NARCISSISM NOTES #10–Systems and Narcissism, Ch. 6: “Understanding Narcissistic Systems.”


Narcissism Notes share my interactions with material Chuck DeGroat presents in When Narcissism Comes To Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse. Here are six things that came out of my thinking about the two chapters in which Chuck dealt with dynamics in systems dominated by narcissism — the first three items from Chapter 6 and the last three from Chapter 7.

  1. The whole system gets poisoned/tainted.
  2. Systemic narcissism manifests with two different “faces.”
  3. We can composite deeper insight from viewing sick systems from different angles.
  4. People in self-serving systems try to make you think you’re the sane ones by joining and staying, but the crazy ones if you won’t stay compliant and want to leave.
  5. What we’ve called “gaslighting” is actually a range of toxic tactics.
  6. Important reasons for understanding narcissistic/toxic systems before attempting to start up or transition to a healthy system.

Let’s dive in and see what’s what …

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1. In Systems Infected with Narcissism,

The Whole System Gets Poisoned

1. POISONED SYSTEMS. Since toxins are organic poisons, they can seep their way through an organism’s entire body and create a life-threatening crisis that requires a long time for recovery and rehabilitation–if it survives. It is the same for organizations as for individuals. Here’s one example from my experiences in an abusive church where I was hired as a futurist consultant for several years, to help them transition to be more “next-generations friendly” in their structures and ministries. Ultimately, my input seemed to have no impact, and the church eventually snapped back into what it had been before. When its long-time pastor finally retired, it took years to straighten out the mess of an infrastructure he’d left in his wake.

#2. CHAOS AND CONSEQUENCES. Conventional wisdom holds that for every year a particular pastor has led a church, when that pastor is gone, it takes the congregation one month to recalibrate who they are without that person in charge and transition before they are ready to find a new leader. So, when a leader’s been in charge for 10 years, it takes almost a year to reset before there’s deep readiness to start a search for a new lead pastor – despite any growing sense of antsy desperation to get moving on it.

What if your previous pastor had not so much led the church, but let chaos reign in the church? And had done so for 25 or 30 years? What would have to happen in the two to three years needed to get ready for the next leader? As it turns out in one consultation I did in this kind of situation, the organizational infrastructure alone took about that long to renovate.

“Leading” by chaos didn’t mean things were any more creative in the church. It was just as control-oriented as one infused with legalism and overburdened with rules and regulations – but it was just not as predictable. In consequence of this, there were no minutes from staff meetings. Which meant no records of decision-making or to-do lists. (But maybe that didn’t matter, because there were no central files with important documents all in one place, like employee files, corporate papers, contracts and communications.) And there was no common understanding among staff members of what the official mission statement of the church was. Which meant if you asked three different staffers, you’d get three different answers, meaning know one really knew where this ship was headed in the ocean of supposed ministry.

An organization run that way is vulnerable to certain kinds of problems that non-profits are prone to. The biggest problem is that when you decide based on whim instead of with plans, you can easily end up expending the organization’s assets in ways that benefit insider individuals and not the public interest. Maybe you hire friends who turn out to be inept instead of experts to do needed jobs. And there may be lack of tracking fund usage, and therefore lack of transparency and accountability in financial dealings. The biggest problem created is a lack of trustworthiness. And that’s something you cannot fix directly; you need to renovate the systems in ways that earn (or re-earn) trust. As it turned out, the next pastor was mostly an administrator and he got the fractured infrastructures straightened out. That was his major accomplishment before he moved on. That process took about three years.

That church is where I learned from the inside out how strategies and structures, processes and procedures, cultures and collaborations can all be hijacked by a self-benefiting leader so he can do pretty much anything he wanted. And that the organizational fault lines didn’t disappear or miraculous fix themselves when that leader went off the scene. It was insidious.

And while the sickness in that system is stark, I’ve seen subtle and not-so-subtle ways that leaders in other kinds of organizations infused their will into the structures in ways that caused damage to the whole and to the people therein — and can leave destructive impact that lasts for the years that follow.

  • Hiring friends and relatives for positions they were unqualified to hold, or that would give the leader a bloc of people on a team or board predisposed his/her way and therefore with a conflict of interest.
  • Conducting official organizational business in the absence of advisory board members, or without sufficient notice or discussion.
  • Not allow anyone but the acknowledged leader to have any role of public teaching or prominence.
  • Not following the mandates of the corporation constitution and by-laws, regulatory agency requirements (like the IRS), or legal codes (like zoning laws).
  • Misusing funds that were solicited for specific restricted purposes, or that are inappropriate (perhaps illegal) usages under any circumstances.

Have you experienced situations where any things like that took place? These are not merely “tactics” to keep people in line. They become “the way we do things around here.” These principles and practices put into the institutional infrastructure inappropriate, unethical, and perhaps even illegal conduct as standard operating procedures They also condition people in the organization to either “get used to it, or get out.” The internalized memory of those manipulations may take years to decades to flush out — if even ever.

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2. Systemic Narcissism Manifests with Two Different “Faces”

2. DIFFERENT FACES. Not all narcissistic systems present themselves in the same way, just as not all narcissistic individuals act alike. We explored multiple faces for how personal narcissism comes across–nine of them, using the Enneagram as a way to categorize them (Chapter 3). Similarly, we can analyze and organize features of systemic narcissism according to two faces: grandiose and vulnerable. Read Chapter 6 for the illuminating details of how Chuck describes them, but here is my take on their contrasting overall profiles.

GRANDIOSE. The grandiose narcissistic system comes across as extraverted, buoyant, confident (even arrogant), lovely and worth loving, super active, competitive and perhaps amoral, self-promoting.

VULNERABLE. The vulnerable narcissistic system comes across as introspective, low-key, humble (even fauxnerable), horrible but grateful for God’s grace, passive or passive-aggressive, isolative and maybe hypermoral, self-deprecating.

A key problem seems to be that these divide the dynamic tension we find in Scripture of our being sinner/saints, citizens of heaven/sojourners on earth. Instead of maintaining these paradoxical sets of roles, they get split.

The grandiose version gravitates toward being created in the image of God, downplaying our brokenness and sin, and an emphasis on God’s blessings.

The vulnerable version wallows in our weaknesses, wavers on the edge of determinism and inevitability of continual sinfulness, and may not be too hopeful about the possibilities of being loved and blessed.

Each version is reductionist, and the split paradoxes mean a dis-integrated theology and sense of humanity. Each looks different, but both drastically affect the ways a family, team, congregation, or community develops its systems — and both turn out narcissistic.

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3. Viewing Sick Systems from Multiple Angles

Lets Us Composite a Stronger “Spiritual MRI”

3. A RANGE OF FEATURES. The way Chuck organized the big picture of grandiose versus vulnerable narcissistic systems makes sense to me, and it got me thinking: What are other possibilities for creating profiles of narcissistic system? What angles could we explore that would perhaps give us unexpected insights?

For instance, I’ve developed a set of institutional profiles around a sociological framework, with five primary means of social control — based on toxic church and ministry systems I’ve encountered over the years. I can also see integrating faces or profiles of narcissistic systems around an anthropological framework, with three different kinds of cultural bases, and a psychological framework, with five personality disorders or the three energizing sources in Enneagram clusters. I won’t deal with all of those here, but will focus on two: personality disorders and social control types.

What happens when we consider such frameworks — or perhaps even cross-pollinate them with each other? Here is a sampler of what some of the analysis and synthesis might look like, along with do-it-yourself resources. Maybe this will spark our thinking in new directions.

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Profiles Based in Five Personality Disorders

There are already writers at both the professional and popular levels who present distinctive organizational profiles based around differences among personality disorders. I’ll give those resources shortly.

First, check out the Out of the FOG website. This is my top recommendation go-to site for both technical and practical information on personality disorder traits, abuser tactics, and how to respond constructively. According to the Who We Are page, this well-organized, practical site was “Written and developed by people who have experienced a relationship with a family member, spouse or partner who suffers from a Personality Disorder.” They’ve made this a great resource for the everyday person.

The Different Types of Personality Disorders page overviews the categorizing system of types and clusters used by the American Psychiatric Association in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and gives links to the specific types. Here are the main categories and types:

Cluster A. Odd or Eccentric Personality Disorders — paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal.

Cluster B. Dramatic, Emotional, or Erratic Personality Disorders — antisocial, borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, paranoid

Cluster C. Anxious or Fearful Personality Disorders — avoidant, dependent, obsessive-compulsive.

Writers on how organizations are influenced by individuals with personality disorders tend to focus on the five types drawn from these three clusters: antisocial, histrionic, narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive, and paranoid. (They may leave out some of those, or include avoidant and/or dependent.)

I posted links to the following books in section 2. Bullies, Leaders, and Enablers with Personality Disorders on my page for Spiritual Abuse Book Lists and Visual Bibliographies. They address a range of personality disorders and situations related to bullying. Personality disorders or traits addressed include: Antisocial, Borderline, Histrionic, Narcissistic, Obsessive-Compulsive, Paranoid, Passive-Aggressive, Psychopath / Sociopath, and/or Sadistic.

Destructive Leaders and Dysfunctional Organizations: A Therapeutic Approach, by Alan Goldman (Cambridge University Press; 2010). A professional book that deals with a broad range of personality disorders and how each affect peers and subordinates in organizational/business settings.

Emotional Vampires: Dealing With People Who Drain You Dry, by Albert Bernstein (McGraw-Hill; 2001; revised and expanded second edition, 2012). Uses a similar broad set of personality disorders as the Destructive Leaders and Dysfunctional Organizations book, but writing it at a popular level.

Emotional Vampires at Work: Dealing with Bosses and Coworkers Who Drain You Dry, by Albert Bernstein (McGraw-Hill Education; 2013). Bernstein applies the personality disorders framework to businesses and organizations, writing at a popular level.

The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians – and How We Can Survive Them, by Jean Lipman-Bluman (Oxford University Press; 2005). Written at a more popular level.

The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout (Broadway Books, 2005). Written at a more popular level.

DIY — check out some of these perspectives to see how it makes sense to describe institutions in ways that link to the individuals who typically have hijacked them for their own relentless and remorseless purposes.

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Profiles Based in Five Primary Social Control Methods

Leaders in authoritarian systems seek to impose social control on the people in them. The easiest form to recognize is the “high-demand” culture that sets up a rule-based system, requires unconditional submission, and exacts severe punishments for infractions or insubordination. But, there are other types of toxic systems — as I found out from numerous experiences in toxic church and ministries that didn’t quite fit that mold.

It took me years to sort out the distinctives of several different types I’d experienced – conformity by compliance, by chaos, and by charisma. I found examples in my own past, and in history (Stalin, Mao, and Jim Jones). But I was still unsettled. As I retraced abusive leaders I’d suffered under, something still didn’t fit. Eventually I added competition to the mix of social control cultures — that was a few years ago, and Hitler was the prime example, in how he pitted his own inner circle of leaders against one another. Then, and less than a year ago, I added cruelty (Pol Pot and Shaka Zulu), as one particular pastor I’d encountered seemed intent on almost sadistic treatment of people — both in his extended family and in the church family. (Sidenote: I don’t often use alliteration for lists, but this happened to turn out that way.)

I am still writing about these social control methods, and exploring how each form’s leaders manifest particular traits and tactics, and how each form co-opts a different combination of susceptibilities on the part of its victims. I would note that these profiles can happen in different combinations and stratifications. For example, from my research on the Holocaust, I found out that Hitler used competition among his leadership group to see who would rise to preeminence, charisma and compliance among the Aryan populace to draw them in and keep them in his thrall, and chaos and cruelty among “final solution” target populations to inject uncertainty through feints and falsehoods, and, ultimately, annihilation.

Why is this important? Because it doesn’t let toxic leaders off the hook by using excuses like, “Our system isn’t legalistic.” Just because a leader or institution doesn’t fit some stereotype of “abusive,” that doesn’t mean it is healthy.

Here is a summary of a chapter I wrote on them for Field Guide #1, before adding cruelty to the list.

Chapter 5: Why Don’t All Abusive Systems Look the Same? Ironically, not all “conformity” ends up looking the same. There are at least four distinct patterns at work in systems of social control, each with particular integration point that the rest of the system revolves around: compliance, with overt rules and regulations; chaos, with unpredictable changes and insecurity; charisma, where consuming celebrity style becomes the substance of identity; and competition, where setting up adversaries creates antagonisms and distractions. Any of the four seems to be able to pop up in any given culture, if circumstances are right. But all of them repress or remove people’s freedoms.

Here is a short post that gives the above “tutorial slides,” and adds a bit of information: Five Kinds of Social Control Cultures: Compliance, Chaos, Charisma, Competition, and Cruelty (February 12, 2020). The reader’s/leader’s study guide to social control types in The Hunger Games it mentions can be found in links posted in this spiritual abuse FAQ:

What are the research criteria for identifying authoritarian “sociological cults”?

  • For an overview, see: What kinds of “cults” are there, and what are some criteria?
  • For detailed indicators that have been in use since 1961, and study questions for individuals and groups, see Robert Jay Lifton’s research criteria for identifying “cults” in the series, Lessons from The Hunger Games – How Do We Discern Dystopian Dynamics and Totalitarian Tactics?
  • Part A. Dystopian Dynamics, Totalitarian Tactics, and Lifton’s Criteria for Identifying “Cults.”
  • Part B. Identifying Cults: Authoritarian Communications, Motivations, Restrictions, and Confessions.
  • Part C. Identifying Cults: Ultimate Vision, Reductionist Language, Ideological Conformity, and Social Ostracism.
  • Or download the PDF of Lessons from the Hunger Games – Parts A-B-C.

For select resources on historical examples (USSR, Cultural Revolution, Jonestown, Holocaust, Khmer Rouge), see the visual bibliography here: 5-01 Five Kinds of Control Cultures.

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Do-It-Yourself: Cross-Pollinating Across Frameworks

If you really want to tweak your thinker, see what comes up if you cross-pollinate these two frameworks. What kinds of psycho-social insights come to mind? What real-world historical examples can you think of that fit the products of personality disorders crossed with dominant methods of social control?

Here are some of my initial musings of what social control system looks most like which personality disorder.

  • Compliance – obsessive/compulsive.
  • Chaos – borderline, histrionic.
  • Charisma – narcissistic, histrionic.
  • Competition – antisocial.
  • Cruelty – antisocial.

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