Disarming the Narcissist

Dr. Michael Gervais speaks with clinical social worker Wendy Behary about how to identify and approach someone with narcissistic tendencies.

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Dr. Michael Gervais has a podcast series called Finding Mastery built around a central goal: unpacking and decoding how the greatest performers in the world use their minds to create amazing journeys while they pursue the boundaries of human potential.

He recently sat down with Wendy Behary, a founding fellow and consulting supervisor for The Academy of Cognitive Therapy (Aaron T. Beck Institute). Wendy has a specialty in treating narcissists and the people who live with and deal with them. In this episode Michael and Wendy discuss why so many elite performers are narcissists, and how we can be more effective with living and working with them.

Michael Gervais: Welcome back or welcome to the Finding Master podcast, I’m Michael Gervais. The idea behind these conversations is to learn from people who are in the path of mastery, to better understand what they are searching for, to understand the insights that they’ve come to understand. Then, we also want to work to see if we can explore their psychological framework, which is how they see the world, how they see themselves in it, how they understand their craft and people in it. And we also want to explore the mental skills that they’ve used to build and refine their craft.

Now, this conversation is with Wendy Behary. Wendy is a founding fellow and a consulting supervisor for the Academy of Cognitive Therapy (This is the Aaron Beck Institute). Wendy has a specialty in treating narcissists and the people who live and deal with them on a regular basis. She is the author of Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed. It’s a phenomenal title and it’s been translated in over 10 languages. Wendy dives into why so many elite performers have these tendencies and how we can be more effective with living and working with them. With that, let’s jump right into this conversation with Wendy. Wendy, how are you doing?

Wendy Behary: I’m doing great, Michael. How are you doing?

Michael: Fantastic. Thank you for spending the time with us to talk about a concept that is relevant today in modern times and really relevant in the world that I spend a lot of time in, which is elite sport and elite performance. I’m really interested to talk about narcissism with you.

Wendy: Good, me too. I’m delighted to be with you.

Michael: How did you get into being interested in the concept of narcissism?

Wendy: Working as a clinician many years ago, a psychotherapist, I found myself meeting individuals who could push my buttons like no other. These were basically people who when I was in their presence, something about their responses, their reactions, their style would have me finding myself as if in a time warp state where I would be saying yes when I want to say no. I’m apologizing for something that wasn’t my fault. I’m not setting limits when I should be setting limits, and really feeling as if I’ve been thrown back into a little girl, once upon a time in the ’60s in Catholic school when I was horrified of the nuns. I just felt all of my own life themes getting reactivated and was really curious about this population, this particular population who could trigger me and I wanted to investigate it more thoroughly. Try to understand what happens inside of us when we are confronted with people with narcissism, and began to work alongside my 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, it’s a psychological condition, but it’s a social and cultural problem. It’s a relationship problem. Is it a problem to the person or is it just a problem to people that they impact?

Wendy: It’s only a problem to the person when the consequences become realized. Meaning that the impact of their behaviors will lead to things like losing significant others, relationships with their children, their partners, their family, losing their job, losing their driver’s license, losing perhaps their elite position, squandering their money and their success, even health issues. It’s a problem when it reaches those excesses, where they can’t tolerate it anymore or their bodies can’t tolerate what they are doing anymore.

Michael: One of the things that we talk about a lot on this podcast is the importance of relationships in order “to become” and the importance of relationships along the path to doing difficult things. Because we really do need others to be able to explore our potential. A big part of narcissism is that people don’t have relationships with any depth, their relationships are just utility. Tell me if I’m wrong on this.

Then, I want to go back and talk about how you became really intrigued to study narcissism. And also, I’ve always thought that narcissists are unable to differentiate themselves from other people so they treat other people as though they don’t exist and they’re a tool or a utility in their own gain or their own need to be valued. Is that close to how you would move it outside of a technical, psychological disorder, Mumbo Jumbo jargon, into something that is more applied?

Wendy: Yeah, it’s actually very well articulated. That’s a good way to put it. Part of the reason is because so much of their interest is focused on performance and success and achievement and outcome and being extraordinary and winning and competing in whatever game of life they are playing. So their relationships are exactly as you described them: a means to an end and not typically a way of connecting, engaging, being in the presence of someone, knowing the other person’s internal life and what their feeling and experiencing. In fact, they’ll comment that relationships are just boring.

Michael: Relationships are boring?

Wendy: Boring.

Michael: How would someone know if they’re in a relationship, whether it’s an intimate relationship or a work relationship or whatever, with somebody who is a narcissist? What are the ways and the tells that we can use to identify that?  How can we better identify if we are in a relationship with a narcissist?

Wendy: It is 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 eventually, if not immediately, is this sense of being with a person who is highly self-absorbed, who rarely asks a question about your feelings, experiences. If they do, they barely listen to the answer. They are highly interruptive. They really seem to be operating on just their own agenda. I write about this in my book and it’s whole bait and switch maneuver.

When you’re with a narcissist, what becomes noticeable eventually if not immediately is this sense of being with a person who is highly self-absorbed, who rarely asks a question about your feeling, experience.

Many people in relationships with narcissists will notice that the narcissist may initiate a question, like something 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’ll ask your opinion about a movie, about something you read, about a podcast you listen to. Anything that they ask, it sounds like an invitation with interest. They might even say “What’s the matter? You look upset.” When you venture to very carefully and thoughtfully explain that you’re disappointed, 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. Your opinions are only on the table to either be dismissed or rejected or judged or criticized.

Michael: Where does that come from for the narcissist? Is it some sort of significant break in childhood or early experiences where they just completely unroot [from] what is a very natural experience, which is to be in relationship with others or is it bad wiring? What is your research led you to understand?

Wendy: I think like most personalities, it’s a combination of that. It’s that interplay between nature, the biology, and how it expresses itself in our personalities, 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 I think mostly apply to narcissists. They have this kind of temperamental tendency. It meets an environment with caregivers, significant adult others, who are just not equipped to meet the natural needs of this particular child—not that they’re so different from many other children, but they may be even a little more sensitive. Meaning, they need more nurturing, affection, connection, empathy, attunement.

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, in being superior, in being right. At the core, in most of these very 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?

Wendy: Yes, I do.

Michael: It’s kind of a joke, almost everyone has the sense of narcissism in the elite because they’ve dedicated their whole life efforts to something. I’m trying to figure out, what are the facilitative characteristics that actually help people become exceptional at something, but maybe don’t cross over into the darker side of the cold realm of narcissism?

To what degree has this individual grown up in an environment where there was an adequate amount of experience in connecting with people?

Wendy: It’s a really cool question. I think it has to do with the issue of balance: To what degree has this individual grown up in an environment where there was an adequate amount of experience in connecting with people? Meaning, feeling like you are lovable at the core, that you are fine as you are without having to meet certain conditions and yet …

Michael: Most people don’t. On the world stage, there is something around there 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 brother or younger sister was doing amazing things… There’s a couple very clear patterns.

Would you say that most people in elite performance domains, whether it’s corporate America, or sports or performance, are narcissistic?

Wendy: I think there’s a large percentage that are, and not surprisingly, because, again, when the bulk of the emphasis of your development and your worth and your value is placed on being super autonomous, on not needing other people, on being able to care for yourself independently, on the amount of recognition and approval you get, it’s not surprising that so many of the leaders in industry, in entertainment, and sports would have narcissistic traits. Now, they may not be full blown narcissistic personality disorders—they may have gotten some of those emotional needs met—but there’s a large majority I would predict are highly narcissistic.

Michael: I’m not so certain that it’s bad. There’s a reason 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 in such a way and push people to such extremes that change takes place. That sounds really cold as I’m saying it, but I don’t want it to be cold.

It’s not surprising that so many of the leaders in industry in entertainment and sports would have narcissistic traits.

Wendy: No, I agree. I will say to my friends and colleagues, I’m perfectly fine with being treated by a surgeon who is extremely arrogant and narcissistic, but he is 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 because he does great things in terms of saving lives. That’s fine with me even in my field. God knows there are plenty of narcissists who have made outstanding contributions to the mental health industry. I don’t want to live with them but …

Michael: In your experience of working with narcissists, do they change?

Wendy: You have to have leverage. There has to be a consequence that’s meaningful enough to them 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 in to treatment typically unwillingly, because they are fearful of the consequences. And then the next element needed for change is they have to be working with someone who understands this very complicated personality because it is complicated.

They can intimidate a therapist. I teach clinicians around the world how to develop their own sense of mastery in working with narcissism. The reason the rooms are packed is because it is one of the toughest groups to work with. They can only change if the therapist is good at maintaining the leverage, if the therapist understands the complexities of narcissism.

Michael: They can change. It requires leverage and it requires sensitivity to the nuances of the disorder itself. What are some of the steps that you found to be valuable in your approach? If people on the other side of this conversation are saying, “Am I narcissist? Am I one because I want to do amazing things?” How would somebody listening also be able to identify if they are struggling with that?

Wendy: If you are wondering if you have narcissistic tendencies or if you have a narcissistic personality disorder, you’d really want to ask questions like: is my ambition and my competitiveness and my drive for success—Is it what defines me? Is it what makes me lovable, acceptable, worthy as a human? Is it what makes me feel fine? Do I still feel like it’s not good enough and I have to try harder? Or is it something that just is really a thrill? It’s just fun and meaningful to me, but I know it’s not a condition for me to be lovable as a human. Is it also possible for me to just kind of wiggle my toes in the grass every now and then and be with a friend and have a conversation?

If you are wondering if you have narcissistic tendencies or if you have a narcissistic personality disorder, you’d really want to ask questions like is my ambition and my competitiveness and my drive for success—is it what defines me?

It’s again looking for that balance of reciprocity and sharing, and connection and intimacy, and personal opportunity and relationships—where you are just sharing eye contact and having a conversation with someone you care about. Ask yourself: Do I have a close intimate friend that I can be vulnerable with and open up and share my worries and my hurts and my doubts and my fears and my sadness? Is there someone in my life that I can be honest and reveal myself to in that way without feeling weak? Do I always have to be tough and strong and in-charge and on top of things, in command? These are some of the questions that we put out there and they are just the simple ones that help people to 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.

I find myself as a therapist very often saying to them when they argue with me—which they do all the time, of course, they are always in an argumentative mode—saying things like, “I’m not trying to prove myself. I don’t know what you are talking about. This is just the way I am. This is just the way I was built. Maybe I don’t have emotional needs like other people.” I’ll say to them that if you knew you were fine, if you really knew at the core that you are fine and you are okay, you wouldn’t have to try so hard to prove yourself to me. You don’t have to constantly be dropping the names and telling me the stories of the wonderfulness if you really knew you were fine. It’s one thing to be proud and we all like to be liked and we like to feel admired and appreciated for our work, for our service, for our contributions. It’s another thing to need that so much in order to feel like you matter.

Michael: As you are describing this, I can’t help but wonder about the gender differences between the attributes that you are just describing: to be open and vulnerable and take risks emotionally. I don’t want to get myself into trouble here, but it seems like there are more feminine qualities there than masculine. I’m not saying it’s right and wrong, but I have a tough time picturing the World War I or World War II generation having any of those attributes you just described, and I’m thinking about my grandfather, a wonderful human being with zero narcissism, but didn’t have the characteristics that you describe. Can you talk about the gender difference?

Wendy: Certainly, there can be a gender difference, but I would say you can also have someone who is clearly like your grandfather that shows no signs of narcissistic traits, can be reciprocal, can have conversations that are very give-and-take, and show interest in other people. Someone who may not expose their vulnerability, keep it more buttoned up because of the experiences they’ve lived, the generation they’ve lived in, the legacy they have been handed, perhaps also the trauma that they have suffered. But that doesn’t mean they are narcissistic. It could be socialization as a male, which also may contribute to that. That doesn’t make them narcissistic just because they cannot reveal themselves. You really have to have the other side of it, which is the need to prove yourself, the need to perform in order to feel like you have value.

Michael: Yeah, there you go. Good clarity for me. Are people who are in a relationship, like a man or a woman in a relationship with a narcissist, are they outmatched flat out? Just get out of the relationship for 90% of them because it’s too hard to try to help a narcissist change if you are not qualified?

Wendy: It’s really hard to try to help a narcissist change. But that being said, I wrote my book for people who are in relationships with narcissists, who actually can see the suffering side underneath, the vulnerable part of the narcissist. Every now and then, they get a glimpse of the 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 of them and they love that part. They may not be able to affect 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 enough 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 that we use in the treatment room called empathic confrontation. Meaning, empathy combined with confrontation. Whether it’s setting limits or it’s just drawing their attention to something that they are doing that is hurtful or upsetting. When I say empathy, I’m not saying sympathy. I’m not saying 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 as 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 precisely done 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.

In the treatment room, it would sound something like, “You know, 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 trophies for your sports, that there were really no limits on what you could do. It’s not your fault that now fast forward into your adult life, it feels perfectly reasonable to you to just blurt out whatever comes to your 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 that tendency of pushing them away because without thought, you just blurt things out. They could 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 the experience that they bring, but there’s a big 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. “I know you and I know you are not trying to hurt me, but, hey, ouch! That hurts. Knock it off.” Empathy confrontation. It’s a very, very effective strategy.

Michael: It’s got two components to it, right? I see where this is coming from, but you got to stop.

Wendy: You’ve got to look at this. You’ve got to stop.

Michael: Is then the leverage that I’ll leave? What is the leverage going back to your early approach?

Wendy: It could be if they’re ready for that. It could be, “I can’t do this anymore if you don’t get some help.” 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: Let’s play that out. “Well, then, toughen up. Toughen up then. Come on. Get on it with your own life.”

Wendy: “I think I am pretty tough for the most part and if I’m sensitive, it’s in the personal parts of our relationship. If I’m a sensitive person, then I would expect my partner to be a little more gentle with me.”

Michael: That’s good. That’s really good. You’ve done this before.

Wendy:  Twenty-five years, yeah.

Michael: How many years?

Wendy: Probably about 25 years.

Michael: It’s really good. I want to know about schema therapy quickly, but then I also want to know what does it feel like for the narcissist? What is their experience in the world? Are they lonely? Are they scared? Are they anxious? What is that root experience?

Wendy: I think at the heart of it all you have is a person who is lonely and feels ashamed. There’s a shame about not feeling loved unconditionally. There’s a shame for their own longings for the same things that every human longs for when they come into the world. I think they are lonely because they really don’t have the capacity. They don’t know how to connect at a very personal, intimate level.

Listen to the full podcast to hear Michael and Wendy discuss: 

  • How narcissism forms in a child
  • ­Why so many elite performers are narcissists
  • Can narcissists change?
  • Finding the appropriate balance between supporting your children and nurturing them too much
  • The science of Schema Therapy
  • Is there a danger in changing a narcissist’s tendencies?
  • and more…

This podcast originally appeared on findingmastery.net