I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. In nearly every interaction I had with Reva, I offended her. I said the wrong thing, or implied some terrible untruth, or didn’t show enough concern, or intimated that I didn’t agree with her. At least, this is what she told me. I thought I was having a perfectly innocent conversation, or a straightforward exchange of information. But something always caught fire with her and I seemed to be forever apologizing and trying to explain what I had intended to convey instead of what she told me she heard.
It didn’t start out that way. I connected with her on my usual level of positive familiarity. After all, she was a member of the church I was attending and seemed to have a lot of friends. I was fairly new and making my way in relationships. We had coffee a couple of times and talked about our love of the pastor’s teaching style.
Then I joined a committee charged with planning the women’s retreat. Reva was on the committee too, and we were to coordinate our efforts with a couple of other women to find a location and speakers. I was shocked when Reva confided to me early on she believed the other ladies were undermining her efforts. “You can’t be serious!” I told her. I hadn’t gotten that impression at all. It felt like we were working together well, and I was having fun. The women all seemed to have good hearts and the same goal, but Reva didn’t see it that way. She implied the others had said or done things that indicated they were trying to take over her work. I told her I just could not see what she saw. Her response was my introduction to Reva’s operating mode: if you didn’t agree with her or let her do as she wanted, you were against her. You thought she wasn’t smart. You thought she was trying to prove something.
From that point on, things went downhill. She fought privately with every member of our team, and at meetings she accused us of insensitivity and subterfuge. It was mind-boggling. The simplest suggestion to her was met with cries that we didn’t trust her or anger that we were stating she didn’t know what she was doing. We became crazed with making sure we were being inclusive, choosing our words carefully. It was almost always to no avail. Something would set her off. One of us would receive a lengthy email from her about another, or a phone call in which she wept about how terrible she was being treated, dragging out of us a plea to hang in there and work it out. (We should have told her to go from the very beginning, but we thought we needed to be nice.)
On top of it all, she would frequently remind us that she had worked for a popular ministry headed by a dynamic Christian celebrity. Along with that, she’d point out she’d attended a school that was practically revered in our church. Over and over, whenever one of us would even hint at disagreeing with her, she’d throw up her credentials like a shield. Once, in anger, I told her such information was irrelevant, and she told me how offensive that was and stormed out of the room. At that point, I’d had enough. I resigned from the committee. Who needs the headache of dealing with such insane behavior? I didn’t care what the other ladies thought of me; I just wanted to be far, far away from Reva.
I didn’t know then what I know now: Reva was a narcissist. A narcissist is not just someone who is in love with themselves; this is a very simplistic view of a truly serious personality disorder. Narcissists are actually the most fragile personalities around. They are so deeply insecure they protect themselves from themselves, creating an impenetrable outer shell that deflects, reflects, and returns every criticism, no matter how minor, how benign, or how mild. Everything is about them. You like the white tablecloths for the banquet instead of the red she selected? She comes out of left field with a tantrum about how she knows how to make decisions in spite of what you may think of her. Try to apologize and explain your logic, and you get more wounded retaliation.
You think you know a place that will give the church a deal on lodging instead of the one she investigated? You discover she heard you say she doesn’t care about the church finances, or that she’s incompetent, or that you haven’t liked her from the beginning. And once again, she brings up her association with the celebrity and the school, underscoring her superior grasp of all the goings-on.
A narcissist is a confounding, crazy-making, unfathomable human being, and I don’t say this lightly. I’ve often explained that you can say, “Blue. Blue, blue, blue, blue, blueblueblue, BLUE,” and to your shock, the narcissist will cry out in anger or pain (or both), "Why did
|you say red? You are so hurtful to keep saying RED!” No matter how much you backtrack, try to set right, apologize for how imperfectly you said “blue” so that it would be heard as “red,” you are not forgiven! YOU SAID RED. You ought to listen to yourself! You ought to hear how awful you sound!
One of the instructors in my counseling program explained it something like this: the person who is a narcissist sits inside of a very large egg. The shell is extremely thin, and it’s covered with cracks. The egg is always on the verge of breaking wide open. Inside, the egg is covered with mirrors. Narcissists are so insecure, they must look at themselves constantly to make sure they still exist, and every comment, every event, every interaction is viewed in their mirrors. But these are not strong people. It is almost impossible to get them into therapy and, if you do, it’s almost impossible to have a successful outcome. No matter how tough they appear, how combative, how assertive or pushy, these are not strong personalities. They are, in fact, barely holding themselves together. They have simply learned how to masterfully manipulate, obfuscate, complicate, and insinuate until they have you walking on eggshells around them all the time. If you buy into it, you find yourself constantly apologizing for yourself and feeling consistently guilty. You never come away after having been with such people feeling good or peaceful or happy. Every encounter with them ruins your day.
Much later, I discovered that Reva infuriated everyone in the church who had significant interactions with her. I also heard through others that people at her job either feared her or hated her, and her only friends were people who didn’t yet know her ways, people she’d convinced to see things as she did. “Give it time,” one woman said. “She’ll destroy every relationship with her need to be right or better or smarter.” Here all along, I’d thought I was crazy, sure I was doing something awful to set Reva off. It even came to light that her position with the Christian celebrity had been short—and she had been fired. As well, she was simply lying about having graduated from the school about which she so frequently bragged, even though she would never have been able to admit it. Because she had attended for two semesters, she created in her mind the memory of receiving her diploma to bolster that sad little ego. Why would anyone check on where she went to school? I mean, what Christian would lie about such a thing?
You’ve probably dealt with someone like this at work or school; you don’t expect to encounter a narcissist at church. But why not? These are seriously broken people, and the church is filled with the broken. It’s a place where the narcissist believes they will finally find acceptance, but who can embrace someone with sharp spikes sticking out of every square inch of skin? Just the act of hugging them can bloody you, and they’ll blame you for implying they’re harmful. Be wise as a serpent. Do not let these people on your committees or put them in charge of anything. If you recognize what you're dealing with, be prepared to say "no" and endure their wrath. If you acquiesce because of their frightful reactions and let them do what they want, you will be in for months (if not years) of hell. I'm serious. They will make your life miserable. Better to have them threaten to leave or, even better, just leave. You cannot help everyone by being nice and forgiving. Forgive them, but stay away, or be prepared to expose, but don’t expect rational behavior. Not from a narcissist.
~ Sue Thompson
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