Many years ago, as I began my spiritual journey, I met a few people who I would now classify as spiritual narcissists. These people used their spiritual methods and teachings to feed their own narcissistic tendencies. I didn’t know it then because I was naïve and in a vulnerable and seeking place. I had no experience with how to weed out the inauthentic from the authentic when it came to teachers and teachings.
I learned a lot from that experience, including what to avoid when looking for help and spiritual support and how to find authentic counselors, therapists, healing practitioners, spiritual communities, and spiritual practices. In this post, I will help you learn to spot and avoid the narcissistic practitioner; you can apply these tips when looking to hire talk therapists, spiritual counselors, somatic therapists, spiritual leaders or gurus, and many other helping professionals. For the sake of simplicity, I will use the term practitioner to describe all of these types of professionals.
What is narcissism? Narcissism is defined as “extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration” (DSM V). While spiritual practitioners, therapists, and other helping professionals are humans with their own flaws and karmic patterns, a line is crossed when they use their positions of power to feed their own egos.
Falling for a narcissist can feel invigorating, hopeful, and even uplifting at first. But if the relationship becomes dependent, needy, all-consuming, and one-sided, you need to take a step back and reevaluate if it truly serves your needs.
Spotting narcissists in the spiritual service realms can be tricky since they often appear on the surface to be in helping roles. How, then, can you tell the authentic practitioner from the spiritual narcissist? Here are some signs that you might be dealing with a spiritual narcissist and what to look for in an authentic practitioner.
· They surround themselves with followers. Narcissists need constant approval and admiration. If you make a decision that differs from their advice, they may abruptly terminate the relationship, leaving you to feel you have done something wrong. A true practitioner will encourage you to hold your own power and make your own life decisions. Together you’ll outline a plan for treatment, including a projected timeline with an end date that can be adjusted as needed.
· On the surface they appear giving, charismatic, or even enlightened. Underneath, they constantly work to surround themselves with broken people in order to boost their savior complexes. Spiritual narcissists need to feed their egos by feeling “special” or “better than” those they claim to help. The minute clients begin to recover or deviate, they either find a way to put the clients back into the “sick” position or lose interest and move on to the next vulnerable person. One of the narcissistic teachers I met early in my path would pull the rug out from under you in an effort to keep you dependent on her. True practitioners maintain a balance of power in their relationships. They celebrate their clients’ “wins” and seek to empower those they are asked to guide.
· They use wisdom from other legitimate spiritual or religious lineages to validate their “teachings”. As you draw in closer, you notice that the wisdom is twisted to benefit the deliverers of the message by building up their credibility through references to credible sources. True practitioners share but do not rely on spiritual lineages. Instead, they empower their students or clients to build their own practices and test out the theories for themselves. One of my favorite authentic teachers would say, “Don’t believe me! Try it for yourself!” He believed that true power came from having one’s own experience with the practices. He would teach just enough to help the practice, then send us off to work on our own. It was hard—but everything I learned was through my own experience!
· They remain above reproach. If you speak up, they may deflect accusations and point blame. If you disagree with something they said or express doubt, they say you are not open to the teaching. Their actions indicate they feel their positions put them above reproach. A true spiritual leader remains open, humble, and receptive to feedback. When I met with the translator to the Dali Lama, who himself is a very wise teacher, he said to me, “See! Now you teach me!” in response to an observation I was sharing. His dedication to being a student in every moment showed me he was an authentic teacher.
· They do not check themselves with other advisors. Without the guidance of advisors, one cannot see personal blind spots or uncover ego flaws that may skew healing work. Unfortunately, a true narcissist may not recognize the need to check with other advisors, which is why narcissism often goes untreated (DSM V). True spiritual practitioners are life-long students, committed to their paths and to growth so they can better serve as compassionate role models for those they serve.
A true practitioner stays open, receptive, and humble, and has a healthy detachment from the processes of others. One of my favorite teachers once said to me, “The high llama’s have fierce compassion. They respect you enough to let you fall on your face!” These llamas recognize that there are many paths to healing and many perspectives and techniques that provide healing on different levels. They give their students the respect they deserve to find their own ways, even when it involves falling on their own faces!
Trust your gut. If you feel you are giving more than you’re getting, it’s time to re-evaluate your relationship.
What is your experience with narcissism in the spiritual realm? I would love to hear your thoughts about and experiences with this personality type.
Join me next month for more on Deep Business. In the meantime, may your decisions be wise and those you hire to support you be authentic and humble.