Neville Symington (1993), an incredibly influential psychoanalyst suggests that Narcissism is at the root of all pathology. Loosely, he defines narcissism as a choice to turn away from the “Life force,” and any other outside force to meet my deepest needs.
John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, and Allan Schore, the father of Modern American Attachment Theory (the 21st century’s version of attachment theory) point out that our early experiences with our primary caregiver shapes how we view the world. We all have “attachment styles:” Secure, avoidant, anxious, or disorganized. In oversimplistic terms, our attachment styles demonstrate our narcissism.
“Wait a minute,” many argue, “attachment styles aren’t chosen. They are foisted upon us by imperfect parents who are incapable of being perfectly in tune with our needs, and therefore, fall short of meeting all of our needs.” We absorb their anxiety or evasiveness. Controlling and anxious mothers produce controlling and anxious children; avoidant parents produce avoidant children. If you need to be convinced of this, look at your friends’ Facebook pages and observe the pictures of their’ infants and toddlers. You will see the expressions of the parents carved into their children’s features.
The most chilling, bone-shaking video of this reality can be seen in the still face experiment revealed on Youtube. Watching this seemingly innocuous, short video still rattles my core. Symington’s argues that attachment’s cause and effect features are, in reality, choices for self-preservation and Narcissism on the part of the preverbal infant.
While Symington is correct, he is missing a step. When there is a breakdown in attunement, the child most certainly is confused, not understanding why this all-powerful force in his life, who provides sustenance, care, and love to her, fails her. She naturally asks, “Is the problem with them or with me? ”
It is much easier to assume that the problem is in me: “I’m not good enough… I’m not beautiful enough… I’m not strong enough… I’m missing something important…I’m repulsive… I’m misunderstood… etc…” Or, “I’m too much for them… they can’t handle me… I’m too needy… I’m too scared… I’m too loud… I’m too hungry… etc…” The two refrains of “I’m not enough” and “I’m too much” come from a dark foreboding chasm of a sense of unworthiness. This sense of unworthy inadequacy is “shame.”
Shame leads to our narcissism. Our narcissism leads to all of our other pathologies and psychological issues.
In Genesis 2 God tells Adam that if he eats from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, he will surely die. Sunday school taught me that the death he and Eve experienced in the Garden after they ate was a spiritual death — and it surely was that. And it was far more than that. The first thing that happened after they ate was that they discovered their nakedness. They had to hide, and so they fashioned leaves as clothes to cover and hide. This is the first record of shame. This is also the first hint we are given that from God’s perspective, shame is death.
The God of the Bible is Trinity and in a perfect relationship. Ontologically (in his being) he exists in triune relationship. Shame destroys relationships. Therefore, shame is the death that was foretold in the Garden. If it grew large enough, it would threaten the existence of God Himself. It is at the root of all sin. It is at the root of all pathology. It is Death. It is Evil.
As Curt Thompson, in his book, The Soul of Shame (2015) alludes, shame is not stagnant, but mimics life itself. It continually besets and torments us. It will destroy us if given the opportunity. It is the defiant and Satanic urge to replace God with ourselves; freeing ourselves to finally feel as if we are “perfectly enough.”
If we want to address our ongoing relational and internal issues. We must face and address our shame. It is seen most easily in our relational styles, and in our stories of hurt and betrayal. It always manifests “between,” or, in our relationships. If we don’t address it, we will never realize the fullness that God has for us. Addressing it is not as easy as you might think, however. It requires courage, perseverance, and the company of friends along the way.
If you are only just now joining the story, I’ve just checked into rehab…
Keystone felt like a cloud of cotton, protecting and engulfing me. The old house became my safe place. I don’t think I’d ever felt that secure before. The hardest part about rehab was getting over myself so that I could go. Once I was there, it became the only place I wanted to be. It didn’t matter that sex addicts are at the bottom of the addiction barrel.
While we did most of our work in groups, we each had an individual therapist with whom we also worked. Susan was mine. She gave me three gifts that I hang onto fifteen years after leaving.
On Saturdays, we had a household outing. We’d vote for what activity we wanted to do that week. Staff rotated working the weekends and on Susan’s weekend, I rode in the front seat with her as we drove to a theater to watch Ice Age. I prattled on, proud of the recovery work I’d done before getting to Keystone. For some reason, I recited the 3rd and 7th step prayers. She interrupted me, asking me to slow down and pay attention to what I was praying; urging me to view prayer as something more than an item I checked off my list to stay sober.
A little while later she asked me to read pgs 416-418 in the Big Book of AA each day. I ended up reading them every day for three weeks. Old timers in AA know those pages deal with “acceptance being the key” to recovery. Susan was ahead of her time. These days, ACT or “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” is a hot commodity in the therapy world and is at the forefront of addiction work. This was 2002, and she was already working to help me accept who I was and what I did while not allowing my super ego to tread on hope and empathy.
Right next to my bed, so that I see it when I get up every morning, is a framed print of Rembrandt’s, The Return of the Prodigal Son. It hangs there because Susan asked me to buy and read a book by the same title by a man named Henri Nouwen. It became my favorite book. If you remember, from an earlier post, it was while reading this particular book that I got a letter from one of my former staff. I will never forget one of his statements he wanted me to understand, “I will not go down to the pig trough to eat with you.” The spiritual abuse that sent me reeling into rehab was boomeranging back at me; as pastors I trained, responded to me and my sin the only way they knew how — abusively.
My new friends knew the importance of this book to me. During our last session before I left, they have me back my book on which they had each written messages to me on the inside covers; everyone that is except “C.” C wrote on the cover. He circled the Father, drew a line to him and then wrote “You.” Then he circled the kneeling son, drew another line to point at him and wrote, “the church.”
There are two other vibrant memories from my time at Keystone. First, it took me three weeks to realize and stop engaging rehab like a chess game. I always scanned the horizon, trying to figure out the staff’s next move so I could be ready for it. Writing this makes me really sad. I was so messed up! And though sorrow never feels great, in a strange but very real way, it gives me hope. That same sadness grows when I realize lots of people see life as a game. Playing exhausted me. And it scared me. I didn’t know how scared I always was. I don’t want others to live that way. That is why I became a counselor as well as a pastor.
I had at least one other, “Aha” moment while there. During a group session, I realized I had no integrous core. I was a holograph. Until that moment, I was proud of that fact that I could be “all things to all people.” I’d learned from childhood how to be a chameleon in order to successfully navigate life in other peoples’ homes. Later the commitment to “being whatever I needed to be,” was theologically solidified by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9.
I didn’t realize that I became a holograph partly to dodge my shame. Patricia DeYoung, in her remarkable book, Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: A Relational and Neurobiological Approach (2015), talks about splitting off parts of ourselves that we find shameful. Later, she creates three ways we label those parts: The “Ideal me,” the “bad” me, and the “not me.” The “ideal me” is who we think we need to be and know we are not. The “bad me” is the “me” we believe stops us from being the “ideal me.” The “not me” is the “me” we can’t bear to acknowledge. It is humanly impossible to be aware of “not me.” Something inside us recognizes that if we even recognized “not me’s,” existence we’d die. While growing up, nearly the only thing I knew was
While growing up, shame ruled my family and me. So it is not surprising that I “stuffed” more of myself than I held onto. This is the reason I work as a Kintsugi artist of the soul. I want to work to help join my clients’ fragmented and forgotten parts with gold so that they become beautiful to them and their world.
This isn’t the end of this story. Leaving Keystone, I had no clue that the darkest days of my life were still ahead of me. And, while acknowledging that truth, it is important to add that I am not certain I’d still be alive if it weren’t for the time I spent there. I still carry Keystone with me. And I am incredibly grateful for the gifts I was given while there.
I sat with an old friend and mentor. He has taught me for over thirty years now, “Love requires an acknowledgment of the wrong,” he said. Though we don’t want to acknowledge this truth, my friend is right. We cannot escape Evil by pretending it is not there. Love can’t win unless we face evil and death.
The church in which I grew up observed only two days during Holy Week: Good Friday — the day we remember Jesus’ execution on the cross; and Easter Sunday — the day the Father, unable to bear the separation from His Son any longer, raised him from the dead. It was not until I went into exile in a little Episcopal Church (now part of the Anglican Church in North America) that I discovered two other holy days: Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday.
On Thursday, in obedience to a command of Jesus, many of us will gather and wash one another’s feet. The Thursday before he died, Jesus shared a meal with his disciples and then washed their feet. After he finished he told them to do the same for each other and then went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. While prostrate in prayer, Jesus sweat drops of blood as he pleaded to have his life spared, asking His Dad to find another way to save you and me. The foot washing service often ends in the dark; a door slamming, to symbolize the moment we sealed Jesus in the grave. The people who just intimately served one another, exit in silence, pondering death.
It was Shelly Rambo, in her groundbreaking book, The Spirit and Trauma who properly introduced me to Holy Saturday. Because I am a Trinitarian therapist, the day has become one of the most important days in the Church’s year for me. For it is a day set aside to remember separation. There is no other day like it, for at no other moment, before or since has the Trinitarian relationship fractured. After breathing his last breath, Jesus was cast into Sheol, and the Father and Son lost their eternal communion. The demons laughed and partied, confident they had won. Jesus’ death was not merely a physical death; it was a spiritual one as well. While, He sat alone in the darkness of death. Shame covered him, separating Him from his Father. And as the cavernous space of their shattered relationship grew, hope died. The eternal party broke up at the cross. The Angelic music faded, and Evil thought it had done the impossible — killing Life itself.
If we allow the story in the Gospels to collide with our own, we can’t help but notice that His story is our story. For trauma with its silently-screaming memory keeps breaking us. Shame that grows in trauma’s furrow isolates us, keeping us from love, destroying our peace, and crushing our hope. No one can stand the darkness of isolation. We will do anything and everything to escape it. It is unbearable. The very thought of it terrifies even the most courageous. And, Rambo reminds us that this image of Jesus in Sheol mirrors the trauma and resulting shame that people too often endure. Too often ours is a dying life where the only promise is isolation. Rambo urges us to, first sit with ourselves in the dark, rather than trying to escape it by ourselves. For when we try to escape on our own; we dig ourselves deeper into the shit that covers us. All our attempts are but the flailings of our narcissistic defenses. They all lead to sadness, despair, and further death. And so, Rambo suggests we sit with our pain and wait, much as
the Hebrews, suffering in Egypt, waited for their Deliverer. She doesn’t stop there, however. She argues that as we stop struggling and remain in the dark, just like Jesus did before us, we discover a thin thread connecting us to the Holy Spirit. Holding on, we are given the opportunity to sit with others, also savaged by grief and loss. And as we sit with them in the darkness and bear witness to their shame, somehow both of us find life.
If we don’t hear Rambo’s appeal, we will never understand Holy Saturday. For it is an invitation to acknowledge the devastating effect of wrong, and feel its overwhelming weight so that we can be freed to love. For love recognizes the power and devastation of the wrong so that, with the full effects and hurt of the wrong in view, it can be forgiven.