How can Counselling Help with Narcissism?
Although counsellors often see people who come to talk about feeling depressed or anxious or angry, they see very few people who come believing themselves to be narcissistic. This is because strongly narcissistic people tend not to believe that they have any problems worth speaking of and don’t feel that there is anything about themselves that they would like to change. Commonly, in their view, if they have any difficulties with life they are caused by other people. On the other hand there are many clients who come to therapy because of the emotional damage caused by narcissistic parents, lovers or bosses.
Working Directly with Narcissism
Narcissism can be worked with but it is not likely to be a quick process - therapy revolves around encouraging the exploration and then expression of the real self. For anyone to change they must become aware of any biases or distortions that they hold against the self, or as Carl Rogers said, “when you can accept yourself just as you are, then you can begin to change”.
There also has to be work on how a narcissistic person relates to others, so that they can begin to see others less as objects for their own satisfaction and more as people. Progress will often happen in peaks and troughs, but with the support of friends and family as well as a counsellor, it can be done. It is about encouraging the right things and giving positive feedback for greater honesty, kindness and shows of vulnerability rather than for achievement. Narcissists are used to showing off about achievements but not about the depth of their relationships. A counsellor can support them in finding more empathy and then generosity of spirit may to begin to bloom. When there is an increasing ability to share and recognise other people’s rights and needs then there are very good signs of progress. There is also work to be done in encouraging the client in his or her attempts to subdue long held feelings of expectation and specialness.
Working with those in Relationships with people who exhibit strongly Narcissistic Behaviour
If you have been in a relationship with someone high on the narcissistic spectrum then you will probably have been very badly hurt by the experience and may feel left with many more questions than answers. An understanding therapist will offer you warmth and support and will allow you to tell your story so that you can begin to explore and work things.
If you are in a relationship with someone who is on the low to middle edges of the narcissistic continuum, there is every chance that you can build a better relationship with them; if they are high on it, then it can be much harder work and there is the chance of failure – several psychologists have claimed that at very high end it is almost impossible to deal with. Studies reveal that the way to moderate their behaviour is via three things: honesty and openness about what they are doing, receiving (and learning to give back) unconditional love and going to counselling to work through their issues. It is vital to remember that what narcissists crave is love. They find love perplexing, but it is what they need, though you will have to mix “tough love,” with gentle love to get through to them.
One of the key tasks for a counsellor is to help their client rebuild their self-esteem. It might be important to find ways of talking to and being with a narcissist. There are strategies you can use to get them to moderate their behaviour – this involves working with respect, openness, boundaries, flexibility and preventing becoming seduced by narcissistic delusions of expectation and specialness. It involves quietly insisting that your needs are as important as the narcissist’s and that although you can be special to each other, one of you is not more special than the other. There are also exercises that a counsellor can suggest that you do together. The best ones involve learning empathy – which takes time. If you can feel empathy for others you can begin to love them and you can also begin to value them, and by giving love you can learn to love yourself better – it’s all a healing circle.
Since narcissistic behaviour easily turns to anger, learning how to deal with that anger can be a crucial skill. There are clear ways of calming angry people and of dealing with their irrationality. Again this is about gentle but very firm boundaries, and about insisting on the right to be treated respectfully and decently. This process is a two-way one. It is equally useful for both parties that these adjustments are made – and will eventually lead to a happier and more peaceful relationship.
It is another key task for the therapist to get the client to work out why he or she was attracted to the narcissist in the first place. Perhaps there a pattern of being attracted to such personalities and therefore the therapist should encourage the client to be curious about what need is being met and where it comes from. It’s possible for a client to become self-aware about avoiding a repeat, so that the next time they encounter a person whom they find attractive but who seems to have certain patterns, they can say, “hmm, I see the bait here. I know what I normally do and where that goes. I am not going to do that this time.” Many clients are helped by this method.
Summing up, if you are in a close relationship with a narcissistic person, it will be hard work, but you can learn to cope better and there’s a good chance of repairing the emotional damage. Working with a good counsellor can help you to move forward.
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About David Seddon
David is a BACP accredited counsellor who is passionately interested in helping people to have happier, better lives. He has an MA in counselling and a BA in philosophy and works in a person-centred, existential and short term solution-focussed way. He runs a private practice in Congleton, Cheshire and also works for EAPs and worldwide via Skype.