False Nun Syndrome and Its Secular Counterparts

Before you yawn and turn to something more interesting, let me reassure you that this blog post is about more than the title might suggest. I use the example of nuns because that is what I know best, but a little thought will soon show you where all this is leading.

From time to time, on Facebook, Twitter, in emails and on the street, I encounter False Nun Syndrome. It has various manifestations, but its chief characteristic is a desire to create nuns after the whims and fancies of the (human) creator. The ideal nun should be young, beautiful, smiling and silent — especially silent. She should be dressed in antique robes (the robes are important) and ready, at the drop of a veil-pin, to surround the unbidden guest with sympathy, tea and homemade cake. She must never, ever suggest she has a mind or opinions of her own, and should the beautiful brows ever beetle in anger or irritation, she must know that she is a complete and utter failure. The reality is, of course, that nuns and sisters are just like anyone else and can be middle-aged or elderly, ugly, opinionated and badly dressed. What matters is the fidelity with which each one lives her vocation before God — and that is largely a matter of individual conscience, duly informed and lived out in the particular institute to which she belongs.

So, do we find False Nun Syndrome appearing anywhere else? I think we do. We find it in all kinds of human relationships, where one person seeks to dominate another. It can also be called Perfect Wife/Husband/Child Syndrome. The husband who demands that his wife should always dress in a certain way; the wife who demands that her husband should always act in a certain way; the parents who demand that their child should be top of the class/outstanding at sport/play the violin, or what you will: these are all, in their different ways, guilty of wanting others to be as they want them to be and not as they are. It can cause conflict and private anguish; and in the case of children can scar them for life. It is closely linked to the arrogance I wrote about yesterday, and like arrogance it is often unremarked by the perpetrator who genuinely thinks he or she is doing the right thing. How many a parent has wailed, ‘I only wanted what was best for him’ on discovering that all the carefully-made plans have led to a break-down or worse?

There is a humility I think we all need to cultivate with regard to one another. It is not the same as indifference or lack of care or abdicating responsibility to challenge or correct. On the contrary, it means caring enough really to listen, really to look: seeing and hearing the real person, not the false person we wish to create. It means allowing the other person to be him or herself and adjusting our own views to cope. False Nun Syndrome is usually met with a wry smile or (as only too often in my case, alas) with an irritable little outburst. Much more dangerous is Perfect Wife/Husband/Child Syndrome and the damage that can do. Maybe this would be a good day to ask whether there is just the merest smidgeon of that in us? We may not have husbands or wives or children, but unless we live alone on a desert island, my guess is that there is someone, somewhere we do not always see whole and complete but only as we want them to be.

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3 thoughts on “False Nun Syndrome and Its Secular Counterparts”

  1. Oh, how right this is. I can recognise personality traits in myself from your description 🙁

    But thankfully, my self awareness has increased to such an extent that they’ve been under control for a substantial period of my life.

    I used to be career consumed for myself and those around me and actually impatient when I didn’t achieve the worldly goals set for myself and or meet my expectations of others. But that was in my younger, thrusting energetic self.

    Thank God for the changes that he wrought in me as I made progress and realised that my role wasn’t to emulate or envy the most successful, but more to stimulate and to encourage those around me to achieve their best. It meant risk taking on occasion, but to see others discover that they could overcome the obstacles that were preventing their growth or progress was joy enough.

    This was about the pastoral care that we need to have for other, less experienced, younger (or older) who through circumstances might be discriminated against or otherwise be ‘put upon’ because of who they are.

    And as this developed with others, it also led to growth in my own personal and spiritual life. Tiny seeds, sown by God, help us, whether or not we know it, to flourish and by so flourishing, we in thanks giving for that help others to flourish alongside us.

    Recognising this as a gift from God took some time, ego likes to think that we do it all through our own strength, but that’s a fallacy. If we do well, it’s through God’s grace, freely given and I am now able to see that we are to respond by sharing that Grace with others. Thankfully, I can now see my actions in that context, which makes me even more grateful for such blessings.

  2. Neatly put!
    Merton has a poem “When in the soul of the serene disciple/With no more Fathers to imitate” that puzzled me when I was young; I think that only now am I coming to realise this “copying” – which is what he’s on about – is part of this “false image syndrome.” Being a perfect monk, nun (or in my case) academic, dad means imitation rather than mimicry.
    Thanks for this.

  3. Agreeing with much of what has been written above but extending Nick’s point about imitation I wondered whether I may be permitted to share a further thought.

    Observing words, behaviour and actions in another and moving, in part, to imitate can be a means of ‘drawing close’ and providing support; thus leaving others feeling less isolated and, hopefully, helping to build community (both within ‘church’ or throughout society).

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