Once there was a handsome young shepherd so self-absorbed he could love nobody else. The gods punished him by making him fall in love with his own reflection in a pond and stare into it until he starved to death.
His name was Narcissus, and every third or fourth day one of his distant cousins shows up in my office.
They’re not there for therapy.
What they really want is magic.
They want someone to help them control the people in their lives, whom they experience as unappreciative and ungiving.
They want me to teach them how to get those other people to love them better.
They’re my toughest clients.
Most people mistake narcissism for vanity or self-love. It’s not.
It’s the opposite.
Narcissists are hungry blind people.
They’re hungry because (usually) they didn’t get fed enough as kids. Most grew up in families unable to provide adequate attention, acceptance, approval or affection, the four emotional staples known as narcissistic supplies.
And they’re blind because they carry that hunger into adulthood, where they’re so preoccupied with getting themselves fed that they ignore the needs and feelings of those around them.
I explain it this way to clients:
Narcissism is like trying to drive a car that has a mirror instead of a windshield. You look out over the dashboard and you don’t see streets or traffic or pedestrians; you see only your own needs, feelings and preferences. You’re so fixated on the mirror you don’t see where you’re going, or who you run over to get there. When you hit someone you barely notice the bump.
Me-monkeys take many forms, some easier to spot than others. The most obvious are the showmen, loud, demanding, self-conscious Trump types who constantly polish their image, trumpet their viewpoint, and leave me feeling less like a therapist than an audience.
Then there are the victims, eager to tell me their tales of abuse and betrayal, and desperate that I agree that absolutely none of it was their fault.
Then the addicts, so busy struggling with their tangled unmanageable feelings that they’re simply unavailable for healthy relationship with anyone else.
Finally the codependents, who always seem to be putting everyone else first, but whose caretaking, people-pleasing and avoidance of conflict are actually subterfuges meant to protect them from rejection and win a few emotional tablescraps in return.
Again, my toughest clients.
There are two reasons for this.
The first: narcissists are terrified.
The emotional starvation they suffered as kids left them convinced there was something wrong with them, and they’ve carried that belief ever since. The false self they construct and show the world – be it codependent or Trumpesque – was built to hide their shame, sense of incompleteness, and their secret conviction they’re unlovable. It’s hard to do therapy with them, because therapy requires trust, and many of them trust no one. (How trust others if you can’t trust your parents? If you can’t trust yourself?) Many are just too frightened to come out of hiding and reveal the person inside. Some have hidden behind their false front for so long they can no longer distinguish it from their real self.
The second reason: I’m a me-monkey myself.
Earlier I mentioned that it was Bert’s idea I become a therapist. A nifty way, he thought, to put my codependent Plan A to work. I would help others solve their problems, win narcissistic supplies in return, and get my emotional needs met without having to reveal either my needs or my emotions.
That was decades ago. I’m well into my Plan B now, which is less about image and insulation than honesty and risk.
But every Plan B is an ongoing project, and I still have plenty of work to do on mine.
We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses…. If a doctor wishes to help a human being he must be able to accept him as he is. And he can do this in reality only when he has already seen and accepted himself as he is. Perhaps this sounds very simple, but simple things are always the most difficult. In actual life it requires the greatest art to be simple, and so acceptance of oneself is…the acid test of one’s whole outlook on life.*
We teach what we want to learn.
*Quoted in Psychotherapy East and West by Alan Watts (Ballantine Books, 1961).
Adapted from Chapter 29 of Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (2015).