Snapshots of Life

Monday, August 23, 2010

Intellectual Narcissism: Part II

In the previous post I attempted to define the intellectual, the narcissist, and the intellectual narcissist. It is obvious that the most susceptible crowd to intellectual narcissism is the learned and educated. The gaining of knowledge and intelligence is a noble thing, indeed. However, paradoxically, sometimes our strengths are our greatest weakness.

One of the problems (among many) with intellectual narcissism is that it can have a detrimental effect on faith and spirituality. From a latter-day saint perspective I can see at least two significant issues with this kind of narcissism interfacing with spirituality:

1) In the individual where it finds expression there is typically an arrogant focus on the intellect and reason alone for determining and confirming truth. Again, there is nothing wrong with the intellect or reason, even in matters of spirituality (D&C 88:78-80, 118; 90:15; 93:36; 130:18-19). In fact, we learn that knowledge and wisdom - and the ability to teach those attributes - are spiritual gifts (Moro. 10:9-10; D&C 46:17-18). Nevertheless, a hyper-focus on intellect alone tends to naturally alienate or dismiss thoughts and feelings that are whispered by the unseen Still, Small Voice to the "mind and heart". Intellectual reason encourages acceptance, among other criteria, of observable, repeatable, and quantifiable results to determine truth - appropriately so, I believe. But consequently, when taken alone, any other form of truth discovery, such as those thoughts and feelings mentioned above, is explained away with reductionistic physiological and psychological theories. So, something like the powerful conversion of a soul with accompanying changes of thought, feeling, and behavior, might be described in terms of firing neurotransmitters or attachment theory. As a result, promptings, revelations, miracles, faith, and other spiritual experiences are viewed with disdain, sympathy, or academic distance and either watered-down or rejected; even though the intellectual postulates fall flat in the face of the experience and results of something like a mighty change of heart in an individual life!

For the intellectual narcissist the discovery and recognition of great spiritual truth can thus be impaired, much like seeing the world through one eye. The impairment is often fueled by their perceived success at being a uniquely rational and objective person. Such perceptions tie into their fantasies of ideal intelligence and their need for admiration and acceptance by like-minded intellectuals.

2) Narcissism and pride are twins, who are always found in company together. With the paradigm described above, and the twin characteristics just noted lodged in the heart, there is a tendency for the intellectual narcissist to place him or herself above the word of God. They will not accept that "as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [God's] ways higher than [our] ways, and [his] thoughts than [our] thoughts" (Isa 55:9). They go about ignoring, criticizing, and/or rejecting God's doctrine and His chosen servants, having - for some at least - forgotten sacred covenants.

There is a story in the Old Testament that at first glance appears rather brutal. The Philistines had captured the ark of the covenant and taken it away after a battle. After having been cursed with plagues they gave the ark back and King David retrieved it to bring it back to Jerusalem. As they traveled, the story goes, the oxen shook the ark so that it appeared it was about to fall. Uzzah "put forth his hand" to prevent the ark from falling and "took hold of it". Uzzah, despite good intentions, made a terrible mistake and "God smote him there for his error". (See 2 Sam. 6:1-11).

This may seem extreme, but a powerful lesson is being taught. The ark of the covenant was a symbol of God's presence. In the temple only the high priest could approach it in the Holy of Holies, and then only with very clear prerequisites. Uzzah's error was that he did not have stewardship or authority to touch the ark, and, most importantly, he doubted that God knew what He was doing and had all power to protect the workmanship of His hands. He presumptuously reached forth to "steady the ark" when it was not his place to do so and God (remember the symbolism here) did not need steadying from a mere mortal.

The ark-steadiers today are those who, even with good intentions, believe they know better than God and the prophets about how to direct His work. They are not those who may be struggling with a particular doctrine or practice and humbly working toward acceptance and testimony. They are, instead, those who may pridefully proclaim that doctrines and prophets are in error. They then seek to counsel the Lord instead of taking counsel from His hand, even though He counsels "in wisdom, and in justice, and in great mercy, over all His works" (Jacob 4:10). This is where a sense of entitlement is especially evident. The intellectual narcissist ark-steadier - with his or her IQ, PhD, and worldly philosophy in hand - tells the church and its leaders by book and blog, by tweet and testimony, what they should and should not be doing. Their unsolicited opinion is rooted in personal preference and self-proclaimed learning. Tragically some get to the point where they eventually exalt themselves to be prophets unto themselves while they reject the oracles of God, and are left to "kick against the pricks". Like Elder Maxwell used to say, "There will always be some who leave the church but can never leave it alone."

President McKay, speaking of the story of Uzzah, stated, "He seemed justified, when the oxen stumbled, in putting forth his hand to steady that symbol of the covenant...[but] let us look around us and see how quickly men who attempt unauthoritatively to steady the ark die spiritually. Their souls become embittered, their minds distorted, their judgments faulty, and their spirits depressed. Such is the pitiable condition of men who, neglecting their own responsibilities, spend their time in finding fault with others." (McKay, Gospel Ideals, p. 258).

No doubt about it, intellectual narcissism erodes, if not destroys, faith and spirituality. It leads to rejection of revelation and spiritual manifestation. It leads to rejection of the prophets and counseling the Lord.

Stay tuned for part III, dealing with prophecies and warnings.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Intellectual Narcissism: Part I

1) a person of superior intellect.

2) a person who places a high value on or pursues things of interest to the intellect or the more complex forms or fields of knowledge.

3) an extremely rational person; a person who relies on intellect rather than on emotions or feelings.


This term has its roots in Greek mythology from the character Narcissus. The story says that Narcissus haughtily rejected romantic admirers and was therefore cursed by the gods to fall in love with himself. One day in the woods he saw his reflection in a pond and fell in love with the mirrored manifestation of himself. He was doomed to pine away his love on an image that could never return the same. He sat at the pond until he died there, unable to leave the grips of his love for the person in the pond, who was actually himself.

In the mental health world we define narcissism as an inflated or grandiose sense of self. It is characterized by several traits:

- An arrogant or haughty attitude with exaggerated self-importance (inflates perceived talents and achievements).
- A sense of entitlement (expects especially favorable treatment and compliance with personal preferences).
- A belief of being special or unique such that the rules for others do not apply to self.
- Fantasies of ideal power, intelligence, love, success, riches, etc.
- An excessive need for praise and admiration from others.
- Envy of others or belief that others are envious of oneself.
- A lack of empathy, the ability to understand the feelings and needs of others.

To a certain extent there is narcissism in all of us. Unfortunately in some it is found in greater degrees and often causes significant impairment in their life, particularly in their relationships (as you might imagine). At the root of narcissism is shame - shame of oneself and in oneself at the core, which is compensated with an inflated ego. Rarely is there full insight and awareness into the shame or the outward narcissism. The narcissist is so fragile internally that most challenges are met with a narcissistic defense, which takes the form of criticism of the challenger or a display of the narcissist's perceived "gifts".

For example, I once worked with a woman (details of story are adjusted to protect identity and confidentiality) for a short time in an acute setting. She was constantly making references to her "position" in the community. She endlessly talked about herself and made sure to drop details about her achievements so that all might recognize her grandeur. She was divorcing her spouse of many years after she engaged in a long pattern of destructive behavior, but it was all "his fault". She had also just lost her job but it was only because the people under her just didn't want to make the environment a better one like she did. The individual was unable to find treatment in Logan because providers just weren't "good enough". Finally, I attempted to lightly and empathically confront the narcissism. I gave her several chapters of a book to read on the subject. She appeared receptive initially and agreed to read. The following day I met with her again. She claimed to have read the whole book. Her only comments were literary criticisms of the author, and she "ought to know" about these things because she had done such and such for many years! Needless to say, the diagnosis had been solidified.

There are several easy to identify examples of narcissism from people in the news these days: Rod Blagojevich (impeached former Illinois governor charged with trying to "sell" the senate seat previously held by President Obama), Rush Limbaugh (controversial radio talk show host who displays a life size portrait of himself in his entry to his home), Lindsay Lohan (decompensating former child star and recent jail bird), and Tiger Woods (pro golfer and sex addict). Sorry to any of you fans out there. I'm not suggesting any of these people are bad people. I'm suggesting that they exhibit observable narcissistic tendencies.

Folks with strong narcissistic traits are not always so blatant. In fact, it is my experience that many times the characteristics are much more subtle. Some narcissists have developed social savvy sufficient to conform to appropriate norms and mores. So, they may be skilled at outward expressions of empathy but at deeper levels do not really feel or act on empathy to any great degree. There is usually hubris in their humility. A sense of entitlement becomes most obvious in their more intimate relationships. Secret fantasies of being rich and famous, or powerful and heroic, or noble and brilliant often fill their imagination. Quiet jealousy reigns when neighbor buys the Escalade, or friend gets accepted to a great school, or acquaintance gets called to a position of authority. Considerable mental time is spent on considering how much better they could carry out a task, calling, or responsibility than the person currently doing it. Behavior is commonly geared toward how it will make them appear in the eyes of others, usually with the hope of getting praise or affirmation. Even when empathy or service is extended it is usually the means to an end (recognition), rather than an end itself. When others do not like them or show apathy toward them it is either because they (the others) are stupid or jealous. Of course, in the subtle narcissist none of these traits would be overtly displayed or expressed lest they be exposed. Instead, they find place in the more private parts of the self.

Intellectual Narcissism:

There are different kinds of narcissism. This particular phrase is not of my own making. I heard it from Truman G. Madsen (well-known Mormon scholar). I don't know if he coined the term or not. I think it is an apt union of words for a certain type of narcissism that seems to be more and more pervasive in the world - or at least I am noticing it more. It is something I have thought about at length. The intellectual narcissist would not be considered narcissistic in most aspects of life, but they would fit the criteria for narcissism in areas of the intellect. They are in love with their own self-attributed brilliance. They cannot get enough of their own words and their own theories. They lack real empathy for others' positions, though they likely give empathy lip service. They long for praise and recognition. They pretend to be humble but really view themselves and their opinions as superior to others who are "less educated", "naive", "emotional", or "fooled". They fantasize about using their brain power and ideas to heal the world, or expose the powerful, or discover the answers to the worlds most pressing problems; again, not to do good but to be seen. They find great satisfaction in displaying reservoirs of knowledge and information, using obscure vocabulary and complex concepts, to show how smart they are, especially if it makes someone feel small or awed in the process. They have likely received positive reinforcement for their intellectual capacity or achievement in the past and base much of their self-concept and their self-esteem on their ability to think and reason and philosophize. They see their world around them not revolving quite the same without their intellectual light.

Stay tuned for part II.