Episode summary:

Susan is joined again by Wendy Behary, author of Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed. Susan and Wendy discuss what truly lies beneath narcissism and how we can use this understanding to manage some of the hurt a narcissist inflicts. 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. https://disarmingthenarcissist.com

Things you’ll learn from this episode:


  • What Narcissism is — and what it isn’t
  • Why a narcissist’s behavior toward you isn’t actually about you — it’s about them
  • How to better understand the wounded, terrified child who lies beneath the narcissist’s exterior

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Co-Parenting with a Narcissist Master Class
Susan Stiffelman and Wendy Behary offer guidance and support for co-parenting with someone who is self-absorbed, demeaning, entitled or lacking in empathy

Co-Parenting with a Narcissist Membership Community
Susan Stiffelman and Wendy Behary offer ongoing support to free you from the drama and frustration that comes when you are raising children with a highly self-absorbed co-parent

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Read the entire episode!
Transcript here:

Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to the Parenting Without Power Struggles  podcast. I’m Susan Stiffelman. I’m a marriage and family therapist and the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles and Parenting with Presence. And I’m really glad that you’re here. Welcome. I’d like to share a conversation that I had with Wendy Behary, author of Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed. Wendy and I host a monthly support group for parents whose co-parent has traits of narcissistic personality disorder. Now, while I hope that most of you are dealing with this particular challenge and it’s a really big one, I think everyone’s going to find the conversation both fascinating and really important, but first some updates. For those of you interested in what we’re up to these days in the Parenting Without Power Struggles community, I suggest that you just go to SusanStiffelman.com because everything is there.

Speaker 1: You’ll find our free newsletter with lots of tips and articles and inspiration, and you’ll see a list of all the masterclasses I’ve taught with some of your favorite parent educators, including Homework and the Self-Driven Child with Dr. Williams Stixrud and Ned Johnson, The New Adolescence with Dr. Christine Carter, Highly Sensitive Parents and Children with Dr. Elaine Aron, Chores with Patty Wifler, Tantrums and Meltdowns with Janet Lansbury, Helping Anxious Children Thrive with Maggie Dent. Just the list goes on. I think there’s 17 or 18 classes altogether and they’re wonderful ways to get really usable practical information in a 75 minute deep dive with great educators. So I hope you’ll check that out. You can see lots of other options for you and resources at SusanStiffelman.com so let’s get started.

Speaker 1: I first met Wendy Behary, author of Wendy Behary, author of Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed, when I was hosting an online summit with about 25 parent educators, writers, teachers, authors, including Martha Beck, Byron Katie, Harville Hendrix, John Gray, Glennon Doyle. We had a wonderful lineup and Wendy’s contribution was enormously well received. She offered guidance for those parents who were co-parenting with someone who had characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder. There was such an outpouring of interest in Wendy’s episode that we did a three part class together and many of the people who took that class asked for even more support. So now we meet every month online with parents and we offer coaching and guidance and support. And if you’re interested, you can find out more about that at SusanStiffelman.com and look under the tab help for parents. The parents in our support group are really committed to helping their children grow up, feeling safe and loved even as they co-parent with someone who can sometimes make that difficult, who might seem to go out of their way to sabotage or undermine all kinds of co-parenting decisions and who have difficulty showing up with presence and empathy with their kids.

Speaker 1: So what is narcissistic personality disorder? First, I really want to remind you that just because someone is hard to get along with or seems very self centered, that does not make them a narcissist. Narcissistic personality disorder involves a pattern of self centered, arrogant thinking and behavior, a lack of empathy and consideration for other people and an excessive need for admiration. So let me just list some of the signs and symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder and then I’m going to share with you the conversation or part of a conversation that Wendy and I had. Now remember of course that the severity of symptoms will always vary, but typically the narcissist, someone with that trait or characteristic will take advantage of others to get what they want, unable or unwilling to recognize the needs and feelings of others. They insist on having the best of everything, the best car, the best office and exaggerated sense of self importance, a sense of entitlement and the need for constant excessive admiration, preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty.

Speaker 1: They often monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people that they perceive as inferior and they may expect special favors and unquestioned compliance with their expectations. Now at the same time, people with NPD have trouble handling anything that they perceive as criticism and they can become impatient or angry when they don’t get special treatment. They can have significant interpersonal problems and easily feel slighted. They may react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior. They often have difficulty regulating their emotions and behavior and have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation. So in a recent conversation, Wendy and I talked about what lies beneath the symptoms of NPD and that can be a big help and understanding what the individual is struggling with and make it less personal to be on the receiving end of some of their challenging behaviors. So I thought I’d share that with you. Have a listen. And then I’m going to wrap up with a few thoughts.

Speaker 3: As I’ve often said, and I’ll repeat, I think the greatest gift you can give yourself to free yourself from any question, blame, or as Susan says so beautifully often that over attachment to the expectation that’s going to whatever’s going to happen is to learn as much as you can become wise to what underlies the narcissist. Understand what’s happening underneath for your sake. This is a desperate soul who has a lot of insecurity. Somewhere in there. Once upon a time they did not learn about unconditional love. They did not learn about the the joy and the beauty of just being and being treasured and cherished for just being a precious little person. They learned about doing, performing, showing up, showing off, getting approval, being outstanding, being remarkable, being the best of the best and the smartest of the smartest. That’s what they learn and that’s their value.

Speaker 3: That’s their worth. Life is a game of competition, of powerplay who has control, who wins, who loses, and so it’s a binary switch. You know, it’s, you’re, you’re great. You’re, you’re dirt one or the other, but underneath there there’s a hurting little person. You know who came into the world like everyone else with needs, with sensitivities, and met an environment that really couldn’t meet those needs adequately, whether it was not helping them to tolerate frustration, to be uncomfortable, to set limits, whether it was being teased or bullied because they were slightly different or weird, or they were the chosen child who was practicing the violin 12 hours a day so they didn’t know how to make friends. But there’s a story there about a child who has great insecurities and has worked extraordinarily hard to have this righteous sense of entitlement that they can do what they want, when they want to, to whomever they want to.

Speaker 3: And it’s not about I want to hurt you. It’s about I want to protect me. Whatever I can do to protect me. Even if it does hurt you and it will, I’m doing it because I’ve got to protect me because the threat is so powerful for the understanding. These pieces, you know, if you can superimpose over the face of that, that grimace and that growl that they’ll give you. You see that little soul that’s so desperately clinging for power and just can’t come out from behind the wall because it’s so feel so shamed and weakened by the messages they were given. It frees you a little. You breathe a little bit. Okay. You know, there he is. You know how sad, how sad that he can’t rescue himself? How sad that he can’t, you know, love that part of himself underneath and allow it to show, you know, maybe in glimpses it does, but most of the time it doesn’t. That’s what’s real. That’s what’s there. I think that’s so helpful. Wendy. This is an area where even though in so many respects we feel out of this is an area

Speaker 4: Where we do have control or we do have agency where we can make a decision to choose which lens we view this person through. And if we view the narcissistic co-parent or the narcissist in our life through the lens of they are out to get us, they are cruel, they are twisted. Then then the impact of their behavior on us, the words that they use to speak with us, the things they say, the manner, the, the withholding, the ignoring, the snickering, the, the sarcasm has so much more of a painful impact because particularly when it’s someone close to us are our former husband or wife or our current husband or wife or a close relation. Someone important to us in our life when they who are supposed to love us. Like in that little girl, little boy, part of us, we have this understanding or belief that this is somebody who’s supposed to have our back.

Speaker 4: This is somebody who who wanted to marry me or who is my, my sibling or my, my mother or my father. They’re supposed to love and accept me more than almost anyone on earth. And they are choosing to deliberately and intentionally and carefully throw arrows at my heart. Then that pain of that is so enormous. And when we start to understand narcissistic personality disorder and when we start to understand that really the behavior in the language and the, the actions that they take in our direction are a product of the pain of this hole in their heart. This list, this fragility, that insecurity and that we were just happened to be in the way we happen to be kind of an easy target for some anger or pain to get unleashed. Then it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, but it hurts differently. It’s still very sad.

Speaker 4: It’s very bittersweet. It’s poignant, but at least we don’t take it as personally. And not to say that we’re never guilty of something that upsets somebody like that, but, but in general, I think the freedom of that comes from learning more about what narcissism is. And, and how it, how it is created in, in a new child who comes into the world, you know, as you said, just pure and just having needs and having those needs met so very conditionally, you know, based on their behavior, their accomplishments, their ability to, to foster attention or get approval that that’s what we’re on the receiving end of when we get all these horrible in some cases, you know, such as emails, comments, you were probably the,

Speaker 3: The listeners out there dealing with this. This is just a, an important news flash. I guess. You were probably doing all the things that were necessary, like setting limits, like asking for intimacy, like trying to make eye contact, trying to know them, trying to collaborate engaging in reciprocity, give and take, taking turns. You were probably trying to do all the things that they actually needed. But those are the things that trigger them cause they’re don’t understand it, they’re not used to it and it feels threatening to them. So you were probably many of you, the best thing that ever happened to them and they squander it because it’s so threatening. It’s so triggers that feeling of insecurity and inadequacy and everything. Susan just said, you know, it’s getting into that empowered place. It can feel a little weird at first like, well, but if I’m understanding what’s underneath, you know, it’s so much easier to say he’s a demon.

Speaker 3: Satan is evil, horrible, awful, useless. You know, hopeless person. Well, that’s easy because then you just say, this is just this icky cloud over there and I have nothing to do with it. The truth is you still have nothing to do with it. It doesn’t have to be a demon. You don’t. It doesn’t have to be a demon. He can still be a human who has been wounded badly, who has developed all this armor and wears all these masks to cope with the world. You’re the best thing that’s come along, which are the most threatening and frightening because it’s unfamiliar. Don’t be afraid to see that, you know, don’t be afraid, and the fear usually is, well, if he really has all this sweetness underneath, why wasn’t I able to draw it out? You can’t do it. You can’t do it by yourself. Narcissism must be treated. I mean, unless they’re really on the very, very low end of the spectrum where it’s just benign annoyances, anything above that needs professional intervention in order for it to change. So not about you not being able to do it because you weren’t good enough if you’re having any doubts.

Speaker 4: Gosh, thank you. I’m really glad that we got to sort of touch on this and you know, I can just speak personally because I know both of us have lots of experience both with in our lives with, with people who have these characteristics professionally, personally. And I strangely have so much real love for the people in my life with narcissistic characteristics. Now that doesn’t mean I have much to do with them, like in many respects I’ve had to create some distance, but the love is preserved. And that was a gift I think I could give myself to not completely close down my heart. And because I don’t want to be that person. And now if you’re raising a child day in and day out with somebody, then you may need more protection. You may not feel very much warm, fuzzy love if you’re feeling kind of beat up every day, every text message, every email is sarcastic or cruel or undermining. But I can say that, you know, part of what causes us pain is to shut off our hearts to people that we have, you know, cared about. And I don’t know that you have to do that. Maybe you, you sort of protect yourself for a while. But ultimately I think every human being is a wonder and a Marvel. And some of us just have been through the washing machine more brutally than others. And how we show up in the world just makes it less safe to have

Speaker 3: Contact. So you don’t have to doubt the decisions you’ve made. You know, as you’re listening to us talk about this, it’s not a proposal that you doubt any decision you’ve made to exit a relationship. You can still feel self-assured. I know many, a woman who has been scorned by the narcissist will say, I cannot even open up that window. A fragment, you know, to have a what Susan’s describing a compassionate heart or any empathy. That’s the only way I protect myself. And you know, you may have to do that, as Susan said for a while, but it’s not about an either or and yet still you can look over at the narcissist in the corner of your mind and say what is suffering? So,

Speaker 4: Or what a, what a funny guy or what a smart like, you know, you don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Speaker 3: Right. Well that too. You can still, you know, you don’t have to live in the land of regret. Like, why did I spend 20 years with this individual? Well, there’s reasons and you’ll remember some of them that aren’t all about, you know, your fears about finances. Some of you might’ve been, there were some delightful times. Absolutely.

Speaker 4: Absolutely. Don’t shortchange yourself of what’s good. Okay, thank you. Wendy is such a pleasure to dive into this. I know that there’s not very much out there. I’m very grateful that we can offer realistic advice and support.

Speaker 3: You too. Me too.

Speaker 1: Well, I hope you found that a value. I find this topic both immensely painful and also very empowering because as we said, the more we understand what influences or informed someone’s narcissistic behavior, the better able we are to cope with it effectively and take it less personally. So as we wrap up, here’s a tip for this week. I invite you to call to mind someone who you find particularly difficult to communicate with or negotiate agreements with or work with in one way or another. And notice what you tell yourself about they’re speaking to you or treating you in the way they are. Then step back and imagine that person as a very young child, consider what might’ve happened in their early life that might be a factor in their behavior. And most importantly, see if you can move toward taking it less personally by broadening your perspective about what their behavior is about, less about you, more about some challenge, insecurity or difficulty that may be deeply rooted inside of them. So thanks for being here. It’s such a pleasure to be with you and to share different ideas and understandings about life and parenting. If you’re enjoying this series, I’d love it if you would leave a review or rating or tell a friend. Just help us spread the word and I look forward to joining you next time. Meanwhile, remember that no matter how busy life gets, look for those moments of sweetness and joy. I’ll see you next time.


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