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.
Alex was the first to talk to me about Martin Buber as we sat outside one of Portland’s better brew pubs on a summer night in 2013 talking about my upcoming inaugural term at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. Ostensibly, my intention was to study with Dr. Dan Allender, the founder of the small, almost anonymous school on the shores of Elliot Bay. Allender’s books were already formational in my thinking about pastoral care.
As we broke bread together, Alex talked about other professors who would impact my life and thinking. Foremost among them was a man named Roy Barsness. Alex was unable to talk about Roy without mentioning Martin Buber, whose name I knew, but nothing more. Alex told me I’d soon know Buber well and prophesied that he would become seminal to my thinking. He was right.
When I started school in the fall of 2013, the Seattle School created cohorts of students who entered and traversed together a semester of classes that every student, no matter their degree program was required to pass. The course rotation was rigorous: Dan’s “Faith, Hope & Love,” created a grid for us to view our calling in the Kingdom of God, Dwight Friesen’s, “Hermeneutics,” helped us think about our interpretation of, not only the Word of God but all of life. This is important because the Seattle School endeavors to live at the intersection of “Text Soul & Culture,” and Dwight’s class made us carefully and thoughtfully explore the ramifications of when, where and how “text, soul, & culture” meet. Finally, my cohort met Roy, the creator of a provocative deconstructionistic class entitled, “Interpersonal Foundations.” In our first class, Roy asked us what we believed about God, people and sin, declaring that our answers would shape our approach to our work as therapists. So, the rest of the term we worked on those topics together.
It is perhaps that simple prolegomenon that sets the Seattle School apart from other schools. Everything we studied for the next three years caused us to wrestle with answers to these questions. They became the prolegomenon of our understanding about therapy.
Buber is important because of his emphasis on “I-Thou” relationships. This brilliant, Jewish philosopher taught me more about the importance of the Trinity than all my seminary professors. Buber’s understanding of the I-Thou is a Trinitarian understanding of relationships. For what Buber calls his readers to consider is that our very identities — The Imago Dei — are formed as we relate to others and God.
I define sin as “anything that violates a relationship.” This statement is true, in part because anything that harms relationship, in reality, violates the very nature of the triune God. A sin is a sin because it is the anthesis of God’s nature.
It is not hard to see how these core beliefs about the nature of God and who he made us to be and how we become who we are supposed to be, affect our work as therapists. Our endeavor is to live into the Trinitarian image in all our work and all our relationships. We are truly children of our seminary. We think that holding onto this Trinitarian truth throughout the counseling process sets us apart, and calls us to a new kind of relational holiness that increases the fullness of our lives and our clients’ lives and makes God laugh with delight.