Sunday, September 12, 2010

Why narcissists rarely get better

One of the things I have had to struggle with over the last 10+ years is the emotionally devastating effects of -- in a period of deep emotional vulnerability -- interacting with someone who displayed a lot of narcissistic tendencies. They certainly used narcissistic defense mechanisms in "dealing with" my reactions to their behaviour.

Towards the end of our original interaction, they did take some counseling over their sexual behaviour. In typical narcissist style, announcing that they had done so showed that they understood what had happened, that everything was fixed (regardless of any effects on me) and the clearly I should get some counseling (since the fundamental problem was not their behaviour but my reaction to it). This was accompanied with personal abuse and belittling of me, self-contradiction and stunning re-construal, or even straight suppression, of events.

An attempt to interact after a space of some years simply produced the same behaviour, with the further information that they had undergone therapy for mild anxiety and depression, and had been diagnosed with dyspraxia. (Odd, given they are skilled at making things.) Their behaviour merely showed more glibness, with a patently insincere (yet somewhat grandiose) apology added on. Increased glibness was the only apparent effect of their therapy, which they claimed "had really helped".

Really? In the very same email they managed to:
(1) Plead that I leave them alone;
(2) Offer to help in any way they could;
(3) "apologise";
(4) insult and belittle me.
Since their convenience shifted depending on the issue considered, so did what they had to say, with no consistency except that their convenience came first.

Apparently, the therapeutic record is that narcissists rarely get better. Indeed, therapy can make them worse. This make sense if one thinks about it. First, neurotics make themselves sick, people with personality disorders make other people sick. The narcissist does not see their narcissistic behaviour as a problem, merely other people's reactions to it. They neither have any problems for them from their (to them) invisible and unproblematic narcissism, nor see themselves as requiring such cure.

Even if they do seek counseling or therapy (typically, as in this case, for other reasons), their convenience is their reality principle: that is the epistemic essence of narcissism. The therapist or counselor is relying on the report of someone who reconstrues elementary facts according to their own convenience (typically without any realisation that they have done so). Moreover, the therapist or counselor normally lacks any outside verification at all: they just have the report of the client or patient in their office.

No wonder forensic psychologist Nigel Latta, in dealing with criminal clients/patients, never bothers reading their file -- on the grounds that is just lies they told previous clinicians -- he goes straight to the trial records to find out what actually happened. But a normal therapist or counselor lacks such a ready factual check. The narcissist's reconstrual of elementary facts must be awfully hard to spot without any other information source.

The person with strong narcissistic tendencies I suffered in my life is both pretty and charming: I am sure what they had to say was terribly plausible, since they clearly believe it themselves. But I have nothing they want and they have created a perfectly (to them) satisfactory picture of having "apologised", where the only real problem was and is my failure to react conveniently.

Their convenience being their reality principle.

The other problem is that therapy is typically about dealing with negative emotions and validating one's positive emotions and sense of self. That is precisely not what a narcissist needs: not, at least, in their surface emotions. Having their narcissistic self validated, having more ways to glibly reconstrue matters, does not make things better. On the contrary.

Sadly, the narcissist who was in my life is just another example of how therapy and counseling rarely makes narcissists better and, indeed, can easily make them worse.

ADDENDA An Older and Wiser friend told me recently that his (highly narcissistic) mother had recently proudly announced that her therapist had agreed that she should have been tougher on her children. To which his response (to himself) had been "what, you should have broken more of our bones?" Therapists can be such a menace.


  1. I used to adore this guy who was probably a narcissist. He was very pretty and charming too. I think narcissists can only really survive if they are pretty and charming. They move on to the next person once their friends/lovers become aware of the problem. But of course it's never their fault, it's everyone else's fault. Very frustrating.

  2. Reasons I tend not to trust pretty ,charming persons (until proven otherwise). They are just more likely to be narcissists.

  3. Lorenzo,

    I can relate to the experiences in your first paragraph. Not knowing much about psychology I had trouble understanding it all when I took a step back and looked at the relationship as a whole, however your descriptions of narcissism certainly seems to fit quite well.

  4. It is always reassuring to find one's words resonate: particularly on a subject that can have such fraught implications.

  5. While I think personality schemas are very worthwhile, I am not at all persuaded by the results from the medicalization of these issues. I really bristle at psychiatrists treating people for "personality disorders".

    But all these people, and their behavior, and the hurt it causes are all very, very real.

    I don't know if many others have had similar experiences with age, but a few years ago I realized that I had become very aware of my manifolds "imperfections" as a person, but was OK with that. Not out of any selfishness, but because it had dawned on me that is what it means to be human.

    Lorenzo, the person you are describing above just makes me feel for them. The obviousness of their pain, which we can see, they can feel, but they oblivious to. It must be a very frightening existence.

    There are of course limits to being "OK" with one's self-identity as an imperfect person, and very comfortable with that. And that is, one must have standards, which are socially approved, of what imperfections are NOT OK.

    It is not OK to be violent, to plot against your friends, to never hold your tongue so others can speak, to never remember your friends' birthdays, to trust a friend when they say they are in pain even if you think they sound silly or irrational, to think you don't have to pull your weight in your community, to think you 'have the right' to always broadcast your dissatisfaction with the group's choice of restaurant, movie, or holiday destination.

    The fact your friend has reached a stage of life where all those previous decades still have not been revealed to himself just says there is a time bomb waiting to explode.

    Lorenzo, for your own safety, bolt now! ;)

  6. Peter: we no longer associate. Even the interaction was at a distance (a letter and a couple of emails). Otherwise, your advice would be spot on.

    Intellectually, I can see you are right about him. Emotionally, there is too much hurt, largely because I still live with the consequences of the emotional breakdown he and his then girlfriend provoked.