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The Woodsfellow Institute for Couples Therapy
The Woodsfellow Institute for Couples Therapy

Dealing with Narcissism

The Woodsfellow Institute for Couples Therapy

Narcissism is difficult to live with. Not for the narcissist themselves, but for everyone else around them. Narcissists can be very inconsiderate. They don’t realize how much they hurt the people they love. They don’t even see it. Narcissists — as in the Greek myth — are so focused on themselves that they have trouble seeing anybody else.

We all know that low self-esteem is a serious problem. In narcissism, we have the opposite problem: too-high self-esteem. The middle ground, between too-low self-esteem and too-high self-esteem, is what we call healthy self-esteem.

Too high self-esteem: I'm okay, you're not okay

Healthy self-esteem: I'm okay, you're okay

Too low self-esteem: You're okay, I'm not okay

People with low self-esteem feel bad about themselves. They hurt. They are acutely aware of their impact on others. They feel ashamed of who they are. They feel “less than.” They feel bad. They know something’s wrong, and they’re interested in change, so they won’t feel so bad.

People with too-high self-esteem feel good about themselves. They don’t hurt. They are amazingly unaware of their impact on others. They don’t have much sympathy with others' distress. They have very little idea of what it’s like for others to relate to them. They are grandiose. They feel entitled. They feel superior. They feel “better than.” They don’t think anything’s wrong. They don’t think they need to change anything, because they don’t think anything is their fault.

If you are living with a narcissist, you're in a bind. If you are nice, supportive, and helpful, the narcissist isn’t likely to change. And unless things change, you’re likely to continue to feel slighted, hurt, unheard, and unimportant.

If you are narcissistic yourself, your challenge is to see things from your partner's point of view. You will need to do this again and again. And understand the validity of their perspective. You need to imagine what it's like for them to be in relationship with you. And how difficult you can be at times.

If you can do this, you will really help improve things. If you're already doing this, keep it up.

If you CAN'T do this, you're going to need experienced, professional help. You'll need an objective, impartial, unbiased therapist who can give the two of you some honest feedback to help you make things better.

Therapists have traditionally been taught to help people with low self-esteem. Support, understanding, active listening, and encouragement are all very helpful for people with low self-esteem.

But, narcissists need a different approach. Their self-esteem is too high, not too low. They need to realize that they’re NOT better than everyone else. They need to become more aware of the hurt they cause others. They need more humility and more appropriate shame. They are helped by truthful confrontation, accountability, and training in empathy and respectful boundaries.

Couples therapy helps narcissism much better than individual therapy — because the partner is involved in the effort. When the therapist works with the two of you, there is a much better chance of success — because there is so much more leverage. Thoughtfulness, empathy, and “I’m okay, you’re okay” need to be learned — and practiced — in your primary relationship.

If you have a problem with narcissism, don't be surprised if you can't fix things yourselves. Most people can't. It's a good idea to get help. Feel free to call us to discuss your situation.

There's no shame in getting help. The only shame would be waiting until it's too late.

Learn about our approach to dealing with narcissism:

Be Easy to Influence

There’s a question called: "the feather or the freight train?" It goes like this: If someone needs to get your attention, would you prefer to have him or her tap you with a feather? Or a freight train?

Would you notice a tap with a feather? Or does it take a freight train for you to notice?

Myself, I prefer the feather. I know that when my wife finds it easy to influence me (the feather), my life is a lot more peaceful than when she finds it very hard to influence me (the freight train).

How easy to influence do you want to be?

This is a really important question.

In a research project that followed 1,000 couples for 10 years, the husband’s "influenceability" was the single most significant predictor of marital unhappiness and divorce.

Of course, no one can give in all the time. But when you can, maybe you should. Being easy-to-influence can be a virtue. And feathers are a heck of a lot less painful.

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There are Two Sides to Every Story

One basic truth of marriage therapy is "there are two sides to every story." I’d go so far as to say that marriage is a high intensity training course in this topic.

I think some people are naturally more comfortable with this idea of MULTIPLE REALITIES. If this is you, congratulations, you’ve got the easier path. Your task is: don’t forget that your partner has their own, equally valid, side to the story. Even when you’re upset.

If you’re a ONE REALITY type, you’ve got some work to do. This is a hard concept to change, but you’ve got to set to work on reconsidering it. Because the happiness of your marriage is in jeopardy. Here’s why:

Once you start telling someone that their side to the story isn’t valid, they’re not likely to stay very happy very long. And they’re not likely to want to make you happy either.

Consider the story of the blind men who were each asked to describe the animal (an elephant) in front of them. The one at the leg said it was like a massive tree trunk. The one at the trunk said it was like a large round hose. The one at the ear said it was thin and rough. The one at the tail said it was like a frayed rope. Which one was right?

The goal is: Your partner doesn’t need to be wrong for you to be right. You can both be right — in different ways — from different perspectives.

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Willingness to Lead and Willingness to Follow

There are times when it’s important to be willing to follow — and times when it’s important to be willing to lead.

Some people have the unwilling-to-follow problem. Some people have the too-willing-to-follow (unwilling-to-lead) problem.

It may be that every couple has one person of each kind.

The traditional marriage has an unwilling-to-follow man married to a too-willing-to-follow woman. But, the roles can be reversed, and some marriages are the other way around.

Also, there are people who, on the surface, seem very willing to follow. But underneath they are very resistant.

And, there are people who seem ruggedly unwilling to go along with anything, but underneath are profoundly dependent.

In this light, unwillingness can be surface, or deeper, or both.

How do you know which is which?

Well, some of us DO know. Some of us know that we need to be more willing to follow.

Do you have the habit of preferring to do things your way?

Do you like to work on your own?

Do you like your ideas about how to make things better?

Have you been accused of saying "my way or the highway?"

Were you raised with a high value on independent achievement?

Are you highly competitive?

"Yes" answers to these questions suggest that you may need work on your willingness.

In a dominance power struggle, the core fight is about who’s in charge. The role split can be called dominant / submissive, or blamer / placator, or addict / co-dependent.

Those of us who are dominant or blamers or addicts probably have the unwilling-to-follow problem. And we need to develop more willingness to follow our partners.

Those of us who are submissive or placators or co-dependents probably have the too-willing-to-follow problem. And we need to be more willing to lead our partners.

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Don’t Make Your Parents’ Mistakes

All of our parents had strengths and weaknesses. They were human; there was no other possibility.

Some of us decided to be like our parents. Some of us decided to be the opposite of our parents.

But we’re human too. So therefore we’re like our parents in some ways and unlike them in other ways. And not only in the ways we’ve chosen. And not only in the ways we know about.

With honest introspection, most of us can find (in ourselves) some degree of the same weaknesses that our parents had. Even in the things we decided that we would never do.

For those who prefer projection over introspection, it’s more fascinating to find these weaknesses in your partner (rather than yourself.) But there are some serious problems with this projection method — our partners hate it.

The challenge is to acknowledge our own weaknesses and work on them. Don’t just make the same mistakes your parents made. Succeed where they didn’t. Work through the very same issues further than they did.

And, we hope, our children will work through those issues even one step further than we did.

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The Courage to Go First

One key to happy relationship is courage — the courage to go FIRST. We need the courage to do the right thing ourselves — and not demand that our partners go first.

It’s so sad when a couple is locked into a "you-go-first" power struggle. Both know things are bad, both know things need to change, but, tragically, each can only see what the other needs to do differently. Each can only see the other’s faults. This "blame-versus-blame" power struggle is very hurtful and very frustrating.

One solution is to find the courage, YOURSELF, to take the first step.

What can I do differently to keep us out of our struggle?

What can I do differently to pull us out of our struggle when we start?

What can I do differently to help us recover from our struggles?

Have the courage to take action first. Yourself. Don’t wait for them. Don’t blame them. Don’t try to get them to do the right thing. Do the right thing yourself. FIRST.

You’ll be glad you did.

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Do the Right Thing

In marriage, we make a lot of choices. Not all of these choices are clear, obvious right-and-wrong situations. But some are. And when we’re facing a clear choice between right and wrong, we need to choose carefully.

When you know that something’s wrong, DON’T DO IT. No excuses, no reasons, no Twinkie defense, no nothing. DO THE RIGHT THING.

This might sound obvious, but it’s not. There are too many moments when we know something’s wrong, but we do it anyway.

For example, let’s consider our choices about expressing anger.

I believe that physical violence in relationships is WRONG. Always. It’s never okay to hit, or hurt, or break anything. Ever.

I also believe that surprising people with anger is not right. I know that it would be wrong for me to surprise my wife with my anger. I need to wait until she’s prepared to hear me.

I also believe that overwhelming people with anger is not good. I know it would be wrong for me to express my anger in a way (tone, volume, length of time) that my wife would find too intense. I need to stay aware of her feelings, and if I sense she feels overwhelmed, I need to pause and do whatever’s necessary to help her feel less flooded.

I know these things about expressing my anger in my marriage.

There’s that moment of choice, when I’m feeling angry… and I DECIDE how I’m going to handle it. Will it be safely, with no surprise, and not overwhelming? I know that’s what’s right for me.

At these moments of choice, I need to do the right thing.

You might like to decide what’s right for you. And then, when the moment comes, CHOOSE to do the right thing.

Or, if you’ve already done something wrong: STOP. Make a change. Apologize. Make amends. And get back to working on not doing it again.

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Don’t Sacrifice Your Children

No parent wants to get divorced. Divorce is no one’s first choice. By the time it’s gotten to divorce, many people are ready to get away from their spouse. But very few are ready to be away from their children.

Either way it’s very difficult. Being apart from one’s children is truly heart breaking. Raising children alone is very, very hard.

But, if it’s come to divorce, there’s one principle you can’t forget. DON’T SACRIFICE YOUR CHILDREN. No matter what. Don’t harm your children so that you’ll feel better.

When arranging custody and visitation, there are lots of moments when you could "act out" your anger, hurt, and frustration at your former spouse. But you shouldn’t.

Instead, this is the time for altruism. You need to do what’s best for your children, even if that’s not what’s best for you personally — even when you’re hurt and angry inside.

It takes maturity and wisdom to do this.

It may be better for the children to stay in the same house and the same school — even if that means you two will have to work together to support them.

It would be better for the children not to have to hear your complaints about each other — even if that means you’ll have to control yourselves and find other outlets.

It would be better for the kids not to carry messages between the two of you — even if that means you’ll have to talk directly to each other.

It may be better for the kids to maintain an ongoing relationship with both of you — even if that means that you’ll have to learn how to act kindly and considerately toward each other.

Long ago, King Solomon needed to determine the true mother of a certain baby. Two women claimed the child as theirs. King Solomon decided that the baby should be cut in two, and each woman should get half. Then one of the women begged the king not to kill the baby but instead to give the baby to the other woman. King Solomon knew that the woman who begged for mercy was the real mother. He knew that the real parent wouldn’t allow her baby to be killed.

You need to be a real parent, too. You can’t sacrifice your children for your own needs. It’s better to let your babies go than to have them harmed.

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