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Coaching to Perfection

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.


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