While reading this penetrative work, I was struck with several thoughts. First, narcissism is pervasive in our world. Yep, narcissism rears its ugly head in every family and community, in every corner of our society. Narcissism is especially prominent in the upper echelons of our schools, government, and churches. (1) One sign that narcissism is present is self-justification where we justify ourselves when others try to point something out that needs correcting. In this way, we refuse to feel shame. We deflect and defend. We shift into attack mode. Ouch. We can ask ourselves, “Do I welcome feedback and correction?” Our response will tell us a lot. Navigating this terrain requires skill, maturity, and fortitude. In a sense, narcissism is the reflection of missing relational skills in our communities. The Pandora Problem is a useful mirror we can peer into for a golden opportunity to achieve personal and corporate transformation.
The second thought that rang loudly was the role fear plays in keeping narcissism in place. Fear feeds narcissism. It is the fuel that empowers narcissism, and, left uninhibited, fear will embolden leaders with the power they crave. I cringe writing those words, but it’s true. Leaders with narcissistic tendencies use the weapons of shame and attachment pain (rejection, loss, and abandonment) to instill fear and keep people from speaking up. If people do speak up to confront problems, they quickly find themselves under an assault of toxic shame – or they are sent packing. At this point, bystanders learn to avoid similar actions in the future. Fear becomes the glue that binds the community together toward the common goal of “perceived” self-preservation.
This leads to my third thought. It was this very fear that Jesus refused to submit to in the religious and political influencers of His day. Yep. Jesus refused to bend the knee to fear and the threat of pain from narcissistic leaders who attempted to silence or provoke Him. (2) He didn’t. He wouldn’t. Their words, behaviors, threats, intimidation, anger, and accusations were useless because He remembered who He was. Jesus’ love and resiliency were greater than the flames of fear. We can learn from this. We can gain the traction to deal with narcissism by learning the skills to suffer well. It means we maximize our resiliency to stay our relational selves while feeling accused, ashamed and misunderstood as we learn essential skills as individuals and as a community.
Here is some good news. The community can work on learning the skills to develop the character and collective identity that, like Jesus, refuses to feed narcissism in members and leaders. It takes some effort, but this can be done. With practice, we can learn key relational skills that are often missing where narcissism is thriving. In addition to learning these “core identity” relational skills, we can increase our level of maturity to better withstand trials and tribulation by growing important maturity skills that may be absent in our community. (Read more about this distinction.)
Personally, I now better navigate the rocky terrain of narcissism because I addressed relational skills and maturity skills that were missing or underdeveloped. (3) What used to make me relationally bottom-out has now become a speed bump. Shame used to be the big emotion I could not process; it was my relational kryptonite. (4) Learning essential relational skills trained my brain to better process shame. Learning these maturity skills helped me stay present in my community and better reflect my heart to those I love.
All of us can start by learning relational skills to address the narcissism in ourselves and our communities. We can learn to return to joy from shame (Skill 11 – Return to Joy), stay our relational selves when we feel ashamed or upset (Skill 12 – Acting Like Myself), and rest at the right times (Skill 2 – Simple Quiet). We can see what God sees in situations and people (Skill 13 – Godsight) and discover blind spots that leave us vulnerable to a narcissist’s darts (Skill 18 – Solutions for Pain). We can learn these maturity skills to better reflect our identity in the broader context of a community. Maturity means there is more life to go around.
It is my sincere hope you will buy Jim’s book, The Pandora Problem, as it is now available from Deeper Walk International for presale. You will want to share this resource, so buy five! Also, watch an example where I return to joy from shame, and I invite you to join me for a THRIVE Training to learn the relational skills that make relationships work.