"It's all about me!"

By Spencer Overgaard, Copyright 2014

I recall some years ago returning a video to a rental outlet on the Danforth. As I was about to enter the shop a woman pulled up in her car, rolled down her window and began pushing some videos toward me with an ill-mannered demand that I return them for her. Thinking it best not to involve myself in her drama I chose to continue on my way. A couple minutes later, she stomped into the store and called out for all to hear, 'How could you have been so inconsiderate?' I tried not to pay too much attention to her effort to embarrass me. For this woman, I was nothing more than an object - a tool to be utilized to meet her ends. What I might have been feeling didn't register on her radar.

You have likely had similar experiences. In their world, what they need and want is paramount, the needs of others always secondary. Being around people like this can be very exasperating. Consequently when we come across them, we quickly beat a retreat because we know what we'll feel like if we take the time to help them out.

Therapists refer to these people as 'narcissists,' which comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, the youth who fell in love with his own image reflected back to him in a pool of water and who drowned trying to embrace it. These people seem to be in love with themselves. Involvements with others are done on the condition of 'what can you do for me?'

For many years therapists believed that to meet the narcissist's emotional need was counter-productive. What was necessary, the thinking went, was to thwart their desire to be the centre of the world. By doing so, they would slowly adapt to the notion that their demanding nature was their key problem. Quite literally what they needed to do was to learn how to love others. Through insight into their unhealthy and selfish need to control people in order to get what they wanted in life, they would gradually give up this way of being in the world. Some people call this moving from a two-person world view (me and mama) to a three person world (me, mama and dada, all together). The key principle is that there is more to life than just having mother see me as the apple of her eye. I need to learn to share mother with daddy.

But certain therapists (Heinz Kohut among others) began to realize that this approach was ineffective with certain clients. The narcissist's lives looked more like a tragedy rather than something morally repugnant for which they needed to repent. The need for attention, the striving for control was out of desperation because of their profound loneliness. They were actually vulnerable and lonely because something had not gone right for them in their earliest parental relationship. Instead of denying them gratifications, these clients needed to be seen as having a not fully formed sense of self. They needed to rely on others to help them feel whole. The word that was used to capture the new way of relating to them was 'empathy.'

Empathy can easily be misunderstood. It does not mean giving people what they want or pitying them. It really means to be attuned to the person's emotional needs, to see the world from their point of view. So, instead of saying , 'Your striving to be the centre of attention all the time drives people away from you,' you say, 'It must feel pretty lonely when you have no one to talk to.' In reality both statements are true, but the second statement is likely closer to how the narcissist sees the world and is more likely to be accepted and useful. The first statement is condemning and attempts to induce shame. The second statement strives for dialogue and invites the client to look deeply into what are likely some tender feelings. They convey to the client that their desperation is being acknowledged.

One can only imagine that a narcissist will have an inkling that they turn people off. Having that experience repeatedly has to hurt. No wonder they are lonely. Using this approach with clients helps to move away from a position of challenging their need to acknowledging it. At some level they may be lacking some authentic recognition, something they perhaps didn't get when they were young.

To this degree, little kids need to be praised for their accomplishments. If you go to the playground, you will see this happen quite spontaneously when a parent says to a three year old, 'Boy, are you strong!' Or, 'Look at how well you drew that picture. That's terrific!' If you watch the kids receive praise like this, you can almost see them start to glow. Of course, these statements need to be said without irony, and without mocking, in other words, truthfully. There needs to be an honest feeling, not something fake, because children can smell a fake a mile away. But when they hear these praises, the children incorporate that sense of pride into themselves and eventually are able to feel good about their work or play by themselves.

As these children grow in years and maturity, they will be able to recognize the true value of their work and feel satisfied without the constant praise from others. They will be able to enjoy getting projects done and give themselves a 'pat on the back', precisely the thing that narcissists can't do. This is not to say children who get this kind of affirmation (or 'mirroring') from their parents in their early years won't ever need it or yearn for it from others as adults. They will and it's human to seek some praise. The difference will be that they won't be devastated if they don't get it. We are most vulnerable to emotional and developmental injury at the beginning of our lives, but affirmation seems to be an on-going human need that provides the building blocks for security and growth.