Depersonalising others -an interpretation

depersonalisationA week or two ago I wrote about a link between certain forms of marriage and cultic experience. I have since thought further about dysfunctional relationships. I noted the existence of narcissism in the situation of a dominating husband with a subservient wife and to see this allows us to have insight into the way that dominating control in many other relationships works. Over the period that I have been writing about abuse issues and the church, it has become increasingly clear to me that a desire to control is sadly far too common in almost any type of human relationship. To summarise what I have to say here, the use of control or abusive dominance in a human relationship involves treating a person as a thing or an object rather than as a fellow human being.

Over the past week, I have pulled down from my bookshelves a book which I have owned for two years but not yet read. It has the off-putting title Traumatic Narcissism by Daniel Shaw. This is not a title which will cause it to fly off the shelves, but the book was recommended to me at the Cultic Studies conference two years ago. I want to share with my readers a few of the helpful insights which this book contains, in spite of the author’s using, what is sometimes, rather technical language.

I have in the past used the word ‘narcissistic’ to describe the particular way of relating that a cult or dominant leader uses to exploit and abuse his followers. Such behaviour, involving abusive power and control is part and parcel of the larger-than-life grandiose style that we meet in many religious or cultic leaders. Narcissism involves both dominance over others alongside a sometimes almost pathetic need to receive the attention and approval of the followers. These followers will have their own distinctive set of needs and it is these needs that have brought them into a subservient relationship with the cult leader. The book I referred to above by Daniel Shaw helps by describing this exploitative relationship very clearly. I want to go on, cutting through the psychoanalytical jargon, to indicate how he understands the way a narcissistic individual, including a cultic leader, uses his power to harm those who have the misfortune to come into his sphere of influence.

A book which influenced me a long time ago was one by Martin Buber with an intriguing title, I and Thou. This book explained how there are two ways of relating to another person. One is to treat them as an object (I-it), the other as a person (I-thou). In our relationship with God, we are to see him always as a person, never as a thing. The same thing goes for our relationships with other people. There is always a need for us to respect their personhood, their subjectivity. Daniel Shaw is also talking about this same process when he uses the word intersubjectivity. This word simply refers to the importance in all relationships to respect another person’s experience and their right to have feelings and opinions of their own. The ‘traumatizing narcissist’, on the other hand, is an individual who will not or cannot respect the inner subjective life of the other person. All he or she is interested in is the way that the other person can fulfil the needs of the narcissist, such as found in the typical cult leader. It is also clear to see how sexual violence and power exploitation of any kind will be the outworking of the narcissistic behaviour of an individual who is concerned solely for his or her needs. This narcissist will, in psychoanalytical thought, normally be regarded as a victim, of parental neglect. He or she will have suffered from a failure by carers to respect their growing identity and personality.

A few years ago these ideas were novel, even revolutionary to my thinking. It never occurred to me that one could describe and account for power abuse using such models provided by psychoanalytical research. The insight that people who abuse their power are also people who have profound needs inflicted on them by inadequate or needy parents, is profoundly helpful. Out of this reading I have been provided with a possible interpretation of many abusive scenarios, whether in a church-based context down to a dysfunctional relationship between two people.

The ability to understand and interpret what may be going on in a situation of abuse does not in itself solve any problems. The power hungry narcissist will still exploit his victims, whether they be congregants, pupils in a school or members of the family. But there is the hope that every time the insights, such as those provided by Daniel Shaw, are shared, an environment of understanding is created where fewer people are able to get away with this kind of dehumanising and exploitative behaviour. In summary the problem I have been describing is that of treating people as objects. Everyone knows that, when this happens, and it can happen in many, many situations, there is likely to be the potential for profound trauma. The concern of this blog is to highlight the needs of those who suffer as the result of abuse carried on in the context of Christian belief and practice. When a psychoanalyst like Daniel Shaw writes so cogently on the topic of cultic exploitation, I feel that I need to study his writings and bring some of the conclusions to the attention of my readers. I may well have cause to return to this remarkable book as I have only begun to share the numerous insights of his study. It is a book that has already taken its place among classics of ‘cult studies’. Sadly too few people in the UK read this literature, and it may be a decade before Shaw’s ideas penetrate the thinking of professional therapists, few of whom seem to understand the ‘cult’ dynamic that exists in a whole variety of settings. I shall continue to read and to share with my followers what wisdom I can extract from literature that comes my way. Meanwhile I want to finish with a thought. How wonderful it would be if we could be protected from the depredations of narcissists because people had learnt to spot them long before they had the opportunity to create havoc and harm around them. As a society and members of religious communities, we need to be far more vigilant and alert than we are.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

7 thoughts on “Depersonalising others -an interpretation

  1. Well, we might be able to spot all kinds of deviance, perhaps. But you can’t punish people before they’ve done anything. I can’t see how spotting a certain kind of mind set will change much, to be honest. Don’t we need to change the mind set where people know what is going on but do nothing? The problem is usually that the victim is lower caste or in some way less valuable than the perpetrator. How do we alert Christian groups to the existence of the caste system? Just by the by, how many people who are neglected and unloved by their parents go this way? But having said that, the idea of depersonalising someone makes my blood run cold, it is a truly chilling thought. It allows people to either abuse, or permit abuse, because the “How would I like it” mechanism is never triggered. They’re not like you.

    1. Perhaps what I had in mind was that if incipient narcissism could be identified at an early stage, then we would not unload dangerous people into jobs where they can become dangerous. I see the narcissistic personality as becoming progressively more destructive as time goes by. It is not a question of punishing anyone, just being sensitive to the fact that this is always going to a major hazard in any hierarchical organisation, from public companies to churches. We don’t have such means of assessment so this will not be possible in our generation to stop potential narcissists joining the church, even we had the power to do so. But at least we should be pointing it out and naming it. I can think of several ‘leaders’ in the Anglican church who appear to be afflicted, not to mention leaders in small independent congregations. The notorious church of Trinity Brentwood, much discussed on this blog, is riven with this kind of dysfunction. Michael Reid could be held up as a classic exemplar of malign narcissism.

  2. I am highly exercised by this, not least because it is getting worse. My experience with those disempowered in the workplace is a daily proof. It has a strategic intent about it.

    A German philosopher, (Can’t remember who) wrote this:

    “Before any society can exist it must first destroy the individual!”

    That cynical manoeuvring has now reached epidemic proportions in our present society. Once a society (like ours), has broken down the distance between right and wrong to the extent it has, very little can be done. Time to fast and pray, I think.


    1. Thanks Chris for moving the context of what I am talking about -dehumanising abusive pratice – from the church to wider society. I can see what you are saying – that all this stuff happens everywhere especially in the world of poverty, unemployment and general deprivation in our society. My problem is that although I believe it happens, I am not a direct witness to it and therefore I cannot become so involved with it as an issue. I discuss the church issues because I see them and know about them, having spoken to victims including yourself. Because of retirement I am now also one stage removed from these issues as well. I can only be passionate about something that I have experienced first hand. There will come a time when my direct connection with the issue of religious abuse will become even more indirect. Meanwhile we need you to remind us of how the issues of power abuse, narcissism and exploitation of power go on everywhere. The necessary response is a political one through MPs and other opinion makers. I beleive this is something you can do and do do. Meanwhile I will bat on with examining the issue in a small area – the church and hopefully influence one or two individuals to think about how the decline of organised religion is being speeded up because Christians are so unable to face up this area of pain. Christians sadly do harm each other on occasion and this is a source of sadness as well as unbelievable destructiveness to the cause of the church in this country and throughout the world.

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