Here’s an example of the countless messages I sent home with him: “I don’t have to prove myself. I’m not the center of the universe; this was an ascribed burden from my father. I’m worthy of love and attention, and when I get upset with Carolyn, I need to take a little walk to calm myself and make sure I come back to whatever conversation triggered me in the first place.”
Sometimes the audio flashcards were used to anticipate activating events that might cause a spiral or a flare-up of the bullying, controlling, or entitled behavior. Whenever Richard was going to have an encounter with his parents at a social event, holiday, or family reunion, I’d send him an audio flashcard to remind him to keep little Rick at a safe distance, and to be sure to stay in his grown-up mode.
In the early phases of treatment, Richard, like many narcissistic clients, was at risk for the postsession shame of having dropped his guard and exposed his vulnerability in the treatment room. I knew that by the time he left the session and turned the key in his car, he might already be hearing an inner voice that said, “You made a fool of yourself. You’ve been tricked. You’re just being used. You don’t need therapy!” After one especially revealing session, I gave Richard the following audio flashcard before he left the room: “I’m so proud of you, Richard. I know it’s hard to share this part of you with anyone, and it may even be a little weird. But I really like knowing you and your emotions. Beautiful work! Hold on to that little guy. Resist that old message that may tempt you to toss this work aside. Don’t slip away. Change will take time. We’ll navigate these rocky paths together.”
Keeping It Real
Narcissists tend to be keen observers, who pick up on fakery fast. To be effective with them, you need to display confidence at the same time you communicate openness, a bit of good humor, and a sense of “keeping it real.” Perhaps most important, however, is absolute persistence on your part. Successful treatment is about continuing to show up as a real person, not a jargon-spouting expert. This is all the more challenging because just when you least expect it (insert theme from Jaws), the uglier parts of the narcissist will return.
No matter how connected I thought we were, Richard remained capable of surprising me, offering up scathing comments—about me, my office, or even the crookedness of a picture on the wall—that left me feeling blindsided. After years of doing this kind of work, I’ve learned that the best response is usually lightheartedness and transparency. “Sometimes it’s simply amazing isn’t it, Richard?” I’d say. “One minute we’re sharing your deepest feelings of injury and the next you’re picking on me again. Then I get triggered and feel like I just want to fight back or surrender and go home.” Then I’d add reassuringly, “But I won’t. I know this is coming from that ‘tough guy’ part of you that screams, ‘Attack!’ whenever you start to let your guard down. Hey, it’s me, Richard. It’s safe here. You’re not weak: your emotions are the best part of you. I like knowing you.”
At this point, Richard might offer a clumsy apology and clear his throat, and we’d go on; however, instead of just letting it drop, I might try to connect him with a sense of empathy: “Richard, although I know you don’t mean to be hurtful, can you imagine the impact on me when you speak that way? It doesn’t convey your discomfort, the most important part of the experience you’re having. Instead, it distracts us and takes us on a detour from the truth. Remember, most people won’t tell you this because it’s not their responsibility. Most people are either intimidated or they’ve given up. It’s not your fault, Richard, but it is your responsibility, if you want to take it.”
Richard learned to build a better relationship with Carolyn one brick at a time. After a year or so of his work with me, along with some couples sessions, they’d made progress in their relationship. It wasn’t perfect, but there was a real commitment to attending to the nonnegotiable fundamentals of their marriage: respect, reciprocity, remorse, and repair.