READ ON TO DISCOVER:
- Why narcissists are so insecure
- When narcissism is actually a good thing
- How empathy and confrontation can help you cope with the narcissists in your life
With 25 years of post-graduate training and advanced level certifications, Wendy Behary is a psychotherapist with a speciality in treating narcissists and the people who live and interact with them. Michael Gervais is a high performance psychologist working closely with sports MVP’s, internationally acclaimed artists, and Fortune 25 CEO’s. He recently hosted Wendy on Finding Mastery to discuss how narcissists think, how to deal with them, and why they might be their own worst enemies.
Michael: How did you get interested in the concept of narcissism?
Wendy: Working as a psychotherapist many years ago, I found myself meeting individuals who could push my buttons like no other. Something about their responses, their reactions, their style would have me feeling as if I’d been thrown back into Catholic school in the ‘60s, when I was horrified of the nuns. I was really curious about this population who could trigger me, and I wanted to investigate it more thoroughly. I figured out [it] was narcissism, and I began to work alongside my then-mentor in developing an approach that could be effective at helping them and helping others who are dealing with them.
Michael: Narcissism, if I have this right, is a psychological condition, but it’s a social and cultural problem. It’s a relationship problem. Is it a problem to the person, or just to people that they impact?
Wendy: It’s a problem to the person when the consequences become realized. The impact of their behaviors will lead to things like losing significant others and relationships with their family, losing their job and their elite position, squandering their money and their success, even health issues.
Michael: One of the things that I talk about a lot is the importance of relationships along the path to do difficult things, because we really do need others to explore true human potential. A big part of narcissism is that they don’t have relationships that have depth to them.
I’ve always thought that [narcissists] have the inability to differentiate themselves from other people, so they treat other people as though they don’t exist. They’re a tool [for] their own gain or their own need to be valued.
Wendy: That’s a good way to put it. Part of the reason is [that] so much of their interest is focused on being extraordinary and winning in whatever game of life they are playing. Relationships are a means to an end, not a way of connecting, engaging, being in the presence of someone. In fact, they’ll comment that relationships are just boring.
Michael: How would someone know if they’re in a relationship with a narcissist? What are the ways that we can identify that?
Wendy: It’s that feeling that you are invisible. You are only seen in ways that you have value to meet their particular agenda, their goals. When you’re with a narcissist, what becomes noticeable is this sense of being with a person who is highly self-absorbed, who rarely asks a question about your feelings, your experience. If they do, they barely listen to the answer. They are highly interruptive. They really just seem to be operating on their own agenda.
Many people in relationships with narcissists will notice that the narcissist may initiate a question as simple as, “Where would you like to go for dinner?” You give an answer, “I feel like going to the Italian restaurant tonight.” Before you know it, they’re criticizing your decision. They’re putting you down. They’re judging you. They might say, “What’s the matter? You look upset.” You venture to very carefully and thoughtfully explain that you’re disappointed, that you are upset, God forbid, with them. Then, they begin to defend and attack. It’s that feeling that there’s no room for your own personal experience, ideas, preferences, opinions, beliefs unless it matches theirs completely. It’s going to be dismissed or rejected or judged or criticized.
Michael: Where does that come from for the narcissist? Is it some sort of break in childhood where they completely unroot what it is to be in a relationship with others? Is it bad wiring?
Wendy: I think like most personalities, it’s a combination. It’s that interplay between nature, the biology and how it expresses itself, and nurture. The nature might be that the little one comes into the world very sensitive or impulsive, or possibly even aggressive, which are temperaments [that] might mostly apply to narcissists. They have this kind of temperamental tendency.
What happens is they’re typically in an environment where the expectations are very much focused on their performance, their achievement, how well they do in school, in sports, in succeeding and being superior, in being right. At the core of most of these blustering, larger-than-life people is a lot of insecurity and loneliness, not knowing how to really connect to people in an intimate, personal way, only knowing how to compete with people, how to show their own mastery and sense of righteousness and superiority.
Michael: You just described like 75% of the people I work with. Do you spend much time with elite athletes or elite performers in a variety domains?
Wendy: Yes, I do.
Michael: Almost everyone in elite [performance domains] has the sense of narcissism, because they’ve dedicated their whole life to this thing. They’ve had to compete, [and] there’s a scarring that comes with that. What are the characteristics that help people become exceptional at something, but don’t cross over into the darker side of the narcissistic?
“At the core of most of these blustering, larger-than-life people is a lot of insecurity and loneliness, not knowing how to really connect to people in an intimate, personal way.”
Wendy: It has to do with the issue of balance. To what degree has this individual grown up in an environment where there was adequate experience in connecting with people? Meaning, feeling like you are lovable at the core, you are fine as you are without having to meet certain conditions.
Michael: Most don’t. On the world stage, there is something that is a bit off. It’s like, “Mom and Dad drove me,” “Mom and Dad weren’t around,” or, “I needed this to feel like I mattered in the family because my younger sister was doing amazing things.” There are a couple of very clear patterns.
Would you say that most people in elite performance domains, whether it’s corporate America or sports performance, are narcissistic?
Wendy: I think there’s a large percentage that are. And not surprisingly, when the emphasis of your development and your value is placed on being autonomous, not needing other people. Which means that to not need other people, you have to be successful. It’s not surprising that so many of the leaders in industry, in entertainment and sports, would have narcissistic traits.
Michael: I’m not so certain that it’s bad. There’s a reason that these people tend to change the way an industry works. They may not be joyful and happy and have deep meaning in their life, but they push boundaries and push people to such extremes that things take place.
Wendy: No, I agree. I’m perfectly fine with being treated by a surgeon who is extremely arrogant and narcissistic, but a great surgeon. He is going to do an amazing job at saving my life. I don’t want to live with him, but I’m really happy to have him as my surgeon.
Michael: In your experience of working with narcissists, do they change?
Wendy: A few things have to be present. You have to have leverage. There has to be a consequence that’s meaningful enough to get them to come to therapy. They rarely walk in voluntarily, and without treatment, change is probably impossible. There has to be something. It might be that they have a medical diagnosis. It might be that someone is threatening to leave them. It might be that they’re at risk for a legal infraction of some kind. They’ll come into treatment typically unwillingly, but fearful of the consequences.
Michael: So they can change, but it requires leverage and sensitivity to the nuances of the disorder.
People might be saying, “Am I narcissist? Because I want to do amazing things.” How would somebody identify if they are [a narcissist]?
Wendy: If you are wondering if you have narcissistic tendencies, or if you have a narcissistic personality disorder, you’d want to ask questions like, “Are my ambition, competitiveness, and drive for success what define me? Are they what make me lovable, acceptable, worthy as a human?”
It’s looking for that reciprocity and connection and intimacy, where you are sharing eye contact and having a conversation with someone you care about. “Do I have a close, intimate friend that I can be vulnerable with, and share my worries and my fears and my sadness? Is there someone that I can reveal myself to without feeling weak? Do I always have to be tough and on top of things and in command?”
These are some of the questions that we put out there that help people take a look at themselves in the mirror. Narcissists typically feel that their work is their worth, and however high their performance is is how high their value is as a human.
Of course, they are always in an argumentative mode, saying things like, “I’m not trying to prove myself. This is just the way I am. Maybe I don’t have emotional needs like other people.” I’ll say to them, “If you were fine, if you really knew at the core that you are okay, you wouldn’t have to try so hard to prove yourself to me. You don’t have to constantly be dropping names and telling me stories of the wonderfulness of your life if you really knew you were fine.” We all like to be liked and feel admired and appreciated for our work. It’s another thing to need that to feel like you matter.
Michael: What are some steps to help people? Are people in a relationship with a narcissist outmatched? [Should they] just get out of the relationship because it’s too hard to help a narcissist change if you are not qualified?
Wendy: It’s really hard to try to help a narcissist change. That being said, I wrote my book for people who are in relationships with narcissists, who can actually see the suffering underneath the vulnerable part of the narcissist. Every now and then, they get a glimpse of that part that’s tired, that’s lonely, that’s lost without their shiny toys and their exciting world of success. They see that little boy or that little girl underneath that vulnerable side, and they love that part. They may not be able to effect a complete overhaul of personality, but they might be able to inspire the motivation to get help, to seek change. If it’s a milder form of narcissism, they may even be able to get a meaningful transformation.
The best steps for approaching someone with narcissism in your life, whether it’s your partner, a friend, or a boss, is using a strategy called empathic confrontation. Empathy combined with confrontation, whether it’s setting limits or just drawing their attention to something that they are doing that is hurtful or upsetting. When I say empathy, I’m not saying sympathy, not feeling sorry for the narcissist or just letting them off the hook. I’m saying develop a deep understanding of how they are put together. Know their story as best you can, or know something about them as best as you can, even if it’s just that you understand their need to have things done precisely in a certain way. Their need for perfection, their need for order, their need for clarity, whatever it might be. Know something about them so that you can begin your confrontation with some form of empathy.
“We all like to be liked and feel admired and appreciated for our work. It’s another thing to need that to feel like you matter.”
In the treatment room, it would sound something like, “Listen, I know that you were raised with the idea that you could say or do whatever you want without consequences. As long as you got good grades and brought home a lot of sports trophies, there were really no limits on what you could do. It’s not your fault that now in your adult life, it feels perfectly reasonable to just blurt out whatever comes to mind without consequence. But the thing is, Joe, you weren’t really prepared to live in the world of relationships. You are a great performer when it comes to getting jobs done in your work, but when it comes to relating to other people, you have the tendency [to] push them away because without thought, you just blurt things out. They can be hurtful. They can be off-putting. Although it might not be your intention to do that, that’s the effect.”
There’s a lot of empathy for their experience, but the confrontation is to hold them accountable or to set limits. To say, “Look, I know you may not mean to be hurtful.” There’s the empathy. “But hey, that hurts. Knock it off.” Empathy confrontation. It’s a very effective strategy.
Michael: It’s got two components to it. “I see where this is coming from, but you’ve got to stop.”
Going back to your approach earlier, what is the leverage? That I’ll leave?
Wendy: It could be, if they’re ready for that. The leverage could be, “I’d love to see us carry our lives into the future and grow old together, but what I’m starting to see is an inevitable path to separation because I can’t tolerate feeling like I don’t matter in this relationship. I deserve to feel like a partner.”
Michael: If we undo the narcissism in people who are exceptional at what they do, we might have problems. They might be happier and the people around them might be better off for it, but there is potentially an unanticipated cost.
Wendy: Many of my narcissistic clients will say things like, “I can’t afford to lose my edge. You’re going to soften me up, and how am I going to go back to the trading floor at Wall Street?” Or, “How am I going to be able to command 5,000 people in my corporation if I’m paying attention to my emotions?” They cannot imagine how they could continue to be masterful and successful at what they do.
The consequences for some of them might be that they’ll desire more time with friends and family, putting less time into what they’re doing. Their focus might shift, so there might be some risk. But for most of them, adding a more personal component to this already innate talent could be the magic that they’re really looking for.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full conversation, click here.