“Change is really hard, but not impossible,” I replied. “This is only part of you, and it’s not who you are. It’s how you become when you feel that insecurity crying out from deep within.”
Chair Work. To help Richard appreciate, more vividly, these different behavior modes within him, I told him, “Imagine that your 4-year-old self is sitting where you are right now (I handed him a photo), and your angry 8-year-old self is sitting across from you (I placed another photo in a chair). We’ll put your demanding, critical father over here (I placed that photo in a corner of the room). Let’s begin with little Rick (as he liked to refer to the youngest part of himself). See if you can supply a voice for him. Let’s understand what he feels and what he needs most of all.”
Trying to sense the experience of little Rick, Richard stumbled but eventually, while looking at the photo, said, “Well, it would be nice to have someone ask me what I’d like, maybe give me a hug once in a while, and want to play with me or just hang out.”
I then asked detached, angry 8-year-old Rick to respond to little Rick’s feelings. Richard looked to the chair where Angry Rick was placed and replied, “Forget it, Buddy. Not happening. Not in this life! Get back in the basement and enjoy your comic books, be good and do what you have to do, because that’s all there is. Your mom is the only pampered one in this family.”
Following this, I asked judgmental, 12-year-old Ricky (a new reference to the preadolescent Richard) to join this dialogue by supplying a voice for his father—a voice that carried a message that had been well implanted in his brain. “What would he say about little Rick’s needs and feelings?” I asked.
“You don’t need that sissy crap! That’s for losers. Our family is for winners,” he said. “We’re better than other people. Do you want me to be proud of you? Well, do you? Grow up, be tough, do well, and keep your mother happy!”
I asked Richard to tell me how little Rick was feeling then.
“He knows this story all too well. He’s probably upset. I’m not sure. I think he’s shutting down,” he replied.
Guided Imagery. Sometimes I use guided imagery to help clients have an experience of feeling nurtured and of how it “should’ve” for the little guy in the picture. I handed Richard the photo of little Rick, and asked him to look at it and then close his eyes and see the image of him in his mind beside adult Richard, as I supplied a voice for the healthy, adult Richard. “Of course you’re upset, little Rick. You have a right to be held, to have someone play with you, and love you just for you. All children need that. You don’t have to hide in that basement anymore when you feel sad, lonely, or angry. You’re safe here with me, and with Wendy. We’re going to take care of you. It never should’ve been that way. It’s not your fault; you’re just a little boy who needs to be loved and accepted for who you are. Carolyn wants to know you and love you, too.”
Richard’s facial muscles relaxed, and as he opened his eyes, he reported feeling a bit “thrown.” Wiping away a stray tear, he said, “Well this is weird, but yes, it feels a little better. I can see what you mean about the different ‘parts’ of me. Yes, I can see what we’re up against.” The photos helped Richard, like other narcissistic clients, to appreciate his smallness, his vulnerability, and his limited power to get what he needed earlier in his life. The vivid image of his little face and body helped him recapture an immediate sense of what the child thought and felt, how he dealt with the emotional emptiness of his world.
After a few interactions like this, Richard began to find a voice for his most vulnerable parts: “I need love and attention. I’m sad that I can’t be perfect enough for my dad. It’s my job to make my mom happy. I’m angry because I don’t fit in.” This process helps create empathic awareness of self and story, and later it makes room for empathic awareness of others’ feelings.
Audio Flashcards. I made sure that Richard left each session with brief audio files that I’d record for him in-session (directly on his smart phone, or on a voice-recording sent to his email or left on his voicemail). The audio message captured moments that I wanted him to hold on to—moments that resonated for him emotionally. These audio flashcards reinforced work we’d done together in session and have more impact than written notes.