“What Do You Do When…?”

Free 5-part Workshop

This past week I demonstrated how to use the Developmental Model to tackle tough impasses you will likely encounter. I hope you found my demonstrations helpful whether you’re just getting started or are an experienced couples therapist.

Thanks for your interest in this powerful and transformative work.

On this page you’ll find the information from one day’s question, and if you scroll to the bottom you’ll find links to pages with all of the articles and webinar replays.

Access to your free workshop will be available until September 22 at 11:59pm Pacific Time.

What Do You Do When Narcissistic Clients Criticize, Attack, and Dominate Your Sessions?

When narcissistic partners dominate sessions, it is very easy to lose direction. They tend to avoid being accountable for their own behavior and make demands on you as well as on their partners.

You may question yourself…

  • Can I stay focused if the narcissist consistently challenges me?
  • Is it okay to confront them or not?
  • Are my confrontations too hard or too gentle?
  • Am I too patient or not patient enough?
  • How much mirroring do I need to do?

With all these uncertainties running through your mind, it is still important to come into a session with a chosen direction and then do what you’ve decided to do.

Below you’ll find a transcript from a session I did with a narcissistic husband in couples therapy. This couple has a 10-year history of a very aggressive, volatile relationship.

It wasn’t easy to plant my feet squarely and keep my focus.

Theme: Is Vulnerability Weakness?


Bill, Today I’d like to talk about your part. Will you go there with me?


Only if you do something about her whining and sniveling.


I know you would be more comfortable if I focused on Jane. It’s time to focus on you and your part. I’d like to talk more about vulnerability. It is time for us to understand better what motivates your demands and your criticism of Jane.


I don’t have a sense of vulnerability. How can I recognize what I don’t have or don’t seem to recognize?


There are other emotions than anger when you are being critical.


But that is weakness. I don’t build my relationships around weakness. And don’t forget that Jane doesn’t pull her weight.


You can search for what motivates your criticism.


You mean I have to try to figure out what motivates me to be critical?


Yes. And you can ask for help.


But that is weakness. I don’t fully get why a relationship needs to be built around recognizing weakness.


I’m not suggesting that your relationship be built only around that. The historical pattern in your life and with the two of you has been that when you feel hurt or when you feel some kind of loss or pain, you strike out with anger, either in withdrawal or attack.


Well, that is certainly true.


And that promotes distance rather than connection.


Agreed. Whatever event happens I have to deal with it in a way where I retain control over my behavior. I can’t let my emotions get the best of me.


You can ask me for help. You can search for what motivates your criticism. You have functioned so independently. You can risk letting me help you.


I have made an effort for as long as I can remember to be strong and independent. Getting help isn’t me. I am not weak.


In not being weak, you push your wife away. I’m not suggesting that your relationship be built on weakness. I am suggesting you have a broader range of feelings than you admit to yourself and to Jane. For example, how weak will you feel if you let me help you today?


What kind of help? I quite consciously deal with whatever arises by not allowing it to take me over. I don’t let emotions control me.


That’s right. I think you are feeling uneasy today. I am coming towards you. As we are talking, I think you are doing a cost-benefit analysis, asking yourself, do I dare let Ellyn any closer? Admitting vulnerability would run counter to every single bone in your body. And it runs against many years of conditioning.


The whole point is that this is what I have done to avoid being depressed and angry in my life. I can deal with crises very well. And now it becomes dysfunctional here.


That is right. It keeps you very isolated in your marriage.


The same thing that keeps me from being angry and depressed elsewhere keeps me lonely here.


I am glad you can recognize that you are lonely. I’m glad you are starting to let Jane and me know.


You’ve had many years in which it has worked for you to put up walls and maintain a set of beliefs.


The way I grew up, there wasn’t supposed to be anyone inside those walls but me.


So, as you open up, I know it is not easy. It’s important for you and Jane to recognize that this is an act of love. It’s not an easy thing Jane is asking you to do, and it is an act of love for you to say “I care about you enough and I care about our relationship enough that I am stretching way beyond what is comfortable. I’m struggling to change this and let you come behind my wall.” I will continue to help. There will be times you open up and Jane doesn’t notice. And times you run away that are painful to Jane. All of this dynamic tension will be what happens as the two of you are learning a new way to be together.

Of course, this is just the beginning of his self-exposure.

So, what do you do when narcissistic partners criticize, attack, and dominate your sessions?

1. Stay grounded with a clear direction for your session.

One thing that helps is – if possible – deciding before a session what you want to accomplish in that session. In this session I wanted to confront the husband’s attacking behavior.

2. Confront their defensive pattern gently but firmly.

I know how defended the narcissist is from their core vulnerability, their core loneliness. It was tempting to give up. I encouraged myself throughout the session reminding myself to be persistent. I know there is more to him than his angry, demanding criticism. I know inside there’s a part of him that doesn’t want to be so lonely.

3. Encourage them to accept your help and to recognize how they consistently, instinctively move away from you.

I know he’s not going to let me help him easily. He’s not going to let me in. He’ll be intellectual, he’ll hide, and I just keep telling myself to come back over and over again.

He has not had the experience in his life of showing vulnerability and having someone help him. His experience says there is safety in not showing weakness. So, he has spent most of his life being very hard driving and shut down.

4. Recognize small openings and return to them.

In the next session I will remember the entry he gave me. What is depressing about the other places he spends time? What is the grief/disappointment that he runs away from?

I think it’s helpful for us to be reminded that narcissistic and self-absorbed clients are usually lonely. Knowing the types of pain they endure can soften our reactions to the difficult behavior and hard edges they present to us.

I would enjoy reading any comments you have. We are almost at the end of our week together. Have the webinars and articles I’ve shared been helpful to you?

Take Action Now

Can you share any openings – large or small – that have helped you create change in highly defended clients?
Please share any vulnerabilities that narcissistic or self-absorbed clients have revealed.

12 responses to "Narcissism"

  1. Very impressive work with him. I find that a narcissist can undermine my skills and trigger strong reactions very easily. …mostly flight!

    I've been looking for the links to articles you mention but don't see them. Would be wonderful to be able to read more of your insights and approaches with clients of this ilk.

  2. Ellyn,
    This has been so lovely, thanks for your generosity of this training.
    I do not see a link for the PDF of the Narcissism Talk. Could I receive a link for that talk please?

    Thanks again.

  3. I love and respect the working you are doing with couples …. Thank you for sharing this.
    Some how I have missed the handouts …. are they still available ?


  5. I noticed your reframe of the husband's opening to change as an act of love. Before that I was impressed by how you ‘inched' forward with the slightest of positive spins on every agreement with the husband. Also – this struck me quite forcibly – I found myself thinking that I recognised the husband's speech patterns!

  6. Nice work.

    I’m a recovered narcissist: only because I was able to learn to be open. After my soul murder by my parents, I really couldn’t reconstitute until I got crushed by a pivotal challenge of others who held sway. If I hadn’t gotten crushed, I don’t believe I ever would have recovered.

    So you helped a citadel of grandiosity start to feel rather than intellectually withdraw and be a king baby of poor relating.

  7. Ellyn thanks for sharing with us all. I really liked the way that you kept turning his words back to him so he needed to look closely at why he needs to keep criticising his partner. Despite your own wonderings you stayed persistent which is not easy to do. A great model

  8. It is really incredible that you got the narcisist to accept he felt lonely.
    That is more I have ever achieved with the narcisist in my life!

  9. I liked very much to learn from you Ellyn. I learned a lot from your presentations and examples, and thinking about my clients.

    I worked with a couple where one partner was narcisistic and indeed I needed to stay deep grounded in order to tolerate her criticism either toward husband and sometimes toward me and also she avoided any closesness with me , even if they come for therapy regulary .

  10. It was interesting for me that you accepted his definition of weakness and worked with it. I think that helped him trust you and go with you ultimately.

  11. What is the working definition of narcissism in this context? This will help me share some comments. The above article is insightful. What got my attention is the need to gently persist and keep coming back to hold the ground with the intended direction to build connection and open to vulnerability. Mahalo!

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