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.
In those early days of recovery, I went to a lot of meetings. I wanted to get better. I went to AA, NA, as well as my S meetings. When I started going to NA and AA, my sponsor told me, “When you go to an AA meeting if you wad up a piece of paper and throw it, you have a one in four chance of hitting someone that belongs in our fellowship. If you go to an NA meeting, don’t even bother wadding up the paper because no matter where you throw it, you will hit one of us.”
We addicts have a habit of finding escape in new places when we stop using our drug of choice. For many of us in sex recovery, food becomes our new drug of choice. Most of us were already co-morbid work addicts and food provided a modicum of relief. If you are addicted to a substance, sex and food are your next logical stops on the addiction train. That is why in AA you hear about thirteen stepping, and in NA, despite old-timers best efforts, newbies can’t seem to keep their hands off each other. Sex, done properly, releases pleasure hormones that rival the high of drugs and allow recovering addicts moments of escape from the pain they can’t face.
I liked NA better, because, at that time, I could quite easily introduce myself as an addict at an NA meeting, but didn’t know how to present myself at an AA meeting. I wasn’t an alcoholic. This may seem like a small detail, but it isn’t. Many old timers at AA meetings will call addicts on the carpet as AA solely exists for people who struggle with alcohol. I did not want to offend, and I did not want to lie. I didn’t know what to say. We go to meetings to find acceptance and support and when I went to a meeting and didn’t feel wanted or like I belonged it felt counterproductive.
I ended up going to NA’s Late Night recovery because I worked swing shift and it fit into that life. Also, it met every day and was within walking distance of my house. Going to a new fellowship meant that I needed to navigate a whole new set of relationships. Given the sexually predatory nature of an NA meeting, they were not the safest place for me and did cause me to slip in my recovery later on. Now they are the last resort that I only attend if absolutely necessary.
With those relational realities. I needed relational stability. My S fellowship provided that for me. A small group of us began a friendship unlike any other. Those relationships started at the lunchtime meetings that we all frequented. After the meeting, we’d grab coffee or lunch together, talk and laugh. Though we don’t see each other nearly as often, those guys are my best friends. They know me in ways that no one else does. They know my horror. They know my fear. They know my worst secrets. During those formative years, they knew absolutely everything. They were my “Shame-busters.” If I was ashamed of anything, I talked to them about it, making sure that I looked as bad as possible. Typically, they’d laugh at me unless they knew it would hurt. When they laughed, their purpose was for me to join in the laughter. The laughter and the light murdered the shame.
Perhaps we loved each other because our shame was so deep, so inescapable, we knew that only this small group of men understood — no, it was more than that. They experienced shame with us they tasted it with us and carried it with us. And shame shared stops being shame.
Others in the larger fellowship began to refer to us as the Rat Pack. That pack of men is one of the greatest gifts God ever gave me. It wasn’t an exclusive group. Perhaps there were four of us at the center of it all, but others came and went. All were loved. And no shame was too great. Eventually, we formed a formal accountability group facilitated by my sponsor. We’d gather for 90 minutes late every Tuesday night. We’d check in and then see where God led our conversation. Sometimes we’d create a Gestalt exercise. Other times we participated in narrative therapeutic work. There was always honest, hard, and kind accountability. It was this group that changed me more than any other single entity. Members came and left. But all who came were changed as we met in that little room on Tuesday nights.
These friends taught me to fall into grace — God’s grace and their grace. It was in this community that I discovered my current ecclesiology. It was in this context that I learned what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus rather than a religious Pharisee. It was with and because of these amazing men that God outgrew the Bible, my theology, or the church. It was these guys that helped save me. I love them. They don’t need to read those words to know they are true. When we are together, we are at home and we rest. In many ways, those years were some of the best of my life.
I long for the pastors and missionaries to know that kind of communion — to have the kind of “I-Thou” moments that our rat pack shared daily. The current ecclesiological system makes that nearly impossible. May I be a part of changing that.