Self-esteem versus narcissism
Roos Vonk, professor of social psychology at Radboud University, and social psychologist Anouk Visser also conducted research into spiritual superiority. They interviewed psychologists, spiritual teachers, and laypeople, and asked them to describe people who use spirituality as a means of self-exaltation. They then translated these traits into statements such as, “I am more aware of what lies between heaven and earth than most people are” and, “The world would be a better place if others also had the insights I have now.”
From this they constructed a test for spiritual superiority and examined the relationship with other variables in three studies. In all studies, different groups were compared: participants undergoing mindfulness training, energetic training (psychic skills such as reading and healing, aura or karma), other spiritual training, and no spiritual training of any kind. The general conclusion was that the association between spiritual superiority and self-esteem was less pronounced in the latter group than in participants of spiritual training.
Those groups scored higher on statements such as: “I feel better about myself as I develop spiritually”. Spiritual superiority was also found to be more closely related to communal narcissism (thinking that only you can save the world and that you are more helpful than anyone else) than self-esteem.
In any case, it is important to distinguish between healthy self-esteem and narcissism. Self-esteem arises organically through developing skills and having positive social contacts. If a spiritual training contributes to that, there is nothing wrong with that and it is not an indication of spiritual narcissism. -But increasing self-esteem should not be an end in itself. Therefore, it is also important that the researchers were able to link spiritual superiority to communal narcissism. It is no longer about healthy self-esteem, but about an inflated ego.
However, it differed by type of spiritual training: participants of the energetic training consistently scored higher on spiritual superiority than practitioners of mindfulness. The energetic healers even more often claimed to know a lot about mindfulness than the people who practiced mindfulness! They also more often scored high on 'excessive faith in their own supernaturalism', especially on statements such as “If I open a random book to a page that is meaningful to me, it is no coincidence”. “I can send positive energy to others remotely” and “I can influence the world around me with my thoughts”.
The cause for the found connection between energetic training and narcissism has not yet been investigated. According to the researchers, certain workouts could strengthen narcissism by stimulating the feeling that you are special, for example that you have supernatural powers.
Conversely, it is also conceivable that some spiritual training programs attract people who already exhibit traits of narcissism. “In any case, our research illustrates that the pursuit of self-exaltation is so powerful and entrenched that it hijacks and uses methods designed to transcend the ego in the service of itself,” Vonk and Visser write.
This is an edited version from Psychology Magazine of an article previously published in Scientific American. Scientific American.
To be continued.