Example 2: The Victim
A very skilled and experienced colleague of mine came to me for supervision because he said:
I am losing my confidence. I have an elderly female client, and she is getting under my skin. I feel incredibly insecure during her sessions, and I don’t know what is going on.
I asked him to tell me about when this had started. He said:
Well…I had a few sessions with her. She presented herself as a victim. She was always complaining about how mean people were to her, especially her grown children. Initially, I was sympathetic.
Then she came in for her session and told me that I had been mean to her in her last session. I was very surprised. I pride myself on bringing a nice guy, and I would never be intentionally mean to a client.
I asked her to give me an example of how I was mean, and she told me that it was my tone of voice. She said that I had been very harsh and disapproving. I really didn’t think that I had been and told her that. She suggested that she tape our sessions going forward and then she would playback the sections where I was being mean.
I agreed because I was pretty sure she was just imagining it. But she started playing back sections and pointing out tiny mistakes on my part. She kept playing one section over and over again in which I did sound mildly exasperated, but nothing most clients would even notice.
I started to hesitate in her sessions and eventually became very ineffective. I know I am in some kind of trap, but I honestly have no idea how to get out of it.
Luckily, I had seen this sort of thing before and had a simple solution. The client had shifted the focus of the session from her presenting problems to his minor flaws. I told him that he needed to refocus the therapy back on her.
In essence, I suggested he say something like the following:
I know you came to therapy to work on your problems, but I realize that we have gotten off track and now your sessions are focused solely on my flaws as a person and therapist. I think we need to go back to focusing on you. You didn’t come to therapy to improve me, but because you were unhappy with your relationships outside of therapy.
As it turned out, she actually was not interested in focusing on herself or her role in creating her relationship issues. Once this therapist stopped letting her put him under the microscope, she quit therapy.
Punchline: Malignant narcissists enjoy devaluing people and pointing out everyone else’s flaws. Their main goal is to destroy people’s self-confidence and dominate them. Their favorite victims are insecure people who they can make even more insecure, but they will try to do this with all sorts of people—even their therapists. And sometimes they are quite successful.
Adapted from two Quora.com posts “What kind of personality attracts malignant narcissists” (October 4, 20018) and “What are the behaviors of Malignant Narcissists?” (July 7, 2018).
Find Elinor’s book on amazon: Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety.
Elinor’s website is www.elinorgreenberg.com.
Written by Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D. Originally appeared in Psychology Today