This blog post is about the subtle narcissism that creeps into almost all spiritual teachings. Another name for subtle narcissism, that is less inflammatory, is critical parent energy.
Critical parent energy is when someone claims a sense of power over another and attempts to control the narrative and emotions that are present in other people.
Part of subtle narcissism or critical parent energy is that the person who is embodying it needs other people to prop up their world view – in order for them to be the parent who knows the correct experience, there has to be people who are the children who are being disciplined or told they are wrong.
It is the most powerful people who get to dictate to others what the truth is. And it is through this subtle narcissism that they maintain their power – they are enforcing the belief that they know the truth and other people don’t, rather than empowering people to step into their own truth.
A lot of it in spirituality seems very benign. For example, telling a story that the retreat centre, the present moment, the teacher that you are engaging with is somehow perfectly peaceful and if you can’t experience that, there is something wrong with you. Rather than inviting honest feedback about what the real experience is.
The Double Bind
When parent energy is clean – for example, someone with power or authority giving someone with less power constructive feedback – it isn’t necessarily a problem. They are embracing their role as an elder, or someone with wisdom, and being willing to take the risk to say something difficult, from a place of love.
This requires an ability to be vulnerable. You are willing to be disliked or disagreed with in the process.
It is when passive-aggression is used that the energy creates a double bind for the other people or person – trapping them in the ‘critical parent’s’ worldview.
This arises because the critical parent’s ego is so fragile that they can’t handle being challenged. Their capacity to stay in the parent role, requires them to know more and be better than the ‘children’. So anything that challenges that is a huge threat.
Rather than speaking truth, the critical parent energy becomes concerned about maintaining its status and power. It reduces the vulnerability of this position by shaming, dismissing, blaming or rewriting the story to always paint themselves as the winner. This can include them becoming the victim – because they will use the threat to their ego as the ultimate wrong that the ‘child’ commits.
This passive-aggression role-reverses the parent and child energy, so the person who has the power and is in the critical parent energy is now also claiming the need to be treated like a child. They are at once the victim and the aggressor, which doesn’t give the other person or people anywhere to go with it; the people being controlled can either agree with the aggressor or cause major ruptures.
This role-reversal makes subtle narcissism complex, hard to spot and hard to extract yourself from. The narcissistic part of it wants to retain power in whatever way it can and it will lie, manipulate, blame and use aggression to do this. The subtle is exactly that, it does this under the radar in subconscious ways or ways that can be denied.
It is worth saying that most people have some aspects of this energy within them, it doesn’t necessarily make them a full-blown narcissist. The important thing is that people are able to reflect and move towards more open and balanced communication over time.
With that in mind here are some power imbalances to look out for and some healthier ways of being that we can aspire to.
Signs of power imbalances:
- Walking on eggshells
- People don’t really mean what they say and become defensive or aggressive when questioned
- Only one person’s voice is heard
- People are not allowed to disagree
- Some people’s opinions, questions and comments are dismissed as irrelevant, while others are held up as truth
- Some people’s questions and comments are rationalised away, trying to prove that they are wrong, while others are believed to be unquestionably right
- When disagreement or discomfort arises, force is used – either physically or by creating an emotional mood that overpowers the initial issue
- Sustained or strategic stonewalling is used – evasiveness and a refusal to engage and cooperate in open and honest dialogue
- The threat of being cut off from the tribe or personal freedoms being taken away are used either overtly or subtly. Love bombing and the promise of specialness being given is used either overtly or subtly.
Signs of a healthy balance of power:
- People feel free to express their emotions and experiences
- People mean what they say and are willing to clarify or update their beliefs if it is received differently to how they intended
- Space is made for people to share their experiences
- People can hold and share different opinions
- People’s experiences are valid and valued; wisdom and experience is respected
- Curiosity around different perspectives; a shared commitment to discover truth
- People own their own behaviour and emotions; people can be held to account for this and can take constructive criticism
- People can disconnect temporarily to manage overwhelm, but are willing to find ways to communicate in a cooperative or collaborative way
- Boundaries are set from a place of love and care for self or other, rather than judgement. Boundaries are the safe distance from which both people can love each other.
Subtle narcissism, or critical parent energy, comes from fear. We don’t want to have to show up in every moment afresh with the fear that we might be wrong or unloved or rejected, so if someone has enough fear around this and enough power, they build a worldview where they know what is right and true and they get people to buy into it and validate it.
This protects them from having to be vulnerable or deal with the impact of their actions. If you get enough people to buy into a worldview, it starts to feel really real. But it is a pyramid scheme. It requires there to be people underneath you, who you know better than.
For a lot of people, this dynamic is reassuring to the people following too. It feels safer for them to belong to a tribe and have their autonomy taken away, rather than to stand in their own truth.
This is the dynamic that most spiritual traditions play to. It decides what is true and if you want to stay in the tribe you agree with it and you bend and shape your experiences to fit in with what it should be.
On the one hand, it can create a sense of belonging and safety for people. On the other hand it can be quite sad and oppressive – it can stop people living their own lives and validating their own experiences. People become mindless followers, always trying to change their experience to fit in.
Another reason this dynamic occurs is that to sustain a community or setting with a balanced power system, there has to be enough love and resource to go around. You can’t be fighting over resource, or power imbalances will creep back in. Historically, there has not been enough resource – either physically, emotionally or energetically – to support this.
Hierarchies have helped traditions and communities exist and function through times when there has not been enough for everyone to be safe and I imagine this will continue for quite some time.
Sharing From a Place of Authenticity
We don’t necessarily need to get rid of all power structures and hierarchy, but in order for people to feel more empowered, we need more spaces where people can share spiritual experiences from a place of authenticity. Both teachers and students.
When teachers have the capacity to be able to do this, it can be one of the most helpful things.
For it to be authentic and open it needs to come from a place of, ‘I have had this experience, this is what it felt like, this is what it meant to me and this is the impact that it had on my life.’
The more clarity that people can speak with about their own felt experience, the more helpful this is.
For authentic expression to work, balance is the key.
There needs to be space for students to speak authentically about their own experiences and for that to be accepted, even if it goes against what the teachers believes.
But it’s important that wisdom and power is still respected. We need to make sure that we aren’t over-balancing into giving students the same authority of unquestionable truth either. Everyone needs to be able to stand in their own vulnerability and trust that this is going to be accepted in a reasonable way.
As well as objective truths still being received and respected by all sides. We obviously do have agreed truths in our reality and it’s possible to build these into our understanding of what spirituality is. For example, we all know what a leg is. We can look at it together and come up with criteria that distinguish it from an arm. In the same way we can come up with some agreed criteria of what certain things mean in spirituality.
One of the difficulties with spiritual experiences is that we mostly can’t look at it together, they are generally individual experiences. This involves a lot of discernment and figuring out who to trust.
However, if you collect enough data, either from things like EEG machines or from people sharing their felt experiences, you can start to spot the patterns and come to some agreement around what certain words mean and what certain experiences are likely to occur and what their impacts might be.
You can get a really good broad sense of what human nature is like and start to offer this up as a way for people to understand their experiences better.
The traditional model tends to be something like, ‘as a leader, I am here as a status symbol for students to emulate and aspire to’.
The way of working that I am including here is more like, ‘as a leader, I am here to hold space in the service of helping my students understand their own world view better or embody a fuller version of themselves’.
Both of these are valid and important ways of teaching; to only include one would shut down a lot of experience and potential.
One of the best ways to extract spirituality (or anything) from subtle narcissism is to ensure that impact is being included as part of the on-going dance between practicing, learning, experiencing and teaching.
Impact breaks down the capacity for one person to claim spiritual authority, because rather than only focusing on whether something is true, you are also taking into account the impact that that belief system or method has on people and on the system.
It frees people up to receive the teaching in their own way. It removes the capacity for one person to dictate to others what is happening in experience.
When it comes to impact, I feel that spiritual teachings need to be held to a higher degree of rigour; clarifying intentions for practices and teaching and receiving honest feedback about whether it’s doing what it intends is super important.