Q: How many psychotherapists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change
Cheesy old joke it may be, but we all know that ‘wanting to change’ is one of the main reasons for coming to therapy.
My job is to help my clients believe that change is possible, and to help them learn how to go about it. The trouble is you can’t, however much you desire it (and feel you deserve it), change other people.
I’m often struck by the way that entwined with someone’s description of their difficulties - whether these are to do with relationships, self-confidence, anxiety or other issues - a story emerges of growing up with a parent who was completely self-absorbed and lacked any empathy with them. Everything was, and still is, ‘about them’.
My client may be outwardly successful and confident, but inwardly they don’t feel good enough. They’re still desperately trying to attract the attention and approval of their parent(s), and it’s a losing battle. Even if the parent has died there may be a deeply-felt sense of failure, guilt or unresolved anger.
The word ‘narcissist’ tends to get used these days to describe anyone who appears vain or full of themselves, but in psychological terms it has a more specific meaning. Someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) will base their identity on the praise and approval of others, and their intimate relationships are focused on how other people - including their children - reflect on them. Narcissists are in love with an idealised, self-important image of themselves because it allows them to avoid deep feelings of insecurity.
Sometimes, just recognising that their parent is a narcissist is enough to make the client feel better. But it’s usually more difficult. The problem is accepting that, by definition, someone with NPD is most unlikely to recognise that they have a problem. The adult child may seek atonement or forgiveness, but it’s not going to be forthcoming. As I have to point out, it’s they who are going to have to change. And that’s not fair.
Accepting this unfairness is at the heart of change. It’s not about ‘letting go of the past’ or being forgiving; it’s about being ready to think differently and look at your situation through a new pair of eyes. Once this happens, the crushing burden of self-blame is free to leave for good.
Common effects of narcissistic parenting
Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the daughters of narcissistic mothers by Karyl McBride (Free Press, 2008)