Can People Change? (*Revisited)

“People who leave a space for God… can be helped, and can change. They can learn to live with the most extreme damage and suffering and yet still find joy in life…. People who leave a space for God are able to make that change of heart, not for any sentimental reason or out of any moral superiority, and certainly not because of what is conventionally called piety, but because and only because, despite their selfishness, they truly acknowledge and have faith in a force that is greater than themselves. They are willing to open their selfishness up to that greater force, and in opening its closed system, to begin to let life teach it its mistakes and heal its wound, and comfort its genuine suffering.”—Dr. Jamie Moran, “Orthodoxy and Modern Depth Psychology,” in Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World

6a0133ed657604970b0147e3c4fe57970b*Almost three years ago, I did a post here called, “Can People Change?” I didn’t have categories at the time, but if I was writing that post today, it could fit either in “Mental Health Monday” or “Faith on Friday.” I believe that much healing happens at the intersection of psychology and faith, which is where I find myself more and more often. Like today.

I’ve been processing something a friend said to me about a week ago. The process has been difficult, but good. It was something I needed to hear, and it resonated so strongly I haven’t been able to quit thinking about it. I’m trying to let it become part of my psyche. It had to do with a personality trait. When I listen to others, I circle the conversation back to me, relating whatever they’re sharing to something about my own life. It’s really a preoccupation with self. A selfishness (like Dr. Moran addressed in the above quote.) I already knew this about myself, but when my friend mentioned it, I saw it in a different light. In the light of God’s love and grace—which offers hope for change.

Yesterday at St. John Orthodox Church in midtown Memphis, Fr. John Troy Mashburn preached a homily about the cross. About taking up our cross to follow Christ. It was the Sunday of the Adoration of the Cross in the Orthodox Church calendar. One thing he said was that part of taking up our cross is breaking bad habits—whether those habits involve unhealthy eating or other patterns we would like to change in ourselves. He said it’s part of our ascetic struggle to work against those habits.

imagesI’ve had discussions with several people over the years about the difference in a bad habit and an addiction. Because of my lifelong struggle with eating disorders, I tend to put food in the “addiction” category. And during times when I drink too much, alcohol gets thrown in there with food. Someone I love is trying to quit a pack-a-day smoking habit right now, and he and I have discussed the possibility that he may always want a cigarette when he drinks, even years after he quits. So for him, surely smoking is more than a “habit.” But I think we sell ourselves short when we call habits addictions for the purpose of excusing ourselves from fighting against them.

As I continued to process my friend’s words (which were spoken with much love and no judgment) about my habit of not listening unselfishly, I wondered if this is something I can change. I began to worry that I have strong narcissistic tendencies. This is a scary thought. My life—and the lives of countless others—has been greatly damaged by narcissistic people. Have I damaged others with my selfishness? I read this article, “The Legacy of Distorted Love,” by Karyl McBride, Ph. D., to learn more about narcissistic traits and examine myself more closely.

And from there, I found Diane England’s web site called, “About Narcissism, Addictions and Abuse.” In one of her posts, “The Authentic vs. the False Self of the Narcissist,” she talks about how people with narcissistic personality disorder (to a greater or lesser degree on the spectrum) create false selves or masks:

Those living as false selves are driven by ghosts from the past. They are often striving to live up to the expectations of others, or else they do things and live in a way that will make them feel better about themselves.

art by Jef Murray (
art by Jef Murray

I’ve struggled with masks all my life. But I’ve never understood, until now, that I probably use those masks to cover the insecurity I feel as a person because of the sexual abuse I suffered. My friend who lovingly held up a mirror to me was helping me to begin to remove one of my masks.

I had the opportunity to have coffee with one friend since that conversation, and lunch with another. During both of these visits, I was consciously aware of my tendency (bad habit? narcissistic trait?) and so I made an effort to listen more carefully, without thinking about how what the person was saying related to me, and my own issues. Of course there were times when our conversations blended smoothly because of our shared interests (like writing) or common personal struggles. But at other times, I found myself holding back something I wanted to say about myself, and spending more time listening. And guess what? I found myself feeling more empathy for the person who was speaking, and less concern for myself. Wow. (As Anne Lamott would say.)

from DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun:

I’m sure I’ll have more dark nights of the soul ahead of me, but for today, I will take encouragement from this final paragraph in Dr. McBride’s article:

One interesting factor is this: If you are taking this test… and asking accountability questions…you are not likely a narcissist! Breathe deeply again! Go to Yoga, pass Go, Collect a bunch of hugs!

4 thoughts on “Can People Change? (*Revisited)”

  1. I love this honest, searching post, Susan. At the same time, I hope you are not too hard on yourself. As the expert said, your response is not at all narcissistic. Everyone has an ego and to some degree therefore is; it’s a matter of degree. It’s like calling someone passive aggressive. Seems very damning, but where would we be without most people being at least mildly passive aggressive? Would we rather have aggressive aggressive? I think not. It is, again, a matter of degree. Your habit may have been buttressed by a sincere and often recommended tactic: relating things back to yourself and sharing in order to empathize. Maybe it has become just a habit, more unthinking, and you simply need to bring greater mindfulness to it, as you are.

    1. Thanks so much for your compassionate comment, Richard. Greater mindfulness is definitely something I’m working on, in several areas of my life. I’m thankful for the friend who held up this mirror for me with gentleness, which is why I am able to respond in a positive way. It helps that we’ve been friends for over 40 years. And of course, writing about it helps me process it even more.

  2. Hmmm….if I’m sharing something, and someone listens and then circles back to herself or himself, I’m generally glad that the listener shared personal experience. Not only do I no longer feel that the particular struggle is mine alone, to be borne in silent stoicism, but I find that the person I’ve been talking with and I know each other more deeply, more genuinely.

    1. Thanks, Claire. I really appreciate your thoughts. I think this is more a matter of degree than definition. Sure, it’s kind of natural to relate one’s personal experience to something someone is saying in a conversation, but maybe it becomes narcissistic when it happens all the time, and at the expense of the person one is listening to. But I hear you, and thanks.

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