Sunday, February 10, 2008


In the service of not judging and labeling our clients.

I recently read an article in the New York Times, written by a psychiatrist, which I found most disturbing. It was about the husband his client it seems that the client's husband of nearly 30 years told her that he felt stalled and not self-actualized—so “he began his search for self knowledge in the arms of another woman”—it wasn’t that he didn’t love her – he just didn’t find the relationship exciting. The author goes on to describe his client’s husband as a “narcissistic jerk.”

We live in an age in which crass epithets are in vogue. More importantly, it’s also fashionable to mock others and bandy about the N (narcissist) word in a careless and incorrect fashion. The therapist and writer of the article makes an automatic assumption that a married man’s (or it could have been a woman) affair was a search for novelty and thrill. He then proceeds to note that the more he learned about his client’s husband, the more he saw that the husband had always been a “self centered guy” – “a garden variety case of a middle aged narcissist.”

I believe we therapists have to be careful not to make judgments about our clients – in so doing, implicitly putting ourselves on a pedestal – Of course, we make judgments (appraisals) every day. Should I buy this dress or that, this brand of almond butter? Is this person someone who I want to spend time with? What is my opinion of that tai chi class that I took last semester? What is my philosophy of life and love? It’s part of being human to engage in the process of evaluation—a process that we must ultimately engage in, in order to survive and thrive.

Those kinds of judgments are different from judgments like the earlier one – he’s just a “self centered guy.” Freedom of thought and expression are cornerstones of our culture. But if I engage in the process of labeling my clients or their spouses with insults like “narcissistic jerk”, how will this affect the way that I perceive them and relate to them? How will it affect the coaching process if I am full of opinions, judgments or even contempt? Will I be able to support them and help them to make the positive changes that they want to make?

Although I am not a fan of the term “midlife crisis”, the author’s disclaimer that this is not a midlife crisis but just a case of ‘garden variety narcissism’ is a poor alternative – it introduces a personality description/characteristic which implicitly tends to blame an individual for developing such a condition. And “jerk” is simply contempt – publicly aired, patronizing contempt, from a psychiatrist, at that.

Renunciation of narcissism in favor of love was a goal of Freud’s treatment. Heinz Kohut, the famous psychologist who came after Freud, developed the Self Psychology model. Kohut broke with Freud’s tradition, suggesting that narcissism is neither obnoxious nor pathological. Suggesting that narcissism can be positive and needs to be integrated into our personalities, he and others following altered American psychoanalysis – as well as the world views of many of us.

Among other descriptors, Narcissists have been described as requiring excessive admiration

or needing to feel special, adored, loved, appreciated, or admired. This brings up the question of how we define “excessive” – another judgmental word -- But if we translate this to needing a lot of or even wanting a lot of admiration and love, then the punctuation changes. This to me fits in with the idea of a positive kind of narcissism which could be integrated into our personalities – and indeed into the relationship of this couple – in fact, it could even be accepted and addressed – Perhaps a very different outcome could have been realized if the husband had turned to his wife and said something which I have encouraged my clients to say to their mates,

“I would like to feel more loved, appreciated and admired by you.” And if the client could love herself a little bit more, then this might lead to more appreciation by her husband.

(This is the first in a 3 part series -- stay tuned!)

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