The Narcissistic Personality

Why Recognizing Hurt and Vulnerability Leads to Greater Self-Acceptance

Our culture in the United States is one that supports narcissism. We tend to revere athletes and celebrities and elevate those who are rich or beautiful. Many of these people give very little to get a lot.

Someone once said, “If it weren't for marriage or committed relationships, some people could go through life believing they had no faults at all.” Welcome to the inner world of the narcissist, the person who is quick to feel entitled to get and slow to give.

Over the years, it has been a challenge to become more effective with these individuals when seeing them in the couples context. As couples therapists, we are often faced with narcissistic individuals–people who act in ways that run along a continuum from a narcissistic personality style to the more ingrained narcissistic personality disorder. And of course there are those who find their own narcissism so ego-syntonic they express no desire to change!

This month I will discuss one of the narcissist's defensive patterns and an intervention approach that I find effective in reducing the narcissist's angry rigidity.

One predictable defensive pattern occurs when the narcissist feels entitled. He or she will frequently and rapidly escalate hostility with minimal provocation. The most typical feelings are hurt and betrayal because the spouse is not catering to their unspoken desires. The narcissist rarely expresses hurt feelings directly in a vulnerable way, but instead expresses their pain in a hostile or brutal manner. The defensive angry response becomes so offensive they may frighten or annoy a spouse who then withdraws or disengages. Sadly the narcissist feels deprived and entitled at the same time: deprived of the nurturance, support or understanding they hope for and entitled to get the “goodies” they want.

One aspect of successful treatment occurs when the thin-skinned narcissist begins to recognize their anger is used to hide the vulnerability of feeling hurt. Their anger is used to push away the source of their pain. The narcissist will begin to change when they learn to reveal why an incident felt painful, for example, rejection. Those insights often require the therapist articulating it for them. When you can be descriptive and non judgmental and adopt an attitude that conveys, “Of course, you desire nurturance,” the narcissist can begin to soften the rigidity of their defensive stance.

Sally was hurt when Don came home late on their anniversary. She blew up, yelled, slammed the bedroom door and did not come out for the rest of the evening.

At first you'll make the most progress by articulating your client's pain for them. For example, “I bet that you felt hurt that Don was late. You wanted your anniversary to be special. Actually you wanted Don to treat you specially and let nothing get in his way. By the time he came home, you felt humiliated that you cared when he did not seem to care. You ended up punishing him and yourself in order to avoid showing him how much you cared about being special to him.”

The following session:
At this point there's less need to speak for your client. You might say, “I was thinking about you this week. I wondered if you'd become any more accepting of yourself for feeling hurt about your anniversary?”

The next session:
By this time you might be able to make some major breakthroughs. You could suggest, “Let's go back to your anniversary. Let's see if we can understand what you wanted Don to do or say when he came into the house. By then, you were already hurt, but let's look at how you could have saved the evening instead of letting your hurt feelings increase your isolation. Let's consider a few different possible responses from Don, and have you pick the one that's closest to what you desired.

Don might say:
“I know I am late. I blew it. I left the office about 15 minutes late but it was enough to hit more rush hour traffic and that made me even more late. I do apologize for getting things off to a late start. Let me change my clothes quickly and then we will head out.”


“I am sorry to be so late. I want you to know you mean a lot to me even if I wasn't here. After I change my clothes, I'd like to tell you what you and our anniversary means to me.”


“I am sorry to be so late. I would not have wanted to be in your shoes waiting for me and not being sure when I'd get here. I hate that feeling of insecurity and unpredictability.”

Or ask the narcissist to rank the following behaviors:
___Listen and understand what I am feeling
___Brainstorm possible solutions
___Negotiate a solution
___Actively reflect on your contribution to this problem
___Provide positive support –hugs, kisses, put your arm around me

The goal here is to help the narcissist identify what they desire when they are hurt. Do they want understanding, empathy, or an apology? Do they want the partner to accept their vulnerability? All of these are complex emotional processes, and the partner can not simultaneously do all of them at once. When the therapist slows the process down and helps the narcissist identify their emotional longing, the process of self acceptance can begin.

Want guidance working with narcissists and other difficult personalities?
Get our CD set “High Impact Couples Therapy.”

In a future newsletter, we will look at the problem of minimal empathy in the narcissist.

Have you ever considered refining your skills with specialized training at The Couples Institute? Training groups are now forming for the coming year in our office in Menlo Park, California. New groups start in the fall. In consultation groups, you learn to use our innovative and proven techniques with your own cases. Small groups offer individual attention and opportunities for remarkable personal and professional growth. For more information on our training groups, click here or call our office toll free 877-327-5915.

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Margie Ulbrick
Margie Ulbrick

Ellyn, thank you. it is particularly helpful to conceptualise the breaking it down into stages for the narcissist. The articulating their pain for them followed by the suggestion that they could be more accepting of themselves for feeling hurt, to describing the range of behaviours that might help them is a useful way to go. Slowing it down is essential especially when the narcissist is overwhelmed with distress. My experience is that this may take several sessions and it is necessarily slow work. Attending to the other partner in the couple who is also possibly feeling like “I can’t get it right” and ‘nothing I do will make my partner happy” is a simultaneous challenge.


Hello, I’m just wondering why the wife is considered narcissistic in this scenario? I think it’s rational for her to be upset if her husband comes home late on their anniversary and didn’t make any effort to apologize while he was running late. It sort of seems like the hair and might be narcissistic for not recognizing that is a special evening for them as a couple and not recognizing his need to communicate that he had to work late and making her wait at home and worry. Am I wrong or am I narcissistic for identifying with the wife in this scenario?


Val-The assessment was based on much more than one event. However her insistence on staying angry and demeaning him is an indicator. She had enormous difficulty acknowledging her desire to be special and her hurt feelings that he was late.


How do I explain to a counselor that we are here because my partner is a narcissist liar and is driving me crazy?

Andre Lampa
Andre Lampa

Thanks Ellyn. I’d like to know more about asking the narcissist to rank the behaviors they most want to see from their partner. It’s going to create an expectation on the partner to comply, but that really isn’t the point, is it?

I see how it can focus the narcissist on their own vulnerability. It’s kind of counter-intuitive that the narc can benefit from self-differentiation here, when they already seem so self-centered. This is an interesting choice for the therapist, whose impulse might be to build the narc’s other-differentiation, in this case appreciation that the partner had other circumstances that made them late.

Anyway I think it is a nice intervention for all sorts of cases, to redirect to positivity and solutions, in line with the attachment needs.


Most clinicians would say that couples therapy is not a good idea for relationships where one partner in the couple has NPD and/or BPD. This is especially the case when there is abuse and/or large power imbalances in the relationship. Not only is couples therapy not likely to be helpful in these situations—it may actually exacerbate the pattern of abuse. The time would be much better spent encouraging the partner with BPD and/or NPD to engage in intensive individualized psychotherapy.

Please read the following for more information:

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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