Dealing with the narcissists in our lives is never easy, but there is hope for improving these difficult relationships, says Laity Leadership Institute Senior Fellow Allan Josephson, M.D.
Narcissism develops out of early relationships and is sustained by subsequent ones, so it’s important to nip the problem in the bud. How one does that depends on the nature of the relationship. In this article, we'll deal with three kinds of relationships: parent/child, husband/wife, and employer/employee.
Dealing With Narcissism in Children
Narcissism in children usually develops from over-indulgence or neglect, Josephson says, so parents who work overtime to make sure their kids are never deprived or hurt need to learn how to stop indulging them.
“You want to make sure that your children take responsibility for their actions and you want to make sure that you’re giving them some support, but then letting them experience some trial and error,” he explains. “Some controlled failure is not the worst thing. In fact, it’s helpful.”
In detecting early narcissistic tendencies, it’s important to look at the nature of your child’s relationships, he says. Do they have a balanced give and take quality? Do others like them? Most importantly, do you feed into the idea that conflicts are always someone else’s fault?
Figuring out why you indulge your children and why your childrens’ distress bothers you so much can also help you get a handle on the problem.
“That’s a real psychological issue for parents that often involves an over-investment of themselves in parenting,” Josephson says.
The most common reason that parents over-invest is low self esteem, he says.
“Parenting is a part of life. It isn’t all of life. To have a child whose existence is everything to you is a problem. Children then kind of feel used. You’re not really helping them. You’re giving them more than they need and that’s harming,” Josephson explains. “Children perceive this parental vulnerability and experience it as a burden.”
Another reason for over-investment in the parenting relationship is having no spouse at all or being in a difficult marriage.
“When younger children are angry and tantrum and say they hate their mother or father, a healthy response is, ‘Well that’s okay, Mom loves me or Dad loves me!” However, if parents are alone, with few other sources of support, or their marriage is troubled, they may put all their relationship eggs in the parenting basket and become interpersonally vulnerable," Josephson says.
In contrast, parents whose children become narcissistic because of neglect are usually fearful of intimacy.
“When we’re asked to do a big job, sometimes we shy away from this and it’s because we’re not sure how to proceed. A lot of parents who doubt themselves, perhaps because they may not have been given a lot themselves, don’t engage with their children. They need to face the fact that they’re really afraid of the parenting role,” he explains.
Dealing with a Narcissistic Spouse
The first step in dealing with a narcissistic spouse or partner is expressing your own needs and expecting an appropriate response from the other person.
“This is easier said than done because most narcissists don’t see themselves as self-absorbed. Narcissism is first seen in clinical practice when other people are suffering,” Josephson says. “To use the language of Alcoholics Anonymous, the narcissist needs to confront himself or herself and make a moral inventory, which involves acknowledging that they've made mistakes, made bad choices, and often hurt others by their wrong actions.”
“1 John 1:10 says ‘If we say we have no sin, then we are fooling ourselves and the truth is not within us’. That’s a profound spiritual and psychological statement. Those stuck in sin deny it and narcissists don’t get it,” he explains.
A narcissist’s hesitation to confront himself or herself is akin to a child who has a splinter but only wants a band-aid on it because he or she doesn’t want to face the pain of having it removed. Likewise, the narcissist doesn’t want to face the emotional pain and work of doing a searching moral inventory.
“Basically that’s the treatment and it’s tough, but if these people can look at what’s happened to their relationships, recognize the destruction that they have caused, and consider their part in it, then something positive can happen,” he says.
Taking responsibility for one's contribution to the relationship problem and perhaps agreeing to go to counseling can help restore a damaged relationship.
"You can know you’re getting somewhere when there’s some give, some response to expressions of human need. You’ll feel it in your gut that he or she is coming back to you, even though you may need several instances of going over things and, indeed, forgiveness," says Josephson.
There also may be a gender element to the problem, he adds. “Men often ride off on their horse to do great things. They lose track of their relationships and have to be reminded, often by the mothers of their children, that they’ve been ignoring the family.”
Dealing with Narcissistic Bosses
People in organizations can get run into the ground by narcissists who manage at a pace that’s unsustainable, Josephson says. “They are giving the leader signals that the approach isn’t working, but the boss is charging ahead anyway.”
If you find yourself in this situation, get support from those around you. “Ask others: ‘Do you see what I see?’ Don’t just ask for justification of your own position, get honest feedback,” he advises. “Understanding what’s going on is a huge thing. If you need a paycheck like most of us, you may not have other options for work. But if you stay put after self examination, you can do so knowing your integrity is intact. Intentionally staying in a tough situation can be freeing.”
But, he adds, “If you feel that your whole being is being violated, then you may just need to get out. That can be freeing too.”
Dealing with Temporary Narcissism and Normal Life Variants
Josephson deals with pathological narcissists at a clinical level, but says the problem can be viewed as on a spectrum.
We are all more or less “narcissistic” at certain points in our lives. Children and adolescents are self absorbed at certain stages of development, for example. When individuals have been bruised or hurt, particularly when they’ve experienced a severe blow to their self esteem, they seem to think only of themselves. The analogy of the splinter is again helpful here, he says. If you have a splinter in your foot or your hand, it’s hard to think of anything else until you get it out.
“Rather than a long-term problem, which is the idea of relationships I’ve been developing in this discussion, it’s more of a short-term narcissism that we all go through when we’ve been hurt or are suffering,” he says. “Our spouses and friends tolerate this behavior because it is understandable and they know our need to nurture ourselves back to health, so to speak, is temporary.”
Read other parts in our series on Integrating Faith and Psychiatry:
- Integrating Faith and Psychiatry
- Scriptural Principals for Growing Healthy Children
- Work and the Self
- Narcissism and Relationships
- Finding Balance Between Work and Relationships
- Managing Technology and Psychological Health
- When the Boss Is a Narcissist
- A Summary