“An actor is a guy who, if you ain’t talking about him, he ain’t listening.”
– Marlon Brando
Narcissus was no slouch in the looks department. Quite the opposite. He found no one beautiful enough to match him, so he fell in love with himself.
But his grand self-absorption was ultimately his downfall.
Greek legend has it he wasted away, unable to drag his lovelorn gaze from his own reflection. Self-adoration killed him.
Being a myth, and an ancient one at that, Narcissus wasn’t exposed to psychiatric diagnosis. But modern incarnations of Narcissus are said to have narcissistic personality disorder. These are excessively prideful, vain, entitled, and self-absorbed individuals who, according to the Mayo Clinic:
- have an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- feel entitled to a neverending stream of admiration
- believe they are superior and should only associate with equally special people
- expect to be recognized as superior, whether they warrant it or not
- dominate conversations and belittle or sneer at people they see as inferior
- exaggerate their achievements and talents
- expect special favours and unquestioning compliance
- take the credit for other people’s work
- manipulate others to get what they want
- are uninterested (at least beyond superficially) in the needs, feelings, and thoughts of others
- envy what others have and and believe others envy them
- insist on having the best of everything materially, whether they can afford it or not.
And like Narcissus himself, narcissists’ self-obsession and entitled sense of superiority will often cause their own destruction, or at least difficulties, in life.
Narcissists create their own bad luck
One study of narcissists found that untamed egotism tends to cause failures and complications in their lives.2 I suspect that this is in large part connected to the effect they have on others.
However enthralling a narcissist might seem at first (boundless confidence, energy, and devil-may-care rule breaking), narcissism ultimately tends to break relationships and cause problems. It’s been found that narcissists have trouble maintaining long-term relationships.3
This is hardly surprising. After all, if it’s all me, me, me where are you, you, you? And if the usual rules don’t apply to me (because, well, I’m me!) then what’s to stop me from sidestepping laws, lying, and cheating?
But what effect do problems, perhaps in part brought on by the narcissism itself, have on the self-esteem of the narcissist?
The question arises: How do narcissists feel when things go wrong?
We know that disconfirming feedback (compliments, successes, achievements) has little effect on those with low self-esteem in altering their negative bias toward themselves.4 The bias of low self-esteem explains away compliments as insincere flattery, or achievements as luck. Those with low self-esteem also tend to assume rejection from others even where there is none and often see neutral or positive feedback as negative.
This may be why too much praise and positive affirmation is so ineffective at treating genuine low self-esteem.
But what about pathologically high self-esteem?
So too, it seems, narcissists can easily ignore discomforming feedback. They tend to explain away failures and are usually not impacted much by them.5 Instead of “it’s always my fault”, with the narcissist it’s always someone else’s fault. Self-blame or even taking responsibility is not really part of the narcissist’s self-venerating repertoire.
Ironically for a word stemming from myth, there are some old myths about narcissism itself – so let’s clear some of them away.
Pop psychology and the ego
It used to be assumed that narcissism was really just low self-esteem in disguise.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s the prevailing ideology was that low self-esteem was the root of all problems, from drug addiction to bullying and reckless criminality, and of course narcissism. The entitled psychopath or perpetual braggart was just a misunderstood self-hater.
Children in schools were encouraged to love themselves (remember the almost religiously fervent ‘Self-Esteem Task Force?’) in a bid to improve academic grades, increase happiness, and avoid drug addiction and violence. None of that worked. Since that time, childhood and adolescent depression have skyrocketed6 in parallel with rates of narcissism7,8 in young Americans. Meanwhile, empathy has rapidly diminished.9,10
Of course, low empathy and high narcissism sit pretty well together. Empathy seems to be at the heart of both compassion and morality, so it makes sense that an increase in one would track with a decrease in the other.
Now it’s not that a person bullying or drinking or harming might not have low self-esteem to some extent. But no causal link has ever been found. Me feeling terrible about myself won’t cause me to bully my colleague, or defraud my neighbour. Being violent or ‘bad’ is not correlated with low self-esteem.11
And there’s actually something else that flies in the face of the notion of “deep down they feel terrible about themselves!”
What fragile ego?
Narcissists tend to be lower in anxiety, more resilient, and happier than the average person.12 This is the reverse of what we find with clients low in self-esteem.13 What’s more, narcissistic personality traits such as grandiosity, superiority, and entitlement can help some narcissists get promoted and earn more (although, as we’ve seen, narcissism seems to eventually lead to problems).14
Those with low self-esteem do not tend to take credit for others’ work. They are frequently troubled by worry, and they do not report feeling happier. They do not tend to display any of the behaviours and traits associated with the narcissist. But still the myth persists:
“Deep down he must feel really badly about himself to act like that!”
Well, maybe… but also maybe not. Research has found that ‘deep down’ narcissists actually do like themselves.15
Those with genuinely low self-esteem tend to reserve their terrible treatment for themselves,not for other people. So narcissism isn’t generally about ‘overcompensating’ for some deep sense of inadequacy. Rather, it is a distinct condition in itself.
Arrogance and entitlement might seem like a fragile shell in some people. After all, any perceived criticism might be met with an explosion of anger. But that doesn’t mean low self-esteem is lurking beneath the thin shell of egotism. In fact, narcissists will often happily tell you they’re narcissists. They may be proud of their excessive pride.16 This also flies in the face of another common assumption: that narcissists lack self-awareness.
But why might you even see a narcissistic client?
How to help the narcissistic client
Narcissistic clients are not fond of hearing points of view other than their own.
They are fond of denigrating other people. Add to this the fact that they tend to be more resilient, less stressed, and happier than other people and it would seem that the chances of a narcissistic client coming to see you to treat their narcissism are slim. Those who’ve tried to directly treat narcissistic personality disorder have found that success hasn’t been overwhelming.17
Just as the psychopath doesn’t tend to seek help to overcome their psychopathy, narcissists tend to be quite happy to be who they are. But if narcissism is, as the research suggests, on the increase, then by the law of averages you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself sitting across from a narcissistic client, or at least someone with strong narcissistic tendencies.
As we’ve seen, narcissists don’t tend to score highly on anxiety, self-doubt, or unhappiness. But they might come along wanting help to quit smoking or get a handle on some other addiction. Or perhaps just because they are happy to pay for someone to listen to them talk about their favourite subject – themselves.
Now don’t get me wrong, clients who are suffering do tend to be self-absorbed. If I’ve just stubbed my toe, I’m likely to be a whole lot more interested in my experience than yours. It’s the same with emotional pain. But narcissism is a stable set of character traits that tends to cause the narcissist and those around them persistent problems.
So if you encounter one professionally, in a people-helping capacity, what can you do?
Well, you could refer them on to a colleague…
Just kidding! That wouldn’t be nice. And anyway, some narcissists are personable and have decent traits (depending how far along the spectrum they are).
Tip one: Appeal to their self-interest
If self-interest is the overriding trait of the narcissist, you may as well take advantage of it! So rather than “People will be happier when you learn to control your anger”, we might frame things as beneficial for them: “Learning to control your anger will improve your heart health.”
The therapeutic motivation needs to be built exclusively on their self-interest. For example, while many clients are motivated to quit smoking because they want to set an example to others they care about or be around as long as they can for their children, these are unlikely to be powerful motivators for the narcissist. The narcissist may be more motivated by a desire to feel that they aren’t being ‘taken for a fool’ by tobacco companies, or to preserve their looks. Discover what motivates them, and then use it.
But don’t be too eager to be seen as helping them.
Tip two: Let them have the credit
It’s not your job to convert a narcissist into a caring, giving person. But you don’t have to stroke their ego, either. Some narcissists probably appreciate people who don’t always ‘people please‘ around them for fear of a narcissistic rage.
But if you can help a client feel it is their capacity and not yours that can enable them to free themselves from an addiction or control impulsivity, then all the better.
After all, they may prefer to stay trapped in a destructive pattern than give you the credit for therapeutic improvement. In the ‘How to Stop Anyone Smoking’ online course there’s footage of me treating a woman who, for whatever reasons, seemed reluctant to listen to me or give any credit over to another.
I tell her at the end of the session when she tells me she no longer smokes that I think she was “a non-smoker when she came in the room.” By denying myself any credit for transforming her into a non-smoker, I’m taking away the opportunity for her to rebel against me by remaining a smoker. It’s all about her, and that’s fine in that context.
We should always give credit to clients for their own improvement, but we might have to do this even more pointedly with a narcissist, who is not accustomed to handing over credit for anything.
Tip three: Utilize but don’t pander
It can be easy to fall into mechanical therapeutic patterns. While we can and should motivate the narcissistic client using their greatest motivator, extreme self-interest, we certainly don’t have to assume it’s really low self-esteem that’s troubling them and spend all our time affirming how wonderful they are. Tell them something they don’t think they know. Challenge them a bit.
A practitioner on the stop smoking course recently told me about a client of theirs, a self-admitted narcissist who wanted to stop smoking. She didn’t want to suggest to him that most people could stop smoking after one session, because he’d already told her he didn’t consider himself to be like ‘most people’.
In his case, I suggested, it might be wise to align his need to feel different and special with his need to stop sucking in poison. This may seem like pandering, but it’s really just using the central therapeutic principle of utilization.
We might say to this man: “Many people find it takes a little while to stop completely. Few can do it in one go.”
This isn’t telling him he’s wonderful or lovable or special; it’s implying that if he’s really special he’ll be different from ‘many people’.
You’re implicitly saying, “Okay, if you’re not like many people, prove it!” And to prove it, he needs to recover from smoking.
So, to summarize:
- Attach their motivation more than to the usual self-interest.
- Let them have the credit, because otherwise you might not be able to help them.
- Utilize their need to be unlike ‘most people’.
Ultimately Narcissus (whether he’s found in men or women) needs to look up from his reflection, and learn to see and feel the needs, interests, and also perceptions of other people.
Such a transformation may be beyond the remit of your therapy or coaching session!
But if such a transformation does happen, perhaps it can turn the base metal of narcissism into the gold of humanity. And so the cautionary myth of Narcissus would have served its purpose, at least in the life of the person transformed.
Language Skills for Practitioners
Perhaps even more than usual, flexibility and artfulness in your communication can be useful with the narcissistic client. Mark’s online course Conversational Reframing will give you subtle, effective ways to show your client what they might need to know.
Read more therapy techniques »