I remember sitting in my counselor’s office, about a week after I had read an article about narcissism and how it affects marriage. She asked me if I had ever heard of narcissism. I instantly had a pit in my stomach. It was the one diagnosis that I didn’t want to hear because I had just read that narcissism is the one personality disorder that is nearly impossible to heal.
I remember instantly praying, “Please, God, let it be anything but this.” Then I took a deep breath and answered her. I had been familiar with the term narcissism for some time but always thought about it as pride and arrogance on a moderately higher scale. But when I had read the article the previous week I realized it was much more than that. And the thing that terrified me: a narcissist most likely will not ever come to a point of healing.
In addition to all of this new knowledge, I tried to balance the fact that my husband was a professing Christian who knew the Bible nearly inside out. He had been a prominent elder in our church for years. Surely, he would hear the counselors and our church leadership and learn to heal, even if he couldn’t see and acknowledge all of the narcissism on his own. If he has given his whole life in submission to Jesus, wouldn’t this be a part of his life that he would be willing to turn over to God and heal, especially for the sake of his family?
Unfortunately, I found that it was not that easy, and likely just as impossible for a professing Christian to heal from narcissism as any other narcissist. Often, when a narcissist professes to be a Christian, it is in word only. Because their heart doesn’t follow spiritually, they often don’t see the need to repent of listen to church leaders or others that try to speak truth into them. They want to hold on to their own manufactured truth.
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So…Can a Spiritual Narcissist Actually Heal?!
A spiritual narcissist can heal but let me qualify this statement. If they truly trust God and depend on Him for salvation, they can see their narcissism and seek healing. But they would have to believe others around them as a pathway to the Holy Spirit’s guidance to see the truth and heal.
Unfortunately, it would seem that many spiritual narcissists are not believers, but rather people that are using religion as a means to manipulate others and get their narcissistic supply. And unfortunately, the number of reports of people that have healed from narcissism, spiritual or otherwise, is incredibly small.
Between my experiences, my research, and conversations with several therapists about narcissists and healing, I learned a lot about whether a spiritual narcissist is capable of healing and what circumstances will make it more or less likely. Let’s take a look at the various issues at play with it. It won’t take long for you to see why it is not such a cut and dry question to answer.
The Sovereignty of God
I think that the sovereignty of God is both a most comforting and most frustrating concept to most people. One the one hand, knowing that God is so in control of the universe that he has our back is very comforting. After all, we read that, “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows,” (Luke 12:7). How much more can we be assured that God has our backs psychologically speaking?
On the other hand, it can be very frustrating to be praying for a loved one to recognize their narcissistic behavior and repent, but when it never happens, we wonder where in the world God has gone and why He hasn’t chosen to heal our loved one and our family. We ask why God would allow some people to go through life in such a way that they do not ever become a Christian. Wouldn’t God want everyone to be a child of God?
Balancing Out the Dichotomy Between the Sovereignty of God and Continued Narcissistic Abuse
So then, where do we reconcile these two seemingly opposing sides of the sovereignty of God? Unfortunately, while the answer is not as satisfying as we would like, it is pretty easy. As mere humans we are simply not able to understand the things of God. We ultimately don’t even know what is in other people’s hearts and minds. Thus, we cannot assume that God is making the wrong decision and that we know more than Him how things should be.
It doesn’t take away the pain of narcissistic injury or the pain of seeing a loved one refuse to repent of their narcissistic behavior. But it does allow us hope in God’s ultimate wisdom throughout eternity. It allows us to heal ourselves and help and love our family and friends through their narcissistic healing. And that is where we must put our trust.
At the end of the day, however, if we believe in the sovereignty of God, then we must also believe that he CAN heal a spiritual narcissist if He sees that as the best course of action for us.
Who am I to Judge Narcissistic Behavior?
One of the things just about everyone learns in counseling is that we can only control our own behavior. We cannot make others love us or treat us the way we want to be treated–unless they want to. How someone else treats you is totally up to that person and not you.
Not only can we not control others’ behavior toward us, we can’t judge them for where they sit in their world. For all of the things that we do know about them, there are so many more things we don’t know.
In the case of narcissism, research says that there are two primary reasons people become narcissists. One is because they were extremely neglected and/or abused when they were very young (usually before 5 years old). As they grow up, they feel that they have to fend for themselves. But they don’t know how. So they imitate what they see in those that they look up to. They put on the mask that looks like that person/those people. And as long as people see only that mask, they won’t see the shame and insecurity that is hidden behind that mask.
The other reason is that they were put on a pedestal by their parents at a very young age. They were treated as though they could never do wrong. As they grow up, they can’t face the consequences when they are addressed regarding wrongdoings, mistakes, or lack of understanding. They realize they cannot remain on the pedestal over time. So they feel the need to create a persona that will allow them to stay on that impossible pedestal. And that persona is the mask of narcissism that they wear.
Genetics is also now considered to be a factor in those who display narcissistic behavior. That may be the biggest obstacle of all, especially when combined with the abusive or neglectful behavior that can lead them into narcissistic tactics.
Protecting Without Judging the Narcissist
All of the reasons narcissists are formed that we just discussed are a huge reason to feel sympathy for the person plagued with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That includes those that profess Christianity as well as those that don’t. They are all human. And for that reason we cannot judge them as evil just for the sake of being evil. Of course, unless they prove themselves to be unequivocally evil.
It is true that they deliberately do the things that they do to keep themselves protected. And some of those things do seem pretty evil. They will lie, cheat and steal to make themselves look better than everyone else around them. But at the end of the day, it isn’t because they are trying to destroy those around them.
Honestly, they don’t even see those around them as humans. They see them as a means to get themselves to the place they want to be. They really only see themselves and their need to obtain narcissistic supply that will help them hide the deep shame they feel. And they see their efforts as completely reasonable because they feel they have such a good reason for it. In other words, they will do whatever they can to justify their narcissistic behavior and how it destroys those around them in order to protect themselves.
So rather than judging them as evil people who are out to destroy us, we should see them as people that are struggling through a seemingly impossible lot in life. Even though what they are doing is so hurtful to you and those you love.
Note: this does not mean you can’t feel anger or sadness for all that has transpired due to the narcissistic abuse. And it certainly doesn’t mean you should set and keep healthy boundaries to protect yourself from further abuse. What it does mean is that you put the abusive behavior in the correct perspective.
Some of the worst narcissists will be out to destroy those around them that they should love. But the vast majority are more about protecting themselves and their reputation in really bad ways. They are not emotionally healthy and cannot understand the depths of what they do to others.
What we can judge is whether we are willing to keep ourselves in the line of fire of a spiritual narcissist. The struggle will be incredibly uphill. You will most likely not be able to stay in relationship with a spiritual narcissist. They are always going to be trying to land on top without considering what they are doing to you. Once the narcissist starts using you as their supply, you will never get out from under it.
And as a child of God, you cannot allow yourself to constantly be placed in that position. God does not want you to be a doormat. And in the eyes of a narcissist, you will never be anything else.
The Pattern of Spiritual Narcissism
Spiritual narcissism is so prevalent in churches and religious homes because of many of the traits of narcissism, especially covert. Narcissists need excessive amounts of admiration, they feel that they always need to be seen as right. And this is where religion and spiritualism meet. People in religious communities feel more pressure than society at large to be seen as good, right, helpful, wise, and admirable. And for that reason, they see the church or religious groups as where they are able to fulfill their need for narcissistic supply.
Here are the patterns of behavior that all narcissists (religious or otherwise) fall into in order to get what they think they need:
- Belittling others to make themselves look better.
- Stealing others’ work and touting it as their own.
- Victimizing themselves, making their actual victims the supposed perpetrators of wrong.
- Lack of empathy for those that are hurting, unless they are trying to acquire new supply, in which case they pour on the empathy act. It is not real empathy. (I have always wondered why if they could fake it, why can’t they make themselves empathetic in real situations).
- Gaslighting–changing your reality until you are so confused that no longer feel like you can see reality. This happens so slowly over time that you have no idea what has happened. You may not even consciously realize you are confused.
- Brutal discard of those that no longer supply them with what they need.
Check out my article for more narcissistic behaviors in addition to those listed above.
What These Narcissistic Patterns Look Like in Reality
Unfortunately, in religious circles, these patterns can easily be hidden in service to others and helpful activities. It is an easy way for narcissists to build up trust in new supply. And then when things turn sour, which usually is a gradual, slippery slope, the victim of gaslighting has no idea what has happened. They give the narcissist the benefit of the doubt, thinking they misunderstood the exchange.
And so the pattern continues, often for years. Most people, especially religious people, try very hard not to see people in a bad light, let alone cause others to see them in a negative light. (I know, every church seems to have a church gossip who does indeed like to spread unsavory rumors, I am not talking about that and hold to the ideal that the majority of churchgoers do not behave in this way. ) And the lack of willingness to out narcissistic behavior in fellow church members may be the biggest reason that narcissism is so prevalent in religious circles and cultures.
Roadblocks to the Spiritual Narcissist’s Healing
So what happens when people finally see the light and understand what the narcissist is doing? I used to think that because my narcissist is a professing Christian, that I could just sit down with him, talk to him, and he would seek out God’s leading in his life to heal. Even if he didn’t want to listen to me, wouldn’t he be willing to do what is right before God’s eyes? Surely the Holy Spirit could persuade him!
That is not how things turned out for us. He became very angry that I would think of him as anything less than perfect. This is a hallmark of narcissism and the catch 22 of Christianity vs. narcissism. When it didn’t work for me, some elders stepped in to help.
Because they were men my husband respected, I thought for sure he would listen to them, try to see what he couldn’t at the time, and start to heal. But something entirely different happened. When his religious world and his narcissistic world collided and he couldn’t keep them compartmentalized, he became enraged.
He started charging the church leadership with wrongdoing (we had a church government that worked much like regular government and court in American society). He filed charges all the way up to the regional (equivalent to state level in American government) level. Nothing ever came about from the charges to our church leaders or the 8 charges he placed against me with the church. This made him angry and eventually he moved on to a church that would do his bidding.
Bringing in the Big Guns to Combat the Narcissism
At this point, over a hundred people were involved. Church leaders, counselors, counseling agency owners, even the head of a psychology department at a prominent Christian college weighed in and attempted to help my husband see the light. My husband responded that the whole denomination as well as Christian psychology were unbiblical and wrong and he was right because he knew better than all of them. And how dare they see him as less than the most godly man in their presence. It was a disaster. And for that reason, I will say that it is a general rule that a full blown spiritual narcissist can not heal.
Unfortunately, to back up that thought, when doing a google search, there is no result that shows that a spiritual narcissist can actually heal. There are no cases that can be found that it has happened. There are a couple of instances where people claimed that their narcissist was able to recognize and admit their issues. But healing was a difficult road, and often seemed to be something the narcissist said and/or did to continue to look good and gain more admiration. It was merely a twist in a script that hadn’t really changed to show any healing.
What to do When a Spiritual Narcissist Wants to Heal
So, based on the lack of evidence of spiritual narcissists that can heal, what do you do when a spiritual narcissist WANTS to heal?
I could actually get on board with the idea that a spiritual narcissist would actually want to heal if they could. Deep down I am sure narcissists do realize what is in their hearts. They couldn’t intentionally plan out the things they do without that knowledge and the ability to work out the things they do. Keeping all the lies straight takes work and requires a knowledge of the lies being told.
They may very well want to be righteous in God’s eyes. But at the same time, they cannot allow others to see the shame that the feel constantly and fight to keep hidden so deeply. It is this inner battle that causes them to think they cannot change. They cannot allow themselves to be vulnerable enough for people to see what is in their heart and mind. So instead, they work harder to keep the mask from slipping so they can continue to “fool” everyone around them.
So what to do? We encourage them to heal in any way that we can. But we don’t let ourselves get caught up in the craziness that will ensue. We pray like never before for them. And every time we see a victory, we make sure they realize we see it. A need for acknowledgement is not a bad thing. We all need it. The idea here is to give it in amounts that acknowledge any healing they have done in the hopes that healing can continue.
Will they totally heal? History has not had a kind answer to this. Will they heal enough for you to continue to relate to them? That is something you will have to evaluate and figure out how to move on in healthy ways. It also depends on if they have healed at all and can show progress in their relationship with you. And how much narcissistic behavior you are willing to put up with.
Will they get angry and leave a mess in their wake? Possibly. And for that you will need a strong network of support.
Let’s take a look at what it looks like when the spiritual narcissist refuses to heal.
What to do When a Spiritual Narcissist Refuses to Heal
Every relationship is different. Everybody is different. So how to work out what to do is not going to look exactly the same for everyone. But there are some definite items to evaluate to figure out how to work things out. Let’s take a closer look.
First, if there is any possibility of danger, then get out now, regardless of how casual or involved the relationship is. If there has already been any physical or illegal abuse, then contact the police or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at Hotline.org or 800.799.SAFE (800.799.7233)
Navigating Close Relationships
If you are not in danger and the relationship is a significant one in your life–family member or significant other–counseling is an immediate need. Make sure that it is a counselor that you feel truly understands you and is comfortable for you to talk to. I remember the very first session I had with my counselor. She would ask me a question (good thing, I would have had no idea what to say otherwise).
Then she would repeat my answer back to me, except worded so much better and exactly what I was thinking that I couldn’t put into words. By the end of that first session, it felt like she had been following me around my whole life and knew everything about me. Also, you MUST find a counselor who is familiar with abusive behavior.
Navigating Casual Relationships
If the relationship is an acquaintance, it could be productive to evaluate if cutting ties would be the best plan of action. Figuring out the pros and cons of cutting ties can help you to think about the relationship and proceed in the right direction.
Regardless of what the relationship is or where it goes, we must always be kindhearted and loving, but NOT A DOORMAT. It is possible to be loving in a firm way that protects boundaries and keeps us safe. If you cannot sit down with the other person and come to an agreement that allows you to have some dignity in the relationship, your best course of action is to walk away. That doesn’t mean you can’t be polite or cordial with them when you see them at events or other places. It just means you don’t need to be controlled by people who are not in authority over you.
So, to answer the question of can a spiritual narcissist heal, yes, he or she can. But it is extremely rare, and generally not possible the more advanced the narcissistic personality traits become. Nobody can force a narcissist to acknowledge their issues, let along heal from them. They must be willing to heal, not based on what they see in themselves, but based on believing what others are telling them and being willing to put in the very difficult work that will allow them to heal.
Have you ever experienced healing in a narcissistic loved one or acquaintance? What did that look like? How long did it take?
I would love to hear your answers to this as well as your story in the comments section or in an email to me.
For more great resources, check out my resource page here.
If you liked this article, I think you will love the following articles:
- How Narcissists Use Religion to Control and Manipulate You - December 26, 2023
- Do Flying Monkeys Ever See the Truth? - December 16, 2023
- Flying Monkeys Spying: Understanding and Dealing With It - September 21, 2023