Susan talks with Wendy Behary, author of Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed. Susan and Wendy discuss challenges associated with co-parenting with someone who has narcissistic tendencies, including an absence of empathy, a sense of entitlement, and a focus on attention and approval–at the cost of addressing children’s needs. Susan and Wendy co-host a monthly support group on Co-Parenting With a Narcissist.
Wendy Behary is the founder and director of The Cognitive Therapy Center of New Jersey and The New Jersey Institute for Schema Therapy. As the author of Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed, Dr. Behary has a specialty in treating narcissists and the people who live with and deal with them. Dr. Behary lectures to professional and general audiences around the world on schema therapy, and the subjects of narcissism, interpersonal relationships, anger, and dealing with difficult people. Her private practice is primarily devoted to treating narcissists, partners/people dealing with them, parenting issues, and couples experiencing relationship problems. disarmingthenarcissist.com
Things you'll learn from this episode:
Why having a narcissistic parent does NOT mean a child will become a narcissist
Speaker 1: (00:09)
Hey everyone. Welcome to the parenting without power struggles podcast. I'm Susan's Stiffelman. I'm a family therapist, a parenting coach and the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles and Parenting With Presence. And my guest today is Wendy Behary, who is the author of Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed. Hi Wendy. Hi Susan. Happy to be with you. So glad you're here.
Well everyone, I know a lot about Wendy's work because we actually co host a monthly online support group, which is called Co-Parenting with a Narcissist and boy we have learned a lot together, right? Yes, indeed. We have. We met when Wendy took part in an online summit I did on Co-Parenting Without Power Struggles and there was so much interest in our particular segment that we went on to teach a three part class, which is still on my website; and the class was on co-parenting with the narcissist. There was so much interest in that, that parents said, please, there's so little out there that offers support that we now do this online-group and it's something, isn't it Wendy?
Speaker 2: (01:22)
it really is. It's been, it's incredibly rewarding doing it with you and bringing all your parenting expertise to the table. And then combining it with my specialization in this area of narcissism, particularly narcissistic men, which is the population I work with. It's just been so rewarding and so pleased to be able to help people who are struggling with this issue. Yeah,
Speaker 1: (01:44)
I mean we get to see parents so courageous and so committed to raising kids who are healthy and secure even as they're navigating challenges with parenting, with someone who's highly self-absorbed, lacking in empathy, very difficult or demanding. And I, I'm pretty sure this is a topic of great interest of parents, not necessarily because you're a co-parenting with someone, but because these days, the word narcissist or narcissism is used more frequently and more liberally. So let's start by talking about what it is, because I want to say right off the bat, just because your husband or wife or former husband or wife has an unpleasant personality or they're difficult to get along with, it doesn't mean they're a narcissist and a labels are really risky. So I'll turn it over to you to give people the lay of the land of what is narcissism and what isn't it?
Speaker 2: (02:40)
Yeah. I, that's you made a very important point, Susan, because although it can be difficult to have a difficult partner. It doesn't necessarily mean they're narcissistic. When you're talking about narcissism, we have, first of all, a full blown narcissistic personality disorder, which is an official diagnosis and has certain criteria attached to it. But for the sake of simplicity, for right now, when we think of someone who is narcissistic, you're looking at an individual who is highly self-absorbed. So, so much of the emphasis of what matters or, or at least the way they show up is based on, you know, it's all about them. It's all about their righteousness. It's all about their needs, their wants, their demands for control. It's all about the way they see the world and the way things should work. You'll see an individual who has a high degree of entitlement.
Speaker 2: (03:36)
They feel entitled to do as they please, to have what they want, when they want it, to be in charge. That master of the universe mentioned that you hear sometimes might be applicable to where they are. They're kind of pulling the strings and constantly, you know, at the wheel making all of the decisions. They can be highly critical, very controlling, demeaning, debasing, even charming to a degree that it becomes off-putting and also obnoxious at times. So they can be charming, but you get this sense that it's someone where it's really all about them and that they make the rules, they break the rules. Now that being said, and in my book I have a list of 13 criteria that outlines this. That being said, we have to think of it as happening along the spectrum. So you may be dealing with a partner or an ex partner who has some of these issues, not all of them. So we might say it's a, it's a more moderate form of narcissism, milder form or a more severe form at the more severe end of the spectrum. The narcissist may also be very aggressive and abusive. And so we put that more at the extreme or severe end of the spectrum. But that's what we're talking about when we're talking about narcissism.
Speaker 1: (05:00)
That's good. And you know, I think there's very few of us who don't know someone who sounds like that, who resembles that. And when it becomes really frustrating as a co-parent, whether you're still partnered and married under the same roof, living with that person and raising kids or you're no longer together but you're still raising children, sharing custody. Since that you get that they don't really care about the feelings of others. And that can be painful when they don't care about your feelings as the co-parent. You know, you're having to stretch and accommodate their need because they absolutely have to go to a dinner party and you're just going to have to, you know, take on another night. But particularly when it comes to the kids' needs, that there is a lack of attunement and connection and concern and empathy.
So we might see a child coming home or going to the other parents saying, oh, I'm going to be a tree in the school play and the narcissistic co-parents as well. Gosh, I'm trying. I was the star of every, every play in my school. You know, you're obviously not carrying on the family tradition. And so, so many times we'll watch our children come away with an interaction with a narcissistic co-parent, feeling deflated and feeling criticized or feeling unseen. And the flip side of that is that love is very conditional. The love is showered upon that child when they get the lead in the play, when they make the winning touchdown, when they make that parent look good. Right?
Speaker 2: (06:35)
Oh yeah, yeah. Then that goes back to the idea of it being all about them. And you also made two comments that are really important about other distinguishing aspects in narcissism, which is this, you know, this lack of empathy, this inability to really feel the experience of the other, to feel the impact that you're having on the experience of the other ends, to be remorseful, to be accountable to even a very difficult partner can typically say, I'm sorry, or can take responsibility. A narcissist can not because they have such a hard time being seen as the bad guy or the bad woman. They have such a hard time being in that position of feeling ashamed, feeling exposed, feeling inadequate. You know, there's so much insecurity underneath and so they, they don't easily apologize in a way that's truly remorseful or empathic or considering the impact of their behaviors on your experience or the experience of your child.
And extraordinary is the name of the game. So being the best of the best of the best and winning and competing and getting the trophies and being the top of your class is important because again, it's very, you know, fulfills their needs, their ego needs when their child can do. Then probably because that unconditional love that was sorely missed in their own upbringing. Um, they learned the lesson that the way you have value and worth and approval is by succeeding and achieving and being the best.
Speaker 1: (08:00)
Absolutely. And, uh, and, and what we've come to understand, and I know that you've done tremendous research in this area, is that the core wound for the narcissistic individual is a hollowness, a lack of a sense of self, a profound insecurity and fragility. And so all this bluster and all this anger and rage and the put downs and the erratic emotional behavior and the moodiness, um, really are masking so much shame and vulnerability and, and a lack of confidence. And, you know, it's one thing to know that and you can feel some empathy for the person if you're not having to interact with them every day in, in coordinate school pickups. And it's a whole other thing, isn't it? When you know you're, you're entwined with, with that individual for the foreseeable future. So a lot of our work in our monthly, um, program and in the classes that we've taught have been what, what helps and what doesn't help. Do you want to say a little bit about that?
Speaker 2: (09:00)
Yeah. And let's put this out there that, you know, without leverage, without some kind of a meaningful consequence, it is very difficult even to start the engine, you know, when it comes to creating change. So I don't mean to be so pessimistic about that, but you want to look inside your, your life and the life with your children, the life with your family, and ask yourself, is there something here that would matter a whole lot to the narcissist in my life? Like if we didn't talk anymore or if they lost contact with the family or is there something that might create a kind of, I hate to say threat, but, but something meaningful as a consequence that might urge them to get help. I mean, narcissism requires professional help. It's not to say that you can't have an impact that you can't make some kind of a difference in terms of influencing behaviors.
Speaker 2: (09:51)
I wrote my book for that purpose. Giving strategies on how to do that, but to transform personality, especially when this complicated, it often does require professional intervention. What you can do, however, is again, learn about what you're up against. Learn about this personality. Get as much knowledge and information as you can so that you can be your most solid, sturdy, healthy adult you. When you're operating from that position, when you're navigating parenting or even just financial matters from that position, you're in a much better place because you're not going to run into the old, you know, is it me? I do something wrong. SELF-DOUBT, shame. Coming up with ways to quick fix this and make it better. You know, you're going to know what you're really dealing with and be more clear headed in terms of your presentation style.
Speaker 1: (10:48)
That's really valuable because one of the strategies most commonly used is for the narcissist to make you wrong, to put you down, to assign all responsibility and blame to you. They don't apologize. They don't ever take responsibility or have any ownership for their part in any kind of difficulties or challenges. So when you learn more and understand more, you have a little bit more confidence in durability and sturdiness as you interact in the ways that you need to interact. There's one thing that's really important to mention, you know, Wendy and I are both therapists. We've been therapists for a very long time. Psychotherapist, marriage and family therapist and narcissism is very difficult even for a trained experienced therapist to spot. And I think we probably have a bit of an advantage because we have been immersed in that field. But they're charming, they're successful, they're funny, they're smart. They have usually a pretty robust social network. They can be very respected and they know how to play the game. They know how to get what they want. They know what things to say. Many of the people in our co-parenting with a narcissist monthly support group will make comments like how, how did I not see who this person was when I was being courted? Right. [inaudible] for sure.
And what we often say is no one is immune because of all the, those really well articulated adjectives that you just stated, Susan. And because they can do it, they're also very good at courtship. They're very good at being able to, I mean it's all about winning. I mean it's not to say that there is no sincerity in those gestures when they are loving, when they're being kind or when they are being funny. I mean there are or when they're being giving even, I mean there are narcissists that we think of once with a heart of gold. You know, who, who do have an intention of, you know, being, being generous and, and, and taking care of the people they love. It does sometimes get a little hung up like in the barbed wire where the, it ends up coming out in ways that don't sound like kindness, love and generosity because they're so preoccupied with being again, this extraordinary human being and winning, you know, whatever it is, winning approval, winning attention, winning the prize, winning your attention and your affection, whatever it is. It's so much about, you know, the game, the competition and the winning that they might miss the, the central message at the core, which is to convey, you know, a kind of love or fear even or vulnerability, which is so difficult for them to expose because it feels so we can shameful. Yeah.
Speaker 1: (13:41)
So one of the questions that I know parents often come to what to you with? And I've been asked the same if my co-parent, my child's father or mother is narcissistic. Does that mean my kids will become narcissistic?
Speaker 2: (13:56)
Yeah. That's a very hot topic. And a big question, an important question. And the answer is no, no, it's, it's not an absolute one-to-one ratio. You know, having one healthy parent is, is good enough having a narcissistic parent, um, as a, as a role model for parenting, particularly if it's the same gender role model, it's, it's worthy of concern. But the non narcissistic parent who has, you know, a whole boatload of work to do, to, to repair, to teach, to model, to care for the child's exposure in the world. You know, you'll do your work, you'll do your work to counteract some of what they're learning from their narcissistic parent. And most of all, loving your child unconditionally. I'm downplaying this need to always be extraordinary. There's nothing wrong with being smart and achieving and being a good athlete. There's nothing wrong with that. No one has to feel bad for that.
Speaker 2: (14:52)
But it's not what makes someone lovable and helping your child to recognize the difference between pride and achievement and being a lovable human and a good person is critical. Teach them to be tolerant of frustration. Prepare them to live in the world. Narcissists don't get that preparation. They don't learn about discomfort and how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. How to wait your turn or how to deal with frustration. If we teach our children how to tolerate frustration, even when they're paired with a dad who is maybe spoiling them because he needs to be the, you know, Super Dad. Um, and so, okay, plant your seeds. They will harvest, they may harvest later, but they will harvest a, there's no absolute, you know, correlation between having a narcissistic parent and becoming one.
Speaker 1: (15:40)
And that really, um, sort of moves us toward the tips that I wanted to leave as we wrap up. I always like to close the podcast with something practical that parents can do. And I think in this case something that you said can be transmuted into the tip for this episode, which is that kids just need one healthy loving attachment to be okay and you can be that parent for your kids, which means you put less energy and trying to change your co-parent and you know, pleading, lecturing, shaming, scolding, enlightening, which is not going to help. We've tested them all, they don't work and instead focus on really being available and present for your kids so they know they can come to you. They know they can tell you what they're going through and you don't react in a way that makes them feel like, oh man, I shouldn't have told mom that now she's gonna, you know, have a fit or that our kids, all children, whether their parents are, one of them is narcissistic or they're, they're entirely healthy and sturdy and loving and available and attuned.
All children benefit when parents can be a safe confidante, a safe place for them to tell their truths to without us reacting. So I know that it's heartbreaking to see kids struggle with a parent who just shows them affection when they accomplish something or who puts them down if they aren't doing something perfectly. But you can be there as a safe place for them to offload and it does really make a difference as our children work through their disappointments in their upsets. Wendy, what could you add to that?
Speaker 2: (17:16)
It's beautiful, Susan. I'm not even sure that I can add. I was going to say just a big ditto next to what you just said. I completely agree with you. I think, you know, open arms for all emotions, making it safe to feel and to be vulnerable, acknowledge and empathize, validate the feelings that child is having. Be Be prepared to steel yourself because if you're dealing with a narcissistic co-parent, there's a likelihood that the child is getting away with a little bit more than you'd be comfortable with when they're with their narcissistic parent. And so you may have to be, you know, at times, you know, kind of the punching bag and, and I don't mean, you know, literally allowing them to walk all over you, but you know, to be the one who's ready to explore what's really happening, you know, inside all that confusion and chaos that comes from distinctly different households.
Speaker 1: (18:05)
Oh Gosh. Well, I know those who are listening, there are some people listening saying, oh my gosh, tell me more. Tell me more. Because there isn't too much out there. And I think that's why, you know, the work that we've done has, has been very gratefully received for the most part. Um, you definitely can find out more on Susan stifelman.com and click the tab help for parents. Finding out more about Wendy's work is easy. You can go to DisarmingtheNarcissist.com. Um, if you have a question that you'd like me to answer in the podcast, please visit SusanStiffelman.com/podcast and we hope that you've enjoyed this conversation. Any final thoughts when do that you'd like to leave people with?
Speaker 2: (18:47)
I'd say take a look too in our online community because I think it's another wonderful way to get into the conversation. Ask more questions, learn more about this important topic.
Speaker 1: (18:57)
Yeah. So we hope that you'll have a listen to the other episodes in this series. Maybe leave a rating or review or tell a friend or subscribe and we have a full series of interviews on my website under the summit. Co-Parenting Without Power Struggles is still available. So thank you so much Wendy.
Speaker 2: (19:20)
Thank you Susan. Thanks for having me. It's always, always great being with you.
Speaker 1: (19:24)
Yeah, likewise. And I'm so, so grateful that you're doing this work. It's so profoundly needed. I know that you're writing many articles, you know, you're being interviewed a lot. Um, the word is used a lot now in conversation, um, on the news. So I think you're really at the forefront of all of this and I'm very grateful to be able to share you with our community.
Speaker 2: (19:49)
Yeah. As am I for you putting this out there. Thank you.
Speaker 1: (19:52)
And everybody, I'm so glad you were here. Look forward to joining you on the next one. And meanwhile, remember that no matter how busy life gets, look for those moments of sweetness and joy. Ask for help when you need it and trust yourself. Thanks for showing up and I'll see you next time.