In a group, however, narcissism can be somewhat problematic. If someone thinks he is superior, without issues or problems, or wants all the attention, his narcissism affects the group process. The same is true when a member wishes to be ideal or be seen as ideal by the group. Since it’s important that people be their “real selves” for groups to flourish, you can see the problem. Narcissism is designed to hide our real selves because of shame and other problems. So it works directly against being real.
Also, another type of narcissism is caused not by shame, but by pride, arrogance, and omnipotence. Since growth takes place only in the context of humility, you can see a further problem. If people aren’t really trying to feel superior to cover up shame and crummy feelings about themselves, but actually believe they are better, growth is very difficult to achieve. This holds true for anyone who assumes a godlike stance as a primary identity. And those in the wake of an arrogant narcissist do not tend to fare well, because narcissists don’t understand vulnerability.
This arrogance creates another problem for a group indeed. The arrogant person may try to take over and become the “god” of the group, the “god-keeper” for the group, or the spokesperson for God. Ugly!
Guard the Group
However you deal with it, it is important to be aware of narcissism. Generally, the fix is somewhat like the one for aggression. You move from controlling traffic to trying to work it through, individually or with the group. It all depends on the group’s appropriateness, agenda, and purpose.
Set the Tone
Talk about the human pressure to look as if we have it all together and impress each other. Make “searching for the ideal self “ a topic of discussion. Talk about how we cover shame and crummy feelings about ourselves by trying to appear better than we are. Ask if members can relate to that. What shame might they be covering?
Again, talk about the culture you want to have, one where people are real and humble in the ways we discussed earlier. Ask the group how that is going and how you might have more of it. Make it an ongoing part of your cultural talks and discussions.
Be Direct But Not Disruptive
Again, check your gut to know how others are feeling. As with aggression, if narcissism is bothering you, it is probably getting to others. So don’t let the narcissist dominate the group with being so wonderful for too long. Do something, unless the problem is so benign it does not bother people and you have decided that this is not the place to deal with it. But at least stay aware.
The least disruptive, least intrusive intervention is just to take control directly, but without making process comments or confrontation. Again, the appropriateness of the group purpose and the ground rules enter in here. If you are not confronting each other as part of the group, then just facilitate.
• “I know, Joe, that you don’t feel those sorts of struggles. But some do, and I want to hear about Sue’s before we go on.”
• “Thanks, Joe, but it is not that great for everyone. How do some of the rest of you feel?”
• “Hang on, Joe. I think that kind of advice might be past the ground rules we set up. Why don’t you just hold on to that?”
So narcissism is not something to be talked about, just contained.
Address It outside the Group
The next level would be a confrontation from you outside the group. It would involve giving Joe some feedback in a way that does not become a part of the group itself. If the group is not one where process and feedback are happening, and Joe is becoming disruptive, take Joe aside one night and just give him some feedback.
• “Joe, I would like to make you aware of something. It seems that every time you share, it is about how great you are doing or how wonderful things are for you. I am afraid that might be making others feel less likely to share struggles.”
• “Joe, I am concerned that you are a little unaware of the other people in the group sometimes and how you might make them feel. Do you know that you come across a little ‘higher’ or ‘better’ than everyone else? Kind of like you don’t struggle with the same things that others do? Is that how you really feel?”
• “Joe, are you aware of the amount of sharing you do compared with the other members? I didn’t think you were, just because you are a verbal person. Try to watch that and see if you can help me make the sharing time more evenly divided. I want everyone to get a chance.”
Address Narcissism within the Group
If addressing issues is part of the covenant, then address this problem within the group. Follow the same procedure you would with aggression or another issue. You could ask others if they notice the dynamic of narcissism and whether they have feedback for Joe. Also, you could have them talk about what it is like for them, what their experience is to be with him and hear him. Again, this has to be something the group has agreed to want.
Finally, with a very process-oriented group that really wants to get into things, you could make it a group issue. “Is anyone noticing what just happened?” When Joe talks, you can have them deal with it and go from there. Another way is to say, “I notice that something happens here a lot. Sometimes when Joe shares, everyone kind of drops out. Things change in the group, but no one ever really talks about it. What is going on there? Does anyone notice this? What are you feeling when that happens?”
Be sure to model grace and truth, and follow the rules for confrontation that we mentioned earlier. And make sure that you have others do that as well.
Remember the rule again: Guard the process. If you are struggling with the person, so are others. Check in with the appropriate intervention, and be an advocate for the group. If it is not right to confront or make it an issue or process it in the group, then contain it. Figure out the right level, and do something. The process depends on it.
Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. (2010). Making small groups work: what every small group leader needs to know. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.