I once went out with a guy who said I was insecure because I wore high heels, gave me strange recommendations for making my hair "fashionable," and proceeded to present himself as both savior and stylist. The alarm bells in my head blared, and I ran away. That was a close escape.
We talk a lot about the overt narcissists who openly parade their narcissism, and the covert narcissists who masquerade as sensitive introverts. But we need to talk about a more dangerous breed—the spiritual narcissist.
Not long before I left him, he smirked at me and said, "No one will believe you. I am spiritual. I work for a charity."
It hit me that my initial impression of him as spiritual man allowed me to explain all of the red flags in his behavior as simply remnants of wounds from his former life.
Then the women in my life started telling me their stories of lovers, friends, and colleagues who'd pervert spirituality to serve their own ends. One thing was for sure—these women felt used and confused by the men who projected an image of being upright and kind but whose actions behind closed doors did not match their loudly stated values.
They say forewarned is forearmed. I couldn't agree more. I wish someone had told me the signs someone is a spiritual narcissist. Here are the things you should be on your guard for:
1. He justifies harmful behavior (toward self and others) with "spiritual" explanations.
"You're a snob. Robert's a shaman. He heals," my ex shouted at me. It was so absurd that I laughed, which got him angrier. He was talking about his cocaine dealer.
When I told him I didn't want to cover for him when he missed meetings, he'd say I didn't understand spirituality.
I didn't understand why standing up for myself when he stood me up repeatedly was considered "unspiritual" or why his attempts to isolate me from my parents and friends made him my spiritual savior. Toward the end, I was tired of having the definition of the word "spirituality" change to suit his moods.
I get that certain substances are rites of passage in some cultures; they can elevate one's consciousness. But when they are used as excuses for abusive behaviors—"I was high" or "we're here to learn from each other spiritually," it doesn't make sense anymore. And yet, these behaviors are rampant in certain spiritual communities.
My friend executive coach and clinical psychologist Dr. Jonathan Marshall explains that anyone who is seen as a leader has the potential to gain a sense of entitlement, and this beckons narcissism. We want our teachers to be special. We want to trust them. So we are more permissive when we see them do things we question—especially if they're done in the name of spirituality. He cites the case of David Koresh, who claimed he was passing on high-energy vibrations by having sex with children. An extreme case, no doubt, but telling.
2. He has an attitude of superiority.
My ex often justified his actions with the excuses, "I'm older, I'm spiritual, and I know better." He saw himself as consistently more spiritual than anyone else, to the point of absurdity. He'd call me unspiritual for watching Suits.
Women's wellness coach Fiorella Kis-Major proffers, "You can get a fanatic in ISIS or the vegan community." In both cases, their mentality is one of austerity, control, and fear. Fiorella says that some spiritual extremists have "gone from snorting cocaine to snorting snobbery."
One thing's for sure though—this says more about them than it does about you.
To quote spiritual coach Monique Williams, "True spirituality leads to the evolution of our personal world, which we call healing or growth." It isn't frowning on another's actions just because they're not exactly what you want them to be.
We don't shine more brightly by dimming someone else's light.
To that end, my spiritual mentors say it's up to us, when we feel we're being judged, to distinguish whether the feeling is a result of our own baggage or somebody else's. Stand in your power and declare that this is not your story.
3. He flips between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
I remember the night he insisted on paying the bill for our table of five. The next day, I woke up eager to face my Lunar New Year. He immediately started shouting at me to pay him back, that it was my fault he was broke.
In front of our friends, he presented himself as charming and generous. He'd take people out for expensive meals and drinks, tip extravagantly, and then, when he got home, blame me because he "hated those wankers" and "spent so much."
When I asserted myself, he'd say I was unspiritual for not acknowledging the good stuff. Over time, I was conditioned to be grateful for those moments and lived in fear of the unpredictable moments when he seemed to turn into a different person.
I didn't know how to broach the subject to anyone. To them, he was a nice man, a spiritual man.
You see, the narcissist needs to project an idealized version of himself to escape his broken, insecure self. But that mask ultimately crumbles. No one can play a role forever. And this is the person you see behind closed doors. Don't let yourself be sucked back in by the crumbs of kindness he throws at you.
4. He uses spiritual jargon to intimidate people.
I squirmed as he forced his spiritual views down strangers' throats. Later on, my friends disclosed how he'd brag about his spirituality to them.
Like a lot of spiritual narcissists, my ex would insist that:
- Only you can make yourself angry
- There is no self. Self-worth is bullshit.
- The world is your mirror. If the world is cruel, you are cruel.
These arguments were justification, to him, for all his bad behavior. He was just "finding [his] path."
Author Jeff Brown describes these utterances as "the spiritual bypass"—where we try to pretend that pain doesn't exist and in that, attempt to transcend our humanness.
Indeed, Monique says that "limited teachings on spirituality lead to repression of emotional issues rather than an evolution through them."
If someone's dogma makes you feel trapped and judged rather than liberated, then it does not serve you.
5. He is the master of double standards.
He denigrated my personal and professional meditation practice, saying no one would be convinced by me because I didn't meditate for two hours a day or attend spiritual retreats. He'd obsessively talk about his meditation plans but couldn't or wouldn't implement them because he had to read yet another Tibetan Buddhist book.
Any time I drew boundaries in response to his intrusions, I was "needy" and "judgmental"—never mind that he stalked me, pointed a knife at me, and read all my emails.
"Look, I signed up for this retreat," he'd brag. "What are you doing with your life?" It didn't matter that he was often too drunk or high to attend them—or the fact that no amount of spiritual retreating can actually make you a good person.
On one hand, he accused me of not letting go of my ego. On the other hand, he'd hijack every conversation—no matter how unrelated the topic was—to make it about him.
Spirituality doesn't mean we kill our ego. It is a part of us. Instead, we acknowledge its presence and learn when not to listen to it.
6. He justifies internal issues with external factors.
Often, he'd declare that he was part of The Force. Yes, I'm talking about Star Wars. And said he was a beacon of spirituality.
Yet, he'd also justify his bad behavior with, "The world is f***ed up, so there's no point." While my friends and I were actively striving to create a life that's personally meaningful, my ex would moan about how screwed up the world is and how there was no point in creating change. He said that my work as a therapist, operating within the capitalist system, was fundamentally unspiritual.
Not too long ago, a friend of mine wrote, "If you are not part of the solution, then most likely you will be precipitated out into a layer of debris and sediment on the bottom."
As I spoke to and worked with other people who had been involved with spiritual narcissists, it hit me just how tiring it is to be entrenched in seemingly endless negativity.
So, continue being the solution. Detox your life of debris and sediment.
It doesn't matter if this narcissist is your lover, friend, or teacher. Wearing saffron robes doesn't make you a good person.
I first met my narcissist when I was an impressionable 21-year-old. He said all the right things. So, despite my gut screaming at me that something was not right, my head wanted to think that he was a kind, spiritual person. So I made excuses for him.
If there is a spiritual narcissist in your life, think about the context in which you met him.
Jonathan explains that spiritual narcissists inhabit a world where people are trying to be more forgiving and understanding and where they're trying to learn—which makes people in this world especially permeable to influence.
Moreover, he says that "it's particularly hard to recognize because they can be so smooth and convincing—an Ubud-going person who can tell you about your chakras. They understand you. You've never had anyone listen to you this way before."
When we are young or have experienced significant upheaval (such as moving countries or divorce), we become especially vulnerable to this captivating, dynamic influence.
We must forgive ourselves for this.
As time passed and most of my anger dissipated, I came to acknowledge that, in a roundabout way, my spiritual narcissist was actually a teacher.
In Aurora Knight's words, "They are here to teach us to love ourselves, and that no one is coming to save us but ourselves."
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