When individuals worked with me in therapy, my mind was in an investigative mode. I’d want to break down the nature of the problem, learn the roots of it, understand that person’s back story, and discern the direction we could go in the future. Therapy, to me, represented an opportunity to gain insight, learn, and adjust. I was easily motivated to be of assistance, and I routinely considered myself to be a fellow sojourner.
As I would interact with my clientele, I would watch for one single ingredient to predict if we could have a successful outcome… the ability to self-reflect. Or perhaps I could say it more strongly… the eagerness to self-reflect.
While problems exist “out there,” I found it essential to focus on what is happening “in here” as we would break down a person’s coping tendencies. Therapy patients would often have to acknowledge that others may prove unwilling to adjust, yet growth could happen despite that. In many ways, we would explore the question: What is being triggered inside that you can examine and adjust?
Shifting gears, I am often asked if narcissists can change, if they could benefit from therapy. When such a question is posed, I become acutely aware that most have a very minimal desire to self-reflect. The brain power may exist, but the core ingredients of narcissism can get in the way. Narcissists are so bound by their entitlement, the need for control, the presumption of superiority, and the unwillingness to take responsibility that they sabotage the change process before it even gets off the ground. Their inability or unwillingness to self-reflect would become the primary flaw inhibiting them from personal growth.
Let me give you an idea of questions narcissists need to ponder but don’t:
- What is the meaning of your emotions? Your anger? Your fears? Your resentments? Your egotism? Your hidden inadequacy?
- What influences you to act and react the ways that you do?
- What primary needs are driving you? Power? Escapism? Revenge?
- Why do you expend so much energy defending yourself? What’s that all about?
- What is it inside you (as opposed to what is inside others) that needs to change?
- To what extent are you in control of your life? To what extent are you not in control?
- How do you define a life well lived? Can you apply that definition even when others to not embrace your priorities or efforts?
- What strategies could you develop when you feel hurt, disillusioned, or angry?
There are quite a few more questions that come into play, but let’s just say that there is much introspection that needs to happen for adjustments to occur.
The problem with narcissists stems from their longstanding tendency toward constructing and maintaining the False Self. Early in life, they encountered the potential for rejection, judgment, and punishment, so they determined to hide who they really were as a means of protection. But taking their efforts a bit further, they began to think in terms of power and control. They learned that groups consist of winners and losers, so they decided to do what was necessary to be on the winning side of that equation.
This tendency set them up to think competitively, not introspectively. A form of paranoia settled in, prompting them to think things like: Why are you doing this to me? Why won’t you listen? You’re trying to make me feel miserable, aren’t you?
The net result of their anguish was the development of blame-shifting, accusation, and strong cover-up. Narcissists so desperately need problems “out there” to be resolved that they routinely overlook the “in here” issues. While it would be reasonable for them to know and understand the motives of people and systems that have let them down, their ultimate goal ideally would be to reflect upon the one person they can do something about…themselves. But that scares them due to the presumption that it would result in them carrying someone else’s shame and guilt-worthiness. So, they reflexively sidestep self-reflection in favor of blaming and defending.
If you are connected to a narcissist, it is possible that you can be pulled into that same pattern of blame and defense, but when that happens it will not end well.
To that effect, I’m hoping you can go back to your basics and ponder what it means to confront problems constructively. Ask yourself:
- Do I ever inadvertently contribute to the problems created by others? If so, what are my cleaner alternatives?
- What defines me? Why do I matter? Can I stand in my own truth even when others disregard what it means for me to be me?
- What does it mean to love? How does my management of conflict reflect my understanding of such an important ingredient?
- Why do my relationships matter? What am I hoping to accomplish? How might I maximize my efforts with decent people and when should I minimize my efforts in problematic circumstances?
- Knowing I will die one day, how does that impact the ways I manage my today?
Knowing that narcissists would rather compete than self-reflect, and knowing how that could derail you if you join in, your task is to stay your course despite their inability to coordinate. Your question can be: How will I maintain my purpose even when I’m in the presence of a non-reflective person?
~Les Carter, Ph.D.
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