Normal or Narcissist? Laurel Slade-Waggoner
How can you tell if you're dealing with a narcissist? Therapist Laurel Slade-Waggoner relays the story of her own dysfunctional, destructive marriage.
About the Guest
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How can you tell if you’re dealing with a narcissist? Therapist Laurel Slade-Waggoner relays the story of her own dysfunctional, destructive marriage.
Normal or Narcissist? Laurel Slade-Waggoner
Laurel: Someone with a personality disorder has what they call cognitive rigidity. They’re not able to be wise like the Bible says to add to their learning. Fools: that's what God calls narcissism. They hate instruction. They will not listen, and they will not make changes, so they're just very rigid in their ways and you can't work with someone that won't listen.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: Here's a question I'd love to ask you.
Ann: I have no idea where you're going.
Dave: I know you don't. That's why it's going to be sort of fun. Do you think I'm a narcissist? [Laughter] Go ahead and laugh. I'm not kidding. I want to hear your answer.
Ann: I would say no, you're not. But there were times—
Dave: Are you being that, really honest because you said at times—
Ann: Yes. There were times in the beginning of our marriage.
Dave: Oh, the beginning, 42 years ago.
Ann: Yes. I thought “You are so selfish,” not thinking I was selfish of course. I was too, but that's a good question. Why are you asking that?
Dave: Well, I mean, I'd love to know a definition, which we're going to get today, but there have been times when I thought “I have narcissistic qualities,” and you know I told you I was sitting with a pastor not too long ago and he said, “Every mega church pastor is a narcissist.” I’m like, “Oh boy, there's some real truth there and that could define me.” I don't want to be, but sometimes I don't think we know. So today is the day we’re going to find out.
Ann: I know a lot of women that say they're married to a narcissist.
Dave: You don't think husbands say the same thing?
Ann: I'm sure they do. I think a lot of us wonder, “What is a narcissist? Am I a narcissist? Are my kids narcissists? Is my daughter married to one?” There are a lot of questions about this.
Dave: Yes, so we’ve got to find out today. We’ve got Laurel Slade-Waggoner with us. She will know how to answer this question. [Laughter] First time on FamilyLife Today; Laurel, welcome.
Laurel: Thank you for having me. I'm very excited to be here.
Ann: We are too; tell us a little bit about what you do.
Laurel: So right now, I'm doing a lot of podcasting and book writing. I'm also a licensed mental health counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist and board certified professional Christian counselor.
Dave: You’ve got all these letters behind your title. I'm like, “She knows what she's doing.” But you counsel people, right?
Dave: And you've written about narcissism. I love the title of your book, Don't Let Their Crazy Make You Crazy. I'm guessing you came up with that.
Laurel: Yes, because tens of my clients were coming in saying “He is driving me crazy” or “I think I'm a narcissist. I think I'm crazy.” The word crazy was just being thrown around, so I said “Okay, you're not crazy.” I tell all of my clients, “You're not crazy; you're traumatized.”
Ann: Oh, interesting.
Laurel: “You're precious.” That's why the first chapter in the book is You Are Precious. A lot of people who have an authentic narcissist in their life don't really, don't really understand that they are in fact precious, man or woman.
Ann: They don't think they are because what?
Laurel: They've been told that they're not for so long that they've absorbed those projections and they no longer are in contact with who God says they are and who they truly are.
Ann: That's so sad.
Dave: It is sad, isn't it? Can we start where I was saying, “Okay, am I a narcissist?” [Laughter]
Laurel: Are you asking me for my clinical opinion?
Dave: I mean, you don't know me very well. Obviously, you can't tell if I am but—
Ann: She probably walks in a room like, “Oh, there's one.” There's certain signs or things that would be—
Dave: It’s like a number above my head. On a scale of one to ten you’re a nine point eight. Define it a little bit. I mean, it's a term of a lot of us have heard. I just used it and I'm not even sure I would know what to tell somebody if they said, “What is a narcissist?”
Laurel: It makes me really sad. The culture has stolen the word and diluted what it truly is. It is a psychiatric disorder. Narcissistic personality disorder is a psychiatric disorder. It's a pervasive pattern of interacting where there's a lack of empathy, where there's an excessive need for affirmation, where there's interpersonal exploitation powering up over another person. They're drawn to the grandiose. Sometimes they think they have to associate only with special people. They can be haughty.
There’re all kinds of narcissism though. There's overt narcissism where there's a lot of charm and a lot of personality. And then there's covert narcissism where there's a lot of control, an abuse that happens behind closed doors. It's misunderstood.
To understand narcissism, you have to understand what a personality disorder is. That means that there is an enduring pattern of that behavior, so it's not somebody, what you were talking about, that sins occasionally. We all fall short of the glory of God. We all are selfish at our core. That's not what I'm talking about in this book and in the kid’s book.
Dave: There's somewhat of an excessive because when you're saying some of that, there's like, “Oh—
Ann: I know people—
Dave: “I’ve got a little bit of that, you know.” There's an excessive need for affirmation. There’re some control issues here and that's just a normal sinner in some ways, but you know, what separates that? I mean, it's excessive control; it's excessive behavior over time or—
Laurel: Yes, so to look at what unhealthy is, maybe we can talk a little bit about what healthy is.
Dave: That would be great.
Ann: Oh, what a good idea.
Laurel: In a healthy relationship or marriage or any relationship really, there's dynamics that are all reciprocal or mutual. There's mutual honesty; there's mutual transparency; there's mutual care, concern, and effort. There's mutual respect for time and feelings and priorities. And this is the big key: there's the mutual ability to repent, say sorry, take ownership and make changes to collaborate for what's best for both people.
Ann: You're making that sound like this is a big one; that ability to repent, to say “I'm sorry.” Would you say that's really difficult for a true narcissist?
Laurel: I would say it's impossible.
Ann: Oh wow.
Laurel: Because they see things through the lenses of self-serving, so they don't take ownership for how they hurt another person. One of the clinical criteria, according to the DSM-5—that's our diagnosing manual—is they treat others with a lack of empathy, so they don't internalize another person's pain. They don't acknowledge that their words or behaviors cause someone else's pain. If it gets them what they want, then it's acceptable to them.
They have—someone with a personality disorder has what they call cognitive rigidity. They're not able to be wise like the Bible says, to add to their learning. Fools: that's what God calls narcissism is fools. They do not like instruction. They hate instruction. They will not listen, and they will not make changes, so they're just very rigid in their ways and you can't work with someone that won't listen.
Ann: It's so interesting. I'm thinking of people that are pre-married or they're engaged or they're dating, and for me, as you said that, that should be an alarm going off.
Dave: Like a red flag.
Ann: Like, “Oh, he never has apologized. He never has admitted he's wrong,” and they can twist it to make it feel like it's my fault.
Laurel: Exactly. Exactly. So narcissistic interactional patterns are people who blame shift like that, who gaslight, who try to make you think that you're the one that is at all—
Ann: “You're crazy.”
Laurel: You’re crazy, you're needy, you're too sensitive, all those things. They try to get people to make decisions out of fear, obligation or guilt, fogging them. So that's the exploitation. They want people to serve them.
Ann: I'm thinking about a person that's being abused even physically. I don't know very much about this in terms of the clinical part, but doesn't it seem like they'll be abusive but then the next day, from what I've heard, they can be very repentant like “I'll never do that again.” Is that true or are they not repentant?
Laurel: Well, I actually did a podcast on that; the difference between regret and repentance. Regret is very sorry for self, very sorry that they're enduring consequences. So maybe I'll have a couple come in and he's been unfaithful and he's crying, saying he wants his family. He's miserable, but there's no ownership. “I'm miserable. I'm sad. I don't like being a single parent. I need to get back in the home.” It's all about him and his feelings. He's regretful of that decision.
But repentance is “I don't want to be that person anymore.” I—kind of like David's heart in Psalm 51—"I've sinned against God. I don't like who I am. Please help me change.” And so that's what the Bible calls being wise, is they want to add to their learning, so they don't make those mistakes again and hurt somebody in the future.
Ann: That's a that's a big difference. That's good.
Laurel: Regret versus repentance.
Ann: Yes, that's really good.
Dave: Do you see people that you—and I guess, and you look at people and you can pretty quickly identify narcissistic behaviors. Do you see them change?
Laurel: That's a tough one. I believe that narcissists can change only because with Christ all things are possible. But they don't change. They will not change. That's part of biblical foolishness and that's part of clinical narcissism, that rigidity. They don't think they need to change so the prognosis that someone with a personality disorder, an authentic personality disorder, will change is very poor. I've seen a few change, but it's because something catastrophic has happened. Maybe they've lost all their money. Maybe they've had a heart attack and they realize, “Wow, I can't control everything the way I thought I can.” Because really, narcissism is about control. It's about wanting to be in charge. They don't see a need for a Savior; they're their own savior.
Ann: Wow. Let me ask you, Laurel. A lot of times we write books about things we've experienced. Have you experienced this narcissism in your own life with someone else?
Laurel: Yes, I have and that's why I think a lot of people come to counseling because they know I understand. Because a lot of people out there don't understand and that they endure further abuse.
I grew up with narcissistic parents, very financially irresponsible, lots of moving, evictions, different things like that.
Ann: Both parents.
Laurel: Yes. But my dad was very charming, and my mom just busied herself with pets and different things like that. I had a very, very chaotic upbringing. What did I learn about a man? A man is charming. Everything will always be okay, but you don't have to be responsible, so that's what I dated and that's what I eventually married.
Ann: Where did you fit in? Did you have siblings?
Laurel: I have a younger sister.
Ann: And so, you're the oldest. Growing up like that, did it cause, like, were you anxious? Were you thinking, like, “What are we doing?”
Laurel: Yes, older children especially are very prone to becoming parentified, becoming little adults at the age of six or seven. I started to learn that I had to take responsibility for my parents’ feelings so when my mom complained about my dad, I would be there. When my dad complained about my mom, I would be there. You just kind of lose your sense of self, and that's how you learn to exist, so it was very comfortable for me to be attracted to a narcissist.
Ann: It was normal.
Laurel: I was confused. I thought familiarity was attraction, but it wasn't. It was just comfortable because it was familiar, so I married someone who was very narcissistic, and we tried to make it work. He struggled with alcohol, struggled with overspending, anger toward the kids, and lots of adultery.
And so that's when I ran to my church and was referred to Dr. Clark's action plan and developed my own. I call it a Joshua 24:15 plan where I gave him choices. Joshua 24:15 says [paraphrase] “If serving the Lord is undesirable to you, you are free to choose what God's you serve, whether it's the gods of your ancestors, I think by the Euphrates, or the gods of the living land, they say the Amorites. But as for me and my household, I'm going to serve the Lord.”
Ann: That's a big decision. I'm guessing you had like an aha moment, like wait. This isn't just me being crazy. Was that a big deal for you?
Laurel: We ended up, I ended up giving him the choice. He said “Okay, I will work on it, I will do these things.” And then he didn't follow through. He didn't so we ended up divorcing. We were divorced for three years but then he came back and said “I want my family. I don't like being a single dad. I don't like this this. I don't like not having meals. I don't like this life. This isn't the way it should be.” I said “Okay, but you have to go back to church. You have to join a couple’s group.” And he's “Fine.”
So, we did. But I didn't understand that all that language, which is he was sorry for himself. He wasn't really taking ownership that “Hey, I didn't like who I was when I was that person, so we remarried.
Ann: Did he ever say, “I'm sorry”?
Ann: Never. Even when he wanted to come back?
Ann: And he never said, “Can you forgive me?”
Laurel: No, and those are great points. When I teach people about like, an authentic apology, an authentic repentance, I have a handout like, The Eight A's of an Apology. There's different steps and they have to admit. They'd have to ask for forgiveness. They have to make amends. And the big one at the bottom is they have to adjust. They have to—that's what repentance is, is there's a turning, there's a—
Dave: --life change, yes.
Laurel: Of course, toward a different way of interacting and so there wasn't any of that, Ann.
Ann: I’m sorry.
Laurel: But I wanted my family and thought that's what God wanted so we remarried.
Ann: He did remarry.
Laurel: And then—he was kind of a slow cycler, so he was okay for a few years and then started that behavior. And then by that time I had a thriving practice. I was speaking at church. I love my clients, and I was just so mad. I was speaking to women about this beautiful testimony about how God had saved our marriage and had a standing ovation for God; that God had taken a marriage and a divorce and then turned it into a beautiful remarriage. I was so mad at him for taking that testimony away. So mad at my ex-husband for taking that testimony away.
I did what I always did: ran to my pastor and said, “What do I do now? I just don't know. I love my clients. Do I just sit and suffer silently? What do I do?” And he said, “Weren't you here ten years ago saying the same things? Enough already. God will give you a different testimony, but it can be just as powerful.” And he was he was so right. Because my favorite parts of my job—I've talked with people all over the country—is hearing, “Oh my goodness, I didn't know what narcissism was. I heard you on the radio” or “Someone gave me your book and I didn't know but you've been through everything that I feel.”
Ann: I'm sorry that you went through all that. That's a lot. And even the shame you felt getting remarried and having that fall apart. All of us have that thought of like, “What are people going to think of me now?” So that had to be super hard.
Laurel: Well, now—then I did. I really understood regret versus repentance and healthy and you know, by that time I was just devouring anything I could get my hands on as far as Christ-like behavior and surrender and things like that.
Men don't typically like to go to divorce care or join groups. They don't like to put themselves out there and share their feelings right away. When I would work with gentlemen who are going through a divorce, I want them to be loved on by the church. And so, there's a gentleman running divorce care at our church, and he would take the men out to lunch and then they'd eventually get connected. He's kind of my conduit to getting them in. He had gone through a divorce, years prior, and he just was a quiet soul at church that I knew of. He was a good man.
Then he came to me and told me he wasn't going to be doing divorce care anymore. He was out of that season and stuff and so we eventually started dating in a healthy way and got remarried.
Ann: Good for you.
Dave: And now what, five kids?
Laurel: Five and two grandkids.
Laurel: We made a lot of mistakes. We were super careful. We love Ron Deal. [Laughter] We were super cognizant of the kids. We kept two houses for a whole year so that we wouldn't force them to blend, and they were the ones saying “We don't like this. We all want to live together.” I know I've been through probably everything [Laughter] marital you can possibly go through.
Ann: You’re very qualified, not only in your education but—
Dave: —experience and, yes. I mean your knowledge and your experience. I'm sitting here thinking “What would you say to somebody to keep them from making their crazy making them crazy?” I mean, do you say divorce? Do you say—I mean what do you say when they’re listening right now and they're going, “I am married to a controlling, unrepentant—you know, continuing behavior is not changing, a lot of regret, maybe, but no repentance”? Obviously, I think we can miss that even in our own lives. We can see it in our spouse and not ourselves.
But if somebody's really listening and they're like, “Whoa, my spouse has all those. Do I divorce? Do I get counseling? I've tried to change him or her for years and nothing's changed.” What would you say?
Laurel: I don't want people to think by my testimony, that they have to get divorced. I don't ever tell anyone to get divorced. What I tell them is that we've got a really look at what God does when someone is biblically foolish and not willing to look at things a different way, and we've got to do what God says. We start there and so we start by “What does God say?” Step one, we need to speak the truth in love, right? We give people the benefit of the doubt and we go to them with our concerns. I have a whole process of how to do that.
Dave: Yes. I like in your book you have acrostics everywhere. [Laughter]
Ann: I know, and we should also say—
Dave: As a preacher, I love those, man.
Laurel: You do?
Dave: I get do not and you have the Eight A’s of Apology. [Laughter] It's great.
Laurel: Rick Warren; it's years of reading Rick Warren’s devotions.
Ann: I also like that it's a 30 day; it's a skill-based journey to redemption. I like that and so I think that's really helpful. Why did you decide to do it like that?
Laurel: I think probably because I spent so much time in devotions. It is just in me to do that, and I wanted people not to miss out on the information and really camp out and saturate themselves in that day. Like day one is you are precious. I don't want that skipped. I don't want them skipping to read about the narcissistic behavior. They first need to understand their own preciousness. So that was my wish and dream was that people wouldn't methodically go through it one day at a time, but I don't know if many do.
Ann: Thank you for helping us.
Laurel: You're welcome.
Shelby: Hi, I'm Shelby Abbott and you've been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Laurel Slade Waggoner on FamilyLife Today. These are the practical truths that Laurel has laid out for us to help us understand what the Bible actually teaches and what it doesn't. Or how we've added on or subtracted from what the truth is in Scripture. I love this because there are so many who are under the control of another person, and they need help.
Laurel has written a book called Don't Let Their Crazy Make You Crazy: How to Stay Sane and Strong When the Narcissist in Your Life is Trying to Control or Abuse You. This book really helps you to understand what narcissism is, how it can be used as a weapon, and what to do when you're under specific control by a narcissist or an abuser in particular. You could pick up a copy of Laurel's book at FamilyLifeToday.com.
And while you're there, you could partner with us at FamilyLife. When you do, we're going to send you a copy of Nana Dolce's book The Seed of the Woman. Nana was on earlier this week. She's written a book that basically has 30 narratives that point to Jesus specifically through the eyes of women. It's a really encouraging book, and it is our thanks to you when you partner financially with us to help more families hear more conversations like the one you heard today. You can partner with us online at FamilyLifeToday.com or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329.
Now, when you partner with us, it could be a one-time gift or a recurring monthly gift as well. Again, the number is800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, tomorrow, Dave and Ann are going to be joined again by Laurel Slade-Waggoner. She's going to talk to us about how she protected her two kids from her narcissistic spouse. That's coming up tomorrow. We hope you'll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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