We all want to be seen in a good light. And in spiritual/religious circles, that is often even more true. Being seen as unkind, unsuccessful, or “less than” can make a spiritual person feel like they are not good enough to be in that world.
So what is spiritual narcissism, and why is it so much more insidious than your regular garden variety narcissism? Spiritual narcissism occurs when a person uses religious or spiritual concepts or Scriptures to elevate themselves higher than those around them. Additionally, they position themselves as having a direct line to God, making it impossible for anyone to be able to escape their judgment. That is exactly why it is more dangerous to deal with than other forms of narcissism–when the spiritual (or religious) narcissist claims that his/her words, ideas, or actions align directly with God, it makes his/her victim unable to counter in any way because they can’t go against God. Sincere Christians are hopelessly trapped between what their reality is telling them and what the spiritual narcissist is telling them is reality.
Let’s take a deeper look at what spiritual narcissism really looks like in Christian circles and how to navigate accordingly.
Table of Contents
How Chögyam Trungpa Defines Spiritual Narcissism
Chogyam Trungpa, a Buddhist teacher, is credited with coining the term spiritual narcissism. He believed that the ego’s number one job is to look out for number one. That is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. It is human nature, and frankly, quite wise, to protect oneself throughout life. This includes physical protection as well as emotional.
But when the ego protects itself to the exclusion of all other aspects of life and relationship, things go awry. And in spiritual terms, Mr. Trungpa explains that the person will go through the motions of spiritual growth without internalizing it in their heart. Because they have gone through the motions, they incorrectly assume that they have grown spiritually. Their knowledge has indeed grown, but their heart and spirituality has not. They have merely learned how to do various things to make them look spiritual. This quote from Mr. Trungpa perfectly sums up what he believes happens to create spiritual narcissism:
“Walking the spiritual path properly is a very subtle process; it is not something to jump into naively. There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.”
What Do Spiritual Narcissists Look Like?
So what does this look like in real life? It looks like someone who has not learned how to open themselves up to experience life in their heart. For whatever reason, their past has caused them to close off their heart and thoughts to others. They wear a mask and put on an act so that people will only see what they want them to. And in the case of spiritual narcissists, they use religion, the Word of God, and religious tradition to make people think that they are enlightened spiritually and even on the same wavelength as God.
When they are in church, or really any public place where people know they are professing as Christian, they will be the absolute best Christian. They will be the quickest to volunteer, head up committees, be the most helpful, do whatever it takes to show that they are the best Christian.
And that image of the best Christian brings us to the next point.
Why Spiritual Narcissism?
There are countless spiritual narcissists in the church body. They appear in every church, from the members all the way up to the highest leaders. So what makes Christianity and other spiritual religions such a hub for spiritual narcissists? The two biggest reasons are authority and trust. People who are members of church historically tended to be trusted more in society because they held to a standard that was higher than the rest of society. If they followed the 10 Commandments as a professing Christian, then that would mean they wouldn’t lie, covet, steal, or dishonor others, among other things. Surely, someone who is that conscientious about life would not be mean, nasty and abusive behind the scenes!
As for authority, most churches are more than eager to fill volunteer leadership positions. It is incredibly easy for members to fill those leadership spots. And it is natural for the rest of the church body to trust those people that are in positions of authority or leadership, whether it is a committee or a higher leadership position.
Putting it All Together
It is because of the trust and authority that spiritual narcissists gravitate toward the church. They know that they will be able to find the narcissistic supply they need because people will be more naively trusting than in most other positions. And when you add the idea that the narcissist can control other unsuspecting Christians by claiming to know what God wants for them clinches the deal. They cannot question the narcissist because that would be akin to questioning God. They also cannot call the narcissist out on their cruelty or odd behavior behind closed doors because publicly all everybody sees is what an amazing Christian the spiritual narcissist is. It is the perfect armor, causing the narcissist to be impervious to any kind of repercussions of their behavior.
Why Can Spiritual Narcissists be More Dangerous than Other Narcissists?
There is one huge reason that religious narcissists are more dangerous than other narcissists. They maintain religiously (pun not intended, lol) that they are privy to God’s will and desires and that they are right and you are not. And at the end of the day, who can argue against God? If they are on God’s side, then you are on the outs with God. No Christian on earth wants to be in that position. And that gives the spiritual narcissist an enormous amount of power.
Please note that spiritual narcissists don’t just appear at church or religious events–they wreak havoc wherever they go because they have tied their religious abuse to every aspect of their life. They do this because they have attached religion and their “close association with God” to their whole being. There is no separating their religion from their personhood as long as there is someone else anywhere near them or the chance that they could be seen by somebody else.
What Does Their Spiritual Abuse Look Like?
Spiritual abuse takes several different forms, but most of the victims I have worked with felt that the stories feel exactly the same. Some people have even said that they believe narcissism is a form of demon possession because it plays out so similarly in anyone who is considered a religious narcissist. I don’t know that I would go so far as to claim that, but it does speak volumes about the patterns of behavior of narcissists, spiritual or otherwise.
Let me give you some examples of spiritual abuse:
1. Appearing to be loving in front of a group of other Christians while being viciously mean when alone with you.
I knew that I could never tell anyone what was happening behind closed doors because my ex husband had such a stellar public reputation. Nobody would ever believe such a great man of God could do such things. I was very lucky that when he complained to church leadership that I was not being the submissive wife he wanted me to be, they saw issues and sent us to professional counseling. The counselors saw the narcissism quite quickly, and when they called him out on it, he did not respond well.
When our church started working alongside the counselors, my husband’s separate worlds collided and he spiraled out of control and his anger was unleashed. At that point, many people saw what he had been hiding for so many years.
2. Constantly correcting others so that they can always be right, especially because they feel like they are so much closer to God than anyone else.
Spiritual narcissists can get away with this indefinitely because nobody will be willing to argue with him to the point they win. Most people will just concede and walk away.
3. They are extremely judgmental.
If they don’t succeed in getting you to admit that you were wrong, they will take whatever steps necessary to prove that you are indeed wrong. One example of this was when my ex husband placed about eight different charges against me in our church government.
While I found this incredibly embarrassing, the leadership contacted me almost immediately to tell me that they weren’t going to entertain his bogus charges. When my ex husband found out about that, he then placed charges against our church’s session (the local government) with presbytery (the regional government).
When the presbytery voted unanimously that our session had acted appropriately, my ex husband then left the church, realizing that charges would soon be brought against him for the destruction he was causing to his family and his church body. He found another church that justified his behavior and granted him blessing to divorce me and remarry, all while never repenting of the great damage he had done.
So much more happened than I can relate to you here. You can read my complete story by clicking here.
4. They will never admit that they were wrong, even when backed into a corner.
They will blame it on anyone they can, but usually have a few scapegoats that they prefer to focus their blame on. It is usually the people that are closest to them and are frequently alone with. This allows them more chances to abuse without risk of being caught. And many times, those exchanges behind closed doors are not even recognized as abusive by the victims because they have been conditioned to take the blame and internalize the narcissist’s behavior as their own.
5. Constantly using religious terms in just about everything they talk about/do/see/experience.
While generally speaking, you would expect someone who is deeply spiritual to display this type of behavior, the spiritual narcissist goes over the top to the point that it is painful to hear the constant spiritualizing of even menial subjects.
6. Needing to be praised for everything they do as the most brilliant Christian in the room.
If they aren’t gaining the approval of everybody in the room, they will keep upping their game until they do get it.
How to Respond in Healthy Ways to Spiritual Narcissists
Although spiritual narcissists present differently in some ways than other narcissists, many of the ways to respond in healthy ways are the same. First of all, it is important for you to realize that the spiritual narcissist does not have a special line of access to God that you do not have. While other Christians certainly have more knowledge of God and relating to Him than you have, you will learn to distinguish the difference between a healthy Christian giving you advice and a spiritual narcissist beating you over the head with God’s Word.
You absolutely don’t want to engage with the narcissist in a way that will lead you into circular arguing. If your first response or two don’t get you on the path to productive conversation, then it is time to politely end the conversation. Don’t worry about trying to get your point across–you wouldn’t even if you made the perfect argument. You will find over time that politely ending the conversation (regardless of their reaction to it) will give you great strength in protecting yourself from getting dragged into a game you don’t want to play.
And over time you will realize that you get much more adept at diffusing conversations that have no hope of going anywhere!
Best Resources to Share
One of the best books I have ever read regarding spiritual narcissism is Narcissism in the Church: A Heart of Stone in Christian Relationships by Dave Orrison. It was so good that I gave a copy of it to my pastor at the church I was attending at the time I was going through this. I was very fortunate to have a supportive church leadership that helped to guide me to safety. And I would like to think that this book played a part in that guidance. Some other books that my pastor shared with me at the time were Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend and Why Does He Do That?by Lundy Bancroft.
Best Personal Resource
And finally, probably the biggest book that helped me through this time was The Emotionally Destructive Marriage: How to Find Your Voice and Reclaim Your Hope by Leslie Vernick. My counselor recommended this book to me and it was the crossroads that led me to a healthy life. I hope that it can have the same effect for anyone I recommend it to. One of my favorite parts of the book is that it starts with a very in depth test to help you determine if you are in a difficult marriage or an abusive marriage. The clarity from that test was astounding. And going through the rest of the book to learn how to decide the best way to heal was icing on the cake.
Ms. Vernick did an amazing job of giving the reader solid choices of whether to stay or go and how to regain your emotional health accordingly. I love that she didn’t have a one size fits all solution but allowed readers to determine the best course of action for themselves.
For more great resources, check out my resource page here.
So this is what spiritual narcissism looks like, how to look out for it, and how to avoid becoming embroiled in it’s destructive path.
Have you had experiences with a spiritual narcissist? Where was it at? How did you deal with it? What would you do differently? How did it affect your personal spirituality?
I would love to hear your story. Please feel free to share in the comments below or contact me privately.
Blessings to you!