Whilst a mild level of narcissism can be healthy – in order to take care of ourselves we need to believe ourselves worthy of that care – narcissism (and those defined as ‘narcissists’) as spoken about in therapy is less helpful as it denotes an extreme selfishness and self-centered viewpoint to the detriment of anyone else.
Becoming a narcissist
Narcissism is thought to form in childhood where needs were not met or not met satisfactorily by the parent.
This causes the response in the child of denial of needs from external sources, and a lack of understanding of the needs of others (as they have not learnt about the needs of others).
The narcissist therefore seeks out those who can meet their needs without offering anything in return in order to defend against the pain of the original unmet need. Narcissists can therefore present as in constant need without showing any empathy for the needs of others.
Narcissism into parenthood
Where a narcissist becomes a parent, this lack of compassion and consideration can cause a deficit in the care that their child receives and so in turn can create another generation of narcissists in the family. The child of a narcissist will often be appalled to discover the same traits in themselves which they found so hard to bare in their own parents.
In therapy it is therefore important to understand that if you are working with the child of a narcissist, you are likely working with a narcissist themselves, and as such will face all of the issues that can cause.
Effective therapy relies on the formation of a therapeutic relationship between a client and their therapist, but for a narcissistic client this could be an uphill battle.
Types of Narcissist
There are two main types of narcissists: grandiose and vulnerable. However, these headings can also be broken down into sub divisions.
- The Performer – this is the classic narcissist as described in fiction. They need to be the centre of attention and find life extremely challenging when the audience disappears.
- The Controller – this person dominates interactions with others. They have to be right and cannot admit that they are ever wrong. They never apologise, and always insist on things being done their way. They do not, however, have the capacity to acknowledge that others play along with their demands because this would be to recognise their need of the other.
- The One With No Needs – At first glance this person will not appear to be narcissistic because they appear to devote their life to others. They suffer endlessly before ever addressing their own needs and can be judgemental of anyone who needs to take a break. By having no needs they escape the vulnerability associated with relying on others.
- The Black Hole of Needs – This person is aware of their needs but expects these needs to be met by others. They will enlist everyone they can to meet their needs whilst remaining oblivious to the needs of others. The efforts of those around them will likely never be thanked.
- The Victim – they have abdicated all responsibility for their life as something that happens to you rather than something you can choose to control. They destroy all attempts to help them through their conviction that nothing will work. This protects them from the original trauma by denying it.
It is important when dealing with the child of a narcissist to acknowledge in sessions the importance of other important figures in their life who were able to meet their needs – grandparents, teachers, siblings, other family members etc. By acknowledging the moments when their needs were met, you can empower the clients to identify the difference in their lives when their needs weren’t being met, in order to begin healing the wound.
Beliefs of the Narcissistic Parent
The narcissistic parent will have demands which must be met by all those around them, including their children.
These can include:
- You are made in my image
- You must be a credit to me
- You are here to take care of me
- You are to make no demands and offer no competition
These demands can in turn produce dangerous emotional reactions in the child, such as:
- Not being what is wanted leading to abuse
- Never developing/losing sense of self – no choices/desires/preferences
- Being shamed for need and vulnerability
- Being seen as competition – more beautiful/intelligent/popular than the parent
- Being used and exploited
- Turning out like the narcissistic parent
- Being so afraid of relationships that people are avoided and connection is found through food, alcohol, porn, drugs, fantasy etc.
Therapy for the Child of a Narcissist
The therapist might therefore have to work differently than usual with clients who present in this way. Reassurance, compliance, advice and coping strategies are unlikely to change anything because they do not address the fundamental problem – that of the unmet infant need.
The client will have spent their lifetime denying and defending against the original unmet need. We as therapists cannot repair this history for the client but we can accompany them through an acknowledgement of this painful past, helping them to recognise the shame it may arouse in them and the difficulties they have in experiencing vulnerability.
Hopefully, over time, the client can begin to experiment with vulnerability and needs within the therapy room in order to find that they are not the cause of shame, nor something which frightens you. This can be very difficult work, and it is common for clients in this position to end therapy prematurely.