Men, grief, and the typical American church

Sometimes I come across articles about things I wholeheartedly agree with. It’s rare, but refreshing. This article really expresses some of the problems and realities of what it’s like to be a man in the typical American church that I have made a soapbox issue for myself.

A couple quotes that I appreciated specifically:

I’m the one who needed it. I suspect that’s what many men do, and not just in situations such as this. We try and deal with our own pain by making others deal with theirs.

[Men and women in the church] can deal with what they believe to be oppression [abortion], but they can’t deal with a confusing, complex sort of pain [of a miscarriage]. C. S. Lewis’s words still ring true: It’s easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than ‘My heart is broken.’

Have a read for yourself:

Men and Miscarriage, from Christianity Today

Shame, Guilt, and the Church: Part 3 – Shame vs. Guilt

Some of these thoughts are instigated by notes I took during a class on conflict mediation back in 2012. Part of the class the professor discussed certain aspects about shame and guilt, and thus vulnerability as well. Other thoughts come from Brene Brown’s TED talks, which I’ve already posted about below. Although much of what I am about to write about is universal, I am going to be writing from a Christian perspective here, with references to God and the Bible. Even if you are not a Christian, I believe that much of this will still resonate with you.

If there is one thing that is definitely universal for all of us, no matter our faith, it’s shame. We all feel shame, whether we choose to admit it or not. Have you ever thought about what shame is exactly? If someone asked you to explain what shame was, how would you explain it? How would it differ from guilt? Maybe this will help:

Shame is that deep sense of feeling unacceptable. It’s that feeling of being exposed, humiliated.

Shame lies in the shadow of guilt. It is something that is FELT, not a cognitive issue.

Shame is an IDENTITY ATTACK.

Shame continually plays two tapes:

1) “You’re never good enough” and 2) “Who do you think you are?”

Shame is the “swampland of the soul.”

Shame arises in our significant relationships. It arises due to life’s situations and culture’s response.

Shame arises within us because of what we do — our addictions, our sexual behaviors, etc.

Shame attaches itself to those who are made powerless, those who are victimized.

Shame is felt by minorities in the midst of a majority.

Shame causes feelings of being an outcast, exposed, naked, unclean, contaminated, separated, alone.

Shame paralyzes people. It keeps people from being able to move or act.

Shame is NOT simply embarrassment.

Those are some examples of how we can think about shame. But lets remember, guilt and shame are not the same thing. And we here in the U.S. are really bad about knowing the difference.

Guilt lies without, while shame lies within ourselves. Guilt can be acted upon so that you are no longer guilty. With shame, there is no set of redemptive actions that is possible. The self is stuck. It’s immovable until the feelings of shame gradually fade away or are interrupted by other feelings.

Removing shame requires an intervention from someone outside ourselves. For Christians, ultimately shame arises when we are exposed to God’s holiness. But we are not left to wallow in it. Jesus pursues us into the depths of our shame. The church must be a place where people can honestly bring the pain of their shame. For Christians, Christ plays a crucial role in overcoming shame. By taking upon himself and embodying our shame, Jesus, in His suffering and death, overcomes and redefines shame, inaugurating possibilities of respect for self and others, and for praise.

You might struggle with shame if you feel wrong, but you don’t know why. Or if blame just always seems to end up at your doorstep. Or if you still feel the shameful experiences of your past.

When dealing with shame:

1) Embrace it.
2) Expose it.
3) Lament and repent.
4) Forgive self and others.

Dealing with shame is an emotional experience. It’s not simply a cognitive one. It needs to be deeply heartfelt experience, not a decision to just not feel shame anymore.

As we deal with one another, let’s contemplate and be more aware of how we exploit shame. For example, be aware about how you use the word “should” and how you apply it in your relationships. Do you “should” others? The Church itself would do well to evaluate its own use of should language. Overall, the church needs to undertake the big task of de-idealizing itself, one another, and even God.

The church could modify some of its practices to help enhance the possibilities of flourishing and growth. It can focus on ways of making people feel welcome, guarding itself against making people feel alienated, adding to the self-hate and shame of its members and visitors.

An evaluation of how and what is being preached within local churches might do a lot to reduce shame within the church. Jesus didn’t give lists about how to be a better person, leader, or family member. We should evaluate the theological methods and symbols we use, making sure that we are not adding to people’s sense of shame. Churches need to be a place that gives space for pain and provides a safe place for those wanted or needing to expose their shame. If you don’t give space for pain, people will resist.

Shame, Guilt, and the Church: Part 2 – Vulnerability and Shame

[This is part two of an ongoing number of posts that I am doing to try and better understand the place of shame and guilt in our lives. Then, (eventually) I will talk about their place within the Church.]

Shame is something that is universal. If we can feel emotion, we feel shame. Interestingly enough, it is rarely discussed directly. So when someone does decide to talk about it, it is not a surprise to me that people seem to respond so favorably to the discussion. It’s like they’ve been waiting for someone to talk about it their entire lives.

That’s what happened in 2010 when Dr. Brené Brown decided to share what she had been studying about shame and vulnerability over the course of six years at a TEDx talk. She clearly knew that it was important information and that people would relate, but she had no idea how many people it would impact. Her original video has been viewed over 12 million times. Her popularity after doing that original talk increased so much that she was asked by Fortune 500 companies to speak at their events and conferences (she references this in her second video). Eventually, she spoke again at a TED talk a couple years later building upon her first talk about shame and vulnerability.

I will share the two videos here. I can’t recommend them enough. For me she says things that I have thought for years but have never had the ability to put into words. She gives summaries, examples, and definitions about shame and vulnerability after doing years of great research, gaining quantifiable data on the subject.

PLEASE watch them. They are each about 20 minutes. I promise you they are worth 45 minutes of your time. You may even want to watch them more than once.

Here’s the first one:

Here’s the second one:

Shame, Guilt, and the Church: Part 1 – An Introduction

[This is part one of a series that I am doing about the place of shame and guilt in our lives. This is an introduction. I will eventually get to talking about the place of shame and guilt in the church as well. ]

I have a notebook in which I reflect on things about culture, society, and worldviews. It is a compilation of personal thoughts and reflections, as well as notes from various lectures and dialogues I have been a part of. I do this because I am preparing to move to Japan within the next few years. I plan to serve in some kind of helping and advocacy role, whether it be counseling, pastoring, or more of a social work type of role. I’m not going as a white westerner come to fix all of Japan’s problems, but I want to learn how to be a bridge — a culture broker, so to speak. There are aspects of Japanese culture that are absolutely incredible. There are many things that Westerners can learn from their culture. But as in any culture there are also blind spots which inhibit growth and health within their society. And let me reiterate, the same is true for the American culture, as well as any other culture.

Oftentimes we hear cultures dichotomized into “Western” and “Eastern” cultures. And as frequently described, Western cultures come with values of individuality and democracy. With Eastern cultures come the values of honor and shame, and the importance of family. And then once we have neatly categorized these two, we can better compare and contrast.

Living in a modern and post-modern (and post-post modern?) society we like to reflect about ourselves. And when we do, we like to think we have things figured out. Something like a culture or society can be summarized neatly and understood once we have analyzed and precisely labeled things. But I would argue that every culture and society throughout the world is too complex to think we can have it all figured out. It might be nice to think we can. It makes it easier to sound smart and write doctoral dissertations at least.

Reflection is good, don’t get me wrong. (Isn’t that why blogs exist?) But I just don’t like it when we act like we have entire cultures or societies figured out. I dislike thinking that we can pinpoint why people act the way they do. Human beings are incredibly complicated. Put a whole bunch of us together and we become even more complicated. Let’s not be so arrogant as to say or think that we can understand ourselves and why we do what we do. We can postulate as to why things are the way they are, but let’s just try to be honest about what we can really know and what we can hope to understand.

Anyway, as I started off saying, I keep a notebook with various thoughts and notes about culture, society, and worldviews. I like to write down thoughts and questions that help me prepare for the cultural and worldview differences that I’ll experience when I get to Japan. And oftentimes these reflections help me understand that even though value systems might differ in many ways, generally speaking, there is much overlap.

Japanese culture, as well as many Eastern or Asian cultures, is often described as being an “Honor/Shame” culture. American culture is rarely, if ever, described in that way. I would argue that even though white Americans don’t necessarily have the same values, traditions, or expectations surrounding family and their community, it’s not like honor and shame don’t play a significant part into how and why we do what we do.

I think by labeling other cultures as being “honor/shame” oriented we for some reason conclude that we do not operate in the same way. But I think we do also operate in similar ways, but we just don’t talk about it in the same way, or recognize that we do.

I believe we Americans (and when I say we, I am speaking as a white, middle-class American) have a hard time explaining what shame and guilt are. We don’t really understand the differences between what shame and guilt are. This could also be in part because the topic of morality and ethics is so complex. I think when we try and define or describe what shame is, we are often thinking of guilt, and maybe vice-versa.

But just because we can’t define shame and its nuanced differences from guilt doesn’t mean that is we don’t feel shame as Westerners. We do. But we often ignore and overlook the importance of understanding what shame is, and how it impacts us as individuals, as groups of people (such as families or churches), and as a society at large.

So I have taken some notes over time, helping me understand what shame is and how it impacts us. I want to share some of these things, showing how shame differs from guilt, and how Americans, and especially the white American Church, have really dropped the ball on this.

A war on drugs?

I’m taking an addiction counseling class right at the moment, and I have learned so much about addiction over the course of the past few weeks. My professor, Dr. Julie Russo, specializes in addiction counseling. Sitting in class and listening to her lectures I feel that I walk away with such a greater empathy for those struggling through addictions (which is most of us in some form or another, by the way).

Today we had a short presentation on meth, and as we talked briefly about the ‘war on drugs’ she had a great quote.

“It shouldn’t be a ‘war on drugs.’ It should be a war on the causes of pain people experience that leads them to try drugs in the first place.”

I couldn’t agree more.

It’s about PREVENTION and EDUCATION.

Why can’t we understand the concept of PREVENTION here in America? It boggles my mind.

A Reflection on the Fact that Women are my Heroes.

A Reflection on the Fact that Women are my Heroes.

Over the course of the past couple days I have seen a number of things on my Facebook feed referencing the realities of what it is like to be a woman. More specifically, the contrast of being a working mother versus a stay-at-home mother. Or a single woman versus a married woman with children. And for some reason the question of who has it worse seems to arise. I am not sure why this question seems to be asked so frequently. I don’t really even want to hypothesize too much. It could be a case of “the grass is always greener on the other side” or just simply being envious of a life that isn’t yours, not being content with your own life.

Personally, I am guilty of this in my own life. No, I’m not saying I have it worse than a woman, or that I would rather be a woman. I’m saying that after getting married, or especially after having my son I would look to my single friends with envy. They had so much FREEDOM. They could practically do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. I would think, Man…that would be nice. 

But how selfish is that!? As I think those things, and covet the single life, I forget what a blessing it is to be married. So many of those single people (but not all) would also LOVE to be married. But they are single. They would gladly give up some of that freedom to have a life partner.

As I go out to the plaza in my neighborhood with my son (I’m a stay-at-home dad), or out to eat, I envy those who stroll past with just their wife. No strollers. No whining or crying kid. Just them. And I catch myself thinking, Wow! That would be SO nice. To just be here with my wife. Not having to worry about taking care of a baby. So much freedom!

But how selfish is that!? As I think those things, and covet the childless life, I forget what a blessing it is to have children. So many couples (but not all) would LOVE to have children. But they for some reason don’t have any or can’t have any. They would gladly give up some of that freedom to have a child.

I’m not really sure how I got on that tangent. What I originally started writing to say is that women, both single and married, both in-the-work-force moms and stay-at-home moms, are my heroes.

Women historically have had it much worse than men. Inequality, injustice, and sexism is just a reality for them. Some fight it more than others, yet no matter what seem to be criticized for what they believe. Women are incredibly under the microscope at all moments, being challenged and pigeon-holed and stereotyped for nearly every decision they make or are a part of. They put up with a lot.

I believe that women have an incredible amount of pressure put on them to live into or up to a certain expectation given to them by the cultures they are a part of. This includes their own national culture, their socio-economic culture, their racial culture, and their religious and family culture. There are pressures and expectations on every side, and it seems to me that no matter what decision a woman makes she often feels guilty for the life she lives, or perhaps has to explain herself to those with different expectations. If she isn’t married, why not? If she is married without kids, when are the kids coming? If she works while having children, how could she do that? If she stays home, why would she give up a promising career? Women seem to live in a constant “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” state. No wonder depression numbers are so considerably higher for women than men!

Women have it bad enough to be challenged by society in general, and by men, but when the comparisons and contrasts of “Who has it worse?” or “Who has it easier?” enter the picture…it’s just unnecessary.

My greatest influences, role models, and mentors have all been women. Women are the ones who have inspired me the most. (And this is especially true of my own mother and my wife.)

Women don’t need any more pressure. They’ve been beaten down enough! I want to support and thank the women that I come in contact with. I hope you do the same.

Let’s love better. Let’s love well. 

Women,

Thank you. You are my heroes.


Here are some of the comments that I am referencing from Facebook. I will leave their names anonymous.

Woman one: A wonderful mother with three children who works to help provide for her family. She wrote this as a response to a blog post by Matt Walsh criticizing how we treat stay-at-home moms.

“I have got to stop reading these things. The myth that working moms enjoy manicures and coffee breaks and conversations is pretty short-sided, too. I work to be a partner with my husband to house, cloth and feed our kids. Thanks to our government and our society, my hard-working husband’s income doesn’t cut it. When a family pays HUNDREDS of dollars a month for health insurance…HUNDREDS of dollars for public education, etc. it doesn’t go nearly far enough. We are SO grateful for the jobs that pay the bills, but honestly, if I have to hear one more time how noble it is that women put their whole lives into raising their babies, I think I’ll go postal. Guess what? ALL moms are moms 24/7/365. I don’t sip lattes at work. I WORK and pay our bills, and arrange teacher conferences, and meal plan and make grocery lists and field texts from my kids about school and their lives all while I eat pb&j from my lunchbox in 30 minutes. I suck up a tear every time I leave home in the dark and come home to crabby, tired kids who gave their best fun and hugs to my (wonderful) sister. ALL parents deserve respect, not just the stay-at-home ones. Ugh! Now, excuse me while I remove the paper jam from the printer because it ate the print job I was waiting on while reading this. Livin’ the dream, huh?”

Woman Two: A wonderful single woman who inspires me with her compassion and her passion.

“Today my spiritual director said (unprompted) she believes single women work harder than married women with children – we have no one to help with daily tasks and we’re driven by the belief that since we aren’t supporting a husband or children we must work/serve harder to prove our usefulness and value to society. I have NEVER heard a married woman say anything other than how lucky I am to be single, how I get to do anything I want, how much “me” time I have, how hard marriage is, how Jesus is my husband, how common it is for women to have children at 50 if I just have more faith…ugh. I don’t know if it’s harder but it is indeed hard and I am so very thankful to have a married woman affirm this instead of shaming me about not being grateful for my circumstances!”

Both of these comments received many comments and will probably continue to have more. But it seems the overwhelming response is that all women’s lives have their challenges. There have been a number of other posts that I have seen on Facebook referencing this topic. But it seems that most agree that we shouldn’t have to compare and contrast and try to decide who has it worse and who has it better.

Let’s be kind to one another. Support one another. And love well.

Lessons from a 12 Step Meeting.

I recently went to a 12 step program as an assignment for an Addictions Counseling class that I am taking. My only exposure to 12 programs have been in television shows and movies, and most of them have been Alcoholics Anonymous. Generally speaking, when you see something medical or psychological being presented on screen, it’s probably not very accurate. It’s the reason my wife, a nurse, gets upset at any show where a doctor or nurse gets involved in any way.

“That’s not how it would happen in real life!”

“I know…”

Recently I have also found this to be true whenever a counselor or therapist is being portrayed. Oftentimes the client is lying down on a long leather couch with the therapist behind the client just listing and scribbling things down on a notepad. Maybe somewhere in the world that is how someone counsels still…but nowhere that I know of.

Anyway, I digress, I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the 12 step meeting. Do people really all say their name and everyone repeats their name back? (Yes.) Do people say that they are an alcoholic, or a sexoholic, or a drug addict? Really? (Yes.) Surely they’ve got to have a table with stale doughnuts and coffee at the back of the room, right? (Nope.)

The group I went to was a bit unique. It was for both genders, and allowed for any addiction. Anyone who feels they have a destructive behavior in their life that they want to overcome is welcome to come. And as we started, the twelve steps were read at a pace for us to think about them in relation to our own lives. And after they had all been read, the leader said that today we’d be going back and focusing on the first step. This was fortunate, considering this was the first meeting I had ever attended.

We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable

Here is a description about step one from 12step.org:

Step 1 is the first step to freedom. I admit to myself that something is seriously wrong in my life. I have created messes in my life. Perhaps my whole life is a mess, or maybe just important parts are a mess. I admit this and quit trying to play games with myself anymore. I realize that my life has become unmanageable in many ways. It is not under my control anymore. I do things that I later regret doing and tell myself that I will not do them again. But I do. I keep on doing them, in spite of my regrets, my denials, my vows, my cover-ups and my facades. The addiction has become bigger than I am. The first step is to admit the truth of where I am, that I am really powerless over this addiction and that I need help.

The key here in step one is the admission of powerlessness.

After reading step one, and a few comments from the leader, those in attendance were encouraged to share their stories. The room itself was not some cold tiled-floor room with metal folding chairs with a podium. (I assume these do exist.) The room we were in was like someone’s living room. Couches and nice chairs. Pictures and paintings framed on the wall. A fireplace. It was a warm environment.

People started sharing their stories, starting with their name and then stating their addictions. For most there was more than just one addiction. But the addictions that everyone was mentioning varied. Sex, porn, masturbation, overeating, compulsive eating, video games, and the list goes on. Some people had been working through these addictions for 50 years. But people shared their experiences, from their heart. Not in a “look where I have come from” or “look how hard I have it” way. But in a deeply sincere, honest and humble manner. As people shared my heart was heavy and sober, yet unexpectedly joyful.

This place was fascinating. People were sharing their deepest, darkest secrets and I had met them literally five minutes ago. These people were brave. These people were courageous. I was inspired by them.

Even though we were sitting around in a circle sharing our most shameful behaviors, the ickiest parts of our lives, I thought to myself, “This feels…so…HOLY. This is how the CHURCH should be.” 

I think it was the honesty. The truth behind all that everyone was sharing. These people weren’t hiding behind any excuses. They were admitting they needed help and they were powerless. This sense of honesty and transparency filled the room. Isn’t that core to the understanding of what the Gospel is? We are powerless to overcoming sin on our own. We can try, but we’ll always fail. We all need to humble ourselves and admit that we need God.

————-

The feeling of holiness in that room and my thoughts of how this felt like how the church should be stuck with me. Why doesn’t the church look like this? A number of reasons come to mind:

1. “When I go to church, I just want to escape life, relax, and be encouraged.” People deal with hard and busy days all week. Families, friends, work, bills, health, housework, etc. We’re busy and tired people. Oftentimes the last thing we want to get into at church is having to talk about such things. We want to come to church to escape the week — to just relax and be encouraged for half a second before having to go back into the stressful world.

2. “I don’t want to burden other people with my problems.” We oftentimes only see these people once a week. There’s really not time to get to the honest and hard parts of our life with these people. They’d probably be willing to help, but they’re busy too. The last thing I want to do is burden them with my troubles.

3. “If I share what life is really like, I will be seen as a bad Christian.” Church is not a place to “get real” with each other. It’s a place to be happy, smile, and act like everything is ok. We’re Christians! We’ve got to be joyful! If we admit that we are out of control or that our lives are messy then we might seem like we are not “good Christians.”

4. “If I share what life is really like, people will judge me and I could lose my position in the church.” In the same vein as above, the idea that if I tell or show people what my life is really like people will judge me, and I will lose respect and potentially even my leadership position in the church.

5. “Anytime I have tried to talk about my problems with others, no one takes the time to really see how I’m doing.” Maybe a person has tried to be a bit vulnerable about their problems, or they’ve tried to reach out, and the response they’ve gotten was more of a pat on the back and a “I’ll pray for you.” When this happens there is rarely much followup, and perhaps even an avoidance because we feel awkward about having to deal with an uncomfortable situation with someone else.

I could probably write pages and pages in response to these five thoughts that I’ve just identified. And I am sure there are dozens of more thoughts that keep us from sharing our issues with people at church. Things which keep us from being real and honest.

———–

One of the main reasons that this bugs me so much is because if we do hear about those who are deeply struggling with an addiction or a destructive behavior in their lives, it’s almost always after those people have hit rock bottom or have been caught. When we find out that a person in the church has been addicted to gambling, or pornography, or fill in the blank, it seems that it is almost always after years and years of struggling.

We act surprised. “Wow! Who knew they had been addicted for 20 years!?” When I hear about that, I put part of the blame on the church. If we find out that someone had been struggling with addiction or a particular sin for the entire time they had been a part of our church, part of that is on us. They might have been good about hiding it. Their families might not have even really known. But that just means that we’re not asking the right questions. We’re not willing to get into the real parts of people’s lives. It’s one thing if the person straight up lies to us when we ask the hard questions, but I’m guessing most of the time those hard questions are never asked.

Also, maybe the fear of being judged is a legitimate fear. If they had come out and told people at the church that they were addicted to pornography or alcohol or video games how would the church respond? Would we instantly try to FIX the person? Would we be aghast about their sin, their addiction?

We need to be people who are not surprised by sin. We preach and talk about total depravity and how we are all sinners, and then we are shocked and surprised when someone admits they are sinning. To be Christian does not mean to always give the benefit of the doubt. People struggle with addictions, sins, and our lives are messy because of it. I think I need to be surprised when I found out someone’s life IS NOT like that rather than the other way around. We should assume that people are dealing with something hard in their life. This generates a place of mercy, grace, and empathy in our attitude towards others. I have probably mentioned it in other posts, but I am struck by the quote,

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

It helps orient my attitude toward others. Life is complicated. And we need to learn how to best help others, carry one another’s burdens, and to love well. We are too often focused on being RIGHT. I think we need to focus more on being LOVE.

Narcissism and Gender (and the Evangelical Worldview)

Narcissism and Gender (and the Evangelical Worldview)

“Narcissism,” “narcissistic,” and “narcissist” are terms that are frequently used in today’s culture. Some people use these terms as labels for one of their parents or an acquaintance, or for our society, our generation, or even our general time in history. Some have said that the narcissistic personality is the “‘personality of our time’ in the same way that the hysterical personality is associated with the Victorian period and the obsessive-compulsive personality psychologically characterizes the stage of competitive capitalism.” (Philipson, 1985). Although there may be truth to many of these claims, the abundant use of these terms has caused us to treat narcissism flippantly. When someone is perceived to be self-serving or as having a big ego, he or she is quickly labeled a narcissist. If it is perceived that a certain individual lacks empathy towards another person, clearly he or she must be a narcissist. However, even though people are often familiar with the concept of narcissism, and even may be able to accurately label someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder a narcissist, there is still much that is commonly unknown. This is especially true as narcissism relates to gender.

Based on how our culture so often speaks of how we have narcissistic and entitlement issues as a society, one might assume that Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) would affect a relatively high percentage of the population in America. However, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., text rev., American Psychiatric Association, 2000), estimates of the prevalence of NPD “range from 2% to 16% in the clinical population and less than 1% in the general population.” The DSM-IV-TR also states “of those diagnosed with NPD, 50%-75% are male.” Two things stand out about these figures: 1) what is clinically diagnosed as NPD is clearly narrower than what is commonly understood and 2) that fact that up to 75% of individuals diagnosed with NPD are male should be seen as significant, especially when considering gender issues in counseling.

The study of narcissism really took root in the late 1960s when Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut both studied and developed theories about narcissistic disorders (as well as other disorders including Borderline Personality Disorder). Although their theories differ from one another in some significant ways, Kohut departing from traditional understandings of Freud and Kernberg remaining faithful to Freudian theory, their contribution to the understanding of NPD still continues through to this day, although certain aspects of their respective theories have been seriously challenged. The term “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” was first proposed by Kohut in 1968 (Kohut, 1968).

As much as Kernberg and Kohut did for psychology’s understanding of narcissism, there were a number of areas that were left to explore. Although their theoretical frameworks differed significantly in a number of places, there was at least one area in which they, as well as many who followed them, simply assumed: that their theory was gender neutral. Their discoveries and observations were treated as being true for males and females alike, although in their examples the proportion of males was significantly higher than that of females. In Kernberg’s Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (1975), and Kohut’s Analysis of the Self (1971) and Restoration of the Self (1977) a total of 29 cases are presented as examples of various manifestations of NPD, but only five depict women (Philipson, 1985). Ilene Philipson (1985) also points out a number of other times in which presentations on narcissism have a significantly higher percentage of males represented as opposed to women. She also points out that “these ratios of men to women must be seen in light of the fact that two-thirds of all psychiatric patients in the population are women” (Philipson, 1985).

Critiquing the Gender Neutral Approach to Understanding Narcissism

I have already made significant reference to Ilene Philipson’s article “Gender and Narcissism” (1985), but in my research of a number of articles and books, Philipson’s critique of the traditional gender neutral approach in understanding and diagnosing NPD stands out. Although Philipson relies heavily upon Kohut’s theory of the formation of NPD, she brings strong challenges to the efficacy of the research and theory when applied to both men and women. It seems that she has no problem with Kohut’s theory applying to men because she believes that the research only analyzes data about narcissism from the male perspective. In her words she suggests “that it is possible to understand men’s disproportionate appearance in the case material on narcissism as a reflection of the fact that narcissism—as a personality type and pathological disorder—denotes a way of being in the world that is primarily, if not exclusively, experienced by men” (Philipson). She believes the problem lies “in the social construction of the asymmetrical development of women and men in the period of early childhood, when the foundation of pathological narcissism takes form.” (Philipson).

In summary of her article, Philipson believes that narcissism’s formation in an individual occurs as a result of “improper identity development during the time when a child is separating and individuating itself from its mother, assuming the mother is the primary caretaker of the child” (Philipson, 1985). This does not disagree with much of the research on narcissism. Traditionally it is explained that in children who grow up possessing narcissistic personality characteristics there are serious failures in maternal empathy and in the mother’s acceptance of a child’s separation from her. The faulty empathy of the mother is the result her ambivalence towards her child’s pull towards individuation and her child’s need for autonomy, control, and mastery. Philipson’s critique is that we should not assume that boys and girls react the same to their mother during this individuating time, and that we also should not assume that mother’s react the same to their daughters as they do to their sons. It is generally assumed that both boys and girls are affected in the same way by a mother’s faulty empathy, but Philipson asserts that that is not true. She asserts that what is commonly understood as the generic “child” in psychoanalytic literature discussing narcissism is truly the male experience and not the female experience (Philipson). She states that “because of an assumed gender neutrality, the psychoanalytic explanation of narcissism obfuscates the gendered relationship between mother and son and mother and daughter, which colors all aspects of psychological growth, whether that growth is ‘narcissistic’ or not” (Philipson). She explains that faulty empathy within a mother leads to the inability to tend to a child on the basis of her or his own needs, and such inability is frequently the result of unconsciously viewing the child “as another person, as an extension of oneself, or as embodying salient characteristics of a significant other” (Philipson). The key to Philipson’s understanding is that when mothers view their children in such a manner, they seem to do so in a gender specific way. Sons are most likely to be seen as husbands, fathers, and brothers, and daughters are seen as the mother’s mother or as extensions of themselves. This leads to significant differences between the relationship of a mother and her son, and the mother and her daughter. The difference in the level of how “other” the son feels when contrasted to the daughter has significant impact upon the formation of what is commonly understood to be NPD.

For the adult woman who has experienced her mother see her as an extension of herself, she goes on to find an “omnipotent” person who can fulfill her desires of love and complete her sense of identity, as she had previously had with her mother. For the adult male who has experienced his mother see him as her father, husband, or brother, he goes on to seek admiration and love from those around him as a person of his own, building his grandiose self – this being the commonly understood description of someone with NPD (Philipson). Philipson’s assertions about the differences between the kind of attachment a son has with his mother and the attachment a daughter has with her mother helps explain why there is a disparity in the number of male narcissists and female narcissists as we define narcissism today. She says that it is because we are defining narcissism from a completely male perspective.

The Relationship Between Gender and Narcissism and the Evangelical Worldview

Gender relations is often a touchy subject within Evangelical circles today. And discussions about psychology and its place within Christianity are usually inflammatory in most evangelical churches. So what happens when we mix these two subjects into one and bring it up as a discussion within the typical Evangelical church? It is probably not going to be very productive. This presents a challenge when approaching topics like narcissism, and even more specifically, what the relationship is between narcissism and gender. Nevertheless, I believe that the Bible does speak generally to this topic.

I believe that gender relations were dramatically affected at the fall. Sin has distorted so much of developmental processes and our how we relate to one another as human beings. I believe that the power of sin also affects the incredibly formative beginning years of our lives, as we grow and develop a personality. Sin has dramatically tainted the process of our identity formation. The image of God we all have been made in, as described in Genesis 1:26-27, has remained in contact, but affected by sin in deep-rooted ways. After the fall, when God declares his condemnations upon the serpent, the woman, and the man, he specifically tells the woman in Gen 3:16 that her desire will be for her husband, and he will rule over her. This pronouncement is due to the fall; due to sin. When the breakdown of the mother-daughter relationship happens so that the mother sees the daughter as an extension of herself, this causes an increased desire for someone to unhealthily contribute to her identity and give her love that she is incredibly needful of to function. For many such women, that is often her husband. I believe that the assertions that Ilene Philipson makes are not in conflict with Scriptural teaching. Yet, as within the psychology world, such observations often go dreadfully unnoticed. But theology and psychology can clearly inform one another, and work hand in hand with each other.

If the church wants to be effective as possible in helping people grow holistically we need to, in submission to the Holy Spirit and under the authority of the Bible, understand and study what psychology has to contribute to our theology and think about how our theology can enrich psychological findings. But there remain many Evangelical and especially Fundamental Christians who would have nothing to do with the world of psychology or anything it promotes.

Some psychologists have proposed that American Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism are narcissistic themselves as movements, in that we separate ourselves out from “the world” and then make ourselves feel better by contrasting our lives to those of “the world” we separated ourselves from (Dyer, 2012). At the same time, in doing this Dyer suggests that there has been “a turn of focus away from God, yet a movement toward the self in seeking a sense of comfortableness, intimacy, and the meeting of felt-need in a space of worship for the adherent.” Ultimately, narcissism’s reach into the Evangelical circles is seen as “a product of Protestant individualism” (Dyer).

However, as I have already somewhat alluded to, I believe that the discussion of narcissism in this way is counterproductive. Narcissism Personality Disorder is a serious disorder. A counseling professor of mine has said that he would much rather have a client with Borderline Personality Disorder over a client with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. He said this because he believes that it is nearly impossible to effectively work with a narcissist. This shows the seriousness of the disorder. But if we use the language of narcissism so flippantly, I believe it detracts from the serious attention and work that needs to occur within our understanding of what narcissism truly is.

Assessing Narcissistic Personality Disorder

The DSM-IV-TR has nine diagnostic criteria specifically listed, a total of at least five of the nine need to be present in order to diagnose someone with NPD. What the DSM-IV-TR says is consistent of NPD is “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts…” The Mayo Clinic staff (2011) on their website add, “Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

There have been a number of various types of inventories, but perhaps the most widely used inventory is the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI, Raskin and Hall, 1979). It was developed to measure “individual differences in the extent to which a grandiose sense of self and a grandiose fantasy life combine with hypersensitivity, exhibitionism, feelings of entitlement, interpersonal exploitiveness, and a lack of empathy for others to form dominant themes of an individual’s personality” (Tschanz, Morf, Turner, 1998). Tschanz et al. strongly question whether the type of narcissism that is purportedly assessed by the NPI can be validly generalized to both the male and female experience. However, the NPI particularly focuses on behavior manifestations of explosiveness and entitlement rather than the internal underlying psychological issues (Tschanz et al.). Philipson shows that the underlying psychological elements are what is key to understanding the differences between men and women more so than focusing on the behavioral aspects.

The mayo clinic website offers some great information on the treatment of NPD as it is commonly understood and diagnosed. But it also shows the lack of differentiation between men and women who experience and live out narcissism in different ways. It treats it in a gender neutral way, not acknowledging or mentioning any differences between genders.

They explain “NPD treatment is centered around psychotherapy. There are no medications specifically used to treat narcissistic personality disorder” (Mayo Clinic Staff). They go on to explain that Cognitive-Behavior therapy, Family therapy, or Group therapy might help them in various ways. Perhaps what is best (and most disheartening) is the honesty in which they approach how difficult NPD is to overcome.

The Mayo Clinic Staff  state to the person with NPD:

because personality traits can be difficult to change, therapy may take several years. The short-term goal of psychotherapy for narcissistic personality disorder is to address such issues as substance abuse, depression, low self-esteem or shame. The long-term goal is to reshape your personality, at least to some degree, so that you can change patterns of thinking that distort your self-image and create a realistic self-image.”

Clearly there is a lack of discussion about how male and female narcissism differs, or even if it is a possibility. This is definitely a lacking element in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of NPD.

Some Aspects to Be Further Considered and Explored

After doing some research about NPD I believe there are many avenues for further exploration. If Philipson is correct in her assertions that how we understand NPD is from a completely male lens, distorting the realities of what narcissism looks like for women there is a lot of work that needs to be done to reevaluate how gender differences play into the development of NPD. This affects the definition of what narcissism is, this changes the diagnosis requirements, and this changes our understanding of the prevalence of narcissism in America. If Philipson is correct in her assertions, then there are a lot of women who have NPD realized in a different way that we acknowledge it now, that is going unrecognized and therefore undiagnosed. The numbers may not be drastically skewed towards men as thought.

I believe theologically speaking there is much that can be explored. Many questions can be asked. If women are seeking to find their love from a “omnipotent” source that matched what their mother once was for them, what does it look like to have that attachment be placed and founded in the true Omnipotent one? How can God be put into the equation more effectively when dealing with NPD? Is a man who has patterns of grandiosity in fantasy or behavior resistant to a relationship with God? If the male with NPD is already a Christian, does he want to naturally withdraw from intimacy with God? How does the narcissist’s theology inform his identity? How does his narcissism inform his theology?

Clearly there are plenty of theological paths to be further explored, and this is where I feel Christian theology is strongly lacking because of a resistance within the conservative Christian community to interact with psychological studies and research. As a Church, we need to better interact with Psychology and think about how practical theology can be informed by and inform psychological research.

Also, the relationship between gender and narcissism clearly needs to be more thoughtfully explored. There are a number of articles that have been written with gender in mind when discussing various aspects narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder. Hopefully more substantial work will be done concerning how gender plays a significant role in psychological issues and disorders. And hopefully the future DSMs will reflect those realizations.

References

Dyer, Jennifer E., (2012) Loving thyself: A Kohutian interpretation of “limited” mature narcissism in evangelical megachurches. J Relig Health, 51, 241-255.

Heiserman, Arthur, Cook, Harold, (1998). Narcissism, affect, and gender: an empirical examination of Kernberg’s and Kohut’s Theories of Narcissism. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 15(1), 74-92.

Kohut, Heinz, (1968). The Analysis of the self: A systematic approach to the psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personality disorders. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mayo Clinic Staff, (2011). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/narcissistic-personality-disorder/

Philipson, Ilene, (1985). Gender and narcissism. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 9, 213-228.

Raskin, R.N., Hall, C.S. (1979). A narcissistic personality inventory. Psychological Reports, 45, 590.

Tschanz, Brian T., Morf, Carolyn C., Turner, Charles W., (1998). Gender differences in the Structure of Narcissism: A Multi-Sample Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Sex Roles, 38(9/10), 863-870.