When pride is a veneer

Narcissist – a person who is overly self-involved, often vain and selfish

I like to invent new words. It’s probably a product of stifled creativity. So I will use “narce” in this post (rhymes with farce).

We all know them. Give them your ear, or any influence in life and they’ll steal attention. They’ll take time and any other resource you have. Give them authority and watch a tyrant rise. All for their own glory and self-advancement.

But those who would seem best adjusted and most happy with life – at the expense of everyone else – often are nothing of the kind. Most telling is when things go bad for them. They uniformly fall apart and play the blame-shame game till everyone runs for cover. Or just leaves.

What looks like a triumphant, glorious life is actually a life built on a house of cards.

Now, this is not equate all love of self with selfishness.

The scriptural mandate to “love others as you love yourself” would be empty without self-love.

So how is a narce’s self-love identified? It is ..

  • Selfish. This seems obvious. There may be a trickle of care to others. But all energy is focused on the narcissist.
  • Fragile. When a narce is not the center of attention, s/he usually leaves. Or protests. Or takes offense.
  • Fake. At least a good amount of the time, the narce is not really proud of him/herself. The self-love is a veneer over underlying shame. And the tenacious clinging to the veneer will not even allow introspection.
  • Toxic. They cast shame. They withhold encouragement and affection. Their approval of others is measured, if it exists at all. Yet they have a strict caste system they observe. As Joe Walsh wrote:

Yes the man above you, hope you pass the test.

No to the man below you, leave him with the rest. 1

So, depending upon where you sit in the esteem hierarchy the narce will have one of three predispositions. S/he will either want your approval or refuse to approve of you or be at war with you.

If this description of a narce applies to you then you probably need to understand your pride. And deal with it.

But let’s say you have a narce in your life. And circumstances are such that you cannot just get away. Or you’re committed to love a narce – that’s awesome and I believe God- blessed!. But then, how do you then cope and get along?

  1. Don’t take offense. The pride of a narcissist is suffocating and s/he will speak and perform put-downs on anyone who is around. Just realize that it’s not personal. Also, the biggest threat you are the more you cause envy. And the more you cause envy, the more you will be the target of scorn.
  2. Be a friend. This takes time and commitment, but narces can be quite lonely. Even if they are surrounded by people.
  3. Give acceptance and praise. This is counter-intuitive. Remember that the narce often does not really believe good things about him/herself. It’s a front. If you can encourage the right things it can make a difference. Note – these are usually NOT those things that the person is publicly proud of.  Do NOT enable a narce in his/her self-adoration, just celebrate the good.
  4. Adopt a counter-culture that’s vulnerable. I know, it sounds like emotional suicide. But if you’re secure enough this will present a visible example. Real is how you oppose fake. Generous is how you fight miserly. Accepting is how you fight exclusive. The narce may start to consider it an option. And once that person becomes honest, down will come the pride veneer. If nothing else, you will be relating as you should. And it will be noticed. Maybe others will follow suit. Then the narce will be surrounded by selfless people. Not a bad environment to get cured of your pride.

Now of course narcissism can be practiced by groups as well. In fact, I would argue that all caste systems and the major genocides the world has seen are centered on tribal narcissism. Either practiced by the victim group or perpetrators.

The steps above can be practiced by groups as well to undo tribal narces but often the cost is much higher because of the enforcement of the tribe.

Bottom line is that it’s possible to adopt an attitude of pride at any time. And it’s possible to be offended by pride at any time. I go with the following spiritual law:

James 4:6 God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.

I’ll go for the grace.

Buried in shame – and how to dig out

“You should be ashamed of yourself” -universal saying following bad behavior.

The statement is intended to do good. When we do something bad, apply the “busted” feeling – being ashamed. And correct the action and the thoughts leading up to it. Then, maybe, we won’t do it next time.

But if it’s applied – and received – more broadly than that, there’s trouble. It is misapplied to failure. And it is misapplied to our entire person. People become ashamed of who they are.

We learn – falsely – that there are things we can’t be and can’t do. Pursuing even things we (might) enjoy becomes a futile practice. Destined for failure and embarrassing exposure.

Here are some aspects of shame. The aim is that you can recognize it:

  • Lingering memories of abuse and degradation – Verbal, sexual, emotional, physical – dark feelings persist. When we were powerless and vulnerable, we were violated. By someone who we should have been trustworthy. We were exposed and harmed. Bullied.
  • Repeated instances or patterns – It didn’t just happen once but over and over. Perhaps with different people. Then we internalized and made it our fault and something we deserved. If we’re part of a shamed group (tribe) then collective history enforces shame.
  • Tenacious faith in shame’s lies – We don”t even know they are lies. We just accept our inferiority. We quickly disqualify ourselves from happiness, competence and esteem.
  • High sensitivity about our areas of shame – We don’t want to talk about those things. We certainly don’t want to do them.

Now, pride feeds on shame. Those who consider themselves better prey upon those who think themselves worse. Entire institutions thrive on shame. Shame makes for very productive, enslaved people. Productive? Yeah, we’ll get into that part below.

How to dig out of shame’s dung heap:

  1. Find it – It’s usually not hard to recognize the emotions. Though we can certainly be depressed without shame, it’s one of the signs. Look at what you avoid. Both situations and pursuits.
  2. Dig at it – Identify the patterns that got you there. This can be painful, but the pain already controls you. So do it.
  3. Forgive – Not often easy. But holding grudges is like drinking poison and waiting for someone else to die. Learn the reasons why your abuser did what s/he did. It helps to know. It’s never because s/he was so happy. Abuse reproduces. So forgive relentlessly.
  4. Recognize shame’s symptoms – They can be subtle. For instance I said that shamed people can be very productive. That’s because they try to work off their shame. No one will do more. No one can be as competent. It sounds like the opposite of shame. Until you realize that it’s only a coverup. You’re trying to escape shame through work and achievement. There are many trying to please their dead parents. To finally win the approval of someone who never gave it and never will.
  5. Learn the truth – You were lied to. So much and so often and so powerfully that you believe it. It’s a lie. You’re awesome. THAT’s the truth. God says so.
  6. Accept your limitations – Well, you’re not awesome at everything. Though it’s nothing to be ashamed of. There are things you cannot do. Traits that aren’t yours. Talents you do not have. But don’t let others define your limitations. Do NOT quit what you love, instead ..
  7. Work hard to develop – It is so easy to give up. But that is the only thing that can truly defeat you. Potential never goes away. You just need practice. That means you fail and try again. This hard work is quite different from the coverup above. It’s redemptive. You’re working to create beauty. And you’re part of the beauty yourself.
  8. Stop comparing – It’s devastating to measure up against others. By all means, recognize and celebrate excellence. But even more important – know the uniqueness of your excellence. And you are always at some point of development. No matter what your age. The only person to compare yourself to is you – yesterday. And sometimes that doesn’t even work. Just stop comparing.

I need to share one of my favorite verses from the Psalms. It applies to much more than shame. But it puts God squarely on my side in the battle.

Psalm 3:3 But you are a shield around me, O LORD; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head.

Pride – the bad kind

Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind…it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. – C.S.Lewis

Pride has gradients of meaning. Its basis is a sense of self-esteem and dignity. But it can balloon into superiority that must degrade others. For instance, I can say “I’m proud of my son” (and I am) and mean that I admire him and his life. But, if I am saying I think he’s better than your son, I enter the bad kind of pride.

This can happen at the individual and tribe level. That is, entire groups can feed off their members’ pride. When that happens, the world sees oppression, tyranny and even genocide. That is what C.S. Lewis was writing about in the quote above. So it’s easy to see how that is a bad thing, even if it feels good.

And it’s important to know why it feels good. I’ll write about shame – pride’s opposite – in another blog. But those in shame and pain very often find relief in pride. In putting others down to feel like they are lifted up. It doesn’t work that way, but the perception is strong. And enforced perception can be reality to many people. Particularly when one’s tribe keeps beating the drum.

Maybe you think pride is okay at any and every level, that you and your tribe really ARE superior to others. And that keeping others in their place is not only good, but it’s your job. I guess I would recommend that you reflect on the golden rule then. Because knowing the receiving end makes us healthier people:

Matthew 7:12(a) So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you …

It is helpful to me to guard my heart – my inner person – from pride. I have found these points helpful in the fight. I’m still working through them myself, but I know they’re vital:

  1. Get over yourself. It’s important to know what you do well. And feel great about it. But you are a work in progress. What you now know and can do is the product of practice over time. It doesn’t make you better than anyone. It doesn’t make your tribe better than any other tribe.
  2. Get grateful and be a giver.  Are you gifted?  Are you talented, intelligent or fortunate?  If you think it makes you superior, then you need to know there are others with the same blessings.  And there are those without.  Let your gifts make you grateful, not grating.  I have a saying – “it’s not your gifts that make you valuable, it’s how you share them”
  3. Get civil. Do not cast shame. Particularly in stressful environments and circumstances, where it’s most tempting. Throwing someone under the bus actually hurts you. People won’t trust you. You aren’t safe for them, and you really need to be. Learn empathy. Learn forgiveness and grace.
  4. Get humble. Very simply, this means putting others first. Find those that you are “over” in position or authority or talent. Befriend them, help them. It will tear down your bad pride like nothing else. You must be real when you do this. You will set people up for failure – and more shame – if you lie about real limitations. We all have those and we should all know them.
  5. Get a life. If you only do what you’re good at, you don’t grow. Find a hobby where you need to learn. And grow. Work with people who are masters in that area. If they have a pride problem (over you), then you will learn to handle shame. If they do not, you will find role models to emulate in your areas of strength. It just works.

In the Bible, there are TONS of warnings about pride. Keywords are “arrogant”, “boastful” and others like those. Most are very proverbial and easy to memorize.  And the description of the outcome of bad pride is spot on.