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.
The story picks up during Easter, 2001.
The next weeks were a blur. Certain things stand out. Knowing what I know now about the physiology of the brain and the nature of God, it is easy to say that none of the events that I remember “should” have occurred. The reason is that in times of shock or severe trauma the prefrontal cortex of the brain shuts down, and the amygdala –sometimes called the “reptilian brain” takes over. Mine works very well. I am grateful for it even though it is incapable of understanding or making complex choices, only understanding three options: “fight, flight or freeze.” My amygdala took over the minute my wife asked me about infidelity and didn’t cede total control back until August.
All I wanted to do was survive. I had no capacity or ability to think. Had church leaders the slightest idea about the information above, I’d like to believe that they would have made better choices. What the leaders assigned to oversee my recovery passed off as expertise was, in fact a few ministerial experiences that had destroyed relationships and apparently taught them very little. There is nearly nothing as dangerous as an elder who thinks they know more than they do and believe that they act in the name of God. Narrow theological understanding, derived from a few Scriptural “proof texts,” controlled the events of the next few months. Pastors employed God vindictively as an abusive weapon to exact punitive rather than restorative measures. Church leaders who had virtually no training or understanding of sexual addiction or recovery from addiction made choices from ignorance. As a result, any hope that my marriage might survive was stolen. It took me hours of pray and years of work to be able to forgive them. Had I known then what I know now, I might have been able to forgive them more quickly. For I didn’t need to forgive them for what they did or didn’t do. I needed to forgive them for what I remembered that they did and didn’t do.
Because my prefrontal cortex virtually shut down from April to August 2001, my memory can in no way be trusted. I have Polaroid snap shots and fragments of memory that I remember. I swear that those memories are accurate. I remember them, and, if I’m honest, they may have happened differently than I remember.
Last year, I met with my former Bishop to let him know that I forgave him. It was easier than I imagined because I’m not sure if they did what I remember them doing, I forgave them for what I remember them doing, and my memories may have very little to do with what they did. They alone are responsible for sorting through their actions and choices with their Creator.
Having said all that, here is a partial list of what I remember happened:
These are the clear memories that stand out. The church leadership in Portland had theologically correct reasons to do everything they did, and everything they did was not wrong or hurtful. These were good men. I was part of an influential pastors’ prayer meeting. That group appointed a small group of pastors to shepherd me through upcoming events. My bishop, who was also a part of that group and his wife were assigned to pastor us. He took me under his wing. She took my wife under her’s. They thought they knew what they were doing, and so they acted confidently, doing a lot of damage.
Together with my wife they chose the leading sex addiction therapist in Portland for me to see. I was “required” to give my wife and the bishop’s wife access to the therapist for consultations. Also, I began attending a 12-step group for sex addicts, found a sponsor, and developed new friends in recovery.
That summer I found a recovery job, working for a small contracting company that waterproofed decks. Toward the end of the summer, I walked off the job, never to return, tired of an abusive boss. Finding a new job was terrible. I wasn’t directly qualified to do anything. Eventually, after month’s of unemployment, and much to my wife’s dismay, I chose to employ Notus Career Management to help me get back on my feet. While the initial financial investment was high, they helped me discover transferable skills and strengths, along with jobs that wanted them. They taught me how to interview, and negotiate. Hiring them to help me was one of the first and best decisions I made for myself once things blew up and I eventually found the strength to make decisions for myself. My 12-step group helped me locate the courage to make such decisions.
I started 12-step recovery in April 2001. Doing so saved my life. I arrived in the fellowship with about ten months of “sexual sobriety” and maintained sobriety easily through the summer months. And then the shock began to wear off. I began to realize the harm perpetrated against me, and the role my wife played in the events. My anger grew. I was furious. Things were about to go from bad to worse.