not be ashamed of what I went through. It isn't my fault and I don't need to defend those who hurt me. I've always recognized abnormal but never fled it, but got stuck to it like a tar baby. I'm looking forward to more healing.

Healing from the damage of being in a relationship with someone who has NPD involves letting go of the impossible responsibility to achieve normalcy in such a relationship. The first book reviewed here, The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, can help those of us who are damaged. I highly recommend it. One side effect of the book is that you start diagnosing every jerk around you as a narcissist, and most national politicians. That's not fair or true, but it sounds more refined than "jerks."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

book report: Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal about Spiritual Growth (2011)

"Our work as leaders in the church is to help catalyze spiritual movement."

If you don't share this presupposition about church ministry, you might not benefit from this book. I presume this is the ministry philosophy of the pastors at Willow Creek, who commissioned this sociological study of a thousand (mostly in the United States) churches. The authors categorize church attenders in four buckets: those exploring Christ, those growing in Christ, those close to Christ, and those who are Christ-centered. This is a continuum of maturity or a progression of sanctification. The issues they look at in this most recent book in the Reveal series are about the values of each group, and what churches have found successful in catalyzing people along the continuum, and not letting people stay stuck in one bucket. Can the spiritual be easily reduced to formulas? Of course not, but there are common threads in churches full of people progressing to maturity as seen by their love for God and love for others.

Authors Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson are on Willow Creek's staff and speak as researchers but also as fellow learners. They are honest on the mistakes Willow Creek has made and their desire to become an even more vital church. Among the top 5% of churches in their survey, there are mega churches and small churches. It's not the quantity of people that correlate with spiritual health. Willow, which became a mega church in the 1980's, believed offering many activities and pushing members towards those activities would help members grow spiritually. They have since concluded otherwise.
When the church promotes all the things people should do, it's very easy for them to lose sight of the real goal -- which is who they should become. Of course, describing who they should become reverts back to the relatively easy part of this equation: they should move away from being self-centered and move toward becoming Christ-centered. (p.165)
They provide a successful example of this from one of the top tier churches in their survey..."everything starts by committing to the life-changing (not activity-creating) goal of discipleship and making it the top priority for all ministry efforts." p.165

The most important means for this, across all four spiritual categories, is personal engagement with the Bible. This resonates with me since that has been the major source for my spiritual growth and in the two churches I have spent most of my life. The authors write, "If they [pastors] could do only one thing to help people at all levels of spiritual maturity grow in their relationship with Christ, their choice would be equally clear. They would inspire, encourage, and equip their people to read the Bible -- specifically, to reflect on Scripture for meaning in their lives...When it comes to spiritual growth, nothing beats the Bible." (p.167) Perhaps this is why John 17:3 means so much to me. The Bible is the best way to know God.

The humility of the authors is also made clear in their recommendation of other systems, not developed by them, for getting people moving, from Alpha, to the Purpose-Driven church's "baseball diamond" class progression for new members. These things are all part of helping people become fully devoted followers of Jesus, those who aspire to take up their cross daily and follow Jesus, those who look ahead and not behind. They love the word of God, they see themselves as the church and not part of a church, and they serve their world. These findings are simple but profound. They have resulted in restructuring in Willow Creek, a very successful church. But they aren't content with their success. They want to be a stronger church that loves God more and loves their neighbors more. Any pastor who shares the same convictions would benefit from the reinforcement with illustrative anecdotes in this book.

As an aside, the book is full of charts and graphs. As a scientist, I love this stuff. The only improvement I hope for is error bars in the bar graphs. Some of the conclusions in chapter 10 did not look appear based on statistically significant data. This doesn't diminish anything in the book, but leaves a geek like me slightly unsatisfied.

Many thanks to Zondervan for the complimentary review copy.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Tony Jones' false distinction about marriage

Whether or not little old me got him blogging on his current series on sacramental marriage, Dr. Tony Jones continues to draw a line that isn't there between legal and sacramental marriage. His latest post, part 4, he makes an assertion that he won't follow to its end. His assertion is "A church is a semi-private organization, and as such, it has a vested interest in how its members treat one another." The church is also a voluntary association. Thus, if a member wants to mistreat their spouse, and doesn't give a fig what the church thinks of his behavior, there is little the church can do. However, the state can step in if a spouse is abusive and remove the offender from the home and even imprison him. Thankfully, we live in a society where the church and state are separated, which means the church can't go to that level of enforcement. In the same way, if the marriage dissolves, the church is not given authority to set alimony, or child support, or property separation, all things divorcing parents, such as Dr. Jones, have to deal with. Since he is in a sacramental-only union, if he and his second wife separate, there is no recourse for alimony or property separation. Their church can guide them, if they choose to submit to it, but it can't enforce anything. This is all ironic in light of his earlier thoughts on this, which I quoted previously. He wrote,
And most problematic, from my perspective, is that the clergyperson, with the stroke of a pen, makes legal a contract that s/he has no ability or potential to end. And, having gone through a divorce, I can tell you that extricating oneself from the legal contract that is marriage in our society is no mean feat. And the clergyman who married us was, understandably, not around to help unravel what he had helped establish.
The church gets to be part of the celebration, but why would anyone want them involved in the legal nitty-gritty and enforcement of the funeral? Most clergy want to help keep the marriage en-raveled, not help with the unraveling. Sometimes, this is when more enforcement authority is really attractive to the church. But it really can't force couples to be less sinful. Does he really want the church to decide how much of his paycheck should be garnished for child support? It's not the church's specialty or ability. But, as Jones says, the church "has a vested interest in how its members treat one another." This is exactly why the church wants their people legally married, so that their people are provided during the marriage and if it ends, either by divorce or death. It's an application of Paul's strong exhortation to Timothy, But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 1 Timothy 5:8

As I wrote before, my hope is that Dr. Jones reconsiders his position on this.

update Sept 15, 2011; Even Lisa Miller at Newsweek thinks Dr. Jones is being ridiculous. With a quote from his ex-wife:
“It is a total cop out to have just a sacramental marriage,” Julie McMahon wrote in an email. “I am old school and I think that loving someone wholly is to share in legal property and assets as well.”

It would be hard to find a gay-marriage advocate who believes otherwise.

update Sept 27, 2011: a quote not given in relation to this topic specifically but the benefits of legal marriage in general by Lynne Marie Kohm, John Brown McCarty Professor of Family Law, Regent University School of Law in Christianity Today,
Under most state law, cohabitating couples have no legal protection from such things as abandonment, adultery, property protection, or financial support, so marriage is clearly the best legal option to protect the person you love. So if a pastor refuses to marry the couple based on moral grounds, the couple is robbed of the benefits of marriage in a sense. However, social science research shows that cohabitating couples actually sabotage their chances for a lifetime of happiness by their premarital cohabitation.