Thursday, February 16, 2012

Must We Stroke That Ego?

We talk about universal needs, and one of them is to feel valued, loved, and admired. The need is beat out of some of us who become self-deprecating, very humble, omniscient in social settings. For others, it is a virus.

Those of us afflicted seek admiration at work and at home. The hunger isn't labeled or talked about, it is usually unconscious. Because it is present, however, in so many of us, therapists try to interrupt blame cycles. Blame robs the blamer of the opportunity to validate, to be a therapeutic agent in relationships. We all want to be therapeutic agents, don't we?

Social encounters, all kinds, are social experiments. We walk away feeling good (it worked!) or bad.

Although the virus is nearly universal, some have it much worse than others, present as bottomless pits for positive feedback. Somebody started digging the pit in childhood, perhaps, but adult experiences create and maintain fissures, too.

Unchecked,the need for validation, love, and admiration-- what some call positive feedback, others call healthy or unhealthy narcissism-- can be really disruptive in relationships.*

Let’s take a fictional married couple to illustrate. He dresses so that people will compliment him. His hygiene is great, and because he sees himself as very male, doesn’t overwhelm with aftershave or cologne to exude class. He shakes hands, makes eye contact, and is impressive to those of us who appreciate that sort of thing. It is likely we will compliment him on something Some of us, when we're with someone who dresses well who chooses to be with us, feel good. I'm with him.

The couple is in their late twenties, make them childless for now. (Without children, socializing with friends is easy.) The two go out three to four times a week for dinner and drinks, sometimes just drinks. Our hero gets many compliments. His wife can be drop dead beautiful or not, she can be mesmerizing or not. She doesn’t care, regardless, what others think of her. She only has eyes for him.

They are in therapy because they don’t seem to connect emotionally. They take turns at verbal blunders, hurt one another with their words. Reasons turns out to be complicated, of course. Both have life experiences that teach them the art of a good offense. Experience is fertilizer for sensitivity, insensitivity. We’re working in therapy on intimacy, understanding these things.

Our boy could have married any girl, the female partner tells me in an individual session. It is his incessant need for attention and flattery that bothers her, makes her jealous. She gives him plenty of compliments and attention, affection, but it is never enough. When she is present and he is shouting for attention, it is one thing, watching others fawn over him. But he will repeat how women do this when she’s not around, too, and he repeats it often. She doesn’t understand why he has to throw it in her face.

The whys are interesting, the nature of the human ego, narcissism. Intellectualizing it helps, and we will do this in the therapy when he's around. In healthy relationships we don’t try to make our partners jealous, we don’t add to the stresses of everyday life. Jealousy is a negative emotion, one of fear, intimidation, being threatened. Nobody likes it.

We can do that, or we can begin to treat it quickly, with some humor. Everyone likes humor.

I suggest that the next time they are at dinner or the bar in a large group, that she somehow command everyone’s attention and ask, “Raise your hand if you think ____’s tie (points at her partner's tie) is absolutely gorgeous and makes his eyes look sexy. Don’t be shy now.”

She doesn’t like this suggestion, and I don’t either. It is just a way to get her to think. She thinks a bit, I shut up, and she comes up with several alternatives. The one we like most is that she stops random beautiful women on the street as they walk together and asks, “What do you think of his tie, seriously?”

Why do this? She brings his need for compliments to the surface, takes charge, makes sure his need is met, and everyone enjoys the experience. He will get compliments. Women will make eye contact with him. Then they will be on their merry way.

Of course the two of them could have long, deep, psychological discussions about his neediness (or her lack of empathy) in my office, and if we have several of these, I could make a lot more money. But a strategic behavioral family therapy intervention like this, talking to strangers on the street or in the elevator, works just as well.


*Feedback, positive or negative, isn’t calledfeed back for nothing. It is emotional food, digests well or not, yet we come back for more. Some of us wish to change the menu. That’s therapy. (Okay, the metaphors are done for today.)


Lisa said...

Do you know of any resources for the narcissist who IS seeking help? Or at least one with narcissistic traits who may not have the actual disorder? I realize it's rare, but I have had a couple of clients who lean heavily towards narcissism. Most resources deal with how to deal with the narcissist, but very little for the narcissist him/herself.

therapydoc said...

Most of us have some healthy narcissism going for us, and others have just a little too much. I haven't read anything in books, but there are journal articles if you can get to an academic data base. The technique of labeling it, having others do that, is very helpful when someone really wants to change. I just wrote a chapter about it. (The book that one day will be ready for prime time). Things run in streaks.

Better Things-- Seeing Ghosts