Overcoming Narcissism to Get the Job Done

(Note on the genesis of this post: I was working on a guest blog for another site about going after goals that feel out of reach. The post below seemed like a bit much to unleash on an unknown audience, but I want to remember thinking about this, and I don’t think I’m the only one fighting this battle. So I’m posting here instead.)

A few years ago the church I was part of went through an ugly implosion. A series of tragedies – financial betrayal by one leader, the death of another – undid us, revealing that while as a group of young-ish (here in Cambridge where I live, 30-something is still young-ish) people bolstered by enthusiastic faith, we had incredible ability to do good for our city and the people we loved, we had almost no capacity to deal with catastrophe when big waves hit our boat.

UnknownI think part of the problem was that so many of us were narcissists. Not everyone would qualify as a narcissism poster child the way Steve Jobs has (he’s been dissected endlessly for this quality since his death).  It’s more that many of us have strong hints of several of the characteristics that make narcissism both a powerful leadership motivator and a slippery slope towards disaster if one doesn’t keep very precise footing.  When I first learned about narcissism via an article a friend sent me in regard to a pastor at different church who was chewing up his congregation (this happens a lot in churches), I thought, “Wow, that describes him to a T…it also describes my pastor, me, and a lot of our friends.”  Any of us who have the audacity to believe we have something important to say and that others should listen? We have the building blocks of narcissism somewhere in our foundation.

Thinking and praying about this, I realized: having these tendencies isn’t the problem. If you look at the Bible, it’s clear from the first few chapters that we’re all born with some disastrous tendency or another. Some of us get an assortment.  A life well lived isn’t about being above these human foibles, it’s having a plan to manage them.

This is why I’ve stuck with Christianity, even as the church I loved fell apart. It’s still the best disaster management plan I’ve found, and I’ve put lots of them to the test. Diligently applied, Jesus offers us a place to trade in our evil inclinations. We can confess, ask forgiveness, repent, and receive God’s grace. Which isn’t just about not feeling guilty. It’s about having a miraculous capacity not to be our worst selves, even in moments of stress or weakness.  We can be better than our own ability or capacity – better friends, colleagues, spouses, parents, family members, citizens, and neighbors. And when we blow it, we can go ask for his help, and do better next time. Whatever we are, Jesus can help us be better. But we have to do the stuff. Diligently. And that takes time away from the siren call of pursuing our great big dreams and taking over the world. It’s a bit of a conflict, truth be told.

When narcissism whispers to me that what I become in life is entirely determined by what I rush out and grab, the offer of another way holds a quiet appeal.  But I have to opt in, and silence the voice that says I’ll fail if I don’t charm and bully the world into doing things my way.  But when tragedy hits, quiet answers don’t seem up to the job.

Unknown-1The problem with narcissism is that it promises more than it delivers. It terms of tools, it’s a box filled with hammers, with nary a scalpel to be found. There’s the charm hammer, the manipulation hammer, and the bullying sledgehammer that gets pulled out when the first two fail. But it’s never, ever a scalpel, because there’s just too much emotion attached to every action and reaction to work with that kind of precision.

I want to work with precision. I haven’t always, but it’s the goal I’m shooting for these days in my writing and speaking…and in the more private sphere of life as I consider how to be a wife, family member, and friend. It takes a degree of calm to hone in on what God is saying, to see the connections He’s pointing out and then figure out how to put those things into words and action.  When you’ve built momentum, it’s a bit of a process to slow down and change direction.

This is a gift. It is a way to construct a life that feels solid, even though the building process often runs behind schedule and over budget. As my friend Jon from law school used to say (and he was the calmest guy I’ve ever known), “Things tend to get done.”

This is my approach to working toward dreams these days.

2 thoughts on “Overcoming Narcissism to Get the Job Done

  1. Naphtali says:

    Glad to know what kind of dog you have: “genetically-improbable mixed breed dog, Kylie.” and that you found both God and Man at the same time. Now I know what Christianity really is: the best disaster management plan around. That is the best definition of it I have ever heard. Too many believe imperfect people must produce a perfect faith which simply makes no sense. That should lead many to the one who is perfect. Great blog.

  2. Amy Gutman says:

    Jesus is lucky to have you on his marketing team, Trish. ; )

    I wonder though . . . narcissism? Those of us of a Buddhist inclination are taught that we are neither more nor less than anyone else. We are the same. To my mind, taking our own selves, stories, needs seriously is so important–and a necessary step if we are to extend that same loving attention to others. In my experience, people (often women) inclined to doubt themselves can start seeing the desire to take up any narrative space at all as narcissistic.

    Anyway, you’ve got me thinking, always a good thing.

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