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When I read stories such as the blinged-out Brooklyn bishop robbed at gunpoint of more than $1 million worth of jewelry, new allegations of Ted Haggard behaving inappropriately with young men, or the ongoing scandals facing holy hipsters such as Hillsong Church, I find myself questioning how anyone can follow a spiritual narcissist.

But then I have to think back to a few times when I fell victim to the charms of a spiritual narcissist. For example, after ending a professional and personal relationship with a trauma-focused therapist, I found myself shaking my head. Initially, I thought we could be collaborators given our mutual interest in exploring how spiritual practices such as mindfulness could help folks heal from prior traumas and lead healthier and fuller lives. Wrong.

After our relationship imploded quite unexpectedly, my gut instinct told me to measure his personality traits against the O’Hare Psychopathy Checklist. While this test cannot substitute for a professional diagnosis by a licensed therapist, he scored high enough on this chart that he appears to possess very strong narcissistic tendencies.  

How could I have missed the obvious red flags that this was a person who should be avoided at all costs? Furthermore, why did I continue to attract those who possessed such toxic personality characteristics, and how could I stop enabling narcissists?

Determined to break the cycle once and for all, I began researching the world of narcissistic personalities, where I discovered Dr. Craig Malkin’s 2015 book, Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad—and Surprising Good—About Feeling Special.

Malkin coins the term “echoism” to describe the pattern of enabling. It’s based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a work that contains the myth of the cruel shepherd boy Narcissus and the forest nymph Echo.

In this story, Echo is cursed by Juno, the Roman goddess of love and marriage, to be an echo chamber for others. After seeing Narcissus hunting, Echo falls passionately in love with this beautiful youth, though due to her handicap, she can only repeat the words of others. When they meet he rejects her, and in despair over the loss of her unrequited love, Echo wastes away until only her voice remains. Meanwhile, Narcissus goes to quench his thirst in a stream. When he bends over and sees his reflection, he falls in love with this image not realizing it’s just a reflection of him. Once he recognizes his mistake, he too wastes away. Echo sees his demise and joins Narcissus in his final lament.

Related: Quiz: Are you a spiritual narcissist?

Extending compassion versus enabling

According to psychiatrist Gauri Khurana, enabling is a pathological form of extending compassion. In her estimation, while most of the population is able to extend kindness and compassion without it being harmful to the recipient, enablers cannot do that. They often can’t understand the larger picture of what they are doing. “Enabling,” says Khurana, “encompasses the idea of losing oneself to take care of another.”

To those in recovery programs like Al-Anon, this description of enabling sounds very similar to codependency. Khurana differentiates between codependency and enabling by exploring the dynamics of the interpersonal relationship. “A codependent is controlled by an addict’s behavior and an enabler facilitates the addict’s addiction.”

Jill Leigh, the founder of the Energy Healing Institute, gives her clients skills for connecting to compassion and dialing down empathy, which she describes as feeling other people’s emotional material. In her work, she teaches her clients how to bring their awareness of others’ emotional experiences up to their heart, rather than focusing their awareness on their intuitive, sensate, gut-driven emotional energy. “Enabling is often driven through the discomfort someone feels when the narcissist pulls to get their needs met. It’s easier to meet them and avoid the discomfort that occurs when opting out of meeting the needs of the narcissist,” Leigh observes.

Signs you need to stop enabling a narcissist

For those like me who freely give of themselves, how do we know when our desire to help and extend compassion to another person is enabling a narcissist instead? Here are some signs Khurana and Leigh have seen in their practices that point to signs one is an enabler.

  • Anticipating the needs of another person to the extent that you lose the ability to recognize your own needs
  • Putting other people’s needs ahead of your own to avoid negative feelings and blowback
  • Feeling responsible for making the narcissist happy
  • Ignoring problematic/dangerous behavior and facilitating it for another person
  • Taking on more than your share of responsibilities.

According to Leigh, getting to the problem intellectually is often the easy part; changing the behavior often takes serious effort. She teaches energy-clearing skills to dismantle the patterns.

Khurana recommends dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), which helps one learn to set boundaries and understand the dysfunctional patterns they grew up with so they stop recreating them. “DBT is fantastic in that it combines individual and group therapies to help patients learn how to behave in society in a healthy way,” she notes.

Additionally, Khurana has found that enablers sometimes need and benefit from treatment for substance addiction and medication management to treat underlying mental illnesses that may be affecting their behavior.

Lose the enabling, keep the empathy

As an empath raised in a family of alcoholics with narcissistic tendencies, breaking this cycle proved to be quite tricky for me. I thought I had conquered my demons via Al-Anon and other self-help recovery programs coupled with therapy and spiritual direction. Yet, I continued to attract those with narcissistic traits, which can often mimic the behavioral patterns of substance abusers. At the advice of a friend with a similar history, I discovered EMDR and found this form of somatic therapy to free me from my childhood urges to “help.” I’m still an empath but no longer drawn to those who don’t return my affections in kind.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Spirituality & Health.

As a freelance writer with dual MDiv/MSW degree from Yale Divinity School and Columbia University, I focus on the rise of secular spirituality, religious satire, spiritual health & wellness, faith...

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