NARCISSISM NOTES #13–Trajectories of Transformation, Chapter 9: “Transformation for Narcissists (Is Possible).”

Narcissism Notes share my interactions with material Chuck DeGroat presents in When Narcissism Comes To Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse.

Can abusive people change? If so, how–and how much? Chapter 9 deals with hard theological and therapeutic questions like these. My notes on this final chapter lay out Chuck’s case for possibilities of change as stratified according to the spectrum of narcissism (detailed in Chapter 2), indicators of openness to change, and who is likely or not to pursue transformation.

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Introducing the Core Issue in Chapter 9:

Reconciling Salvation and Sanctification

in Those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Chapter 9 contains concepts about possibilities of transformation for abusive people, that many Christians may find difficult to grapple with, especially those who are survivors of traumatization by abusive people in religious settings. In those cases, victimization typically involves abuse of power differential, in addition to whatever other forms of abuse, manipulation, and/or ministry malpractice were involved. So, their knowledge is personal for how insidious the behaviors are of someone who could probably be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). As survivors and advocates track what happens with such perpetrators, their outlook on abusers “changing their spots” is basically nil.

Those who’ve been in and around ministries to abuse survivors have almost certainly heard things along the line of, “Men who perpetrate domestic violence basically don’t change” and “People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder can’t change. Maybe at best they can be taught to manage their behavior to avoid hurting people.”

Yet, it’s hard to reconcile a faith that says God loves all people, Christ died for all, and the Holy Spirit is in all Christians to guide and empower them — but then withhold any hope or possibility of personal transformation for certain kinds of extremely damaged and extremely damaging people.

  • Even if we believe salvation is possible for anyone, do we believe sanctification is really possible for anyone?
  • If yes, then what does it look like?
  • What boundaries are there?
  • Are we mixing our beliefs about spiritual sanctification/growth with the Church’s legitimate need to prevent victimization and protect the vulnerable?

As a licensed therapist and a church consultant, Chuck DeGroat has encountered numerous men and women with personality disorders, including NPD. His general conclusion is that change is possible for such people — but he also immediately offers specific categories and conditions that nuance the answer. Thus, for him, this is NOT an either/or question — “Yes, they absolutely can change.” Or, “No they absolutely cannot.”

A video he posted on his Facebook page overviews his take on the key question and his overall framework for his answer: Is transformation for narcissists possible? (The controversial chapter!) I found this very clear, concise, and accessible. We need to consider multiple aspects on the issue of change, and he offers them here, at least in seed form.

The possibility for transformation is not absolute — either all YES, or all NO for anyone who presents some kind of “narcissistic behaviors.”

That’s because possibilities are stratified. This means the hope for significant change differs, according to the levels of patterns and pathology (i.e., location on the spectrum of narcissism). —

Three key indicators for how possible change is — whether for narcissistic individuals or decision-makers for a narcissistic institutional system — involve showing sufficient openness to: (1) self-awareness, (2) empathy, and (3) hearing how others perceive you and the destructive impact you are having.

From the realities Chuck was witnessed in his counseling and consulting, the closer to the pathological end of the spectrum of narcissism, the less likely the person/organization is to possess and implement those openness potentials.

In short, Chuck pursues a third-way approach to the question of change.

“This ‘third way’ has been among the most helpful and hopeful pathways to transformation among those I’ve worked with. It neither exonerates nor condemns. It holds both beauty and brokenness. It admits complexity. It invites curiosity.” (Page 153)

Let’s consider how to break down the elements of a sophisticated, stratified, third way approach.

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My Overall Response to Chuck DeGroat’s “Third Way”

for Viewing Narcissism and Transformation

I’m going to suggest you watch this video that Chuck posted — Is transformation for narcissists possible? (The controversial chapter!) — and then read my Facebook post of March 15, 2020, that gives my initial response to it.

IS TRANSFORMATION FOR NARCISSISTIC PEOPLE POSSIBLE? I’m halfway through the final chapter in *When Narcissism Comes To Church* so I’m right in the middle of those two big interrelated questions about whether a narcissistic can change and if so, how.

I think I’m understanding Chuck DeGroat‘s overall conclusions in this video — and can agree with them, based on having dug deeply into the rest of #WhenNarcissismComesToChurch. I’ll post more about the reasoning behind this agreement in my forthcoming “Narcissism Notes” for Chapter 9. Meanwhile, here are some points on why I find his video and approach helpful.

It seems to me some key difficulties we have on the issue of “Is transformation for narcissist possible?” are that: (1) many people have a box not a spectrum for narcissism. It’s sort of an all-or-nothing thing, no degrees of narcissism considered. Plus (2) we have RARELY read or heard of a toxic narcissistic Christian leader listen to the truth about their destructive impact, repent over the long haul, make things right with those they’ve victimized, abdicate their position of power, etc. Which (3) makes it difficult for us to be willing to invest enough time to hear something like Chuck’s nuanced approach, which he clearly lays out in his book.

In it, he provides a carefully constructed set of definitions and descriptions that argue convincingly (in my opinion) for (1) a spectrum of narcissism instead of just one category, and (2) a well-reasoned set of indicators of potential for change (some level of self-awareness, empathy, and hearing how they are perceived in relationships). What Chuck shares for possible transformation for *individuals* makes a lot of sense to me, because it parallels what I’ve seen in my research writing on identifying and dealing with toxic *institutions*.

This video gives a great summary for the relevant concepts to consider the questions about change. So, give it a listen, reflect, repeat. Get your questions and doubts out on paper and ready, so that you can get the most from a deep reading of *When Narcissism Comes To Church*. You may or may not end up agreeing with how Chuck has worked this out and ministered from this framework, but I trust you’ll find his book a helpful resource to wrestle with the reckonings that narcissistic people need to embrace and face.

Now I’ll tackle a few of the deeper details that were below the surface of what I was thinking about when I wrote that reaction for my Facebook page.

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Focusing in on a Few Specifics

Instead of duplicating what Chuck talks about, I’ll reference previous material in When Narcissism Comes To Church that ties in with various points, and/or share thoughts and personal experiences that illustrate why Chuck’s overall perspective makes sense to me.

1. Change requires a level of curiosity and openness. There is *potential* for transformation where narcissistic individuals or leaders of narcissistic institutions demonstrate they still have capacity for self-awareness, empathy, and hearing how they are perceived and are having negative impact on others.

In other words, there is real vulnerability, not fauxnerability. See Chapter 4, “Characteristics of the Narcissistic Pastor,” pages 82-84.

2. Transformation is more possible when abusive behaviors being manifested are more at the STYLE end of the spectrum of narcissism, and patterns more within the TYPE range of that spectrum. The closer to the PATHOLOGICAL end of the spectrum, the less likely that deep change will happen, though behavior management is still possible to mitigate damaging impact.

For the spectrum of narcissism, see Chapter 2, “Understanding Narcissism,” pages 36-38. The sequence goes from more healthy to more toxic, starting at the healthy end of the spectrum with Style and ending with Pathology at the toxic end.

STYLE –> tendencies, some traits or behaviors.

TYPE –> clusters of traits, patterns of behaviors.

PATHOLOGICAL –> meet the diagnostic criteria for having Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

A spectrum allows for a more nuanced “maybe” answer to the question of whether change is possible for a narcissist. But a single box labeled Narcissism where someone is either inside or outside of it promotes a category but no complexities. I see these distinctions as important because of two truths I learned a long time ago to are relevant here.

The first is, “Same root, different fruit.” Multiple people can experience the same behavior, but it can affect them quite differently in how they process and manifest the damage. This means that people may defy standard expectations in how they act in response to abuse.

The second is, “Different roots, same fruit.” People can have wildly different damaging experiences, but still manifest it in highly similar ways. This means we cannot backtrack from a specific set of symptoms exactly where it came from. The symptoms do not have only one potential source.

This matters, because we need nuance in our response. Just because someone does something that “is narcissistic,” that does not mean they should be diagnosed with NPD. If it is a rare surfacy action and not a characteristic pattern, they are probably more in the Style zone than in the Pathology zone.

3. The closer to the toxic end of the spectrum someone is in their behavior patterns and pathology, the less likely they are to demonstrating enough curiosity and openness for transformation processes to work.

The instinct to see how our actions impact someone directly — or indirectly through our complicity in enabling abusers — indicates curiosity, and thus a possibility for change. If we don’t care about what destructive/draining impact we are inflicting on others, we’re not likely to change.

4. The goal of Christlikeness for all disciples may be the same, but our pace and depth of change in getting there varies. We would do better to keep in dynamic tension the overall distance we are from that goal, with what each step represents in light of how far away we began from.

Regardless of personality type, Enneagram profile, culture of origin, or similar factors, our calling as disciples is to become more like Christ. That is the ultimate goal we hold in common. But all of us start our journeys toward Jesus from a very different “personal and cultural GPS.” That means each of us has a distinct trajectory or pathway for that journey, based on widely spread out starting points.

That may seem intuitively obvious, but so many teachings and preachings seem to assume that we are all the same, that everyone needs the same things at the same time. This programmatic concept of uniformity makes it all too easy to question ourselves, if we don’t get the exact points out of a sermon or blog post or podcast as expected. But is this the way it’s supposed to be?

The way I see it, Acts 15 and the history there of the Jerusalem Council is instructive. Both Jews and gentiles were becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. But a teaching by some from Jewish backgrounds mandated that gentiles had to convert to Judaism first before they could legitimately follow Jesus. This was causing great consternation for gentile followers, and the demand for uniformity was creating a rift that threatened to destroy unity. The Council discerned, in essence, that people needed to start moving toward Jesus from where they were at, not where someone else was. Judaism was not the gateway to Jesus — Jesus Himself was the gateway to Jesus!

This decision also recognized that people face a distinctive set of moral issues when they start pursuing Christlikeness, based on differences in their cultural and religious backgrounds. Some backgrounds — like that of the Jewish followers — already stressed strong moral standards and ethical responsibilities. Some — like that of many gentile followers — did not. So the Council recommended to the gentile believers some wisdom that would already be second nature to the Jewish believers.

How does this relate to whether narcissistic people can change? No one can dictate how long it will take to reach spiritual maturity, how fast change can take place, or whether we’ll always be moving forward or sometimes get stuck or go backward. But the probability for deep change, and the pace, would seem to depend on aspects of how wounded a person is — how fragile, how (un)willing to take steps of faith and keep stepping forward faithfully.

We see someone’s path through our own eyes, evaluate them as if our experience is the standard. But what if we saw things from a more elevated position? Maybe we’d see that what look like baby steps of growth, in an absolute sense, by a person from a background of desperate brokenness, might actually represent huge leaps relative to their own perspective. This is not letting anyone off the hook, just noting that we should measure things in the context of their own system instead of from our own.

5. “Neither exonerates nor condemns.”

Throughout his book, Chuck makes a case (at least, as I interpret it) for a paradoxical both/and approach to humanity. All people are both broken and beautiful, have both shadow and light. All Christians are both sinners and saints. The core task of transformation is embracing and facing those opposites, so we integrate ourselves into a healthier wholeness. This approach allows for complexity and nuance, instead of reductionism and either/or theological polarization that keeps us stuck in a “glorious-saint-only” or “pitious sinner-only” theology. (As Chuck detailed in Chapter 6 on “Understanding Narcissistic Systems,” each of those becomes the base for a toxic system — the former for the grandiose system, the latter for the vulnerable system.)

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Final Thoughts …

Chuck DeGroat does not let anyone off the hook. He does not suggest that abusive ministers who are removed from their role should have their platform of influence restored. His third way “neither exonerates nor condemns. It holds both beauty and brokenness. It admits complexity. It invites curiosity.” (Page 153)

So with all that together, it makes sense to me that someone with narcissistic behaviors and patterns can potentially find transformation and integration of self. It just takes a lot of definitions and descriptions to get to that conclusion, and most people with experience of abuse may not be willing to wade through that much, having seen the public track records of toxic people retaining their power. Chuck has given us much meat to chew on in this chapter, and a reasoned pathway to answer “Maybe,” like he does, to the question of whether narcissistic people can embrace transformation.

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