Understanding Spiritual Narcissism

A beguiling fake guru full of spiritual narcissism

Spiritual narcissism is a subtle but dangerous phenomenon that is quietly gaining traction in a society that is more and more attracted to positive thinking, self-improvement, and spiritual activities. This sneaky kind of narcissism frequently misleads even the most astute people by disguising itself as a spiritual awakening. To unmask the hidden ego and understand spiritual narcissism, one must navigate this treacherous terrain. A crucial and deep dive into its essence is essential so we may recognize its manifestations and equip ourselves with the tools to identify, avoid, and recover from its impact.

What is Spiritual Narcissism?

Spiritual narcissism occurs when individuals use their spiritual beliefs and practices to inflate their egos rather than to transcend them. It is the appropriation of spiritual jargon and rituals to assert superiority, often resulting in a paradoxical entanglement of the ego within the very practices meant to dissolve it. Spiritual narcissists perceive themselves as more enlightened or holier than others, masking their deep-seated insecurities and need for validation with a facade of spiritual authority.

The essence of spiritual narcissism lies in its paradox. And though it teaches the ego’s demise and the need for compassion and humility, tenets of many spiritual traditions. However, spiritual narcissists distort these teachings to justify their own inflated sense of self-importance because they engage in “spiritual rituals and/or teachings”. People with a strong spiritual belief system may think they are better than the rest of society because their experiences and insights put them on a higher spiritual level. However, spirituality lies in the daily practice of “good deeds” rather than the teaching of good practices.

The Characteristics of Spiritual Narcissism

Understanding the characteristics of spiritual narcissism is vital for identifying it in oneself and others. One of the primary reasons why it’s important to notice the characteristics of spiritual narcissism is to pay attention, in order to avoid being misled by individuals who masquerade as enlightened guides. Spiritual narcissists often present themselves with an air of superiority, claiming deeper insights and greater wisdom than others. Their charismatic demeanor can easily draw in sincere seekers, but beneath the surface, their intentions are often self-serving. By recognizing signs of spiritual narcissism, individuals can discern genuine teachers from those who exploit spirituality for personal gain. These traits often include:

  • GRANDIOSITY: A sense of superiority regarding one’s spiritual insights or experiences; (“I know more; therefore I am better than you” attitude).
  • ENTITLEMENT: A belief that one deserves special treatment due to their spiritual knowledge; (“Don’t you know how much good I’ve done?”).
  • EXPLOITATION: Using others’ spiritual or emotional needs for personal gain; (“Serving and servicing the master is the key to heaven”).
  • LACK OF EMPATHY: An inability or unwillingness to consider others’ spiritual journeys; (“I suffered more than you”).
  • HYPOCRISY:  Behaving contrary to proclaimed spiritual values while expecting others to adhere to them; (“The rules apply, unless they don’t”).
  • PROJECTION: Accusing others of flaws or behaviors that the spiritual narcissist exhibits; (“You are so egotistical”).

Historic Examples of Spiritual Narcissists


Through history, we can see repeated patterns of spiritual selfishness showing up in different ways. It is important to remember that ego-driven spiritual pursuits have always been harmful to both people and societies. In ancient societies, spiritual leaders often had a lot of power and control and claimed they had divine knowledge and understanding as a way to control their people. Their high status often allowed them to take advantage of their people and use their power to get what they wanted. From ancient shamans to Egyptian pharaohs, the draw of spiritual power mixed with material desires, creating a circle of power and control.

An indulgence is the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, according to God's justice, to the forgiven sin, which remission is granted by the Church

Apostolic Benediction and Plenary Indulgence Parchment, Oct 1948


It was during the Middle Ages that organized religion had the most power, with pastors having a lot of control over spiritual issues. The Catholic Church grew especially rich and powerful, but this often came at the cost of real spiritual growth. The selling of indulgences[1] and the abuse of those who don’t agree with the church, show how, organized spirituality can become tainted by narcissistic habits and put power and influence ahead of real spiritual awakening and the goodwill of their followers.


During the Renaissance and Enlightenment, people were more interested in learning and being independent, which led to the rise of spiritual groups and popular leaders. People like alchemists and occultists claimed to have special knowledge about the mysteries of the world and were looking for spiritual wisdom. Some people really wanted to become spiritually enlightened, but others used what they said they knew to control and take advantage of their following, which kept the spiritual vanity cycle going.


There were a lot of popular teachers and self-proclaimed spiritual leaders in the 20th century, especially in the West. People took advantage of people’s search for meaning and connection in everything from the New Age movement to groups like Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, often with terrible results. These cases show how spiritual power and ego-driven goals can cause a lot of chaos and pain for many people.

With all the social media and digital channels available today, spiritual selfishness has found new ways to show itself. Online, people who call themselves “gurus” and “influencers” gain fans by using what people think are spiritual insights to get famous and rich. People often hide a deeper need for approval and attention behind a carefully managed image of enlightenment. This keeps the circle of shallow faith and narcissistic self-promotion going.

Over the course of history, the desire for spiritual superiority and wisdom has mixed with the worst parts of human nature, causing abuse, pain, and manipulation. When you’re trying to grow spiritually, these past examples should tell you that you need to be humble, kind, and smart. By being aware of the ways that spiritual selfishness shows up over and over again, we can try to approach spirituality in a more genuine and caring way, free from ego and self-interest.

Spiritually narcissistic behaviors

Certainly, spiritually narcissistic behaviors have been observed across various historical contexts and were well documented. These examples highlight how spiritually narcissistic behaviors have persisted across time, driven by a desire for power, validation, and control. Recognizing these patterns is crucial for fostering genuine spiritual growth and fostering ethical and compassionate interactions within spiritual communities. Here are a few examples of these acts:

  1. DIVINE RIGHT OF KINGS: In medieval Europe, monarchs often claimed their authority as rulers who were ordained by God. Thus, they positioned themselves as spiritually superior to their subjects. This belief justified their absolute power and reinforced a sense of entitlement and superiority.
  2. INDULGENCES: During the Renaissance and Reformation, the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church exemplified spiritually narcissistic behavior. Clergy members exploited the fears of divine punishment of their believers and sold them pardons for their sins, enriching themselves while claiming spiritual authority.
  3. COLONIAL EVANGELISM: European colonizers often imposed their religious beliefs on indigenous populations, viewing themselves as spiritually enlightened and superior. These forced conversions disregarded the spiritual traditions and autonomy of native peoples, reflecting a sense of entitlement and cultural superiority. Often times, the converted were killed soon after.
  4. CULT LEADERS: Throughout modern history, charismatic cult leaders have exploited followers’ spiritual aspirations for personal gain while expecting absolute devotion. Whether through manipulation, coercion, or deception, these leaders exerted control over their followers, presenting themselves as enlightened beings with exclusive spiritual insights.
  5. NEW AGE GURUS: In contemporary society, self-styled gurus and spiritual influencers on social media often exhibit spiritually narcissistic behaviors. They cultivate a curated image of enlightenment and wisdom, leveraging their perceived authority for fame, wealth, and adoration while offering superficial or misleading spiritual guidance.

Types of Spiritual Narcissism

Spiritual narcissism manifests in various forms, each with its own unique characteristics and effects. Recognizing the different types of spiritual narcissists can help us understand the complexity of this phenomenon and protect ourselves from its insidious influence. Classifications offer greater insight, which is clear; They allow us to identify specific behaviors and motivations, making it easier to address and counteract them.

  • THE GURU COMPLEX: The Guru Complex manifests when individuals position themselves as spiritual leaders or teachers, demanding unwavering devotion from their followers while often exploiting them for personal gain. This phenomenon is not new and has been observed throughout history, with several prominent figures embodying this type of spiritual narcissism.
  • THE HOLIER-THAN-THOU: This type of spiritual narcissism is characterized by individuals who constantly judge the spiritual paths of others, considering themselves the ultimate standard of spiritual correctness. It manifests as a sense of moral superiority and condescension towards those perceived as less spiritually evolved.
  • THE ETERNAL STUDENT: Perpetually seeking new spiritual experiences and knowledge, not for actual growth but to display their spiritual “resume” is what most characterizes the Eternal Spiritual Student. This type of spiritual narcissism manifests as an obsession with accumulating spiritual credentials and experiences, sometimes at the expense of depth and genuine understanding. The usual outcome of this practice is someone who constantly attends seminars and workshops, though their actual life doesn’t seem to change for the better. Therefore, despite their constant education, they are usually unwilling to make the necessary changes required for change to occur, nor are they willing to listen to guidance from anyone else.
  • THE PURITY SPECIALIST: Purity narcissists are all about spiritual purity and exact rituals, often deriding those who do not meet their stringent standards. The concept of a “purity specialist” encapsulates individuals who fervently advocate for and enforce their particular standards of moral, ethical, or spiritual purity. These individuals often see themselves as guardians of righteousness, zealously promoting what they perceive to be virtuous behavior while condemning anything they deem impure or morally corrupt. The term can apply to a range of contexts, from religious leaders to social activists, and it often carries connotations of rigid adherence to dogma, intolerance of dissent, and a tendency towards moral absolutism.
  • COMPLEX NARCISSISTS: Spiritual narcissism can be particularly challenging to recognize and address when individuals exhibit a combination of types. This blending of characteristics creates a more intricate and insidious form of narcissism, making it harder to identify and counteract. Understanding how these types can merge provides deeper insight into the multifaceted nature of spiritual narcissism and underscores why classifications offer greater insight.

Historic Examples of Spiritual Narcissists

Throughout history, historic examples of spiritual narcissists abound, offering cautionary tales. These examples illustrate the multifaceted nature of spiritual narcissism and its potential for harm. Whether through psychological manipulation, financial exploitation, or leading followers into tragic outcomes, these figures demonstrate the dangers inherent in the unchecked authority of spiritual leaders. These include, but are not limited to:

Famous Spiritual Narcissists: 1.Grigori Rasputin 2.Charles Manson 3.Osho 4.Jim Jones 5.Satya Sai Baba 6.Andrew Cohen 7.Marshall Applewhite 8.Sun Myung Moon

Famous Spiritual Narcissists: 1.Grigori Rasputin 2.Charles Manson 3.Osho 4.Jim Jones 5.Satya Sai Baba 6.Andrew Cohen 7.Marshall Applewhite 8.Sun Myung Moon

  • GRIGORI RASPUTIN: A Russian mystic who wielded immense influence over Czar Romanov and his family (mainly his wife) and leveraged his supposed spiritual gifts for political power.
  • CHARLES MANSON: He utilized spiritual rhetoric to manipulate and control his followers by repeatedly forcing them to take part in “simulations of ritualistic killings”. Later, he led them into a dark spiral of violence without actually having to ask them, since they “knew what to do” having practiced it so many times. This became the grim reality of the Tate murders, which took place on August 8–9, 1969, in Los Angeles. Sharon Tate, who was 8½ months pregnant, and her unborn baby, along with 4 others, were killed in ritualistic and excessively violent ways. Later information has shown that Manson was a covert operative who underwent psychologically abusive training and later went mad.
  • RAJNEESH (OSHO): While advocating for enlightenment, meditation and creativity, Osho saw his community marred by allegations of manipulation and hedonism, including bioterror attacks, immigration fraud, and the exploitation of his followers.
  • JIM JONES: He presented himself as a charismatic and enlightened spiritual leader, promoting ideals of social justice and equality. However, his authoritative control over his followers culminated in the infamous Jonestown massacre in 1978, where over 900 people died in a mass murder-suicide under his command.
  • SATYA SAI BABA: Despite his popularity and the philanthropic work attributed to his organization, Sai Baba faced numerous allegations which included sleight of hand, sexual abuse, money laundering, fraud in the performance of service projects, and murder.
  • ANDREW COHEN: Cohen, the founder of the spiritual community EnlightenNext, provides a more contemporary example of spiritual narcissism. Initially revered for his teachings on spiritual awakening, Cohen’s leadership style eventually led to allegations of psychological abuse and authoritarian control.
  • MARSHALL APPLEWHITE, aka DO: He is known for his ability to convince intelligent and educated individuals to abandon their lives for his apocalyptic vision in the Heaven’s Gate cult. As co-leader of the cult, he famously castrated himself as a technique to subdue the “human-mammalian behavior”, a practice that was widely followed by his cult. He used his charismatic influence to persuade his followers to participate in a mass suicide in 1997, the largest in US history, believing they would ascend to a higher plane of existence, and offered his followers a “last chance to evacuate Earth” around the time Comet Hale–Bopp approached.
  • SUN MYUNG MOON: As the founder of the Unification Church, had a wide following, often known as the “Moonies”. Moon claimed to be the Messiah and positioned himself as a central figure in the spiritual lives of his followers. His teachings emphasized absolute loyalty and the centrality of his own role in the divine plan, often leading to the exploitation of followers for financial gain such as free labor and contributions.
Spiritual Narcissism: A bearded, topless and heavy-set man with tattoos and wings looks amazed and acts like a fairy who is sprinkling fairy dust

Who Becomes a Spiritual Narcissist

Understanding who becomes a spiritual narcissist involves examining psychological predispositions and life circumstances. It’s easy to conclude that all these “gurus” are far from our lives and that we are safe from their influence but this is far from the truth. Typically, any individual with narcissistic traits—such as a need for admiration, a sense of entitlement, and a lack of empathy—is  more prone to adopting spiritual narcissism, and any person can become susceptible to their influence in small and big ways given enough time and pressure. Therefore, the allure of spiritual superiority can potentially ensnare anyone, especially those who:

  • SEEK VALIDATION: Individuals looking for affirmation and respect through spiritual pursuits.
  • EXPERIENCE INSECURITY: People grappling with self-doubt may use spirituality to craft a more favorable self-image.
  • DESIRE TO CONTROL OTHERS: Those who enjoy exerting influence over others may find spiritual leadership attractive because followers are in awe of them and are usually servile or submissive without questioning “experts” or their “expertise” .
  • EMPATHS & PLEASERS: People with high sensitivity or intuition, empaths or those that suffer from the “good boy or girl” syndrome that are usually having difficulties with boundaries and are constantly trying to please others, are especially susceptible to becoming or being influenced by spiritual narcissists.

What Conditions Drive Spiritual Narcissism?

Several conditions can drive the development of spiritual narcissism, including:

  • CULTURAL SHIFTS: Societies increasingly valorizing spiritual awakening and self-improvement can inadvertently foster environments ripe for spiritual narcissism.
  • SPIRITUAL BYPASSING: Avoiding unresolved psychological issues by masking them with spiritual practices can create a breeding ground for narcissism.
  • ISOLATION: Lack of accountability and peer feedback in solitary spiritual practices can lead to inflated self-perception.
  • POWER DYNAMICS: Hierarchical spiritual communities can foster narcissistic behavior in leaders who face little opposition.

What are the Red Flags of Spiritual Narcissism?

Recognizing what are the red flags of spiritual narcissism is crucial for self-protection and maintaining the integrity of one’s spiritual journey:

  • LACK OF HUMILITY: Arrogance or dismissal of others’ spiritual insights.
  • MANIPULATIVE BEHAVIOR: Using spiritual teachings to control or belittle others.
  • CONTRADICTORY ACTIONS: Espousing spiritual virtues while engaging in unethical or harmful behavior.
  • UNWILLINGNESS TO SELF-REFLECT: Rejecting any feedback or criticism regarding their spiritual conduct.
  • EXCLUSIVITY: Creating an “in-group” of the spiritually elite while shunning outsiders.

How to Avoid Spiritual Narcissists

Equipping oneself with strategies on how to avoid spiritual narcissists involves both proactive and reactive measures:

  • EDUCATE YOURSELF: Familiarize yourself with the characteristics and tactics of spiritual narcissists.
  • SEEK DIVERSE PERSPECTIVES: Engage with a variety of spiritual teachers and communities to avoid insular thinking.
  • CULTIVATE CRITICAL THINKING: Question spiritual claims and teachings, even from revered sources.
  • ESTABLISH BOUNDARIES: Maintain personal boundaries to prevent manipulation and exploitation.
  • PRIORITIZE PERSONAL GROWTH: Focus on your own spiritual development rather than comparing it with others.

How to Heal from Spiritual Narcissistic Abuse

Woman standing alone with birds flying against heavenly backdrop, happy and well after her healing session that sets her freeRecovering from spiritual narcissistic abuse requires a multifaceted approach, addressing all mental, emotional and spiritual wounds. Recovery can be a challenging journey, but it is essential for reclaiming one’s sense of self and restoring emotional well-being. The process typically involves several key steps:

  • ACKNOWLEDGMENT AND VALIDATION: The first step in recovery is acknowledging that you have been a victim of spiritual narcissistic abuse. This may involve recognizing the mental and emotional manipulation and the gaslighting you’ve experienced and validating your feelings of hurt, anger, and betrayal.
  • EDUCATE: Learn about spiritual narcissism to avoid future entanglements. This may involve learning about the methods and tactics of manipulation, gaslighting, and emotional abuse you experienced and what personal elements led you to allow this.
  • SETTING BOUNDARIES: Establishing clear boundaries is crucial for protecting yourself from further abuse. This may involve distancing yourself from the abuser, limiting contact, and refusing to engage in manipulative or coercive behavior.
  • SEEKING SUPPORT: It is essential to seek support from trusted friends, family members, or mental health professionals who can provide validation, empathy, and guidance during the recovery process. Therapy, support groups, or counseling can be valuable resources for healing from spiritual narcissistic abuse.
  • SELF-REFLECTION AND HEALING: Engaging in self-reflection and introspection can help you understand the dynamics of the abusive relationship and identify any underlying vulnerabilities that made you susceptible to manipulation. Practicing self-care, mindfulness, and self-compassion can aid in healing emotional wounds and rebuilding self-esteem.
  • RECONNECT WITH AUTHENTIC SPIRITUALITY: Rediscovering the aspects of your spiritual practice that resonate with your true self, a self that is free from narcissistic influence and the narcissistic abuser, is an important aspect of recovery. This may involve exploring new spiritual practices, reconnecting with your inner beliefs and values, and cultivating a sense of connection with something greater than yourself.
  • SELF-COMPASSION: Practice self-kindness and forgive yourself for any perceived gullibility or weakness.
  • FORGIVENESS AND LETTING GO: Forgiving yourself for any perceived shortcomings or mistakes and letting go of resentment towards the abuser are essential for moving forward. Forgiveness does not mean condoning or excusing the abuser’s behavior, but releasing yourself from the emotional burden of holding onto anger and resentment.
  • REBUILD TRUST: Gradually engage with supportive and non-exploitative spiritual communities will give you a wide range of experiences, especially those that are with like minded people that will help you rebuild trust in yourself, your life and the world around you.
  • RECONNECT WITH AUTHENTIC SPIRITUALITY: Rediscover the aspects of your spiritual practice that resonate with your true self, free from narcissistic influence.
  • EDUCATE AND EMPOWER: Learn about spiritual narcissism to avoid future entanglements and empower others.


In a landscape where the quest for spiritual enlightenment is often fraught with pitfalls, recognizing and understanding spiritual narcissism is essential. By identifying its characteristics, understanding the types and historic examples, and knowing who is susceptible, we arm ourselves against its deceptive allure. Recognizing the conditions that foster spiritual narcissism and the red flags that signal its presence enables us to navigate our spiritual journeys with integrity. Learning how to avoid spiritual narcissists and how to heal from their abuse ensures that our pursuit of spiritual growth remains authentic and untainted by egoic distortions. In this vigilant awareness lies the true path to enlightenment, unmarred by the shadow of narcissism. By being vigilant and informed, we can better navigate the spiritual landscape, fostering environments that support true enlightenment and compassion over ego and control.

Your next step

SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP: Therapy can provide a safe space to process and heal from abuse.

HAVE A SPIRITUAL CLEARING AND HEALING: A spiritual clearing & healing is especially helpful to people who have experienced narcissistic abuse and is ideal for those who wish to seek an alternative approach to healing. A Hypertherapy® session includes a variety of approaches that will not only clear the negative energies surrounding any trauma that you may have experienced, but will also pinpoint with exactness any negative blocks, interferences and programming from this and other lives that led you to this reality. Identifying the dynamics, taking ownership of our own part in the circumstances, and working to correct and transcend the experience will transform your life and allow you to live it to its full potential.

[1] An indulgence is the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God’s justice, to sin that has been forgiven, which remission is granted by the Catholic Church, mostly during the middle ages.

Xenia Ioannidis
Teacher & Consultant of Alternative Therapies
Founder of Real Change Academy
(GrecoDow® & GrecoMastery® Educational Systems)