How to Have an Emotionally Supportive Argument

Everyone, and I mean EVERY one of us, is entitled to our own experience and perception. One of the gifts of a relationship is having more than one outlook or experience on any given situation. We do not have to feel or think or experience the world in the same way to connect with each other. Try to see that your partner’s unique experience of the situation does not need to be right, wrong, factually correct, or the same as yours. Your partner’s experience does not invalidate your own - it simply means you are two different people.

Making space for your feelings and your partner’s feelings during heated moments

Do you ever have an argument or discussion with your partner and think, 'I have no idea what to say right now' or 'I'm so mad that I can't even hear you'?  This post is meant to help guide you through a difficult conversation and manage feelings between you and your loved ones.  I will use the word "partner" because communication between couples can be particularly difficult, but it could apply to a family member, a colleague, or a friend.

Step 1: Put yourself on hold, temporarily

When you're in the heat of the moment or don't understand your partner or loved one, it can be difficult to step outside yourself and hear your partner's needs. This is a Herculean effort at times, especially if you feel criticized, blamed, or inadequate because of the language they are using (which we will discuss later) or because of your own feelings, history and unique makeup. 

Many of us talk about our own needs and desires by criticizing what another person is doing rather than asking for what we need.  Perceived (or real) criticism often triggers feelings of inadequacy, anger and distrust which inevitably creates disconnection and neuro-chemical shut down (fight, flight or freeze responses.) After our survival systems are engaged, communication is toast. Suddenly, your loved one looks and feels like your enemy.

I would encourage you to take a breath in these moments… try it now. Remember that you love this person and he or she loves you. Try to momentarily put your feelings aside next time your partner complains or criticizes in order to find the need behind the complaint. You can start by saying something like, “I really want to hear you right now but I’m feeling ______ (criticized, blamed, sad, scared, angry) and I need to breathe/take a 15 minute walk/ask you to be more gentle with me.”

This shift alone can defuse relationship bombs instantly and can lead to fuller understanding of one another. It can also make one or both partners very angry. If this is the case, establishing a routine in which you both have a “cooling off” period when things get heated could make or break your relationship. If this is a pattern when you have disagreements, have a conversation with your partner when you’ve calmed down about making space during heated moments. Make an agreement that at any time either of you feel overwhelmed you can take some space to calm down and come back to the discussion. Set a time limit, tell your partner how long you’ll be cooling off and what you’ll be doing. Oftentimes, partners can feel abandoned in moments like these unless they know that you are intentionally taking action to be more present and available - take a walk, leave the room, move your body, or any other activity that helps you discharge emotion. It is healthy to take a break in these moments when you know you’re not available to be compassionate and empathetic.

Step 2: Inquire about the problem or need of your partner.

After taking a breathe or a walk, here are some suggestions that can help clarify and deescalate the conversation:

a) "I want to understand how you’re feeling. I want to meet your needs/be a good partner/listen/help you.” Be open, loving and clear. Don’t jump into “fixing” the problem. You are here to listen and understand.

Quick tip: If you feel defensive, try telling yourself that the way that your partner feels may have nothing to do with how you have acted or spoken, but rather how they perceived the situation. Perception is not an insult, it is our unique way of seeing the world. We only have our perception to go on until we are really connected to another person. This process of making space for your partner’s feelings and understanding their perception builds trust and helps both partner’s know that no matter what they are perceiving, their partner’s intentions are good. It helps us give the benefit of the doubt in tough situations. And over time, it makes these conversations less and less charged.

If you can stop trying to prove that you are “right” and start trying to prove that you are committed to understanding and making space for your partner to have feelings, a powerful shift occurs. The need to be “right” is born of shame. The desire to understand is born of curiosity and love.

b) Ask your partner how he or she is feeling.  After an "I feel..." statement.  "Tell me more about how you feel."  Explore what it is like for your partner and trade places in your mind.  Focus on their experience of the problem. Imagine what it would feel like to be them.

c) Repeat feelings back to your partner.  "So you felt lonely when I left and went to the party without you." Think of a time when you felt lonely and if you feel compassion say, “I hate it when I feel lonely and I hate that you feel that way. That sucks.” Be open to correction or elaboration.

d) Have an attitude of curiosity and openness.  "I want to understand how you're feeling." Be open to the idea that we all feel and express emotions differently and the only way for you to really know how your partner feels is to listen as they describe it - open your mind to their way of seeing the situation.

e) Avoid talking about how you feel or perceive the situation until your partner is finished explaining his or her side.  Avoid at all cost becoming defensive - ‘you do the same thing,’ ‘I only did that because you told me to,’ ‘WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST SAY SOMETHING?!?’ etc.  Just listen and take it in, not as a criticism of you, but as the pieces of a puzzle that when completed unveils an unmet need of your partner.

*Important note: Everyone, and I mean EVERY one of us, is entitled to our own experience and perception. One of the gifts of a relationship is having more than one outlook or experience on any given situation. We do not have to feel or think or experience the world in the same way to connect with each other. Try to see that your partner’s unique experience of the situation does not need to be right, wrong, factually correct, or the same as yours. Your partner’s experience does not invalidate your own - it simply means you are two different people.

Step 3: Address the need

By this point, hopefully your partner has been able to articulate what need is driving his or her feelings. The need may have simply been the need to be heard and understood. If there is another request (e.g. do the dishes or put your phone away while we’re talking) try to hear that request and let your partner know if you think you can meet the request or not. If you intend to make a change in your behavior in service of the relationship, let your partner know that you might need reminding or how you would like to be approached if you forget.

Your partner may say, "I need for you to be here more often," but get more specific.  "I'm hearing that you want to spend more time together.  What would you like to do during that time?  When would you like to spend that time together?"

Underlying most complaints is the need for companionship, love, or support.  Try to get to the underlying need, not just the complaint. Vague complaints like, "I want you to care more," or "I want you to want to be with me," leave no room for specific adjustment.  Ask for a concrete solution to the problem like going to a movie together, snuggling on the couch, talking openly, hugging, touching, or spending time with family.  Ask how often your partner needs those things and ask them to continually speak up when they need it.

*Important note: You are never obligated to meet the need of a partner if you don’t want to. It is important to tell your partner if/when you feel as though you cannot do what they are asking.

Step 4: Make an agreement

Agree to meet the needs of your partner in a way that feels good to both of you.  Again, make the agreement specific and realistic. Assume that you won’t do it perfectly and be clear that you will need help/reminders/gentle words when you falter. Let them know that you are trying when you’re trying. Let them know that you forgot when you forgot but you care and are committed to this task. Make space for imperfection in this process - ask for forgiveness and patience.

Step 5: Taking care of your needs

Through this process of communicating about your partner's needs, you may find that you have unmet needs as well.  After you have discussed your partner's issue, approach your needs in a way that models healthy communication to your partner.

‘When we disagree, I often feel badly about myself when I hear statements like 'you do this all the time' or 'you never do this.'  I would appreciate it in the future if you could tell me what you are needing from me in the moment rather than telling me how often I do it wrong.  It makes me feel [insert feeling] and I would rather feel loved/connected.’

Or...

‘I'm happy to give you the time that you are asking for and agree that we should spend quality time together.  I also think that we need time apart and with our friends.  Can we have an agreement that on Mondays we do our own thing?’

Relationships are not easy and communicating is a learned skill.  Be patient with yourself and your partner. Allow for mistakes and disappointments - that’s where the real learning and fine tuning begins!

Are you "needy"?

I'm on my soap box today and the topic is having needs. I'm not exactly sure how words like "need" and "attention" became negative words in our vernacular,  but this needs to be discussed. So I'm calling all parents, children, teachers, friends, spouses, and everyone in any relationship: let's settle this. 

this is the deal...

Every human being has needs and one of those needs is attention. When we are infants, we need food, warmth, and complete care. When we are children we need to be kept safe by our loved ones but we also need room to explore. Teens need love and support but also need peer interaction to be able to begin to formulate independent ideas about the world and create identities separate from loved ones. As adults we need attention from our families, our friends, our significant others, teachers, and a host of other people around us in order to feel loved, connected and accepted. It's part of our hard-wiring to tune in with those around us. We must have these needs met from the time that we are born (or we suffer dire consequences) and we continue to have needs throughout our lives. This is the normal, natural, and healthy template that our brains and bodies follow. The well-researched and documented scientific research of attachment and neurobiology is clear cut on this issue. (But for curious minds, please read: John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Alan Schore, Daniel Siegel, Bonnie Badenock, Arlene Montgomery, Bessel van der Kolk and many other talented minds in the field of interpersonal neurobiology and attachment.)

Our specific needs change as we develop over time, but it is normal and healthy to have needs. It is normal and healthy to want and have the attention of the people around you, especially those who are closest to you. I think that the negativity toward "neediness" occurs when someone appears to need more than another can give or more than he or she “should” developmentally require. For example, developmentally speaking an adult who has been given love, consistency, and affection throughout his life will not require constant affirmation and admiration to maintain healthy self-esteem and relationships. His antithesis, an adult who was not given love, boundaries, and affection would have experienced what Freud called "narcissistic injury," or what contemporary researchers might call hurt, abandonment, and a rupture in attachment, and could become some version of a person who we would call selfish, needy, or even narcissistic. 

No wonder the word "needy" gets a bad rep. We associate it with an extreme sense of selfishness or even pathologize having needs because there are some people who, because of intense pain and other injury, have unmet needs that cannot be met on a conscious level. Their wounds are so deep that we cannot heal them with singular interactions. We now use the word "needy" to describe the experience of being with a person who has no room for our own needs

We would be better served by separating the experience of not having our own needs met rather than focusing on labeling someone as "needy" or "attention-seeking". 

why it's important...

When we label people as "needy" and denigrate the idea of having needs, we allow ourselves to diminish the importance of honoring our very real and legitimate needs. In separating ourselves from that which we do not want to emulate, we detach ourselves from a basic human function. To need becomes shameful instead of normal. 

In my work with teens and adults it is abundantly clear that being taught that we should not express (or even have) many needs has negative impacts on self-esteem, self-worth, and the ability to maintain healthy relationships. The inability to express and have needs allows us to tolerate abusive or neglectful behavior in relationships and foster low expectations from those around us. Our relationships can become mirrors of our unworthiness - we believe that how we are treated is how we deserve to be treated. Regret, resentment, and most conflicts between partners, children and parents are born in the tug of war between unmet needs and expectations. Our denial of need is powerful, silencing, and  grows exponentially from adolescence into adulthood (e.g. chronic care-givers, co-dependent behavior, enabling, "doormat syndrome" etc.) 

The denial of needs creates shame, distance, and thwarts attempts at closeness and success in relationships. It creates scenarios in which people are labeled "attention-seeking" because they have grown desperate for healthy, loving attention and compassion but may have no idea what defines healthy. When our basic human needs go unrecognized and unacknowledged it can even create heartbreak that is so overwhelming that people hurt themselves to feel as though some kind of need is being met - a feeling, a sensation or temporary respite from the pain. They may cut their skin, or throw up their food, or control and restrict so that they feel like there is a semblance of boundaries and safety in the world around them. I am not suggesting that these are healthy ways of meeting one's needs, but that cutting, eating disorders, and many other outward shows of self-harm are a desperate attempt at being heard, seen, acknowledged, and cared for.

If there is one other thing that treating teenagers has taught me, it is that Google searches are very informative - not necessarily the content, but the prediction of the search. If you are not in contact with teens, I'll spell it out. When young people feel or think something, they often turn to Google as a way to validate or clarify these thoughts and feelings. As an illustration, I started by typing, "need" and this is what I got...

Google search prediction: need

That's not great. Someone typing the word "need" is likely to be typing the word "needy". Then I tried "why am I needy". Here are the results...

Google search results - why am I needy

The results don't instill much confidence that having needs is normal. The message seems clear that you should "stop" being "needy" and "clingy" whether "in relationships" or "with friends". And "needy people"...

Google search results - needy people

We find some articles on assertiveness and narcissism, but the evidence of the socially constructed pathology of needs is clear. 

My point is not to discount any of the above articles or resources, but to highlight the disparity between the plethora of help for those who are allegedly "too needy" and help for those who have needs and want to know that it's okay to have them. Many people who self-report as "needy" fall into the category of having healthy, normal, and appropriate needs. 

so what do you need?

While I can't say exactly what you may need, I can say that most people who have been called "too needy" by their partners, parents, and friends are actually seeking healthy relationships. I can also estimate that the most pervasively unmet need among all people is that they do not feel valued, understood, heard, or seen by important others. In short, we need to feel loved and there is nothing wrong with that. Whatever your needs and wants may be, it is helpful to think and talk about them. Getting your needs met is a life-long process, ever-changing and not always easy, but definitely worth the time and effort.

7 quick tips about needs

  1. The fact that someone cannot give you what you need is not evidence that you should not need it.

  2. No one, as in not one person, can provide everything that you need all the time. It is important to build a support network for this very reason. It is important to maintain enough of a sense of worth and self-love to reach out a second and third time when you are in need. If one person is currently busy or lacking space, on to the next. Do not decide that you are unworthy because one person cannot meet your needs in any moment.

  3. Other people will have feelings about your needs, especially when they are in contrast with his or her competing needs. That doesn't mean that either or both people's needs are illegitimate.

  4. We may go about getting our needs met in unhelpful or unhealthy ways (e.g. passive aggression, withdrawal, or aggression) if they are unmet for long enough, but that doesn't mean that one should not have love, support, respect, attention, and care in relationships. It is never too late to directly ask for what you need. Avoid shaming yourself about how you have behaved in the past - you were doing the best you could do with the tools you had at the time.

  5. If you don't know what you need, it is unlikely that others will know what you need. There is an all too common, unfair expectation, especially in romantic relationships, that people should anticipate the needs of others without knowing what they are. Be as open as possible about what you need when you need it.

  6. You will face disappointment when someone inevitably does not meet your needs after working so hard to assert them. It's okay; we are all imperfect and need second and third chances. Try again and again. If you express your feelings about your experience and you are still not being respected, don't be afraid to set a boundary then go to someone who will respect and hear you.

  7. Trust yourself. Your life begins and ends with you, so trust that you know what's best for you.

10 Therapy Hacks

1. Say no. No is a good word, not a bad one. When you say 'no' you are simply acknowledging that you have met a limit or capacity. We have a capacity for giving, being awake, running, eating, and everything else that we do. When you say 'yes' and mean 'no', you may feel resentful, angry, numb, overworked, and used, among other painful emotions.

2. Know the difference between acting out and being assertive. Try to avoid acting out, but if you do, reflect on the choice and note the consequences. Be assertive.

3. Connect with other people. We were built to connect and wired to be with one another. Like a car without an engine, we do not work if we do not share ourselves with others.

4. Chose wisely when sharing yourself with others. Trust yourself when you are with another person. The voice that says, “dislike” or “run” is there for a reason. If you find yourself running from everyone, return to number 3.

5. You will never be one thing, so accept that you will be many things. Behaviors do not define us but are temporary. It is incredibly difficult to be a feeling, intelligent, complex human being because contradictory feelings co-exist with one another within all of us (e.g. love & anger, resentment & longing, desire & fear, fatigue & happiness). You are not how you feel or what you are doing. You are you. As complicated as it is to be you, it is far more rewarding than being chained to any label that has been thrust upon you. And since you are you, you do not have to think, feel, or act like anyone else.

6. Be kind to yourself and then be kind to others when you can. Say nice things to yourself in your head. Take it easy on yourself. Only good things come from this. You will not get more done if you are mean to yourself or others. It does not make you a “bad” or “selfish” person to show kindness to yourself. Ultimately, you cannot offer more kindness to others than you extend to yourself so you must practice on yourself first.

7. Be honest with yourself. Honesty is not universally the “best policy” with others, but it is necessary to know your own truth to live a conscious, connected life. Never use honesty to hurt or belittle someone. Rather than hiding behind honesty and moral platitudes, use honesty first and foremost as a gauge for yourself. How do you honestly feel, even if it is confusing? What defense mechanisms may be in place that keep you from accessing honest feelings or truths about yourself?

8. Accept that anger is a normal, acceptable and useful emotion. Anger gets a bad reputation because we associate it with scary, violent, or unhealthy expressions of anger. Expressing healthy anger should not frighten or intimidate. It may feel uncomfortable to talk about feeling angry, but it might set you free from anger.

Example of expressing anger in a healthy way: "I felt angry when you said I was slow because I am self-conscious about my speed. It makes me feel like you don't know me (or: misunderstood, unimportant, invisible) when you say things that I'm sensitive about in such an insensitive way." You may tack on, "it makes it hard for me to trust our friendship when you are insensitive toward my feelings." And if it is true, "I'm telling you this because I want us to be friends and I want to be able to trust each other. Next time this comes up, can you treat me with sensitivity by being supportive?"

9. All feelings and thoughts are acceptable. It is only ACTION that can hurt you and/or other people. Actions like yelling at someone or punching someone in the face hurt others and you. The hurt is fairly obvious to the recipient of acting out in anger, but the angry person can face a range of consequences as well. The person who acts out in anger may feel deep shame after yelling at someone and have no relief from anger, he or she might break a hand, or there may be legal consequences for physically harming someone. In this scenario, we have a perfect example of how acting out can end up harming the person who was initially hurt and angry instead of the intended target or aggressor.

10. What to do with the feelings and thoughts if not act them out? Process them with someone you trust. I'll continue to use anger as an example but any feeling can be inserted in it's place. Be clear that you have no intention of harming anyone but your feelings of anger and thoughts of punching someone in the face are bothersome. What caused the anger? What feelings did you experience as a result of the incident(s) that made you angry? Going forward, how can you talk about your feelings that lead to anger instead of bottling them up? Expressing these feelings allows you to place them where they belong and prevents them from hurting you. The feelings of hurt and anger can become powerful motivators to assertively set boundaries when faced with the choice of acting out or speaking up in the future. Connecting the dots between how our interactions and behaviors influence our relationships is a crucial part of growth and connection.

Final words: do all of these steps imperfectly and seek help along the way. Practice is the only way we learn to change habits and form better relationships. You will not get it right every time, but you can apologize when you have regrets and behave differently and consciously next time.

 

What is Co-Narcissism?

Mommie Dearest

If you're having an, "oh great, one more thing to worry about" response to the unfamiliar word "Co-Narcissism," you're not alone. I am not a proponent of inventing and loosely wielding new psychological problems, diagnoses, and concerns for people seeking help and understanding through their interpersonal conflicts, low self-esteem, and a myriad of other problems that we experience in relationship with others. At times, I believe that labeling, classifying, and over-extending our language around mental well-being can create an overwhelming sense of helplessness. However, after reading "Co-Narcissism: How We Accommodate to Narcissist Parents," by Alan Rappoport, Ph.D. I felt eager to share this article because it has the potential to provide clarity, compassion, and peace of mind for those struggling to understand his or her complex relationships with parents, partners, children, and other significant others.

Whether you are a therapy participant, a therapist, or simply curious about relationships, I can say with near certainty that this topic will resonate with you. I hope this new term can be added to our vernacular of interpersonal dynamics and provide insight to those who are looking for healthy ways of connecting by examining existing, learned patterns of relating to the world. As you read, remember that there is no one interpretation through which you can see yourself or your loved ones. I will also add, in an effort to quell the mounting anxiety of those who fear that being termed "Co-Narcissistic" is a negative attribute, it is not. It is one of many lenses through which you may find answers to your questions as you reflect on your upbringing, behavior, depression, anxiety, and relationship patterns. In the words of Alan Rappoport, Ph.D.:

"This article introduces the term “co- narcissism” to refer to the way that people accommodate to narcissistic parents. I use the term narcissism here to refer to people with very low self-esteem who attempt to control others’ views of them for defensive purposes. They are interpersonally rigid, easily offended, self -absorbed, blaming, and find it difficult to empathize with others. Co- narcissistic people, as a result of their attempts to get along with their narcissistic parents, work hard to please others, defer to other’s opinions, worry about how others think and feel about them, are often depressed or anxious, find it hard to know their own views and experience, and take the blame for interpersonal problems. They fear being considered selfish if they act assertively.

If any of this sounds familiar, strap in for a fascinating read.

Reprinted with gratitude and the permission of Alan Rappoport, Ph.D. A PDF version of this article can be found among his publications on his website. If you would prefer to hear a reading of this article, Paul Gilmartin of The Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast (http://mentalpod.com/) shares it with his listeners here.

Co-Narcissism: How We Accommodate to Narcissistic Parents Alan Rappoport, Ph.D.

Abstract

This article introduces the term “co- narcissism” to refer to the way that people accommodate to narcissistic parents. I use the term narcissism here to refer to people with very low self-esteem who attempt to control others’ views of them for defensive purposes. They are interpersonally rigid, easily offended, self -absorbed, blaming, and find it difficult to empathize with others. Co- narcissistic people, as a result of their attempts to get along with their narcissistic parents, work hard to please others, defer to other’s opinions, worry about how others think and feel about them, are often depressed or anxious, find it hard to know their own views and experience, and take the blame for interpersonal problems. They fear being considered selfish if they act assertively. A high proportion of psychotherapy patients are co-narcissistic. The article discusses the co-narcissistic syndrome and its treatment, and gives case examples of patients who suffer from this problem.

Narcissism

Narcissism, a psychological state rooted in extremely low self-esteem, is a common syndrome among the parents of psychotherapy patients. Narcissistic people are very fearful of not being well regarded by others, and they therefore attempt to control others’ behavior and viewpoints in order to protect their self-esteem. The underlying dynamic of narcissism is a deep, usually  unconscious,  sense  of  oneself  as dangerously inadequate and vulnerable to blame and rejection. The common use of the term refers to some of the ways people defend themselves against this narcissistic dynamic: a concern with one’s own physical and social image,  a  preoccupation  with one’s own thoughts and feelings, and a sense of grandiosity. There are, however, many other behaviors that can stem from narcissistic concerns, such as immersion in one’s own affairs to the exclusion of others, an inability to empathize with other’s experience, interpersonal rigidity,  an insistence that one’s opinions and values are “right,” and a tendency to be easily offended and take things personally.

A high  proportion  of  people  in psychotherapy have adapted to life with narcissistic people and, as a result, have not been able to develop healthy means of self- expression and self-directedness. I have coined the term “co-narcissism” for this adaptation, which has the same relation to narcissism as “co-alcoholic” has to alcoholism and “co-dependent” has to dependency. Co-alcoholics unconsciously collaborate with alcoholics, making excuses for them and not confronting them about their problem in an assertive way. The same is true of the co-dependent person, who makes excuses for the other’s dependency and fills in for him or her as necessary. The wife of an abusive husband who takes the blame for her partner’s behavior is another example  of  taking  responsibility  for someone else’s problems. Both narcissism and co-narcissism are adaptations  that children have made to cope with narcissistic parenting figures. To the best of my knowledge, every narcissistic and co- narcissistic person that I have encountered has had narcissistic parents, and the parents of their parents are reported to have been even more highly narcissistic.

To the extent that parents are  narcissistic, they are  controlling,  blaming, self-absorbed, intolerant of others’ views, unaware of their children’s needs and of the effects of their behavior on  their  children, and require that the children see them as the parents wish to be seen. They may also demand certain behavior from their children because  they see the children as extensions of themselves, and need the children to represent them in the world in ways that meet the parents’ emotional  needs.  (For  example,  a narcissistic father who was a lawyer demanded that his son, who had always been treated as the “favorite” in the family, enter the legal profession as well. When the son chose another career, the father rejected and disparaged him.) These traits will lead the parent to be very intrusive  in  some  ways, and entirely neglectful in others. The children are punished if they do not respond adequately to the parents’ needs. This punishment may take a variety of forms, including physical abuse, angry outbursts, blame, attempts  to  instill  guilt,  emotional withdrawal, and criticism. Whatever form it takes, the purpose of the punishment is to enforce compliance with the parents’ narcissistic needs.

Co-Narcissism

Children of narcissists tend to feel overly responsible for other people. They tend to assume that others’ needs are similar to those of their parents, and feel compelled to meet those needs by responding in the required manner. They tend to be unaware of their own feelings, needs, and experience, and fade into the background in relationships.

Co-narcissistic people are typically insecure because they have not been valued for themselves, and have been valued by their parents only to the extent that they  meet their parents’ needs. They develop their self-concepts based on their parents’ treatment of them and therefore often have highly inaccurate ideas about who they are. For example, they may fear that they are inherently insensitive, selfish, defective, fearful, unloving, overly demanding, hard to satisfy, inhibited, and/or worthless.

People who behave co-narcissistically share a number of the following traits: they tend to have low self-esteem, work hard to please others, defer to others’ opinions, focus on others’ world views and are unaware of their own orientations, are often depressed or anxious, find it hard to know how they think and feel about a subject, doubt the validity of their own views and opinions (especially when these conflict with others’ views), and take the blame for interpersonal problems.

Often, the same person displays both narcissistic and co-narcissistic behaviors, depending on circumstances. A person who was raised by a narcissistic or a co- narcissistic parent tends to assume that, in any interpersonal interaction, one person is narcissistic and the other co-narcissistic, and often can play either part. Commonly, one parent was primarily narcissistic and the other parent primarily co-narcissistic, and so both orientations have been modeled for the child. Both conditions are rooted in low self- esteem. Both are ways of defending oneself from fears resulting from internalized criticisms and of coping with people who evoke these criticisms. Those who are primarily co-narcissistic may behave narcissistically when their self-esteem is threatened, or when their partners take the co-narcissistic role; people who primarily behave narcissistically may act co- narcissistically when they fear being held responsible and punished for another’s experience.

Narcissistic people blame others for their own problems. They tend not to seek psychotherapy because they fear that the therapist will see them as deficient and therefore are highly defensive in relation to therapists.  They do  not  feel  free  or safe enough to examine their own behavior, and typically avoid the psychotherapy situation. Co-narcissists, however, are ready to accept blame and responsibility for  problems,  and are much more likely than narcissists to seek help because they often consider themselves to be the ones who need fixing.

The image I often keep in mind, and share with my patients regarding narcissism,  is that the narcissist needs to be in  the spotlight, and the co-narcissist serves as the audience. The narcissist is on stage, performing, and needing attention, appreciation, support, praise,  reassurance, and encouragement, and the co-narcissist’s role is to provide these things. Co-narcissists are approved of and rewarded when they perform well in their role, but, otherwise, they are corrected and punished.

One of the critical aspects of the interpersonal situation when one person is either narcissistic or co-narcissistic is that it is not, in an important sense, a relationship. I define a relationship as an interpersonal interaction in which each person is able to consider and act on his or her own needs, experience, and point of view, as well  as being able to consider and respond to the experience of the other person. Both people are important to each person.  In  a narcissistic encounter, there is, psychologically, only  one  person  present. The co-narcissist disappears for both people, and only the narcissistic person’s experience is important. Children raised by narcissistic parents come to believe that all other people are narcissistic to some extent. As a result, they orient themselves around the  other person in their relationships, lose a clear sense of themselves, and cannot express themselves easily nor participate fully in their lives.

All these adaptations are relatively unconscious, so most co-narcissistic people are not aware of the reasons for their behavior. They may think of themselves as inhibited and  anxious  by  nature,  lacking what it takes to be assertive in life. Their tendency to be unexpressive of their own thoughts and feelings and to support and encourage others’ needs creates something of an imbalance in their relationships, and other people may take more of the interpersonal space for themselves as  a result, thereby giving the impression that they are, in fact, narcissists, as the co- narcissist fears they are.

Co-narcissistic people often fear they will be thought of as selfish if they act more assertively. Usually, they learned to  think this way because one or both parents characterized them as selfish if they did not accommodate to the parent’s needs. I take patients’ concerns that they are selfish as an indication of narcissism in the parents, because the motivation of selfishness predominates in the minds of narcissistic people. It is a major component of their defensive style, and it is therefore a motivation they readily attribute to (or project onto) others.

There are three common types of responses by children to the interpersonal problems presented to them by their parents: identification, compliance, and rebellion (see Gootnick, 1997, for a more thorough discussion of these  phenomena). Identification is the imitation of one or both parents, which may be required by parents in order for  them  to  maintain  a  sense  of connection with the child. In regard to narcissistic parents, the child  must  exhibit the same qualities, values, feelings, and behavior which the parent employs  to defend his or her self-esteem. For example, a parent who is a bully may not only bully his child, but may require that the child become a bully as well. A parent whose self- esteem depends on his or her academic achievement may require that the child also be academically oriented, and value (or devalue) the child in relation to his or her accomplishments in this area. Identification is a response to the parent seeing the child as a representative of himself or herself, and is the price of connectedness with the parent. It results in the child becoming narcissistic herself.

Compliance refers to the co-narcissistic adaptation described earlier, wherein  the child becomes  the  approving  audience sought by the parent. The child is complying with the parent’s needs by being the counterpart the parent seeks. All three forms of  adaptation   (identification,   compliance, and rebellion) can be seen as compliance in a larger sense, since, in every case, the child complies in some way with the needs of the parent, and is defined by the parent. What defines compliance in this sense is that the child becomes the counterpart the parent needs from moment to moment to help the parent manage threats to his or her self- esteem.

Rebellion refers to the state of fighting to not accept the dictates of the parent by behaving in opposition to  them. An example  of this behavior is that of an intelligent child  who does poorly in school in response to his parent’s need that he be a high achiever. The critical issue here is that the child is unconsciously attempting to not  submit  to the parent’s definition of him despite his inner compulsion  to  comply  with  the parent’s needs. He therefore acts in a self- defeating manner in order to try to maintain a sense of independence. (If the pressure for compliance had not been internalized, the child would be free to be successful despite the parent’s tendency to co-opt his achievements.)

Psychotherapy

Co-narcissistic people automatically and unconsciously assume that everyone is narcissistic. They have the same fear about the therapist, but are able to enter treatment because they also believe that the therapist may be different. The most significant aspect of co-narcissistic patients’ work in therapy consists of determining to  what degree the therapist is narcissistic. We might even say that the therapy consists of helping the   patient   develop   confidence   that   the therapist is not narcissistic . It is powerfully healing for the patient to experience a relationship that is not based on narcissism. Co-narcissistic people are therefore greatly helped by the therapist’s embodiment of Carl Rogers’ principles of accurate empathy, interpersonal warmth and positive regard, and personal genuineness. These behaviors by the therapist provide a  direct contradiction to the experiences that have caused their problems. Patients will seek to determine how safe they are not to accommodate their behavior to  the therapist’s imagined needs, but to be able to experience and express themselves freely. The patient will carefully observe the therapist’s behavior and make  judgments about how much the therapist is able to consider the needs of the patient and how open he or she is to the patient’s experience. The patient will also want to see that the therapist is not co-narcissistic,  so  that  the patient can use the therapist as a model who shows by example that she or he believes it is safe to be assertive and not to orient oneself around another’s needs. The patient will therefore observe the therapist for signs of how assertive he or she is, and also pay attention to examples the therapist may provide from his or her own life to assess how free of co-narcissism the therapist may be.

In addition to the beneficial effect of the relationship between therapist and patient, a major part of the therapy process involves understanding how  events  and  experiences in patients’ early lives  resulted  in  their current fears, inhibitions, and orientation towards others. I find it very helpful in my work as a therapist to explain narcissism and co-narcissism to my patients. Having an intellectual understanding of the  nature  of the problem goes a great distance towards helping them make sense of their lives and why their relationships take on the characteristics that they do. It also gives us a framework within which we can discuss the issues of concern to them, and helps them understand what to work on to free themselves from these problems. A description of my own theoretical approach can be found in the books, TransformativeRelationships (Silberschatz, 2005) and HowPsychotherapyWorks(Weiss, 1993).

 Narcissistic people seek therapy much less frequently than those who are primarily co- narcissistic, and are more difficult to help. Their deep-seated conviction of their own worthlessness, and their strong defenses against the therapist discovering this “truth” about them, makes it difficult for  them  to feel safe with the therapist and to  benefit from the therapeutic relationship. The therapist also has to cope with the patient’s poor ability to empathize with the therapist. This lack of empathy is manifest in a variety of inconsiderate behaviors,  and  can challenge the therapist’s ability to maintain a good sense of self-esteem. Narcissistic people, compared to co-narcissistic people, are therefore less personally  satisfying  for the therapist to work with when they do seek treatment. They are also less professionally rewarding to work with because of their difficulty in engaging in the therapeutic process. Treating  them  empathically, helping them to feel safer to empathize with others, not losing self-esteem in the face of inconsiderate behavior by the patient, and expressing one’s own experience as appropriate are all important elements in working with narcissistic people.  (Once, when I told a narcissistic patient of mine that her criticisms of me were hurting my feelings, she was astonished. She said that she had no idea that her behavior had any effect on anyone. She became much kinder towards me  following  that  interaction.)  As with the co-narcissistic person, helping the person to gain an  understanding  of  the origins of their problems  (usually identification with a narcissistic parent) can also be very useful.

Case Examples

Mario is the son of two narcissistic parents. His parents divorced when he was ten, and, thereafter, he spent half the week in each parent’s     home.     The     difficulties     this arrangement caused for him went unrecognized by either parent. Mario’s father was so isolated and self-centered that, during the times they were together, Mario was often completely ignored by his father and learned to endure long hours of loneliness without  complaint.  Mario’s mother was more able to engage with her son, as long as he was careful to attend to her emotional needs and not to make demands on her. Both parents moved frequently, making it hard for Mario to form friendships and develop a sense of connectedness, interpersonal security, and good self esteem outside of his immediate family. What proved of immense value to Mario in preventing more severe psychological damage than he might otherwise have suffered was that he spent summers with members of his extended family in Spain. These people were much healthier psychologically, and the relationships he had with them were supportive and rewarding.

Some of the effects of Mario’s upbringing were: a diminished awareness of his own feelings, needs, and point of view; a tendency to feel isolated and a difficulty connecting emotionally with others; a tendency to accept blame, control by others, and mistreatment without complaint  and often without awareness that it was happening; and a loss of a sense of direction and purpose in life. He could also be moody and irritable.

As a teenager, Mario formed a relationship with Jill, whose parents  were psychologically healthier, but whose mother was somewhat narcissistic. Her familiarity with narcissism and co-narcissism helped her relate to Mario, and Mario benefited by spending time with Jill’s family who were warm and accepting towards him. Mario and Jill eventually married and had two children. Mario did not finish college despite his high intelligence, but was successful in his career in business. He came to therapy at the insistence of his wife, who was troubled by his  difficulty  in  forming  good  relationships with the children and his tendency to be interpersonally disconnected and insensitive. She was also troubled by the degree of influence his parents had  over him. Mario had some appreciation for the validity of Jill’s concerns, and was distressed by the problems that occurred in his relationship with Jill.

Mario made good use of  therapy.  He initially discussed his wife’s  concerns,  and the problems these created for him. Her concerns primarily centered around his tendency to isolate himself, to go about his affairs without considering his effect on others, and not to maintain or value a close emotional connection with his children. She was also concerned about his tendency to idealize his parents, particularly his mother, and to make excuses for her behavior and not to recognize her self-centeredness with regard to himself or his  family  members. But Mario soon was able to understand how the experiences he had with his parents made it difficult for him to relate to others in a way that was satisfying to himself or to the other person. He appreciated the therapist’s interest in him, his ability to think about things from Mario’s point of view, and the value there was in understanding how his past experiences affected his current view of himself and others. In addition to spending time analyzing Mario’s  past and current relationships, many of the sessions consisted of Mario’s describing his daily activities and his plans for the future. It was very beneficial to him to have someone who was interested in listening to him and  who enjoyed learning about him and sharing his life. Other than in his relationship with Jill, this was a new experience for him, and it greatly helped him to have a better sense of self-esteem. The key for Mario, and for most people who suffer from the narcissistic/co- narcissistic dilemma, was to experience a relationship in which neither person has to sacrifice himself for the other, and each can appreciate what the other has to offer. While the therapy relationship is focused on the patient, it is important that the therapist engage in it as a real relationship, so that the patient can benefit from the experience of a healthy relationship in  which  both participants can express themselves and find value and satisfaction in their experience with each other.

As the therapy progressed, Mario reported enjoying his children more, feeling less co-opted by his mother and seeing her more clearly, isolating himself  less,  and experiencing a greater enjoyment of his life and the people in it.

________

Jane is the daughter of a narcissistic father and a co-narcissistic mother. Jane’s father was domineering with the  family  and  with his employees in the highly successful business he built, although, interestingly, he was quite co-narcissistic in relation  to  his own father. Jane’s father was highly critical of her, her sister, and her mother. Jane’s mother had been severely rejected and criticized as a child and, as a result, she developed a strong sense of worthlessness, a loss of inner-directedness, and a tendency to accommodate to the expectations of others. Jane’s mother twice tried to divorce her husband, but her low self-esteem prevented her from doing so; nevertheless, she did decide to go to graduate school while raising her children, earned a Ph.D. in art, and taught at the college level. However, the criticism and denigration she received from her husband reinforced her low sense of self-esteem and prevented her from recognizing her talents or respecting herself. Jane, despite her high intelligence and independent spirit, did not do well either in school or socially. She seemed to lack the motivation to succeed, although while in college she started a home design business and consulted in graphic design. None of her efforts brought recognition or approval from her father, who was relentlessly disparaging. As a result of the constant undermining by her father, and the co-narcissistic model presented by her mother, Jane came to believe that she was unable to succeed in a career and could not form satisfying, stable relationships. Her relationships were marked by self-sacrifice, and she had no direction in her life.

 Jane made good use of her therapy. Initially, she described the ways in which her family was dysfunctional, and she gained confidence in the accuracy of her views by the therapist’s agreement with her assessment. She also tested whether the therapist needed to criticize her by characterizing herself as inadequate in a variety of ways, but the therapist showed, by expressing a more positive and realistic view of her, that he had no wish to put her down. He explained these inadequacies as a compliance with  her  father’s characterizations of her and  her identification with her mother. The therapist also pointed out her many talents, her creativity, initiative, and intelligence. Jane was able to make use of this support  by doing better at school, becoming less enmeshed with her family, and starting a new graphic design business. Jane was late for a number of sessions, thereby again testing the therapist’s wish to be critical or disparaging of her, as her father would have done. Instead of being critical, the therapist interpreted these latenesses as an inhibition against acting in her own interests by getting the full benefit of her therapy, and therefore a compliance with her father’s view of her. Jane took heart from the therapist’s reactions by continuing to develop healthier personal relationships, being less subservient to her father, and becoming more assertive and successful in the pursuit of her education.

Conclusion

All of us are narcissistic, and co-narcissistic, to varying degrees. When our self-esteem varies in relation to how  others  think and feel about us, we are experiencing a narcissistic   vulnerability.   When   we   feel helpful  in  overcoming  narcissistic anxieties to realize that the other person’s behavior is a result of their own views and experience, is not a reflection on oneself, and one’s self- esteem does not have to be affected by their behavior. For co-narcissistic people, who experience strong feelings of guilt  and blame, recognizing that they are not responsible for another’s experience is a great relief. It is important for people with either narcissistic or co-narcissistic problems to come to believe that they have intrinsic value, independent of their accomplishments or what others may think of them.

The reader is referred to Elan Golomb’s book, Trappedin  the Mirror (1992) for a variety of examples of narcissistic/co- narcissistic  parent-child  relationships. Another discussion of narcissism can be found in Children of the Self-Absorbed (Brown, 2001).

References

Brown, Nina W. (2001). ChildrenoftheSelf-Absorbed. Oakland, Ca: New Harbinger

Golomb, Elan PhD (1992). Trappedin the Mirror. New York: Morrow

Gootnick, Irwin MD (1997). Why You Behave in Ways You Hate: And What You Can Do About It. Roseville, Ca.: Penmarin Books.

Silberschatz, George, PhD, Ed. (2005). TransformativeRelationships. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Weiss, Joseph, MD. (1993). HowPsychotherapyWorks:ProcessandTechnique. New York: Guilford

Alan Rappoport, Ph.D., has practiced psychotherapy in San Francisco and Menlo Park, Ca. for twenty-five years.

What's the Use in Being Sad?

One of the most common questions asked in therapy is, "why should I be sad when I can be happy?"  There are variations to this question like, "why would I want to focus on my difficult past when I can move forward and not be in pain?"  Or, "I don't want to suffer anymore.  I came to relieve my pain, not feel it all over again."

I empathize deeply with the idea that revisiting painful memories, events, and feelings can be overwhelming and seems an undue punishment on the path to healing.  However, I also know that the healing process rarely takes place without returning to the old (or fresh) wounds in order to tend to them.  As a therapist, I try to create an emotionally safe environment in which people can explore their feelings and leave knowing that they are cared for and perhaps even feeling better. This Pollyanna version of therapy occurs occasionally, but the reality is that emotions are messy, complex, and can be very overwhelming.  Sometimes digging up hard feelings can make things worse before they get better.  The process of unearthing pain and fear is courageous and facing an unknown process like therapy, while life-enhancing, is hard work.

One of my favorite authors/researchers/story tellers, Brené Brown, discusses the importance of dealing with "the things that get in the way of joy, meaning, and connection" in her 2010 book  The Gifts of Imperfection, which I highly recommend to everyone reading this post. Brené Brown is a fellow social worker (LMSW, PhD) who studies people and their experiences with shame, vulnerability, courage, and worthiness. Her thorough, evidence-based approach to the study of shame and other human emotions allows me to unequivocally recommend her work as an unbiased clinician.  My status as a total Brené-Brown-ophile lends me to speak from a vulnerable, human place of  admiration and to share that her work has changed my life, my work, and my connections with the people I love. If Brené Brown were Elvis, I would be the screaming, crying teenager watching her TED Talks. The following quotation caught my attention while reading The Gifts of Imperfection:

"If we want to live and love with our whole hearts, and if we want to engage with the world from a place of worthiness, we have to talk about the things that get in the way - especially shame, fear, and vulnerability."

We have to talk about, process, feel, and share the things that get in the way of worthiness, connection, and happiness in order to define, look for, and live a life or worthiness, connection, and happiness.  Brené (yes, we're on a first name basis) would call this way of living "wholehearted" and others may call it conscious, purposeful, connected, or self-aware.  Whatever you call it, the sentiment is the same: in order to experience joy and have meaningful relationships we must sort through the pain, hurt, and fear.

You are not alone if this sounds like a daunting, horrifying, or completely foreign concept. I too was among the horrified before finding the safety, patience, and motivation to endure this process. A good therapist was instrumental in this process for me - the safety of a warm, non-judgmental person who was dedicated to my care was extremely powerful through some of my most difficult growth. In fact, it is what drew me into the field of psychotherapy and guides me in my practice of empathy, compassion, and gentle exploration with my own clients.  Pretty powerful stuff.

After reading that paragraph you may be thinking, "ahem. I don't want to BE a therapist.  Why, again, would any NORMAL person want to go through pain, terror, and negative feelings?"  I get it. What makes it worth it? And furthermore, why do we need someone else to witness, support, and be there for us through the vulnerable, life-altering process of healing?  This is my best shot at answering that question:

People are not emotionally wounded alone, they are wounded by and among other people.  The most powerful way to heal wounds is by vulnerably, bravely sharing the pain with another person(s) and receiving a corrective, kind response like empathy, compassion, protection, and care.You may find something more powerful than pain after experiencing it, knowing it, and moving through it.  Over time, you may find that pain is no longer terrifying, but tolerable after working your emotional muscles. You may find that you are your own courageous, badass, superhero.  You might, at last, love yourself not despite imperfection, but because of imperfection.  You might find that you are good enough, just the way you are.

Take care of yourselves and others.

Visit Brené Brown's blog to learn more about vulnerability, courage, and wholehearted living:  www.ordinarycourage.com

Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden.

Miss Representation

Gratuitous cute baby picture of my niece, who will grow up to be a woman before we know it!

I see a lot of women in therapy.  Most of them come to me with ideas about their bodies, minds, personalities, or other various features that are not true.  I usually begin with a discussion of who gave them the message and evaluate whether that message is true.  For example, for what reason would your mother tell you that you are overweight?  How would you know that she's correct?  Or incorrect?  Investigations into our immediate environment are critical to overcoming self-worth issues.

We then segue into a conversation about the media, our culture, and their combined impact on the self-esteem of women.  I have difficulty approaching this subject because it is abstract, but I recently had the pleasure of viewing Miss Representation, a film that describes exactly how, when, and why we are programmed to feel the need to be "perfect."

A film recommendation for ALL women!  Miss Representation.

http://www.missrepresentation.org/