Journal of Religion and Health

, Volume 57, Issue 2, pp 561–574 | Cite as

Revisiting The Depleted Self

Psychological Exploration


This article revisits Donald Capps’s book The Depleted Self (The depleted self: sin in a narcissistic age. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1993), which grew out of his 1990 Schaff Lectures at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In these lectures Capps proposed that the theology of guilt had dominated much of post-Reformation discourse. But with the growing prevalence of the narcissistic personality in the late twentieth century, the theology of guilt no longer adequately expressed humanity’s sense of “wrongness” before God. Late twentieth-century persons sense this disjunction between God and self through shame dynamics. Narcissists are not “full” of themselves, as popular perspectives might indicate. Instead, they are empty, depleted selves. Psychologists suggest this stems from lack of emotional stimulation and the absence of mirroring in the early stages of life. The narcissist’s search for attention and affirmation takes craving, paranoid, manipulative, or phallic forms and is essentially a desperate attempt to fill the internal emptiness. Capps suggests that two narratives from the Gospels are helpful here: the story of the woman with the alabaster jar and the story of Jesus’s dialogue with Mary and John at Calvary. These stories provide us with clues as to how depleted selves experienced mirroring and the potential for internal peace in community with Jesus.


Donald Capps William James Melancholia Sin Guilt Shame Depleted self Narcissism Church leadership Problematics of the self Mirroring Self-trust Community 


In 1900, William James wrote to his young daughter, Margaret, about his struggle with melancholia. According to Rubin (1994), as James battled with this disease he described his experience of enduring “waves of terrible sadness, which sometimes lasts for days” (p. 20). He also described the ubiquitous feeling of “dissatisfaction with one’s self, and irritation at others, and anger at circumstances and stoney insensibility, etc., etc., which taken together form a melancholy” (p. 20). But, James continued, “painful as it is, this is sent to us for an enlightenment” (p. 20).

If his melancholia was indeed sent to him for the purpose of enlightenment, it came at a great cost. As late as 1872, James appeared to lament the “self he murdered” when he denied himself the career that he most favored.1 James’s two great regrets in relation to his professional life were his jettisoned career in art and his inability to serve the Union Army during the American Civil War. These twin regrets caused his melancholia to rage “like a fever” within him, and a “new dialectic of depression developed,” which gave rise to “illness, doubt, and thoughts of suicide” (Cotkin 1994, p. 46).

Even before his career struggles came to a head, James struggled with a deep and abiding sense of sadness. Some commentators, Rubin (1994) and Capps (1997) among them, note the religious nature of James’s melancholy. Commenting on James’s influence on the German sociologist Max Weber, Rubin notes that both men struggled with the “existential questions of modern life” (which included the challenges of finding meaning in career and life) and worked hard to “embrace the demon that held together the fibers of their lives” (p. 20). The demon, of course, was a reference to the religious melancholy experienced by both James and Weber. Both men went through mental breakdowns early in life, and their “lives were marked by nervous exhaustion and debility” (p. 19). In Men, Religion, and Melancholia (1997), Capps notes that “James considered his melancholia the basis on which he could claim his own ‘imaginative identification’ with the religious” (p. 31). The claim is not that all episodes of melancholy are religious in nature or that there is necessarily a vital link between religious experience and melancholia. Rather, he suggests that “there is sufficient similarity between them for the one to shed light on the other” (p. 31).

Weber’s analysis of the United States suggests that the nation had bartered away its soul by pursuing wealth at the expense of its spiritual values—“its religious and ethical meaning”—the pursuit of wealth having become a type of “sport.” This created an “iron cage,” a “mechanized petrifaction, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance” and spawned a culture of “specialists without spirits, sensualists without heart.” To this group Weber addressed a biting criticism: “this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved” (italics mine, p. 20).

James builds on Weber’s critique, offering a perspective that takes into account the psychological and emotional “dimensions of religious melancholia for persons trapped within this ‘iron cage,’ and within the life-order of evangelical Pietism” (p. 20). To James, American Protestantism was a religion of “morbid-mindedness,” which saw the

natural orders of the world as depraved and the human body as evil and required a saint’s effort to remake the world in God’s image and find rebirth (the religion of the twice-born) through a protracted and painful conversion experience. A religion of morbid-mindedness viewed the unconverted individual as a vile creature living in sinful alienation from God and warring against the self. James argued that the existential condition of the unconverted in a religion demanding rebirth necessarily engendered a religious melancholy among the faithful (p. 18).

James believed that this religious morbidity so influenced the individual’s “tender” conscience that it exasperated his unhappiness and feelings of being “inwardly vile and wrong” and, thus, caused him to stand in antipathy to his Creator. Furthermore, the feeling of being wrong in relation to God invariably gives birth to the “religious melancholy and ‘conviction of sin’ that have played so large a part in the history of Protestant Christianity” (p. 19). This wrongness is also pertinent in a study of the depleted self.

The Language of Sin: Guilt and Shame

In The Depleted Self (1993) Donald Capps assesses the language of wrongness—the language of sin—in the modern church and suggests that a theological reorientation has been taking place from the mid- to late-twentieth century. Within this time period pastoral counseling has shifted its focus away from the “should,” “ought,” and “must” language of a moralistic framework and has oriented itself around therapeutic language concerned with human experience. Influenced by Black, feminist, and Third World theologies, pastoral counselors have begun to consider a theology of sin drawn from the “perspective of the victim” (p. 3).

Because the “sociocultural situation” of the early 1990s was so radically different from the days of the pioneers in the field (he mentions Anton Boisen, Seward Hiltner, Carroll Wise, Wayne Oates, and Howard Clinebell), Capps suggests that simply retrieving what these pioneers had to say in regard to sin and forgiveness would not suffice for the current day. His project is to offer a reformulation of the theology of sin that would draw attention to the current problem of shame. His stated goal is to “show that sin language is as relevant to the human situation as it ever was.” However, he is careful to state that something has changed, “perhaps radically, in the way that we today experience a sense of wrongness—wrongness in our inner selves, wrongness in our relations with other persons, and wrongness in our relations with God” (italics mine, p. 3). The days when Christians experienced this disjunction between God and themselves based on a sense of personal wrongdoing and moral culpability have given way to the modern struggle with shame. “In our times, we are much more likely to experience this ‘wrongfulness’ according to shame, rather than guilt, dynamics. Thus, to speak meaningfully and relevantly about sin, we have to relate sin to the experience of shame—not only, not even primarily, to the experience of guilt” (p. 3). According to Capps, pastoral caregivers now need to speak to a new generation of people with needs that are quite different from those of previous generations. The cultural context has changed, and Capps encourages us to speak about sin in an age when shame, not guilt, is the “more deeply felt emotion” (p. 3).

The Depleted Self was published in the early 1990s—not too long after America’s long slumber in the idealistic dreams of the Reagan era. Some may recall that Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign slogan was, “Let’s make America great again.” In The 1980s (2007) by Bob Batchelor and Scott Stoddart, the decade is described as the time of “shop ‘til you drop” youth mall culture spurred on by MTV and its corporate sponsors (p. 27, pp. 70–77). The ‘80s was the age of huge disparities in wealth, thanks in part to “Reaganomics” (an economic philosophy that Ronald Reagan’s own Vice-President, George H.W. Bush, had once described as “voodoo economics”). Corporate takeovers and insider trading scandals regularly made the news.

In cinema, perhaps the emblem of this age of excess was Gordon Gekko, one of the main characters in Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street (1987). Gekko “oozes charm as he purrs into the microphone his own credo, ‘Greed is good’” (Batchelor and Stoddart, p. 157). A composite character based on several business leaders of the day (including Ivan Boesky and the “Junk Bond King” Michael Milken), Gekko was played by Michael Douglas, who won an Academy Award for the role. The character is a “ruthless, multimillion dollar tycoon whose earnings afford him a most fabulous life” (p. 156). For Gekko, the accumulation of wealth had become a type of “sport” (to borrow the term Max Weber used in his warning to Western society). While Stone’s Wall Street was intended as a morality tale—a rebuke of the soulless materialism of the day—it instead inspired many young people to pursue both legitimate and illegitimate opportunities presented by New York’s financial district. Thus, Gekko inadvertently became a cult hero to those who aspired to the wealth and power of Wall Street.

The new type of individual who has emerged in the decade of the 1980s is described by Capps (1993) as a “narcissist” who is haunted by anxiety (of a type attached to shame rather than guilt) (p. 6). Drawing on the work of Christopher Lasch, Capps makes the point that the new narcissist is unencumbered by guilt because he “does not really experience guilt at all” (p. 7). Instead, the “axis” around which the narcissistic self turns is shame, which has its core in an individual’s inability to form a basic attachment to the primary caregiver in the first two years of life (p. 7). Capps points out,

Our need for mirroring, a key theme in Kohut’s work, concerns the actual and symbolic role of the adult’s face in the forming of the infant’s emotional life. When the adult returns the infant’s smile, the infant experiences self-recognition, which is inherently pleasurable, and learns that his or her own behavior can evoke a positive, loving response from another. If, on the other hand, the adult is an unreliable mirror, whether by failing to return the child’s smile, or returning it only on some but not all occasions, the infant experiences rejection, and insecurity and self-mistrust follow. Parents’ failure to mirror the infant is often due to their own emotional depletion (p. 29).

When the primary caregiver is unable to reflect his or her love, acceptance, and compassion in ways that the child can recognize, there is a deep sense of emptiness that develops within the child.

Heinz Kohut and others have pointed out that a lack of emotional stimulation from primary caregivers contributes to the narcissistic personality. Children need validation of their experiences as “appropriate and true” (p. 30). Capps observes that an “absence of mirroring leads to self-depletion, to the formation of a very insecure, undernourished self.” Narcissism is a form of defense against deep feelings of shame. People who struggle with such shame often seek recognition, admiration, and adulation from the outside. Rarely are people aware of their internal needs or the drive to seek such external validation. Most simply act out of impulse and familiarity with a pattern of behavior. Sadly, no matter how much attention they receive from those who populate their external world, they still feel an internal void. This misery feeds the cycle; more attention is sought to fill the emptiness but the hunger remains.

In “Shame: The Veiled Companion of Narcissism,’” Leon Wurmser (in Nathanson, 1987) suggests that the word “shame” covers three distinct but related concepts. First, shame is the fear of disgrace. It is the anxiety related to the possibility that one might be looked at with contempt by others. Second, it is the feeling one experiences when one is in actuality being looked upon in this way. He described this as the “affect of contempt directed against the self—by others or by one’s own conscience” (p. 67). Third, and somewhat in antitheses to the second concept, shame is a character trait that involves striving to prevent such humiliations through right action. Thus, we may ask others or ourselves “Have you no shame?” In this sense, he says, shame is a trait which contains “an attitude of respect toward others and towards oneself, a stance of reverence…for oneself. This third form of shame is discretion, is tact, is sexual modesty” (pp. 67–68).

Wurmser suggests that we must actively attend to defense mechanisms so that the underlying pain of the individual can be revealed. Without such a revelation, the path to healing may escape both the counselor and the counselee. Commenting on Wurmser’s observation, Donald L. Nathanson (1987) remarks:

But if shame is the emotion experienced when we are uncovered, then the very act of analytic exploration must produce shame, against which the patient must defend again and again. Here is the requirement for infinite patience. Also, most important is tact, defined herein as awareness of the patient’s nearness to shame (p. 64).

It was once quite common (and probably remains so today) for people from religious backgrounds to draw attention to sin and guilt. One cannot draw attention to shame in quite the same way. Well-developed defense mechanisms insulate the individual against such painful exploration. The act of exploring shame can in itself be a shaming experience for those who suffer.

Narcissism and Church Leadership

One of the important discussions in The Depleted Self has to do with the distinction between the narcissist and the individualist (who is often accused of being a narcissist). Capps defends individualism in the chapter entitled “Expressive Individualism as Scapegoat.” Although he draws primarily from Emerson in this chapter, it is evident that William James is also present in the ethos of Capps’s defense of the need for individualism at both the macro level of a society and the micro level of the local church. The impulse of societies and of organizations (like the church) is to draw people toward a baseline of conformity, but both church and society are benefitted when individuals arise: “Individualism, especially in its expressive form, is the catalyst behind…parishioners’ commitment to real community” (p. 119).

In the opening chapter of The Depleted Self both personality types (the “new narcissist” and the “rugged individualist” of a prior generation) are presented as isolates. The rugged individualists of a bygone era isolated themselves by choice, in pursuit of higher social goals that demanded their attention. Because rugged individualists were doing important work on behalf of society, they were distracted by their lofty ambitions for the world they lived in. By contrast, the new narcissists “are isolates because they cannot maintain interpersonal relationships, however desperately they try” (p. 7). This failure in interpersonal relationships is due to the fact that the narcissist “is his or her cause,” as opposed to the rugged individualist “who has a cause.”

Given the narcissist’s difficulty in establishing and maintaining personal relationships and his inability to pursue higher goals or more altruistic ambitions, one wonders what might happen if a narcissistic personality came into leadership in our churches, corporations, or government. Would the narcissistic personality succeed admirably or fail miserably? Commenting on Christopher Lasch’s work in The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (1984), Capps notes that that the narcissist has certain character traits which enable him to find success in bureaucracies. Bureaucratic institutions put a “premium” on the manipulation of personal relationships, discourage deep relational attachments, and provide the narcissist with the type of validation which boosts his self-esteem (p. 9). While his personal life may be overwhelmingly empty, the narcissist’s professional life may be on an upward trajectory thanks to a corporate system that rewards his behavior. Capps makes the penetrating observation that “since our churches have taken on many of the characteristics of bureaucracies, it is not surprising that clergy are sometimes rewarded, not punished, for their narcissistic behavior” (p. 9). If the narcissistic self is oriented around shame rather than guilt, the church has allowed the shameful self to take center stage in the work it attempts to do in God’s name.

What happens when deeply injured people are given liberty to parade themselves within our religious institutions (especially if the institutions allow these leaders to surround themselves with sycophants)? Churches, relief agencies, theological seminaries, etc., are all potential victims of unhealthy forms of acting-out by narcissistic personalities in leadership. In Let Us Prey: The Plague of Narcissistic Pastors and What We Can Do About It (2017), Glenn Ball and Darrell Puls consider the subject of narcissism among pastors in the North American context. In the first chapter, the authors qualify their assessment of narcissism among church leaders by expressing their reluctance to diagnose people: “We are not making a formal diagnosis of anyone; we are simply stating that a much larger than expected number of pastors met the diagnostic criteria as set forth in a reliable, validated diagnostic instrument” (p. 17). Still, they are deeply concerned by the results of their study:

The percentages of high scores indicate a strong trend that is real and operating as you read this, which is why we must raise awareness now. We are convinced that everyone in a church leadership position needs to have a heightened awareness of the problem, its scope, and its consequences. This includes seminary professors, board members, staff, therapists, and everyone else who works directly with pastors, or is just a member of a church (p. 17).

The authors are careful to note that a large percentage of ministers “channel their narcissistic tendencies into healthy outlets and truly care for their congregations” (p. 16). Yet, one in three suffer from “malignant self-love,” which drives them to “feed off others much like a real-life emotional vampire” (p. 16).

One of the many cases recounted by Ball and Puls is that of “Mary Jane,” whose actions contributed to the decline of at least two churches she had served as pastor. In recounting the case, Ball wonders if the decline of church attendance in America is at least partially due to parishioners’ frustrations with narcissistic ministers. Mary Jane managed to drive churches with fairly active and full congregations to lower and lower attendance rates. “During her time, each church had lost 60% of their members and worship attendance was often under ten people in the year-round portion of the two congregations” (p. 79). When her grandiose ideas about her ministry and anointing failed to match the reality of her circumstances, she would change congregations, “leaving devastation in her wake” (p. 79).

Mary Jane was convinced that she heard directly from God and that she was God’s unquestionable anointed leader. Her grandiose sense of self affirmed her divine authority to do as she pleased. She refused to dialogue with the board of elders. She “steamrolled her demands through and did not listen to the concerns of others” (p. 80). Mary Jane’s style of leadership and abrasive personality fractured the spiritual life of the faith community. Many members left the church. She refused to listen to the advice of ministry peers from other churches, and eventually refused to welcome them to “her” church. The members of the church felt emotionally and spiritually “beat up” by Mary Jane (p. 80). They were tired of her constant berating and belittling of their religious practices. Mary Jane “had felt it was her mission to turn mainline Presbyterians, who are not exactly noted for their emotional outbursts, into shouting and dancing Pentecostals. When the members of these small churches did not respond to her satisfaction, she repeatedly accused them of being ‘carnal Christians’” (p. 80).

In the case of one of the churches that Mary Jane vacated, the greatly dwindled congregation struggled to find a new pastor. The church came to the conclusion that it could only afford to support a part-time pastor. When the new pastor arrived, congregational leaders were surprised to learn that they could have rational discussions with him. He listened to them carefully and seemed open to dialogue. He did not berate them or minimize their ideas. He even encouraged them to be proud of their faith tradition and pointed out its virtues. The congregation discovered that it could work together with the pastor—there was no need for decision-making processes to result in antagonism between pastor, lay leadership, and congregation. It was rare that everyone got what they wanted but there was a serious effort to include all the members and to take all opinions seriously.

Capps’s primary concern in regard to narcissism among ministry professionals was related to “moral narcissism.”2 The figure of Don Quixote charging windmills and pursuing the love of Dulcinea was always quite amusing for him, especially when he could playfully make comparisons to modern day clergy. However, I wonder if his more serious concern was relayed in the first chapter of The Depleted Self, where he expresses his reservations about a type of pastoral care that is chiefly concerned with the “moral context” that becomes a matter for ethics, rather than one concerned with “psychodynamics and psychosocial processes” viewed through the lens of theology (p. 3). “Sin,” Capps says, is, “after all, a theological matter” (p. 3).

In personal conversations, I discovered that Capps believed narcissism among ministers was often sublimated into more positive pursuits and goals such as sacrificial service, commitment to a faith community, and concern for the neighborhood in which the church was located. Each of these served the moral narcissism of the minister but also benefitted the community in some way. Sadly, this good service could be waylaid by the casual (and sometimes even callous) disregard of the minister by the served community. In The Depleted Self, Capps discussed a study he conducted (in 1988 and 1989) which had differing results from the one conducted by Ball and Puls (2017). Capps’s study seemed to indicate that narcissism among ministers ultimately took the form of melancholy, which “was overwhelmingly judged to be the most deadly sin” by 36% of the laity and 26% of the clergy (p. 64). Most ministers did not show signs of exhibitionistic narcissism. Rather, the form most associated with clergy was of the “craving, emotionally hungry type” related to the often selfless and thankless service that was expected of them. “Thus, the minister is especially vulnerable to self-depletion” (p. 57).

Categories of Narcissism and the Problematics of the Self

There are a number of narcissistic personality types that Capps brings to our attention, based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) and drawing from typologies offered by psychoanalytic theorist Ben Bursten.3 The traits are oriented in clusters, and different traits are reflected by different types of narcissism.

First, the “craving personality reflects the tendency to be emotionally undernourished” (p. 20). This type of personality is often labeled dependent or passive-aggressive and constantly requires the support of others. Other words used to describe them are clingy, demanding, pouty, and whiny. Some people with this personality type can be lively and charming in certain circles, but such qualities hide a sense of desperation and drivenness. The needs of the craving personality can never be met because the needs are not the issue at all. “The neediness is deeply rooted in the self, and reflects a void that no amount of need-satisfactions can fill” (pp. 21–22).

Second, the paranoid narcissist may lead an active and productive life, but is given to “hypersensitivity, rigidity, unwarranted suspicion, jealousy, envy, excessive self-importance, and a tendency to blame others and ascribe evil motives to them” (p. 22). Other traits that are exacerbated by the hypersensitivity of the paranoid narcissist include projection of one’s self-contempt onto another and suspicion of others. Capps notes that the paranoid type “reflects what is true of all narcissistic personality types…they are engulfed in self-hatred” (p. 22). Narcissists are not in love with themselves; at the core, they despise themselves. Narcissists are not full of themselves; in fact, they struggle with a deep and abiding sense of emptiness (a nullity, to use Weber’s word).

Third, the manipulative narcissist (who is “fully aware of what he or she is doing”) attempts to influence others towards his own aims and ambitions (p. 23). In order to win at his game, he will work hard to earn the other person’s trust and then exploit this trust for his own ends. He will employ deception without any stroke of conscious. If his manipulation succeeds, he will revel in his disdain for the person he has deceived. The deceived person deserved what he got for being such an easy mark. He was “’gullible,’ ‘naïve,’ or a ‘pushover’” and thus not prepared to “survive in the dog-eat-dog world of today” (p. 23). The manipulative narcissist is characterized by “lying, little apparent guilt, transient and superficial relationships, and considerable contempt for other people” (p. 23).

Fourth, the phallic narcissist “is characterized by the need to parade his masculinity, often along athletic or aggressive lines” (p. 24). The phallic narcissist tends to be an exhibitionist, calling attention to his “body, clothes, and manliness” (p. 24). Male phallic narcissists have a “dual attitude toward women” that alternates between “locker-room language” and idealistic language about “motherhood and the sanctity of women” (p. 24). Female phallic narcissists tend to be cold, haughty and arrogant, and like their male counterparts tend to be “very conscious of their clothes and cars” (p. 24). Like other narcissistic personality types, the phallic narcissist is “profoundly lacking in self-love” (p. 24). The conceit and arrogance of the phallic narcissist is an attempt to overcome “a pervasive sense of self-contempt, of shame for who and what one is” (pp. 24–25).

Capps’s theology of shame is concerned with the impact of shame on the self. Shame undermines our attempts at recovery from injury to the ego and forces us to face the question of life’s meaning in ultimate terms. We are “compelled by shame to recognize our estrangement from ourselves and others” and we “find ourselves in need of healing, of true self-repair” (p. 84). The idea of shame is essential in the Garden of Eden story, which has often been read through the lens of guilt. The human couple felt great shame before God and each other. They hid because they were estranged from God, each other, and self.

At core the narcissistic personality is dealing with shame and alienation (from self, others, and God). This does not mean that the narcissistic personality shies away from others, or lives as a recluse. Quite the contrary, the various narcissistic types are capable of being in the center of social life and, although they live with a deep sense of shame, do not evidence any reticence in dialogue with others. The alienation they experience is deeply internal, and even if they forge friendships, they are not able to have true commitment to the other people in their lives. The craving narcissist desires the company of others in order to extract from them the attention and affirmation they long for. Similarly, the phallic and manipulative narcissistic types require the attention of others. Even the paranoid narcissist is able to engage with others (to a certain degree) and tends to do well in professions that require a high level of suspicion.

The connection between shame and the self is illuminated by Capps’s term “the problematics of the self.” These are categorized as the divided self, defensive self, and depleted self (pp. 86–100). The divided self is—as the term indicates—expressive of the ways in which the self may “experience itself as divided or split.” For example, there may be a lack of harmony or consistency between the ideal and the real self, resulting in the individual’s feeling of being immobilized, hesitant, or unsure of oneself. Experiences that shame an individual create obstacles to the unifying of the self, “often causing us to feel that we have regressed to an earlier stage in our self-evolution” and challenging our belief in our current level of congruency (p. 87). From the perspective of a theology of shame (as opposed to a theology of guilt), “talk about the best and worst parts of the self is avoided; the grandiose and idealizing selves are not evaluated as best or worst, but are merely different” (p. 91). The theology of shame recognizes that people are wounded; humanity’s task is, in Heinz Kohut’s words, to attend to the “understimulated” and “insufficiently responded to” child, “the daughter deprived of an idealizable mother, the son deprived of an idealizable father” (p. 93).

The defensive self indicates the protective steps taken by people who have experienced shame to “avoid additional shame experiences” (p. 94). Drawing here from the work of Gershen Kaufman, Capps notes that people who have undergone shaming experiences will often develop “defensive strategies to enable them to avoid or blunt the painfulness of future experiences of shame” (p. 95). Such strategies include rage, contempt and blame directed at others, striving for perfection or power, and withdrawal. Kaufman, in The Psychology of Shame: Theory and Treatment of Shame-Based Syndromes (1996), notes in the preface that “Shame always alerts us to any affront to human dignity… In the context of pathological development, shame is central to the emergence of alienation, loneliness, inferiority, and perfectionism” (p. xvi). The defensive self refuses to accept its own shaming experiences. Instead, shame is projected onto someone else. Citing the example of Augustine, who shamed his illegitimate son Adeodatus, Capps observes: “Ourselves the victims of shame, we are disposed to victimize others, especially those who are weak and vulnerable, who are unable to defend themselves against these assaults on their own vital selves” (p. 97).

The depleted self is more common than the defensive or divided self, and it is for that very reason a greater concern. A depleted self may outwardly seem to be stable. Such a person may even seem to be leading a productive life. The feelings of depletion are not constant or perpetual but exist somewhere in the background of a productive life. Depletion is characterized by feelings of inward emptiness or depression, a sense of not being “fully real,” a clouded emotional life, or a feeling of leading a routinized life where one finds oneself doing work without “zest” or “initiative” (p. 97). These are “subtle experiences of self-depletion” and relate to a “nameless shame that is often too deep and too demoralizing for words” (p. 99).

Paul Tillich, the theologian who spoke a great deal about the divided self and who took seriously the work of the depth psychologists of his day, tied his concern on this matter to a theology of guilt. While Capps appreciates Tillich’s work, he pushes the issue further. A theology of shame takes a non-moralistic approach to the problem of self-estrangement in its various forms: divided, defensive, and depleted. But here there is room for hope. The two selves of the divided self need not exist in antithesis to each other, the one having supremacy over the other. Inspired by Kohut, Capps advocates for self-mirroring between the inner selves. Instead of “acceptance,” which implies tolerance to the weaker self, he proposes “mirroring,” which appreciates the essential and necessary quality of the other self. “Self-mirroring,” he says, “is a more powerful and dynamic expression of self-love than is acceptance because it involves a positive regard for the other self, one that eschews any note of or form of superiority or condescension” (pp. 91–92). More than acceptance, this act implies celebration of the other self. In essence, it says to the other, “I see you, and I rejoice.”

The Example of Jesus

Donald Capps did not think of Jesus as a person who stood aloof from human experience. Jesus was a human being who related to us in our human condition. Thus, Capps points to the figure who suffers shame in the Garden of Gethsemane. At this low point, Jesus experiences the frailty associated with failure and personal defeat. The Jesus who emerges from Gethsemane and goes to the cross is the figure of a depleted self. “For Jesus, it was not primarily the public humiliation that made this a shameful event, but the inner awareness, the self-realization, that, from his own perspective, his life had failed” (p. 99). But the inner reflection of Jesus was that God was in him, and he was embraced in the celebratory love of God. The Christian story speaks of this mirroring between divine parent and child in various sections of the New Testament. For example, not only is the child the exact representation of the parent (Hebrews 1:3) but the parent loves the child and is well-pleased with him (Mark 1:11). In these scriptures, and others like them, we see that parent and child are engaged in a perpetual act of mirroring wherein the son is the source of pleasure to the divine parent.

Turning to the story of Jonah, Capps shows us that the prophet evidences the qualities of a craving narcissist (and, towards the end of the story, also shows the qualities of a paranoid narcissist) (p. 153). Jonah is an unlikeable character throughout the story; he is petulant, pouty, myopic, and full of rage. God, on the other hand, is manipulative, withholds praise, and burdens Jonah with unanswerable questions at a time when the prophet is at his weakest. Capps describes God as an “autonomous authority,” which by its very nature “is sadly deficient in love” (p. 159). Ultimately, the story of Jonah “self-destructs,” partially because both of its primary figures—Jonah and God—are indefensible characters (p. 148).

A better example than the God of Jonah is the figure of Jesus, who interacts with the woman with the alabaster jar (Luke 7). The gospel writer says that she fell before him and wept, wetting his feet with her tears. She wiped his feet with her hair and anointed them with precious ointment from her alabaster jar. This woman’s idealization of Jesus was not a source of embarrassment for him, and he was not “put off” by it. Like an inwardly secure parent who allows his child to idealize him for the sake of the child’s sense of security, Jesus momentarily takes on a parental role (p. 29). One would imagine that if he were embarrassed, he might have stopped the woman or made snide remarks to the other guests about the woman’s odd behavior. Instead, Jesus is curious and receives her. A verse of scripture that is applied to Jesus states, “A bruised reed he will not break” (Mt. 12:20). If the woman with the alabaster jar was an internally bruised person, Jesus was determined not to break her.

Some observers at the feast pointed out that the ointment in the alabaster jar should have been monetized and proceeds from its sale should have been given to the poor. Jesus refused to denigrate the woman’s act of love and devotion in this way. Instead he accepted her idealization of him and recognized its role in helping her fortify her own true self. The strengthening of that self was the mission of the moment. Jesus then memorialized the woman’s thoughtfulness by pronouncing that her story would always be included in the Gospel narratives (Mt. 26:13). In a way, this was an act of reciprocal idealization; Jesus who was idealized is now idealizing the woman. If Jesus is “seen” in ideal terms by the woman, he wants her to know that he also “sees” her in ideal terms.

As a woman with a “reputation” in the community, her boldness in approaching and anointing Jesus in this unorthodox manner is described by Capps as an act of “self-trust.” The act called attention to her self in the context of many would-be critics. Regardless of the shame she might have felt making her way through a gathering of such critics and their whispers, she approached Jesus with her alabaster jar and its costly contents. She trusted enough in her own ability to make this difficult journey and she trusted his capacity to accept her. It is noteworthy that Jesus not only accepted her ministrations of grace but he celebrated her faith. He pronounces on her the benediction “Your faith has saved you.” Capps’s reading of this statement is not that the woman’s faith in Jesus has saved her, but her faith in herself—her self-trust—has saved her.

The woman with the alabaster jar was willing to extend herself beyond the socially acceptable boundaries of her culture and the limitations of her self. The words of Jesus were “not words that she had heard from anyone else” but were words that she “longed to hear from someone who merited her trust” (p. 163). The possibility existed that Jesus would shame her, but she took the risk and discovered that there was nothing to fear after all. Jesus’ actions and words were born out of his goodness. As she reached out to Jesus with a kind act, she discovered that he also reached out to her with his kind affirmation. Self-trust was evidenced in the actions of both, as they affirmed the “goodness of the other” without a hint of shame.

The refusal of Jesus to shame, embarrass, or treat this woman with contempt came from his own life experience. Although Jesus was personally acquainted with shame, he was also familiar with the power of affirmation and the pathway of self-trust. Capps notes that Jesus’ illegitimate birth was the inescapable reality of his life. Despite the narrative of illegitimacy, at the age of twelve Jesus had a moment when his belief in himself was powerfully affirmed by the teachers of the law. On a return journey from their pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover, his parents realized that Jesus was not in their traveling group. Anxious and worried, Joseph and Mary searched for 3 days before finding the boy Jesus at the Temple. The scene they stumbled upon was the figure of their child huddled together with the religious teachers of the day, engaged in serious dialogue on spiritual matters. The teachers of the law were “amazed” by the boy’s understanding and his answers (Luke 2:48), and his mother “treasured all these things in her heart” (Lk. 2:51). Perhaps her shame, too, was mitigated by his growth in self-trust.

Another scene from Jesus’ life that Capps highlights is the crucifixion. He says that the “need of the self is, at root, the hunger for loving and being loved” (p. 165). On the cross, Jesus recognized the growing bond of love between his mother and his beloved disciple John. As Mary stands at the foot of the cross, witnessing the death of her child, Jesus instead turns her attention to John who stands with her. The words are simple and poignant: “Behold your son. Behold your mother.” Thus, Jesus enables a positive mirroring moment between two grieving people who stand before him. Positive mirroring engenders love and provides the basis for community. The Christian community, Capps says, does not begin at some point following the resurrection but right here at the foot of the cross where the bond of love is established between Mary and John.

The story suggests the importance of community in our search for the real self. While the real self is not inaccessible, we often need the help of others in this self-discovery process. The associations that develop in community—in the movement between self-affirmation and the affirmation of the self by others—are of great value as we pursue the opportunities where self-discovery may truly occur. Capps says that “the source of self-knowing is not private introspection but the mutual mirroring of selves” (p. 166). Unlike the story of Jonah, where the self remains divided, defensive and depleted, Capps points to the two stories of Jesus as models for understanding the healing possibilities encoded in relationship between God, others, and self.


The two Gospel stories, and so many more like them, indicate that Jesus was drawn to people who were developing their sense of self. Capps notes that these people were “determined to have a self,” and they were determined to become the self that they were destined to be (p. 167). Because Jesus already had the experience of being an endangered self, he was well aware of the struggles and challenges faced by people seeking their true selves. Capps adds that Jesus was “not put-off by the unusual and unorthodox methods they devise” in this quest (p. 167). The quest to find the true self was part of the mission of Jesus, in that he desired to “focus attention on the self and its heroic struggle to survive” (p. 167).

With this attention on the newly-discovered self comes the moral imperative to care for the self. No wonder, then, that a stream of “‘self care as moral imperative’ emerged in early Christianity” (p. 167). The self was important to God and important to Jesus. To take care of the self was to keep in step with the concerns of God. The self was never to be neglected or abased because it marked the very imprint of God upon each individual. To miss the value of the self, to fail in its care, was not a sign of spirituality but rather a failure of moral responsibility.

At the close of The Depleted Self, Capps gives us a glimpse into his own way of viewing others. They are not to be seen as negligible, worthless, or purposeless. They are not to be denuded of their humanity, or stripped bare of their worth before God based on financial, caste, or class values. To illustrate this, Capps references the Hindu greeting, where eyes meet and hands are joined together near the face and the word of affirmation is spoken: “Namaste.” The message of greeting and farewell from one person to the other communicates the worth of each individual: “I recognize the God in you.”

In recognizing the image of the Creator in each person, we also recognize the potential for good in one another. One of the important observations of Donald Capps at the close of The Depleted Self is related to the “goodness” of Jesus. In many ways, the goodness of Jesus was modeled for us—Capps’s students—by Capps himself. Of course, this is not to say that we worshiped Capps (he never wanted to produce “Cappsians”), but we saw that he was good to us, and we appreciated his goodness. He treated us with respect, affection, and even admiration. In many ways, he helped us move forward on the path of self-trust, and he performed an act of mirroring by seeing us, laughing with us, and conveying a sense of appreciation for us. He was never insincere in his praise of our work, but he always chose to focus on the positive, finding something redemptive to say amid even the most outlandish printed claims. Often, his perspectives spurred his students on in the direction of creative work, as he considered our propositions and chuckled, “Well, why not?” We came away from meetings with Capps with the feeling that he saw something interesting in our work and worthwhile in us. If we could simply tweak this, include that, and do away with the other thing—then maybe there was something of note in it after all.

Capps’s effortless charm and gentle wit went a long way towards making criticism go down easier. He was not flashy in his style of dress or speech, and there was nothing dynamic in the way he taught. In fact, he drew very little attention to himself (aside from the fact that most of the books on the syllabus were authored by him). But, one could not spend time with Capps without being impressed by his quiet confidence, the breadth of his knowledge, and the easy and disarming way he carried his brilliance.

As I sit and remember Dr. Capps, I am reminded of an observation Wittgenstein is said to have made about William James. Commenting on what made James such a good philosopher, Wittgenstein noted that James was a “real human being.”4 Like James (of whom he was so fond), Capps was a real human being. Although he thought abstract and radical thoughts, they were always grounded in the real world of human suffering, need, and accomplishment. Much more impressive than the breadth of Capps’s knowledge, the sheer volume of his publications, and the brilliance of the man himself, was the fact that Capps was a real person. He talked with students after class, he met them in the cafeteria to offer advice with papers or discuss their ideas. He then rushed home to go out for lunch with his wife. He had very little love for bureaucracies and the social events that accompany them. (On more than one occasion, he walked into “wine and cheese” gatherings at Princeton through one door and methodically made his way out through another door.) He avoided pomp and circumstance as best as he could. He even cut out of a graduation ceremony in mid-service simply because he wanted to go home.

Forms, formalities, bureaucracies, organizational hierarchies—while necessary to some degree—can be the death knell of true human dialogue, interaction, and sharing. Societies can ostracize or minimize hurting people like the woman with the alabaster jar. Organizations cannot see people. Only people can see people. Bureaucracies and the hierarchies that accompany them often stand in the way of person-to-person contact. Capps wanted to affirm others, meet them as individuals, and appreciate each person’s distinctiveness. He wanted to see God in each person and affirm the goodness in the people he met. More often than not, Capps succeeded in this pursuit. Countless students look back on his instruction, guidance, and friendship with deep appreciation for what he taught us and what he modeled for us. His goodness stays with us. Namaste, Dr. Capps.


  1. 1.

    Cotkin (1994) notes that William expressed remorse over the abandonment of his artistic career in a letter to his brother Henry James in 1872 (p. 46). It may be that James lamented his “murdered” self throughout his adult life. See Capps (1997), Men, Religion and Melancholia: James, Otto, Jung, and Erikson (pp. 52–53) and Dykstra (2017), “The Sacredness of Individuality: Introspection of Refuting States of Total Conviction in Boys and Men,” in Pastoral Psychology 66, pp. 784–786. At times, people can make life-altering career choices based on the most arbitrary of reasons. In “Great Men and Their Environment” (1880), James states that “whether a young man enters business or the ministry may depend on a decision which has to be made before a certain day” (p. 227). Through such decision making, one self is “murdered” even as the other self develops a professional identity.

  2. 2.

    See Donald Capps, “Don Quixote as Moral Narcissist: Implications for Mid-Career Male Ministers.” In Pastoral Psychology 47 (1999) 401–423. Capps notes that Don Quixote is presented by Andre Green as the “true moral narcissist” who always “volunteers himself whenever he sees a chance of renouncing a satisfaction” (p. 418).

  3. 3.

    Ben Bursten, “Some Narcissistic Personality Types,” in Essential Papers on Narcissism, Andrew Morrison (Ed.), (New York: New York University, 1986), pp. 377–401.

  4. 4.

    Russell B. Goodman, Wittgenstein and William James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 38.



I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Robert C. Dykstra (Princeton Theological Seminary) and Dr. Nathan Carlin (McGovern Center for Humanities, McGovern Medical School) for their invitation to participate in this festschrift honoring the life and work of Dr. Donald Capps. I am deeply touched by their consideration and kindness.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.

Human and Animal Rights

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Princeton Theological SeminaryPrincetonUSA

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