Narcissism is a term inspired by ancient Greek mythology. According to the story, Narcissus is punished by the gods in an unusual way: He is made to fall in love with his own reflection, causing him to ignore everything else and eventually waste away by the shore bank (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018). Often, it is this image that is invoked when people discuss narcissistic personality disorder. Because narcissistic personality disorder is characterised by extreme self-interest, those living with this disorder are often seen in a negative light. However, what is perhaps most important to remember from the myth of Narcissus is that the condition was meant as a punishment, and that Narcissus suffered tremendously from it.
As experts have noted, “Conceptualizations… of narcissistic personality disorder have primarily focused on the more strikingly provocative, self-enhancing, entitled interpersonal behaviors and attitudes…” of those living with the disorder (Ronningstam, 2016). As a result of this focus, experts caution that “This has contributed to making the diagnosis more judgmental rather than informative.” (Ronningstam, 2016) This article will explore some important aspects to keep in mind with regards to this disorder.
An Overview of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
There are several symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder that can be easy for others to notice. Those living with narcissistic personality disorder often exhibit a “grandiose sense of importance, preoccupation with unlimited success, belief that one is special and unique, exploitative of others, lack of empathy, arrogance, and jealousy of others” (Bressert, 2018).
It is important for any counselling therapist to note, though, that another key feature of narcissistic personality disorder is that beneath the grandiosity and arrogance usually lies a deep insecurity (Webber, 2016). Indeed, grandiose behaviours are often a mechanism to hide this insecurity. As a result, those living with narcissistic personality disorder may feel jealous of or threatened by others (Webber, 2016). Experts note that “Anything that threatens to burst the fantasy bubble is met with extreme defensiveness and even rage, so those around the narcissist learn to tread carefully around their denial of reality.” (Smith, 2018)
It is also important to keep in mind that this disorder may manifest itself in different ways. In fact, some with narcissistic personality disorder may obsessively help others, demonstrating their feelings of superiority by becoming “altruistic martyrs” (Webber, 2016). Others may be what is known as “introverted narcissists”, who “react poorly to even gentle criticism and need constant reassurance. The way they feel special might actually be negative: They may see themselves as the ugliest person at the party or feel like a misunderstood genius in a world that refuses to recognize their gifts.” (Webber, 2016).
Working with Clients who Have Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a Counselling Therapist
Due to the nature of narcissistic personality disorder, many living with it may be reluctant to seek professional help. Indeed, “Patients with this personality tend to seek treatment when they are facing serious ultimatums, failures, losses, or other consequential realizations.” (Ronningstam, 2016) This can bring additional challenges to sessions with these clients, given that “When in treatment, they are known for their reluctance, negative therapeutic reactions, and early dropout.” (Ronningstam, 2016) Those who have narcissistic personality disorder may also have another disorder such as an addiction, eating disorder, or mood disorder, further complicating matters (Ronningstam, 2016).
Fortunately, there are approaches that counselling therapists can use. One approach that can be effective is to encourage collaboration and a shared agreement about the client’s behaviour and thought patterns (Ronningstam, 2016). This helps the client gain insight without simultaneously bringing about defensive and hostile behaviours (Ronningstam, 2016).
How Narcissistic Personality Disorder Can Affect Relationships
Narcissistic personality disorder is perhaps most known for the damage and hurt it can cause to the friends, family, and loved ones of the individual with the disorder. Because those with narcissistic personality disorder demand constant praise and attention, those in a relationship with someone who has this disorder may feel unheard or neglected. In some cases, a partner may be subjected to insults, cruelty, or even physical abuse (Greenberg, 2017).
Children may also be deeply affected by a parent who has narcissistic personality disorder (Allard, 2017). Parents may ignore or heavily criticise their children, or else “view their children as a reflection of themselves and become hyper-involved and controlling.” (Allard, 2017). In either case, the relationship can be quite difficult for the child and result in self-esteem issues, difficulty forming relationships, and fierce independence (Malkin, 2016). In some cases, children may even get PTSD or themselves develop narcissistic personality disorder (Malkin, 2016). For those with counselling therapist training, helping clients avoid these outcomes or heal from past hurts can potentially break the cycle.
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Allard, J. (2017). What happens when narcissists become parents. The Washington Post. Retrieved on November 14, 2018, from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2017/01/05/a-generation-of-narcissists-is-becoming-parents-what-now/?utm_term=.0c4d92ee64bf
Bressert, S. (2018). Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 14, 2018, from: https://psychcentral.com/disorders/narcissistic-personality-disorder/
Greenberg, E. (2017). Why Do Narcissists Abuse Those They Love? Psychology Today. Retrieved on November 15, 2018, from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-narcissism/201708/why-do-narcissists-abuse-those-they-love
Malkin, C. (2016). 8 Common, Long-Lasting Effects of Narcissistic Parenting. Psychology Today. Retrieved on November 15, 2018, from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/romance-redux/201609/8-common-long-lasting-effects-narcissistic-parenting
Ronningstam, E. (2016). New Insights Into Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Psychiatric Times. Retrieved on November 13, 2018 from: http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/special-reports/new-insights-narcissistic-personality-disorder
Smith, M. (2018). Narcissistic Personality Disorder. HelpGuide.org. Retrieved on November 14, 2018, from: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-disorders/narcissistic-personality-disorder.htm
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2018) Narcissus. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Narcissus-Greek-mythology
Webber, R. (2016). Meet the Real Narcissists (They’re Not What You Think). Psychology Today. Retrieved on November 15, 2018, from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/articles/201609/meet-the-real-narcissists-theyre-not-what-you-think