Naming it: Of Cults and Narcissists, Part Two

Another word that demands attention is the word narcissist. I just did a Google search on the word, which resulted in 58,900,000 results. That’s fifty-eight million. That’s a lot of narcissist.

Narcissism is a malignant personality type/disorder, long recognized by mental health professionals (it is found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), that is generally understood as the subject manifesting a chronic, controlling pattern of grandiosity, expressed in demands for admiration, respect, etc., and in a general lack of empathy. Outside of the formal, therapeutic world, there are many understandings and definitions of narcissism (I imagine that’s where most of the 58 million web hits regarding narcissism come from . . .). I have heard of pastors described by their (former) congregants as narcissists who I suspect were merely rude, arrogant, self-centered, and probably in the wrong line of work. But I have also heard, and hear with increasing frequency, of more and more pastors who genuinely present in ways that I believe any mental health professional would certainly diagnose as a classic narcissist. So there is the gamut—Narcissistic Personality Disorder in its official presentation, as diagnosed by mental health and medical professionals, and opinion of narcissistic pastors (and other leaders, certainly) who have savaged the very people they were supposed to care about, and lead as gentle shepherds would lead a flock of beloved sheep. But they didn’t.

Now, here’s the point of what I am writing: I have noted that when I drop the word narcissist, or, narcissistic to describe a pastor or leader that has hurt the person I am speaking to, my naming of their abuser often falls flat. They don’t know if their pastor was a narcissist—and, hearing me describe the narcissistic pastor of my old church–they often don’t view their abusive pastor as being anywhere near as corrupt and depraved as my old pastor (who now sits in prison for his crimes committed against the children of his church).

When people leave abusive churches, they are often in various stages of the development of clarity and conviction in their own assessment of the abuse they suffered. In the same way they are not ready to sign-off on calling their old church (as mean and nasty as it was) a cult they are also not prepared to call their pastor a narcissist, especially when the word if thrown out by non-medically trained people (like myself). After all, there is a well-known policy (though much debated) that it is unethical and unprofessional for psychiatrists to give opinions and make diagnoses regarding public figures whom they have not personally interviewed and examined. (It’s called the Goldwater Rule, and it’s a very interesting read, if you’re interested in looking it up!) Not all psychiatrists appreciate the Goldwater Law, because (they feel) you really can simply read and hear what a person has to say and have a clear idea of what makes her tick. I am the same way, and I suppose that idea is what makes it very tempting for me to tell survivors of abusive churches that their former pastors are narcissists.

I often feel I lose traction when I throw the word narcissism (along with cult) around—and find myself trying to make my case, defending my opinion, instead of simply hearing the survivor’s story, again and again, and walking with the survivor into a healthier future. I lose traction because I am trying to massage and squeeze their story into my own ideas about spiritual abuse, cults, and narcissists.

What does this mean for me, a survivor of spiritual abuse who took ten long years before truly believing he was in a cult, and his pastor a narcissist? I believe it means I should continue to engage and care for my fellow spiritual abuse survivors, but patiently give them the same freedom that I was given to sort through their experiences, and to choose how they themselves will describe what happened to them. There can be a lot of time between “This church is wrong, unhealthy, and the pastor is a bully—we’re leaving, now!” and “I was in a cult and my pastor was a narcissist.” Cult and narcissist will probably slip out of my mouth, often.

For all survivors of narcissistic abuse, know this: It’s your story, in your words, and we’re not in any big hurry to get to the final chapter.