Why is everyone talking about 'narcissism', and should Christians be concerned?

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Narcissus was a tragic figure in Greek mythology. So transfixed by his own reflection in a pool of water, he fell in love with his handsome image and could not tear himself away. He could not accept genuine offers of love from real human beings, and so endured a life of frustration as his love object was just his own reflection.

This tragic story is the inspiration for the term 'narcissism' that is used so readily today. But it is not pity that inspires much of the discourse, but contempt. "How to avoid dating a narcissist" is a regular theme on social media, as is "recovering from a narcissist" and lamenting "the narcissism epidemic", among others.

Narcissists are characterised as people who pretend to be nice to get what they want, but will be unconcerned about hurting others or discarding them when it suits, making terrible spouses and family members. Narcissism is blamed for the horrendous scandals committed by church leaders and some of the worst evils of the world.

A narcissist is seen as so excessively self-involved, selfish, focused on the self, in a way that can make a person dangerous. It's one of the "dark triad" personality traits that is linked with a lot of nasty human behaviour. And worryingly, some argue that it's becoming more prevalent in society.

Growing alarm

This graph of Google searches for 'narcissist' over time shows how rapidly interest in the concept has increased since 2013. Related searches that have also increased are 'how to deal with a narcissist' and 'narcissist man.'

But the term has been used by psychologists since the turn of the 20th Century, and "narcissistic personality disorder" (NPD) was first classed as a psychiatric diagnosis in 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association, although the organisation discussed scrapping this diagnosis in 2013, arguing it was too simplistic among other things.

Currently – though definitions can change – the APA says symptoms of NPD are "grandiose self-importance", exhibitionism, fantasies of greatness, emotional dysfunctions, and interpersonal problems such as "feeling entitled to special favours, taking advantage of others, and inability to empathize with the feelings of others."

A narcissism epidemic?

Authors have speculated about a rise in selfishness and narcissism in Western societies. Psychology academic Prof Jean Twenge has written several books on the subject, arguing that since the 1970s, the average person is more narcissistic, which she blames on an excessive focus on encouraging self-esteem and individualism in schools and in our wider culture. Questions on surveys assessing narcissistic traits do show a dramatic increase. For example, Prof Twenge cites research showing that in the early 1950s, only 12% of teens agreed "I am an important person", but by the late 1980s an astonishing 80% did so.

However research that compares later generations, from the 1990s to the 2010s, suggests that college students might have actually become less narcissistic in some ways during that time. So the rapid rise in interest in the subject is not due to a very recent "epidemic". But one of the difficulties of the debate is that people often cannot be put in simple boxes, as human behaviour and its motivations are complicated, and more difficult to define than a survey can reveal.

Narcissism or self love?

Is it a new concept or is it a different term for what was once called egocentrism or selfishness, and long discussed and debated by the church? Reading old devotional books, it can be a shock to the modern reader when "self love" is severely criticised by our Christian forebears.

Modern Westerners are taught that it is a very good thing, even mandated by Jesus. Christian therapists and leaders stress the importance of self-esteem and learning to love yourself. It's often pointed out that Jesus's command to love our neighbour adds "as yourself."

Yet unless these concepts are very different, which is certainly possible - this was not the interpretation given throughout Christian history. "You must know that self-love is more harmful to you than anything else in the world," wrote Thomas à Kempis in the spiritual classic "The imitation of Christ." Another spiritual giant, Thomas Aquinas, wrote "inordinate love of self is the cause of every sin."

Perhaps it is a concept that needs to be considered carefully, certainly because narcissism and its increase has been blamed for a lot of social ills and problems in the church, too.

Narcissism in the Church

For example, narcissism has been blamed as the cause of many church leader scandals. "Sadly, in recent years we've witnessed too many instances of charismatic Christian leaders gaining a massive following, both within the church and on social media, only to be exposed as manipulative, abusive, and dictatorial," wrote Professor Chuck DeGroat in 'When Narcissism Comes to Church'.

When researchers claimed they had discovered that a third of pastors could be defined as having NPD, it provoked much concern. However, the book that this was based on, "Let Us Prey: The Plague of Narcissist Pastors and What We Can Do About It", turned out to have faulty research methods related to the complexity of how narcissism is defined. "I believe malignant narcissism among pastors is a real issue," wrote church abuse campaigner Julie Roys on her blog. "I've witnessed behaviour in pastors that certainly seems similar to the definitions I've read of NPD. And, I've heard from numerous listeners and readers who say they've witnessed narcissistic behaviour in their pastors too.

"This leads me to believe that clinical narcissism among pastors is a topic that deserves more attention. But now that this study is largely discredited, it may be easier to dismiss the entire subject."


The problem with the "narcissism" narrative is that it can be nasty and unloving, and implies there is no chance for redemption. While the "narcissism recovery" world offers some useful points to consider when dating, such as whether self-absorbed people will make good fathers or partners, or indeed church leaders – and to what extent people are sincere and genuine. However, some of the rhetoric sounds pretty mean. I've certainly observed people who accuse others of narcissism to show narcissistic traits themselves. And our hope of redemption has to be for all, however terrible a person's behaviour is, even if we need to set firm boundaries to prevent them hurting others.

Perhaps what's most important for a Christian is to examine ourselves for the log in our own eye, and explore whether the modern approval of "self love," of the kind that the Church has historically warned against, has caused any damage to our own soul. Then, perhaps, we can see clearly enough to try to guide others towards real love.

Heather Tomlinson is a freelance journalist. Find her at www.heathertomlinson.substack.com or on twitter @heathertomli