What is spiritual narcissism?
In a recent study, Jochen Gebauer and colleagues found a trend in yoga practitioners and students attending metaphysical school. Instead of using spirituality as a tool for self-inquiry and shadow work, they were using it as a means to boost their self-esteem.
The researchers found higher levels of self-centrality as well as self-enhancement (higher self-esteem, better than average judgments, and communal narcissism) among those who had just completed a yoga class compared to those who hadn’t engaged in any yoga class in the past 24 hours. They also found suggestive evidence that the augmented self-enhancement of the yoga practice played a key role in the well-being benefits of yoga through increases in self-esteem. This finding hinted at the idea that the well-being benefits of this spiritual practice may actually come through boosting self-esteem, not through ego quieting.
The researchers found that, after meditation, self-centrality in meditation-relevant domains was exacerbated, not diminished, and self-enhancement in meditation-relevant domains was augmented, not curtailed. Additionally, increased levels of self-enhancement explained the effect of meditation on higher well-being (both hedonic and eudaemonic).
In other words, rather than doing the real work to become less self-centered, they were using spiritual practices as a status symbol.
In a more recent set of studies, Ross Vonk and Anouk Viisser conducted an exploration of “spiritual superiority.” They interviewed several psychologists, spiritual trainers, and lay people, asking them to describe people who use spirituality as a self-enhancement tool.
Interestingly, their scale of spiritual superiority was more strongly correlated with communal narcissism than self-esteem, providing evidence for the notion of “spiritual narcissism.” Indeed, it’s important to distinguish between healthy self-esteem and narcissism. The problem isn’t with self-esteem but with the pursuit of self-esteem. Healthy self-esteem—comprising a positive evaluation of one’s self-worth and mastery—emerges naturally and organically through the engagement of authentic mastery and positive relationships, rather than by pursuing self-esteem as the goal. Increases in healthy self-esteem as a result of spiritual practices may be a good thing, and are not necessarily indicative of spiritual narcissism, which is why it’s good that the researchers were able to tie their measure of spiritual superiority to a specific form of narcissism: communal narcissism.
How did spirituality become narcissistic?
How did spirituality become so self-serving when some of its main tenants are to drop our ego and recognize our oneness with all beings?
Western culture –– American culture in particular –– is highly narcissistic, largely due to our individualistic values. I highly recommend this read on the connection between individualistic cultures and high levels of narcissism.
While their study is correlational, it’s likely that there is a bidirectional relationship among these factors. It’s likely that spiritual practices can be used as a tool to bolster the narcissistic self, enhancing one’s feeling that one is special and entitled to special privileges. But it’s also likely that some spiritual training programs attract people with strong personal development goals that are related to Western narcissistic culture. As the researchers note, the idea of exploring one’s own personal thoughts and feelings and becoming an “enlightened being” may be particularly attractive to people with high levels of both overt and covert narcissism.
Taken together, the researchers concluded:
“Our results illustrate that the self-enhancement motive is powerful and deeply ingrained so that it can hijack methods intended to transcend the ego and instead, adopt them to its own service…. The road to spiritual enlightenment may yield the exact same mundane distortions that are all too familiar in social psychology, such as self-enhancement, illusory superiority, closed-mindedness, and hedonism (clinging to positive experiences) under the guise of alleged ‘higher’ values.”
How to Identify Spiritual Narcissists
One thing I’d like to emphasize about the second study is that they actually interviewed people who were studying to become spiritual practitioners (specifically energy workers).
I don’t find it surprising, but it should be alarming that the people studying to become practitioners are exhibiting narcissistic thought patterns in regard to themselves in relation to spiritual practice, when that is the literal antithesis of spiritual practice—and they’re studying to go out into the world to work with the public.
Narcissists are attracted to positions of power, particularly self-appointed ones.
Please be discerning in who you choose to work with. If you need some help evaluating who is the real deal, here’s a couple of posts that can help:
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