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My Daily Musings

Okay, now that we sort of figured out what it is like to have a narcissistic character organization, let’s look at how coaches and therapists work with it. Great psychoanalysts wrote about it extensively and well, so I will only stand on their shoulders for a minute.

Narcissistic individuals typically come to coaches (and therapists) when they feel inadequate in their (in)ability to reach perfection. Thus, they reach out asking for help to be more disciplined, famous, confident, etc. Sadly, many coaches jump straight to handing out worksheets aimed at achieving these goals, unintentionally (or worse yet - intentionally) reinforcing that grandiosity is a desirable target. Of course, real treatment needs to go deeper and help the client see that no amount of achievement will ever satisfy his hunger. Easier said than done.

Since the core of the problem for such people is a lack of true self (see the previous post), one of the things a coach/therapist can do to help is to ask questions about that self. Narcissistic people obsess over how others view them. They look at people’s faces as if they are mirrors but never look inside themselves directly. By persistently asking them about their feelings, likes, and wants, a coach/therapist can help them start to recognize their own selves — or notice the inner void. Over time, the client starts to do that independently, shifting the focus from outside to within.

Another thing a coach/therapist can do to help is debunk the idea of flawless others. Narcissistic people live with a pervasive feeling that some people somewhere out there are just amazing. There they are, right there on the horizon! The whole life becomes organized around the goal of becoming one of those people. It is helpful for narcissistic clients to notice that others — including the coach/therapist — are just people. That can help them accept their own flaws. This is in line with Kernberg’s theory: he saw a narcissistic personality as a failure to accept ambivalence (co-existence of good and bad qualities) in self and others. He suggested confronting the client’s idealizations when they show up in the therapeutic relationship (e.g. when the client starts idealizing the therapist).

The therapist can also offer a more mature type of relationship than what the client typically experiences. Narcissistically organized people want admiration like kids want candy instead of dinner. Unfortunately, many coaches are trained to serve as cheerleaders to their clients. Of course, this strategy does not help the client change. By becoming a cheerleader, the coach becomes part of the narcissistic supply that can never satisfy the client’s hunger. The client can gladly accept the admiration and then devalue the coach: “He only thinks I’m great because he is a loser.”

Instead of playing the client’s usual game, the coach/therapist can provide a more mature relationship by showing interest and empathy — but not admiration. For example, the coach can express curiosity about the client’s grandiose ambitions without validating or affirming them. Here’s the difference: “Of course, you will create a great business!” —> “It seems to be very important for you to create something really big.” This teaches the client to metabolize something more complex than admiration. This is in line with Heinz Kohut’s thinking: he saw therapy for narcissistic people as a corrective emotional experience, where the therapist provides the type of relationship that the client did not receive in childhood. According to Kohut, this gives the client an environment where they can build the missing self.

Finally, of course, it is important to help the client revisit the past and make sense of his developmental trauma. It is helpful to revisit childhood experiences where the client was forced to become something he was not meant to be. Over time, the client can allow himself to feel the rage at the caregivers and grief for the never-developed self, the unacknowledged talents, and years of trying to be someone else.

Behind the most overused mental health label —"narcissist" — is usually a profoundly struggling individual with a scary void inside resulting from a developmental trauma.

Everyone and their mother already "know" that narcissists are to blame for everything—even though most don't know what a narcissistic personality organization actually looks like. Funny enough, many of those who label others as "narcissists" have noticeable narcissistic traits themselves, which they have no clue about. Why? I will get back to it at the end, but part of the reason is that the DSM and psych-ed taught people to categorize others, not understand them.

So, what is behind the label?

The Void

First, narcissistic people feel a scary void inside. This void is right there, where one's True Self should be, giving the person a stable feeling of who she is: her interests, abilities, tastes and preferences, qualities, etc. This self is different from one's Persona, which is a mask (or rather multiple masks) one uses to interact with the world. The masks can vary, depending on what the situation calls for, but the self remains the same.

Before Buddhists say, "Well, but nobody has a self!" let me clarify. When talking about narcissistic character organization, we are not talking about enlightened individuals who abandoned the illusion of self. They do have that illusion, and it constantly oscillates between an idea of a perfect (grandiose) self and a feeling of an inadequate self. 

How do other people develop a sense of their true self? Early on, the child's parents aid the development of self. Initially, the child knows nothing about herself. Moreover, at first, she is unaware of her separateness from her mother. Once that realization settles, the child starts to learn what she is like through her interactions with the parents. In the process of mirroring, the mother communicates back to the child how she (the mother) sees her (the child). "Looks like you're upset," "Someone is very tired!", "You really like your teddy bear" — the child learns what is going on with her and what she is like through that mirroring. It may seem strange, but the child has no way of recognizing her own mental states until the mother digests them and communicates her understanding back to the child.

The same thing happens with abilities and inclinations: the child understands what she is good at and what she enjoys through similar mirroring.

With this initial awareness of what she is like, the person continues to actualize her potential throughout her life, refining who she is and finding ways to express her skills and aspirations. Rogers has a book titled On Becoming a Person—as the name suggests, it is about this process of gradually getting more and more in touch with one's true self and expressing it more precisely.

The Trauma (aka, narcissistic injury)

Sometimes, parents do not provide realistic mirroring. Instead of appreciating the child's actual self-expression, they want her to fulfill some specific ideal. They either set unrealistic expectations of what she needs to be or diminish her talents and abilities. Either way, they need the child to become something she is not.

Most often, such a child receives parental love only when achieving something great — great in the eyes of the parents, that is. The definition and domains of greatness vary from family to family: some kids have to have a GPA over 4.8, some need to be the best athletes in their city, some need to be beautiful and thin, etc. In many cases, psychoanalysts talk about the child being a "narcissistic extension" of her parents, i.e., being used to fulfill her parents' dreams. For example, in the movie Black Swan, the protagonist, Nina, is a ballet dancer whose mother lives vicariously through her daughter's career, reflecting her own unfulfilled ambitions and desires.

Other times, the child's actual talents are belittled. When one (or both) of the parents are jealous of the child's abilities, they make the child feel smaller than she really is. 

Sometimes, two parents play these two opposite roles: one idealizes the child, giving her all the attention, and the other feels threatened by the child and puts her down.

In either of these scenarios, the child plays a role in the parents' lives and is not seen as a separate person with her own abilities, talents, and inclinations. 

The Suffering

Remember, we started by saying that people with narcissistic character organization suffer profoundly. What does this suffering look like?

First, they feel insecure most of the time. This might sound strange, as people tend to see narcissistic people as arrogant. In reality, the flip side of this self-aggrandizing attitude is tremendous insecurity and a feeling of worthlessness. These feelings surface as soon as the person starts running low on praise. 

Since a narcissistic person knows nothing about who she really is (lacks a true self), the only way for her to know that she is okay is by being validated by others. Her sense of identity oscillates between being god-like and feeling worthless — her upbringing showed her that these are the only options. Thanks to parental evaluations early on, she never developed an ability to see shades of gray and imagine that someone can simply have good and bad qualities. Therefore, she feels damaged and defective whenever she falls short of perfection. 

Feeling worthless is not only painful, it is also scary — at least for a child. It can lead to punishment, abandonment, and ultimately death. Dramatic? Yes, and that is how it feels to have a narcissistic character organization.

To avoid this painful feeling of worthlessness, she has to be perfect. And that takes a lot of effort (duh!), expended all the time. She cannot stop doing, striving, and achieving. As soon as she sits still, she is overcome with anxiety ("Am I still okay? Am I good enough?"). She has to achieve something all the time because the soothing effect of external validation dissipates very quickly, like the feeling of fullness one gets from eating candy. The body quickly absorbs glucose, leaving one hungry again. Thus, psychoanalysts say that narcissistic people require a constant "narcissistic supply" — that constant flow of validation. 

Shame and envy are constant companions of a narcissistically organized person. Whenever she cannot reach perfection, she experiences it as an unforgivable and shameful flaw. She feels found out in her defectiveness. Consequently, she envies others who seem to be lacking the same flaws.

Second, narcissistic people struggle to find a fulfilling vocation. In pursuit of validation, they do what gets them praise—not what they enjoy. Moreover, they often cannot distinguish one from the other: they don't know how fulfillment can exist outside of validation. Not knowing themselves, they don't know what they enjoy and what they are interested in — nor do they find it relevant. 

Of course, doing what gives you praise is not a reliable path to success. If a person runs out of steam every time she falls short of an imaginary ideal, she won't get too far. Perfectionism (a universal life strategy of a narcissistic personality) is incompatible with learning. Learning involves getting better, which means accepting one's imperfection to begin with. And that is hard to do for a narcissistic person. 

Besides, it is hard to achieve something great in a domain you don't care about. At best, you can achieve positions of influence and power but feel trapped in a vocation you do not care about.

The third source of suffering for narcissistic people is their inability to build relationships. It is a real tragedy because narcissistic people badly need others — not as separate human beings but as devices serving to maintain their self-worth. A narcissistic person looks at others, trying to read their reactions; thus, looking at them, she only wants to see her own perfect reflection in their eyes. Therefore, such a person never truly connects with others, as she ignores everything in them that is not about her. 

One client told me a story about one social gathering he had to attend and how anxious he was about the impression he was making on others. When I asked which of those others he respected and why, he realized he did not even remember anything about any of them. He wanted to be liked, but he was too focused on himself to truly notice others.

On the other hand, when a narcissistic person is alone, she experiences a void. When nobody sees her, she does not exist. Sometimes, I ask my clients what they would choose to do in life if nobody was watching; this question really startles narcissistic clients, bringing them to the realization that they only exist in the eyes of others.

Of course, others feel used in relationships with narcissistic people. They feel reduced to a function and not engaged in a real relationship. The relationship is very transactional — like a relationship with a barista at a coffee shop: you both smile and complement each other's glasses, but you know that neither of you really noticed each other.

The Bad Rap?

How did these deeply suffering people get so much hate and misunderstanding?

One reason for the bad rap is that people are mostly familiar with well-defended narcissists who hold much power, present a well-polished facade, and successfully manipulate others. The other side of the coin, the insecure and envious side, is less recognized as part of the same personality structure. The DSM is partly to blame for this because it presents only one side of the picture: the side that is most easy to recognize upon external observation. 

Another reason why narcissistic character organization gained so much notoriety is that people often hate others for the qualities they cannot accept in themselves (aka projection), and narcissistic traits are ubiquitous. In other words, people hate narcissists because they don't like looking in the mirror. 

But why are narcissistic traits prevalent to begin with? This may be the result of capitalism and its hierarchies of power: a system that promotes a one-dimensional evaluation of self and others based on socioeconomic status. The higher, the better, and the end goal is to be at the top of this social pyramid. Jordan Peterson would reject this claim and assert that hierarchies are present in nature and are not the product of capitalism. And yet, in the more socialist Western Europe, people seem to be much more in touch with who they are. When a bus driver receives as much respect as an executive, people feel free to choose their path based on what they want, not on what gives them recognition.

Perhaps another factor at play here in the U.S. is that opportunities for real connection between people are limited. People spend their time in their homes, offices, and cars; they don't bump into each other causally. Even meetings with friends need to be planned ahead, carefully avoiding traffic and mindfully choosing convenient locations. In such an environment, people mostly know each other from afar, judging each other's facades without ever seeing what's behind them. Thus, they stop noticing what is behind their own facade, too. 

On top of that, social media further exploits these vulnerabilities, creating a perfect facade-only world.

How do Coaches and Therapists Help These People?

Very, very carefully. But this deserves a separate post.

Is there a way to harmonize the seeming tension between the psychoanalytic and the Buddhist views of the self? While both psychoanalysis and Buddhism aim to relieve human suffering, they suggest different approaches to viewing the self. While analysis suggests that one should regain a stable sense of self, Buddhism claims that our supreme good lies in realizing that the self is an illusion.

The notion of no-self holds a central place in Buddhism and is intended to free Buddhist practitioners from all suffering. The Buddha saw harm in the idea of a continuous, stable self. He emphasized that the concept of a stable identity generates a great amount of attachment, ultimately leading to suffering. In reality, when one contemplates what a human being consists of, one cannot identify anything stable where a continuous self can reside. Hence, according to the Buddhist philosophy, when we cling to the idea of the self, we want to preserve something that will most certainly disappear the next moment; we are doomed to suffer.

On the other hand, psychoanalysts aim to relieve their patients' suffering by helping them reconnect with their true self. They argue that much suffering stems from disowning parts of one's true self in response to early adversity. Lack of a supportive environment leads the child to disown parts of herself that are not met with love and support. As a result, the person lives their life pretending to be someone else and suppressing their natural tendencies. Psychoanalysts try to relieve this suffering by helping the patient reclaim and integrate what was disowned and suppressed.

These two philosophies appear to be in conflict. Can they be harmonized? Perhaps when analysts suggest that the patient should restore their (patient's) true self, they do not suggest clinging to a fixed identity. Instead, they encourage accepting one's desires, emotions, sensations, and motivations — without denying or hiding any of them — as they are at the moment. All these elements will change the next moment, and one will need to be mindful of that change and accept what emerges at that time. Perhaps analysts do not advocate for a fixed identity; they advocate for full awareness and acceptance of a process-based identity, without omissions.

Or is this a futile attempt at reconciliation, which turns analysis into existential psychotherapy?

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