It’s Narcissist Friday!
It seems to be generally agreed among the professionals that narcissism is something left over from the childhood of the narcissist. For some reason, the child learned to hide his/her vulnerable self and project a superior image. During the trauma that created that deception, the child lost (or never learned) the ability to empathize with others. In fact, he/she never developed the understanding of others as persons, independent and valuable in their own right. Usually this is considered to be the result of parenting issues.
The concept of “re-parenting” people who struggled with severe personality or emotional issues got a bad reputation from those who used questionable techniques such as regression therapy and recovered memory. Those who promoted re-parenting also had a tendency to blame the parents for any and all aberrant or destructive behavior in the child, even when that child was an adult. These techniques and assumptions often had the effect of producing the results they were supposed to reveal.
However, the idea that the narcissist could return to his/her childhood and revisit the trauma from a new and adult perspective would seem to have some potential. Could the narcissist see and acknowledge the pain and fear of abandonment or the confusion of ever-changing standards and boundaries and find a way to personal peace and normal growth in relationships? Those who understand that the narcissists themselves are in pain and live in fear would hope that such a process would be possible and helpful.
According to Wendy Behary, whose primary clientele are “mostly narcissistic men,” this re-parenting is not only possible, but very useful in working through interpersonal relationships. In her book, “Disarming the Narcissist,” Behary attempts to show those who must deal with narcissists how to defend themselves and offer valuable feedback to the struggling narcissist.
As I read this book, I found myself wavering between two opinions. It is clear that Behary knows narcissism. Her descriptions of narcissistic interactions and relationships are often right on point. Many readers will identify with her observations. On the other hand, her assessment of narcissistic behavior seems to excuse the abuse and cruelty by reminding the reader of the broken child in the narcissist.
Her overview of schemas and how narcissists are able to get under our skin and control us through our own vulnerabilities is insightful and gives the readers more power in narcissistic relationships. It is helpful to know why we are so open to narcissistic abuse. However, those who are already given to blaming themselves for their relationship problems will probably feel even more justified in that blame as they understand why they react the way they do to the narcissist.
Finally, her discussion of re-parenting the narcissist by feeding back therapeutic words and helping the narcissist feel accepted in his/her weakness and see how the negative behavior affects others may be just the kind of therapy that will work with the narcissist. I have long believed that some narcissists are not as malicious as their behavior portrays, but are simply so used to responding and manipulating in negative ways that they don’t know what else to do. Helping them to discover different ways, ways that will enhance relationships while not causing them more pain, could be a great blessing.
But is this the role of the spouse or child in a narcissistic relationship? Behary gives examples of language that could be used within the relationship, but one can hardly imagine a wife or child using that language without significant backlash. If a wife were to tell her husband that she understands his continuing shame from the times his mother treated him like a dress-up doll in front of her friends, she may find him withdrawing even more or striking out in anger as he makes it clear that she is not to go to that place again. Can even an adult child be expected to confront a parent with the psychological causes of negative behavior?
Suggesting that the victims stand in the place of the counselor could serve to make them more vulnerable and feel more culpable for the problems in the relationship. Actually, Behary is not saying that the wife or child could really do the counselor’s work. She is simply offering a way for narcissistic victims to take back some control of their own lives and, at the same time, offer some help to the narcissist. My concern is that this may set the victims up for further abuse and disappointment.
Do I recommend this book? Yes, with a couple of notes. First, as you read it, don’t automatically think that you can do what Behary suggests. You may not have the kind of relationship where this is possible or the kind of narcissist who would respond in any positive way. You also may not be in the emotional position to try these things. And if you feel like you are losing yourself and are becoming psychologically or emotionally unstable, you should probably separate from the relationship. If, when you are more healthy, you want to try these things, do it from a position of strength.
It is also worth noting that a therapist who works regularly with narcissists has not written a book on how to help the narcissist. Instead, Behary’s book, like so many in this area, is written for the victims. There is something in that to suggest that the type of feedback Behary offers for use in narcissistic relationships will only be helpful in a fraction of situations. Some people who exhibit narcissistic behavior and ideas may be open to the reasonable approach promoted in the second half of this book. Others, not so much.
I would be very interested in the thoughts of those who have read this book, particularly those who have used these ideas in their own relationships. You are welcome to disagree with me. I think this is an important part of the literature on this subject, but I caution anyone who wants to approach a narcissistic relationship using these tools. You should also know that this review is based on the first edition of the book. A second edition is now available.
I won’t be able to respond to comments for a few days because I will be traveling, but you are welcome to leave comments. Here are some other books you might find interesting.