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Help For the Person Tied to a Narcissist

September 16, 2018

In my experience, most therapists see folks who come to them voluntarily for depression or anxiety. Underlying the distress is often unrecognized trauma, usually from childhood. As a result, they are seeing otherwise decent folks who appreciate help sorting out their difficulties. This so fits with most therapists’ training and disposition as therapists see themselves as helpers and see clients as otherwise nice people. Hence you get a paradigm of nice therapists helping nice people.

This is far removed from the client who comes to them whose distress is tied to living with a narcissist.

The therapist is now meeting with a desperate person who is currently shell-shocked and likely in the throes of PTSD. The therapist will hear stories of gas-lighting, manipulation, lies and deceit from a person who is also described as charming in the company of others. In this situation, the client is either seeking help to change their partner, escape their partner or survive as co-parents. This represents a shift for the therapist as the therapist must accept the description of the unseen partner in horrid terms.

The person described by the client is not often seen in therapy as those persons never have an issue with themselves. They are rarely in distress and if they are it is for feeling thwarted by someone with whom they lost power and control. While this will drive such a person into rage, because they do not see themselves as the problem, they see no need for therapy. Their need is to restore their control in the relationship or otherwise wreak havoc through vengeance which they see as reasonable. Many therapists have not dealt with narcissists directly and when they do, with limited experience and exposure, they come to be tied up in knots too.

It is a challenging paradigm shift for therapists to accept that their compassion and empathy will not facilitate insight and healing in many narcissists and that while one can appreciate the terrible formative experiences such a person may have endured, they remain a current threat and danger to their targets – those whom they believe should meet their needs. If, by the way, a narcissist is seen in therapy, it is likely to help them restore control over their partner and if the therapist is not helpful to that goal, then the therapist is seen as thwarting their needs and thus may be a target of vengeance too.

Hence, many therapists are ill-equipped to meet the needs of this therapy client. This leaves this therapy client feeling more scared and alone and often invalidated for their experience, which only adds to their crazy-making situation and distress.

The required paradigm, from my perspective in working with someone living with a person described as a narcissist is validation and support. The therapist within this paradigm must come to appreciate, there are some folks aptly described as evil. This is so different as well from working with persons whose abuse is physical as often, the narcissists’ tools are not physical, but emotional and psychological.

Help for the client managing life tied to a person described as a narcissist must go beyond support and validation though. It must include survival strategies. Those strategies may be to manage in the relationship, extricate the relationship or co-parent as separated parents – depending on the needs and desire of the client.

The therapist must help the client build boundaries and develop reference points to reality that are not structured or determined by the narcissist. The client must be helped to strategically use empathy and respect in dealing with the narcissist even though this is counter-intuitive. It must be understood that strategies of empathy and respect does not include acquiescing to inappropriate demands or expectations or agreeing with the views or opinions of the narcissist. It just means leaving the narcissist feeling heard as that is actually soothing to such a person and can limit escalation of narcissistic exploitation. Help is also required to set a reasonable appreciation for what may be expected from the narcissist and help should also include self-care strategies.

To the person seeking therapeutic support, do ask your intended therapist is they have any knowledge, training and experience in supporting people managing a narcissist in their life.

To the therapist either supporting a person in relationship with a narcissist or working directly with a narcissist, if your knowledge or training or experience is limited, either seek supervision or refer the person to someone with greater skill. The real challenge in these cases is the paradigm shift. These people can be truly evil and their charm and niceness veils danger. The therapist’s own niceness and can make them ripe for exploitation by the narcissist. So sure, be nice, but at least not naïve. Our help must be helpful and include skill development.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker. Check out all my services and then call me if you need help with a personal issue, mental health concern, child behavior or relationship, divorce or separation issue or even help growing your practice. I am available in person and by Skype.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW for counseling and support – to build your successful practice

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America. He consults to mental health professionals as well as to mediators and collaborative law professionals about good practice as well as building their practice.

One Comment
  1. Living with a narcissist is challenging and during this time I read “People of the Lie” by Scott Peck. Interesting to read about evil, as you have mentioned here as well. My experience was once, they reached 60, there appeared hope for some shift and willingness to listen, while still justifying the harm they have done. Such harm to children during this period.

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