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Recognising and Working with the Narcissistic Personality

Recognising and Working with the Narcissistic Personality

(Written for coach supervisors and coaches)

This short paper uses information from psychotherapy to illustrate the presenting behaviours of the narcissistic client.  I use terms like ‘narcissist’ and narcissism’ not in their full clinical sense, but only as a way to describe certain patterns of behaviour. Coaches need to know about the key presenting behaviours of narcissism; however, the clinical explorations and treatment of full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder, are beyond the scope of this paper – and of our work as coaches.

 A typical scenario illustrating narcissistic affects.

Imagine that there is a powerful coachee whose mild touch of narcissism is beginning to result in considerable imbalance in self-perception, behaviour and general well being.  He appears super confident, is bossy and occasionally bullying, but he dare not admit to his real feelings of low self-esteem.   He works excessively and expects others to work at his pace. His doctor has tried unsuccessfully to get him to slow down and let his body recover from too much work, food and alcohol. Typically, this coachee feels that he needs even more success, in spite of his many achievements. He knows that a coach can get him to the next level – quickly.  This man is often in a hurry – he is driven – sees his goals very clearly and is prepared to work night and day to achieve them.  The best coach is hired but, in this scenario, the coach himself displays some elements of narcissistic behaviour – not too disabling, but enough to be pursuing his career relentlessly without noticing personal cost or that his life also, is well out of balance – just like that of his coachee.  The coach is utterly dedicated to his coachees and is brilliant in supporting them to achieve their ambitions and goals; he is very, very good at what he does.

Enter the third member of this scenario – the Coach Supervisor. The coach hires a supervisor because although the coachee has been powering his way to his goals, he is now drinking very heavily and his marriage is suddenly in trouble. This is disrupting progress and the agreed coaching outcomes are in jeopardy. For the coach, the stakes are high – commitment to the coachees’ goals, his own sense of achievement, his reputation and his capacity to manage the on-going contract. The coach is concerned that he will not be able to hit the coachee’s targets and worse, that his feelings of not being ‘good enough’ will surface once more. So, he has to try even harder and must get the supervisor on board to help him deliver all that is required of him.

The coach supervisor has to stop the rot right there and avoid being caught in the coach/coachee system. He must be able to understand quickly what is going on  – i.e. he must recognise that the wound of narcissism is affecting both the coach and the coachee – and ‘name the game’ in an appropriate way. Supervision will be successful if attention is drawn to parallel process and the resulting unconscious collusion with the coachee. Good supervision ensures that the coach is supported to come back into balance; this level of personal development may take time and courage on both their parts; only then will the coach be able to do the same for their coachee. It is the responsibility of the Coach Supervisor to understand what is going on and to intervene in such a way as to break the pattern of ignoring the human cost of drivenness.  It need take only a simple opening intervention like – ‘I notice that you (coach) are getting as stressed about outcomes here as your coachee is about getting to their goal.  Neither of you seem to be enjoying the process’, to highlight the parallel process and open a healing conversation.  This intervention creates space for the coach to begin a process of personal and professional reflection which breaks the unuseful collusion in the coach/client system and which can eventually bring health, stability and balance back into the coachee’s life and experience.

So what is Narcissism?

In the original story, Narcissus is absorbed in his own reflection and so narcissism is often misunderstood as self-love; it is not this.  Full-blown Narcissism is a debilitating personality disorder, a preoccupation with oneself that results in an unbalanced self – to the point where a joyful, healthy experience of life is almost impossible. Happily, the brush of Narcissism which coaches find in their work with coachees is often easily resolved, if the coach and Coach Supervisor know what to look for and how to work with it. Should narcissistic behaviours be present in a significant way, Coach Supervisors may well suggest that a coachee is referred.

Narcissism includes the inability to accept failure and it brings with it a marked need for power and control; what the person actually feels is at the opposite end of the spectrum – he actually feels worthless, powerless and believes that he has not achieved enough; there is never ‘enough’ to compensate for what this person feels inside.  Driving the compensatory behaviours is the ‘injured self’, the  ‘little person’ inside who has been diminished at an early age, has not had sufficient endorsement from significant others and who tried to get love and affection through achievement. A leader with this type of psychological background usually tries to hide their true self from others, by identifying almost completely with achievement and very high standards.  Coaches may find this type of coachee almost impenetrable and slow to acknowledge their need to change. Classic work/life imbalance can be a signal to the coach here. And when a coach gets to know their coachee better, this client will often ‘confess’ to feelings of not being good enough, or of fearing that others will see through them and that, in spite of huge achievements, they have little sense of pleasure and even less sense of their own personal reality. These are all major indicators of a narcissistically driven person. They are likely to be present somewhere in every boardroom.

Narcissistic behaviour occurs when we use achievement to compensate for feelings of inadequacy.  Many of us have a touch of this, but what we are looking at here, is a more marked version of it – one which is costly for the coachee, is not in their awareness and which keeps them out of balance. By the very nature of Narcissism, it is often successful people who exhibit this kind of behaviour: entrepreneurs, performers, leaders, presidents and prime ministers too. The narcissistically driven person is a super efficient, powerful, sometimes charismatic, perfectionist who runs their ship like clockwork.  They are often the most dedicated person in the building. Healthy leaders will be experienced as well rounded, efficient and approachable individuals in whose presence others relax and flourish. On the other hand, leaders who are narcissistically driven, will be efficient perfectionists whose ‘blindness’ may leave you gasping – ‘How did he not understand the consequences of that….?’ ‘How did she not see how that directive affected the whole team?’ We have only to pick up a newspaper to witness this level of blindness and incompetence.  Sadly, these are often the dedicated people about whom much gossip circulates in an organisation.  Narcissism is accompanied by perfectionism, grandiosity, and an unusual degree of involvement with self, to the detriment of other relationships.  It can include an easy manipulation of others – the director who has established a great company, but who is often at odds with staff or board members, may be like this – or she can be charismatic and unwittingly entwine others in the coils of her dysfunction; loyal team members may be stretched to the limit trying to compensate for the pressure that the narcissistically wounded person puts on themselves and those around them – ‘ We can’t keep up with her!’ Coaching this person can be a quagmire and Coaching Supervision needs to be intelligent, courageous and informed.

The ‘injury’ referred to above, is a ‘deep wound to the real self’, which has occurred, probably as a daily experience, early in childhood. Sometimes for the dedicated, high achieving women and men that we work with, being successful was the only way of pleasing Daddy/Mummy – who in turn, may have endured exactly the same pressure from a parent.  We have all heard of a coachee who was not praised for coming second in exams – even when they had gained a 97% pass!  Nothing was good enough. The result is:

a.    little sense of self worth

b.    a limited range of true self expression

c.    a much larger range of firmly held expectations of self

d.    highly developed compensatory false self.


 Little sense of self worth

‘The narcissist does not connect well, feels little and finds it hard to love’. (Johnson).  Since the narcissist has not been loved enough, they find it difficult to experience natural feelings of self worth. So, loving and enjoying others can also be difficult.  Finding it hard to communicate and to trust the exchange with others, is not only experienced in personal relationships, but can be seen in dealing with members of the boardroom or team. EQ will be low, particularly in the context of the relationship with self. In the narcissistically wounded person, the true self has not been encouraged or developed sufficiently and so they tend to relate in a slightly false way – perhaps they come over as ‘too much’ for example. They dare not show who they think they really are. Their responses to organisational dynamics will tend to be rigid, judgmental, unaware, unconsidered and perhaps bullying – an indication of the obvious lack in interpersonal and communication skills. Coaching is this context will have to prioritise the developmental needs of the client and the Coach Supervisor must be competent to support work in this area.

A limited range of true self-expression.

In the narcissistic structure, “the child learns to forego the pleasures of the real self in exchange for the power and control realized by the will… this scenario, the child cuts himself off from a real sensory based experience of self…..and the self begins to be experienced, not as the organismic whole that it is, with the needs and pleasures it has. The child makes the inevitable tragic decision of choosing power over pleasure…… is a person who, however glamorous and successful s/he may appear, is bereft in his internal experiences.’  (Johnson)  The coach may easily be seduced by the apparent power, success and charisma of their coachee; the Coach Supervisor needs to be able to see the full picture so that coaching can be genuinely enabling and not collusive. The coachee may need encouragement to re-connect with self – with the internal experience of being present and alive, being strong and being joyful.  Only then, will they be able to connect with others in a more relaxed and open way; only then will they be able to deal in a balanced, mature way with the inevitable difficulties of business or professional life.

A much larger range of firmly held expectations of self

How many successful business people or performers do we know who ‘have it all’ and are clearly unhappy with their level of achievement? And, even more sadly, how many of them think that the way to feeling ok about themselves, lies in re-doubling their efforts, pushing higher, increasing their bank balances – and in hiring the innocent coach to support them!  So many coaches face exactly this scenario, since we work every day with ‘successful’ leaders. These disabling expectations can be dangerous to health and to colleagues; coaches need to distinguish between healthy expectations and those that are narcissistically driven. It can be tough work penetrating the ‘false self’ that requires such immense effort and dedication. It is worth pointing out here, that the Coach Supervisor needs to be checking the original coaching contract, so that the coach is sure that they have professional permission to work with deep levels of personal development in order that the coachee can change the roots of disabling behaviour. This may mean that original goals and time frames may need to be revised.

A highly developed compensatory false self

‘For the narcissist, it is more important to look good and think well of oneself than it is to feel good.’(Johnson).  Think of the leader who is almost too well turned out and who exhibits ungrounded elation, euphoria and excessive pride in perfectionism/achievement – these are the indicators that a person is living some way from himself or herself.  All of these compensations are evidence of the adaptations that were necessary to survive in an insufficiently supportive environment. They were originally designed to maintain contact with significant others, to attract a measure of love/approval and to experience at least some sense of self. Knowledge about how this false self is constructed in the personality and how it expresses itself in working life, can guide the Coach Supervisor and Coach.  They can thenenable the client to rebalance, through grounding awareness of self in truth, seeking out a real picture of their environment, using bodily experience to edge toward feeling alive, encouraging healthy contact with others, and through accepting lots of genuine endorsement from the Coach.

Tasks for the Coach Supervisor and Coach

1.  Be informed about Narcissism – look for clusters of indicating behaviours

2.  Recognise and identify the possibility of narcissistic behaviour

3.  Help the coach to have the courage to clarify with coachee, the true motivations behind say, an insistent desire for success/achievement, in spite of the presence of considerable imbalance/dysfunction etc.

4.  Enable the coachee to acknowledge dissatisfaction in feelings, relationships etc.

5. Give the coachee some ‘cognitive holding’ – he needs to understand the simple psychological underpinnings of his behaviour.

6.  Give absolute support to realistic assessment of coachee’s abilities, resources, limits, vulnerabilities – be a true mirror, have a true coaching conversation.

7.  Support discovery and growth of the real person behind the title – eg through expression of innate gifts:  the CEO might allow herself to learn to sing, play the guitar, bath children and experience a very different kind of achievement.

8.  Access real feelings – eg those of fear, humiliation etc.  This may be the first time that a coachee can share in a true way, what is really going on inside. Being heard in a simple way, with compassion, can gradually bring the coachee into contact with real self and other.

9.  Encourage coachee to refuse to sacrifice feelings of well being in pursuit of compensatory activities.

10. Support the ability to ‘feel’, in whatever contexts this occurs. For instance, the boss might now begin to understand how his decisions hurt staff or are affecting members of the team – he begins to have systemic awareness – it’s not only cognitive; it requires the imaginative insight which is available only if we can access true feelings.

11. Support the coach to encourage the ‘real human being’ who needs genuine connection and endorsement.

12.  Encourage the coach to own up to his or her own imperfections with coachee– modelling.  The Coach Supervisor too, needs to model a truth in the relationship with their supervisee.

13.  Encourage the coachee to experience life bodily – get in a boat, dance again, climb a mountain, play with the kids/dog, go hang gliding, get magnificent massages.  The experience of body energy and pleasure counters much of the inner stiffness of the narcissist and helps to bring them into life.

14.  Teach and encourage the coachee to ‘self soothe’ – what activities brings peace, stability, quiet pleasure, deep satisfaction, healthy distraction from pressure? What enables the coachee to accept her lack of perfection and not continue the dynamic of unduly criticising herself`?


Coach Supervisors and Coaches

Coach Supervisors and Coaches need to know about Narcissism because there are certain types of coachee whose very drive for more/bigger/ better, is a symptom of unresolved Narcissism.   Mobilising our coachees towards change and achievement is, of course, exactly what coaches are required to do. When we are able to distinguish between the coachee who is healthily driving forwards and the one who is simply driven, we can avoid colluding with them in a way that can increase their inner stresses and keep them dysfunctional.  At times, this mild dysfunction can become dangerous – witness the Senior Executive whose home life and general well being are in significant disarray, and who nevertheless wants to push ahead with demanding goals. In this context, a coach might be looking at addictiveness, potential burnout, partnership problems and major symptoms of stress. As Coach Supervisors, we are sometimes under pressure from coaches who want to know – now – how to get such a coachee to reach their targets. A coach may not have explored with the coachee the roots of their driven behaviours and if this is so, it will be hard for the coach to take seriously the cost to the coachee of just keeping on, keeping on. The inevitable presence of parallel process may mean that the coach might be colluding in the coachee’s dilemma and even replicating it. Supervisors need to increase the coach’s understanding, to educate them about the key features of Narcissism and explore with them, how these features may be playing out in their coachee’s behaviour.


Further reading: 

Character Styles                  Stephen Johnson  1994

The Reflecting Glass          Lucy West and Mike Milan 2001

Psychological Dimensions of Executive Coaching

Peter Bluckert. 2006


Edna Murdoch 2012©