When the Empath and Narcissist go to Counseling

Written by Amber Fuller, LMFT/Clinical Director/Owner of Fuller Living

I’ve hmmed and hawwed about this blog post now for a good three months. It’s an important topic and one that I’m passionate about. I wanted to be sure to articulate my thoughts and feelings in a way that is precise and effective. Please bare with me through the awkward parts.

I need to give the back story on this blog post. About four months ago I was talking to a couple of close friends of mine that are married. I’ve known them since we were little kids and since they were high school sweethearts I’ve gotten to see them grow up and they’ve let me in to the most intimate parts of their marriage. They asked if they could get coffee with me and talk to me about something that happened to them in counseling. I thought for a moment, “well, this sounds interesting” and responded, “Sure! I would love that”.

We sat down outside of a local coffee place about a week later. The husband says, “So, I know that you know me really well. I know I’ve talked to you about how I really struggle with acting narcissistic. Well, I started going to counseling for it”. I was relieved to hear this news. We’ll call him John. John grew up being incredibly pampered. From a very young age he was never taught how to take responsibility for his mistakes (and in fact was praised for his mistakes at times). He was given everything he wanted and it was obvious to his brothers and sisters that he was the favorite. His mom treated him like a baby and to this day his mom still treats him like he is a king. One thing that John has always struggled with is not thinking of others, not taking responsibility for his mistakes, and being incredibly fearful of failure. We will call her Betty. Betty has paid for this dearly. Betty grew up being overly responsible. Betty has more empathy than she knows what to do with at times. Betty is misunderstood by others because she’s more on the quiet side. Unfortunately, I’ve seen people misjudge her as being arrogant/snobby and she is literally the most humble person I know. I’ve also seen people misjudge her for being controlling because she’s very successful in her career (which will remain nameless for privacy’s sake). Betty takes charge in her work, but she shuts it all off when she gets home and desires desperately for John to lead and take control over situations. Now that you know a little about them I can tell you why they wanted to meet with me.

A few months ago Betty read a really great book about boundaries and narcissism and up went those incredibly necessary boundaries for Betty. She told John that she needed him to start to go to counseling to work on his narcissistic traits. John obliged. I’ve talked to John before about the way he acts and what I know is that he doesn’t like that he has these traits and wants desperately to rid himself of them (Which is rare for a narcissist and also something that I deeply appreciate about him). Betty and John were originally going to go to counseling together. Betty did some research and also reached out to me for referrals. She thought she got one and as this story continues you will find that she was deeply wrong about her choice.

Betty gave the therapist the back story:” John is such a charmer. I Want you to know Ms. Therapist that John is going to come in there and you’re going to fall in love with him. Everybody does. It’s happened to other therapists time and time again. John admits to struggling with these personality traits and he wants help. He needs help. I need him to get help. You see Ms. Therapist, John is quite the “F”eeler. The problem, however, is that his feelings are the only feelings that matter in the middle of a conflict. When I try to tell him my thoughts and feelings about something regarding him, he becomes very reactive and emotionally abusive. John gaslights, is sarcastic, deflects, and derails the conversation. Then he walks away after making this huge mess. Outside of conflict, Ms. Therapist, he is wonderful. I love him. He loves me. He needs your help though because this is painful. I’ve read the books I need to read and I’m doing the boundaries work that I need to do. You may also get confused by him because something that John struggles with is actually talking about his feelings. He has struggled with it since he was a child. I try to help him with this, but he still really struggles. His feelings come out sideways through him blowing up at me or self-destructing for days…So you can work with this Ms. Therapist? Great! We will see you next Wednesday”.

They went and met with her. Both together a couple of times and then John started going alone. Things started getting really really nasty at their home. Betty wondered, “what in the world is going on. John is in counseling and things are suppose to get better”. Betty called me a couple of times sobbing because their conflict cycles were getting so much worse and she didn’t understand why. John started blaming Betty for all of his behaviors and he grew cold towards her. During this time, I talked to John a couple of times. I noticed the difference in him. I couldn’t figure out why or what was going on. This is actually the reason they wanted to get together with me. They wanted to explain to me why he had been acting that way.

Apparently, while John was meeting with Ms. Therapist she was saying things like, “well, maybe Betty is the narcissistic one. Not you”, and, “It sounds like Betty has all the issues”. It felt off and weird to John, but he didn’t talk to Betty about it until things hit the fan. After explaining it to Betty and me everything made sense. Not only was this therapist not doing what she was asked to do, but she was fueling the fire and making it harder for John to change.

I share this story because I know Betty and John and I know for a fact that John can act incredibly narcissistic and Betty is quite the opposite. I also don’t have more loyalty toward one or the other. I share this story because I want people and therapists to know the importance of being responsible when they are working with a couple like John and Betty. This particular therapist stated that she was an expert at several things when in fact she almost destroyed the marriage of my friends. As a therapist, I know that it can be really difficult to weed through a marriage like John and Betty’s, but if they are RIGHT THERE TELLING YOU THE ISSUE, it’s not your job to challenge them on it, especially with something like narcissism. She gave John so much more fuel to his game. It is common to be confused while meeting with this kind of couple in your office. It’s common to think that the empath is the one with the problems, and if you’ve had enough experience with a couple like this, then you know it’s common and you’re incredibly cautious. You’re also CERTAINLY NOT making statements like
“well, maybe Betty is the narcissistic one. Not you”, and, “It sounds like Betty has all the issues”. It is innate for a narcissist to not take responsibility for their behavior so of course they are going to paint an inaccurate picture to the therapist. It’s so important to ask a ton of questions regarding THE FACTS, the WHO WHAT WHEN & WHERE, and not focus so much on the subjective and the WHY. I feel so terribly for Betty, well, for John as well. John was ready to change and the root of narcissism is insecurity and low self-esteem and that therapist stole the time from him that he could have been working on those things.

I guess my purpose in writing this is actually more for fellow colleagues and therapists. I just want to encourage them to be cautious and take the Betty’s at their word. They are a victim to emotional abuse and the Ms. Therapists of this world are continuing the cycle of abuse by accusing the victim of being the perpetrator, which, honestly, is so effed up. What Betty was going through was so effed up. I was able to find them a really really good referral and screened the next therapist before they ever met with him.

When I found out about this it bothered me…like really really really bothered me. I couldn’t shake it. We need to do better as therapists. We need to be better. We need to not make it our business to project our own biases onto people. Betty told me some things that Ms. Therapist did that made it SO obvious that the therapist felt threatened by Betty. Betty is literally one of the sweetest and kindest people I know, and not just to me, to everybody. We need to act responsibly. A professor of mine said it best, “Being a therapist is just as dangerous as being a surgeon. We are standing over the operating table with the knife ready to cut the person open and explore everything. With that knife we have the power to destroy or provide life”…be a life giver not a soul killer.

John and Betty wanted me to know their story so I could bring awareness to others. Be careful out there, it’s a wild world we live in!

If you are in a relationship similar to John and Betty, and you want help, we at Fuller Living are your people. We would love to help. Whether you are John or Betty, we would love to journey with you through your healing process. It would be an honor.