I recently covered the case of Stephen Allwine, a spiritual leader and elder in his church who had multiple affairs and attempted to put out a hit on his wife before eventually killing her himself. During his trial, prosecutors repeatedly called him a narcissist who had little empathy for others and hid his pathological personality behind the respectable veneer of the church. 

Now, “narcissist” appears to be a buzzword these days, used to describe everything from someone who takes too many selfies to an ex who fell in love with someone else. Perhaps it’s time to define what true narcissism really means and how, if misused, religion and spirituality can become just another tool in a narcissist’s toolbox.    

First, narcissism is something we all have. At its core, it’s a pervasive, universal human drive to feel special, exceptional, unique. Research tells us that most of us (even the really, truly average ones, which, of course, is most of us) think of ourselves as special. This is a good thing; it motivates us to dream bigger, work harder, and consider our own needs while we’re taking care of others. Otherwise, you – or I – would be a doormat.

Unhealthy or pathological narcissism, on the other hand, refers to a need to feel special. People with narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, are so addicted to feeling special that they lie, steal, cheat, and do whatever it takes in order to get their high:

  • They have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration.
  • They exaggerate their achievements and talents.
  • They expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it.
  • They are preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate.
  • They believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people.
  • They monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior.
  • They expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations.
  • Take advantage of others to get what they want.
  • They have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others.
  • They are envious of others and believe others envy them.
  • They behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful and pretentious.

The Seeds of Narcissism

Narcissism is typically portrayed as a disorder of inflated self-esteem and grandiosity. It is those things, but it’s more complicated. People with narcissism often have a psychological disconnect between an unconscious sense of inadequacy and a conscious feeling of superiority. Yes, they think they are better than everyone else; but they are fragile.

Their grandiosity and entitlement are, in reality, a rigid and ingrained defense against underlying self-doubts. It’s unstable. These individuals are more vulnerable to any events (interpersonal rejection, negative feedback, criticism) that might threaten their exaggerated view of themselves and, as a result, are more likely to react with anger and hostility to any perceived or real challenge to their ego.

We don’t know exactly what causes narcissistic personality disorder; it’s likely a combination of nature and nurture. We do know that the childhood of individuals who are eventually diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder tend to have experienced certain childhood events. For example, adults with NPD tend to describe one of two extreme parenting styles; their parents either showered them with excessive adoration and unearned praise or exposed them to excessive and harsh criticism. As children, these individuals were also more likely to have been betrayed by someone whom they loved or were dependent upon for their survival (for example, physical or sexual abuse by a relative, abandonment by a parent, etc.)

The Spiritual Narcissist 

One of the most disconcerting things about the Stephen Allwine case was the fact that he was a spiritual leader in his church. In my forensic work, I’ve evaluated more than my share of former religious leaders who’ve wound up in prison. I’ve also witnessed firsthand the devastation they can do to their victims, who not only have to deal with the trauma they’ve suffered but often struggled to regain their faith. 

We don’t’ know how often individuals with pathological personality traits wind up as religious leaders. While most members of the cloth have altruistic motives and Godly intentions, Dr. Darrel Puls and his colleague Dr. Glen Ball did a study of their entire Canadian denomination’s active and retired pastors. They put together a large survey that included a validated test of narcissistic personality disorder that was included with a lot of other questions about prayer practices and other information. Of the 30% of the active and retired pastors who responded, between 25 and 20 percent scored in the diagnostic range of narcissistic personality disorder. 

Time will tell if these numbers are truly representative. But even one religious leader who puts his own wants and needs above God or his followers can do a lot of damage.

Yes, faith involves forgiveness. But I don’t think it involves turning a blind eye or protecting someone who is clearly not practicing what he or she preaches and deliberately harming others in the process. 

One of the teachings I am most grateful for from my own childhood pastor was his constant reminder that no one – not even him – should come between, or before, my personal relationship with God.

A pastor, priest, rabbi or guru who talks more about himself than about God, is constantly asking you or other members of the congregation for favors or money, twists or uses religious teachings to control or reject others, doesn’t practice what he preaches, will not tolerate any criticism or suggestions and surrounds himself with people who enable and accommodate him is unlikely to be someone who is capable of supporting your – or my – spiritual development.

No matter how pious a narcissist may pretend to be, a wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf.