Enemy Mode: Your Brain on Narcissism

Editor's Pick, Perspectives

God designed a complex network of neurological circuits to work together to help us stay relationally connected and attuned to each other. When these relational circuits are running as designed, we call this “Relational Mode.” Our emotional and relational sensitivity is working and we look at life through a relational filter. We are emotionally attuned to other people and share their pain. In this mode our identity is stable and we spread joy and life to those around us.

A surprising feature is that relational circuits can operate kind of like a circuit breaker. When we use too many electrical appliances at the same time in our kitchen, this will cause our breaker switch to pop. The electricity stays off until I find the breaker in our breaker panel and flip it back on. Similarly, in emotionally intense situations, my emotional breaker can pop. My relational circuits dim or go off entirely. Suddenly, I have difficulty feeling my connections to those around me. Relationships are no longer my first priority. I am focused on stopping pain and solving problems. I am no longer processing life through the lens of relationships.

When our circuits go off, we lose our sense of connection to people. We have difficulty sensing God’s presence, too, and we even lose our sense of connection with our bodies. This brain state is called “Enemy Mode,” because people start to feel like enemies to be defeated or problems to be solved. Most of the time, these “enemies” are people we usually like but, at that moment, don’t seem to be on our side. I might even snap at my mother if she steps on my toe.

One of the first skills we learn in full-brained discipleship is to detect when our relational circuits have shut off and learn how to turn them back on. Before doing anything else, and especially before doing something that is relationally challenging—such as resolving a conflict—we need to first revive our relational circuits. The first step in any spiritual exercise must be to inspect our relational circuits and ensure they are on. Our spiritual practices will be ineffective when these circuits are not working. Transformation depends on our relational circuits running smoothly.

When people slip into narcissism, their relational circuits have turned off. They are in Enemy Mode. That is why they trample people. I would have said the same, but Enemy Mode is more nuanced. There are two types of Enemy Mode: Simple Enemy Mode and Predatory Enemy Mode.

In Simple Enemy Mode, all our relational circuits have shut down and we want people and problems to go away. We do not listen well to others, and our minds are locked on to our problems. We want to get away from a person, even if we love the person. In conflict, we will argue aggressively and will be quick to judge. We all lapse into Simple Enemy Mode from time to time.

In Predatory Enemy Mode, the circuits that govern our attachments are turned off, so we do not treat weakness gently and have shallow bonds with people. Unlike Simple Enemy Mode, the rest of the relational circuits are on, but they are used for predatory advantage. This is the crafty nuance of Predatory Enemy Mode. We attune to others, not to show compassion but to exploit their weakness. We track the emotions of others in order to pounce.

When acting like predators, we hijack the circuits that notice weakness in others, and use them for a purpose God did not intend. He designed these circuits to help us show compassion for weakness and treat others gently—to act like protectors. In Predatory Enemy Mode, we use these circuits to stalk prey.

The narcissist brain operates in Predatory Enemy Mode. A relational person notices weakness in others and feels compassion, but narcissists devour the weak. When we advance ourselves by tracking the weaknesses of those around us, we are operating in Predatory Enemy Mode. People in this predatory state evaluate others in the light of questions like: “How can I use this person to my advantage? What can they do for me? Do they love me enough, or should I get rid of them?”

A community that is ignorant of Enemy Mode is vulnerable to narcissistic influences. Members of that community may see Enemy Mode as strong leadership: “He may ruffle some feathers but he gets things done.” A person in Enemy Mode is not walking in the character of Jesus.

We get our brains out of Simple Enemy Mode by quieting ourselves and talking to God about our emotions. We get out of Predatory Enemy Mode by sharing our opponent’s emotional pain and praying for them.

If my enemy is a narcissist, I will still treat weakness tenderly, even though he or she may not treat me tenderly. Tenderness requires stable maturity and training. In order to love my enemy, I must have sufficient joy and love so it overflows to others. I must know who I am, because a narcissist will use condemnation to corrupt my identity.

Loving my enemy does not mean giving someone a free pass. Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). Praying for someone who feels like an enemy helps us share their pain, which is the path out of Enemy Mode. When our pain sharing circuits get turned off, we must bring them back into full operation to exhibit Jesus’ character.

Excerpt pulled from pages 171-175 in The Other Half of Church by Michel Hendricks and Jim Wilder

(Moody Publishers, August 2020)

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