Behind the Mask – How therapy for narcissism works
10 Insights into the narcissistic personality
We often hear of the dangers of narcissists, how to spot them, how to avoid them, and how to recover from narcissistic abuse. In our current culture, narcissists are considered evil beings with zero empathy, intent on devaluing and destroying anyone they can.
As a therapist, I’m used to helping people deal with narcissistic partners, bosses or family members. In therapy we establish safety, rebuild self esteem and self worth, and learn to establish healthy boundaries. This can lead to a flowering and confidence unimaginable to people who were once trapped in the narcissist’s web.
But I also work with people who have narcissistic traits, or so-called narcissistic personality disorder. Exploring narcissism from a narcissist’s point of view reveals a whole new understanding of how the narcissistic personality works, and why they act in the way they do.
Narcissist’s generally aren’t aware of their behaviour, they’re simply acting out in a way that feels normal and natural to them. If you’re reading this, and have strong narcissistic personality traits, it’s very unlikely you’ll recognise anything in yourself from the points below. You may instead have an unshakable knowledge that you have no narcissistic attributes.
It’s a subtle trap for the narcissist, who might be highly accomplished in many areas, even psychology, or within spiritual circles. They can be respected by many and hold an elevated position of authority and responsibility. But recovery begins when they have the courage to trust that background nagging doubt, a sense that something’s not quite right.
1. The unaccepted child
A child develops into a narcissist when they’re not accepted for who they are. They often have at least one parent with narcissistic qualities, who tries to mould the child into what they need them to be. The vulnerable child is too young to understand this, and works hard to hide their true personalities.
Without knowing they’re doing it, they begin to promote new impressive compensating qualities, in the hope that this will finally grant them acceptance. A new fantasy personality develops, in which they’re above others, free from all human vulnerability.
They come to believe this false self as real, and work hard to maintain it at all costs to themselves and others. Any challenge to the fantasy personality feels life threatening, and the narcissist can react with anger or complete denial.
2. The tragic life of the narcissist
The narcissist leads a tragic life. They’ve sacrificed their real selves, along with their needs and true desires, to meet the expectations of others. Deep down, they’re trying desperately to gain the love and respect they longed for as children.
This is something the narcissist will be aware of – it’s these deep feelings which they’re trying to protect themselves from feeling. In their fantasy worlds they can seem highly accomplished and free from the insecurities of the normal people.
It’s an image they work hard to maintain to fool themselves and others. But the image of success and contentment is a facade designed to fit in and be accepted and loved. Showing vulnerability, and anything of who they really are would lead to unbearable shame.
3. The shame of the narcissist
Underneath the narcissist’s image of success and accomplishment, lies a deep sense of shame, pain and worthlessness. These feelings are so potentially overwhelming, the narcissist will do anything to keep them from surfacing. This leaves them in a state of disconnection to their real selves, and an invincible belief in their false selves.
The importance of maintaining the image is so crucial to a narcissist, that they’ll do whatever it takes to keep it intact. This includes manipulation, gaslighting and tantrums towards anyone who might be perceived as threat. If all of this fails, the narcissist can even choose suicide over confronting the feelings of shame that lie buried deep within.
4. Psychotherapy for narcissism
A narcissist normally comes to therapy because someone close has insisted, or because their false self has started breaking down, and they’re looking for a way to repair it.
When a narcissist goes to therapy at the insistence of a partner or family member, the outcome is likely to be unsuccessful. They’ll go through the motions, appearing to be concerned about their behaviour and looking for change. But the intention won’t be there, so progress can’t be made.
With clever deception and subtle manipulation, narcissists can sometimes charm an unaware therapist into believing their false persona. This is particularly problematic in couples therapy, where the narcissist manages to present themselves as the disadvantaged one, blaming their partner for their poor behaviour.
Or a narcissist in therapy might slowly work on devaluing the therapist, just as they do in other relationships, so they can maintain a sense of superiority. An experienced therapist will spot this, and note the feelings that come up for themselves during the sessions.
In psychotherapy for narcissism, the therapist’s role is to build a trusting relationship with the narcissist, who will naturally be guarded and suspicious of anyone trying to get close to them. The therapist will come from a place of understanding and compassion, helping the narcissistic client to develop more self awareness and reflexivity around their behaviour.
It can take along time, but with a client who’s genuinely looking for change, a close relationship can develop, often for the first time in their lives. Within this safe space, they’ll start feeling safe enough to discover and accept who they really are. This can lead to a new sense of emotional well being
5. Can a narcissist change with therapy?
I often hear people say that narcissists are evil people with no possibility of ever changing. I know from my practice that this isn’t true. Firstly, we all have narcissistic traits, some of which are healthy. Those we refer to as narcissistic individuals, or seeking narcissistic personality disorder treatment, have developed more of these traits in response to early childhood trauma.
The only requirement is for the narcissist to have a feeling that they something’s wrong, and they genuinely want to understand why.
“Narcissism denotes an investment in one’s image as opposed to one’s self. Narcissists love their image, not their real self.”Alexander Lowen
6. Narcissists need to look good
Narcissists are entirely dependent on what others think of them. That’s why they’ll go through such lengths to appear to be successful and accomplished. They’ll exaggerate achievements, acquire wealth through any means, or if gifted and intelligent, will rise to the top of their industry or profession.
They might also have an obsession with their appearance, sometimes looking years younger than their biological age. They can have a great sense of style, and with it a charismatic, engaging personality, reserved for people they’re trying to impress, including therapists. This can be dropped in an instant behind closed doors, when they’re alone with their partner or vulnerable children.
The false persona isn’t just a front for others, it’s also a way of staying in denial about their behaviour and who they really are inside.
To a narcissist, an attack on their false self feels like an attack on their real self. It will feel just as threatening as an attack to their existence. That’s why a narcissist must can feel intense emotions, and must be fully defended, by any means possible. This can lead to emotional or physical violence towards the perceived attacker.
7. Black and white thinking of a narcissist
A narcissist is prone to black and white thinking – that’s where you can only see things at two ends of the polarity, namely good or bad. This is a problem when it comes to relating to other people. The narcissist can have trouble knowing who they like or dislike. They might feel a good connection with a new friend, only to feel immensely disappointed a week later, when the friend arrives late or shows a behaviour which isn’t “all good”.
Black and white thinking is very rigid and not inline with the reality of difference and nuance in the world. When a narcissist tries to categorise people into good or bad, it will always cause problems, as people are constantly changing, and will always show less than ideal traits from time to time.
A narcissist can learn to accept their own multifaceted nature with it’s myriad of ever changing greys. They can learn to allow their own imperfection, flexibility, mistake making and vulnerability. Once they feel more like a human being, which can be a deflating experience, they can begin to see the world and the people in it with more acceptance, compassion and understanding.
The narcissist will stop judging people on a strict set of rules, instead coming to accept and enjoy people for who they are in the moment.
8. Why narcissists want to use you
The narcissist was seen as an object by his or her parents. Instead of focusing on the needs and desire of the young child, they looked for how the child could serve them, to be used for their own benefit. Sometimes they’re not even aware that the child has feelings, or if they are, the narcissist’s own feelings take priority.
In a healthy family environment, a child is ‘mirrored’ by the adult caregivers. This means they really see the child, and reflect back to them that they’re wanted, or a cause of delight within the family. A narcissist typically hasn’t had that positive mirroring experience, and is looks to find the experience from their own children.
Through inheriting the parenting behaviour they were taught, in adult life, the narcissist sees other people as objects which can be used and manipulated. There’s little sense of empathy or an understanding that the person-object might have their own feelings.
Because they’re not in touch with their own feelings of love and empathy, narcissists are suspicious of everyone they encounter, presuming they’re also trying to use and manipulate them for personal gain.
9. Feeling good vs appearing good
A narcissist doesn’t really know what it means to feel good. They’re detached from their true feelings, and often their own internal bodily sensations too. They’ll do things that reinforce the false facade, in an attempt to feel good, but it will always fall short. They can never feel the contentment of relaxing into the sense of just who they are.
The temporary highs and peak moments for a narcissist come when they feel they’ve done something which makes them appear better to themselves or others. But the feeling of self importance doesn’t last long, and the journey towards being accepted promptly resumes.
It’s tragic that for a narcissist, it’s far more important to look good, than to actually feel good.
10. Narcissistic relationships
Narcissists don’t have real friends. They might have a circle of people they associate with to feel better about themselves, but a narcissistic relationship is based on what the narcissist can get for themselves. Narcissists don’t have the skills, sensitivity or empathy to form genuine close, long lasting relationships.
Consequently, narcissists are often chronically lonely. They’ve built a prison around themselves, impenetrable by themselves or anyone around them. There’s a relief in being protected from vulnerability, but at the same time a deep feeling of alienation.
A narcissist would never consider reaching out, as it would expose their vulnerability and need for connection and dependence. The prison must stay in tact however restrictive it is, because there’s a feeling of safety. Behind locked gates, there’s no risk of being seen as normal, needy, and all the other shame producing attributes which a narcissist has to hide.
Conclusion – The narcissist in therapy
Narcissists are not evil, and they can and do transform through psychological therapy. On the constant search for the love and mirroring they didn’t receive as children, they invent a false persona and mould themselves into what they think will make them loveable.
But they’re mistaking admiration for love, and do everything they can to be admired and feel admired. Once they are shown that they can let their guard down without disintegrating, they can begin to face the feelings of shame and despair which have been buried deep within.
It’s a process of mourning who they thought they were, the persona they built over decades, and learning to accept their vulnerable, human nature.
If you think you may have narcissistic traits that are affecting your mental health, or getting in the way of close and genuine relationships please get in touch to talk about ways in which I might be able to help.