March 25, 2010

Therapy too expensive? Wait 'til you have a Midlife Crisis!

(I've no idea where this image was originally published. It's been sitting in my Clip Art file just waiting to be reposted and voila, today is the day.)

If you think therapy is too expensive when you’re younger, wait till you see what you do at midlife! Now THAT'S expensive. Untreated narcissism will cost you everything you worked for, saved for, and dreamed about because narcissism turns life upside-down at midlife. You will find yourself doing things you never could have imagined. Hurting people you may never forgive yourself for hurting. Tearing down walls that took years to build and hawking your principles and values for a blissful trip to LaLaLaNd. You will take thirty years of labor and spend it on a temporary escape from reality. Such a shame. Such a waste. Such a terrible legacy to leave your kids. Such a cruel thing to do to partners’ trust, not to mention demeaning their support through years of financial deprivation, believing retirement would be a sacred time to get to know one another as partners, not as two oxen yoked to the responsibility of providing for a family.

The misery and pain of ending a relationship that might have been salvaged with therapy, is devastating to everyone---including the person who resisted therapy because their hubris told them they could resolve their problems themselves. If there’s anything I’ve learned from 12-step, it’s this: Your head is a dangerous neighborhood to visit by yourself. You cannot fix the problems your head ‘thought’ you into creating in the first place.

It reminds me of an old joke about the truck driver who lost a ton of money after a year of making shipments and deliveries. He thought to himself, “Something has to change since one truck has proven to be unprofitable. Next year I’ll get two trucks.”

This is how it is with a narcissist who tries to fix his problems by meditating even more. Or reading self-help books incessantly. Or sitting alone, next to a stream and contemplating life, granting authority to his or her thoughts as the discerning filter to truth. If your thoughts are ‘distorted’ by paranoia, anxiety, distrust, fear and even self-loathing, the answers you’ll come up with will reflect your imbalanced perceptions of reality. And you won’t know it. Because your answers will appear to be the truth, undisputed as they remain by your unwillingness to consider viable refutation, or other people’s contradictory perceptions.

Even the very people, those who have proven trustworthy in the narcissist’s life, become adversaries when measurable facts contradict the narcissist’s 'truth'.

The first time my own mental health pushed me into therapy was back in 1989 when the Loma Prieta earthquake shook the ground of my being. Terrifying it was, as though my security in the world had been a preposterous illusion. I found myself acting in ways that were ego-dystonic (to use a psyche term meaning: my actions did not align with my values; I was uncomfortable with my behavior). When I woke up thinking about how much I hated my husband and my father and even my mom and subsequently taking my anger out on them and my children, I grabbed the telephone and called my HMO. I needed help and I knew it. Not that I wanted to admit my head was a bad neighborhood or anything of the sort because who appreciates knowing they can’t trust the way they’re thinking? Out of love for other people, out of concern for my impact on other people, out of admission that I was projecting blame on other people when “I” was the one having contemptible thoughts, I took advantage of the Loma Prieta earthquake to find out what was going on inside myself to cause such a ruckus in my life.

When you are hurting the people you love, feeling terrible about yourself, consider it a window of opportunity to understand your self and align feelings, thoughts, and behaviors with the person you believe yourself to be. If you’re not okay with busting other people’s chops because YOUR feet are shaking in your boots, consider yourself ‘normal’. It’s the people who are comfortable with contempt, disdain and aggression that will likely not see a problem blaming other people for making them ‘feel’ the way they do. The people who justify anti-social behavior by blaming other people are the ones who really need therapy but you see, they won’t take responsibility for themselves so they don’t go. It’s everyone else who’s the problem, not themselves. Psychologists call that being ego-syntonic. They are comfortable being assholes.

Now whether we put a co-dependent label on the importance I place on family and community, let’s just say my advice to ‘anonymous’ came from personal experience. The impetus to seeking therapy was not to serve myself (though in the end, that IS what happened); it was concern for my impact on people I loved---the people who did not deserve to be mistreated simply because my anxiety needed a reason to exist (or a place to go). My anxiety was my problem and whether my kids and my husband were acting like children or not, my anxiety about their behavior was my problem. So I took my problem to an objective psychologist to help me cope with it, digging all the way to China to find the root of my anxiety. And as expected, my parents sucked wind. Which was a huge wake-up call because I’m a mother and sucking wind is ego-dystonic. Once again, concern for my impact on my children kept me in therapy for a couple of years. See how it works? I did it for others but ended up benefiting myself.

When my son was having behavioral problems in France (show me an eight-year-old who wouldn’t), I took him to French psychologists while we lived overseas. To this day, he loves Madame Argeles for her knowledge, compassion and interest in helping him cope in a school that did not speak english. When my daughter was depressed as a teenager, I took her to a psychologist, too. Not that she kept going because in our household, any mama who paid attention to a kid in trouble, was an overly-concerned mama. A mama who, hummm…what was the pejorative label? O yes. An Overly Protective Mother. Back in the day, that was akin to being called "Unfit".

As long as Mom and Dad split on the efficacy of therapeutic intervention, a kid in trouble will take the easy way out and dismiss therapy as necessary because therapy hurts. It’s not like going to Lalaland. It's not fun. My daughter rues the day she left therapy to figure things out on her own and has since spent years recovering from the damage she did to her life in the pretense of not needing therapy. Pleasing her father by ignoring Mom’s advice, you see.

So when I write to someone like Anonymous, my perspective has a long-view, a reason to HOPE therapy can intervene before even ‘one’ untreated narcissist destroys people’s lives. Can narcissists be cured? Who knows? And besides, who knows if someone displaying narcissistic traits is actually NPD? Not even your local therapist knows for sure.

In my family, predisposition towards narcissistic behavior is common enough and treating narcissistic behavior has proven to have valuable results. If narcissism is nipped in the bud, that is. If it isn’t, if narcissistic traits flourish unabated, they rigidify over time, making it potentially impossible to change a narcissistic personality at midlife. Because our society has almost normalized narcissistic behavior, I am concerned people will dismiss the potential of narcissism to destroy their lives when they age. Unhealthy narcissism must be confronted, struggled with, challenged, viewed as destructive to not only the self, but others, too.

The Midlife Crisis may be the reification of unchallenged narcissism that could have been treated had it been taken seriously, not rationalized or dismissed as self-conceit or arrogance. Narcissistic traits are warning signs of that which is yet to manifest: complete and total isolation from other people. Who knows if treatment will cure narcissistic traits or prevent traits from becoming a narcissistic pathology at midlife? Does it matter? Maybe not to the person with the capacity to escape reality when life gets tough; but it certainly matters to those who are unwilling to accompany them to LaLaLaNd.

If you have narcissistic traits causing relational problems at home, at work, in your neighborhood, or your significant relationship, remember this: You cannot think your way out of problems your head got you into in the first place. Asking for help is an exercise in humility…a surrender of hubris. Asking for help drives a wedge in the concretization of destructive narcissism.

Even if you can’t solve the N-problem, manage it. Today. Like Now. Like don’t wait a moment longer.



Elsa Ronningstam, author of Understanding the Narcissistic Personality tells us there are two signs narcissism may not be ameliorated, even with treatment:
1) The inability to sustain long-term commitments; 2) The inability to tolerate criticism or disagreement


  1. Hi CZ,

    I am midlife and having a bit of a crisis, and thought you could shed some light on it for me. Once again, great article!

    In a previous article you spoke of your family around the dinner table, and it's now the norm, but it is normal for you, and filled with much. I believe that to be me also.

    Here is my mini crisis. I went to my older brother over 10 years ago, when my children were small, and asked him for support in ending my abusive marriage of 15 years. He is VERY catholic, and pretty much turned his back on me. I even brough him to the Family Violence Center to have a counselor talk to him. When we left he pretty much told me that he believed that I had made my bed, so I had to lie in it. It crushed me, and I pretty much had no support family wise, and did it on my own. My brother is 10 years older than we, and we have not had a close relationship. He told me once he continued to pray for my ex and I to get back together.

    Recently we have been in touch more because my mom has been sick. I decided to bring up the subject again via email, searching for maybe us to be closer, and he totally attacked me, saying that he believes marriage is for life, and that I should have stood up for myself more, and things wouldn't have turned out the way they did. Once again, he crushed my hopes of us being closer, but I've grown much and know that is hogwash. It angers me though that he is so close minded. I really don't know where to go with this relationship, but I don't think we can have a close one.

    Thank you for listening!


  2. “he pretty much told me that he believed that I had made my bed, so I had to lie in it. It crushed me, and I pretty much had no support family wise, and did it on my own.”

    Of course it crushed you! Being denied compassion from a family member is a secondary trauma, a re-victimization. It crushes the spirit to be invalidated that way. Your brother’s reluctance to empathize with you is ‘de-humanizing’, suggesting your role is more important than your soul. It’s like telling someone to stay inside a burning house because they signed up for the mortgage. (referring to my favorite metaphor about destructive relationships). Well, we didn’t buy a house-on-fire, did we?

    It’s easier to blame the victim than to empathize. Especially when someone is uncomfortable admitting that anyone can be victimized, even themselves. Recognizing human vulnerability is a tough thing to admit and people maintain an illusion of safety rather than question assumptions of a Just and Fair World where people get what they deserve. Meaning that as long as ‘they’ do the right things and follow the rules, they’ll be safe from unfair consequences.

    Well, life isn’t that simple. People are victimized. People are abused. People are taken advantage of, and terribly bad things happen to terribly good people. This is a tough realization for most people to accept because it triggers fear of vulnerability.

    If you need validation for what you’ve experienced, you may have to give up going to the bread store for a quart of milk. In other words, your brother cannot provide the compassion you seek. This is one reason why people who have been victimized find comfort talking to other victims. Not because we identify with the victim mentality but because we know something other people don’t: that life can be cruel and unfair. Another reason is because trauma survivors listen compassionately because we are not afraid of other people’s emotional distress.

    A lot of people cannot listen nor even entertain the thought that abusive marriages exist. So they shut down compassion and blame the victim rather than listening with their hearts.

    “It angers me though that he is so close minded. I really don't know where to go with this relationship, but I don't think we can have a close one.”

    Your anger may be telling you something---it may be telling you to protect yourself from your brother’s disrespect and his abject disregard for your hurtful experience. This may mean keeping your relationship cordial, like a Hallmark Card without any expectation or illusion of intimacy.

    Yea, you don’t like that he’s close-minded but he is. You’d like him to value YOU as a human being more than he values the institution of marriage, but he doesn’t. His close-mindedness is his close-mindedness---that’s his problem and too bad for him.

    Your problem is letting him ‘be’ the person he’s told you he is. The person he IS cannot give you what you want, nor what you need to build a safe and empathic relationship. So don’t have expectations that DEFY reality! That only makes you suffer until you accept reality. And reality is: he cannot, for whatever his reasons may be, identify with you the way you’d like him to.

    That doesn’t mean you can’t talk to the guy. It means he isn’t the brother you wish he were---at least he’s told you who he is without pretending he’s someone he isn’t. In a way, you can’t blame a person for being consistent.

    You know where he stands but your challenge, (at least from my limited understanding of your situation) is to accept his limitations and not allow his opinion to undermine your self-worth. You can validate yourself, just look what you did without family support! So don’t let him invalidate you now.

    I hope something I wrote will help you work through the grief and loss of the sibling-relationship that may never be what we wish it could be.

    Big hugs,

  3. You brought tears to my eyes, and helped me so much. What you wrote made so much sense. I'm proud of myself for finally knowing who I am, and what I deserve in relationships. Maybe someday one of his children or close friend may be in a situation that brings my situation to mind, and then it will hit closer to home.

    I know where he stands, knows that he loves me in the way that he can, and I won't lose any sleep like I used to, worrying that it was my fault. I'm way beyond that.

    You've now made it crystal clear, and I can move on. Life sure can be tough sometimes, but it helps so much to hold strong in who we are.

    Most sincerely,

  4. Hi,
    Nice post. I think everyone needs therapy. But I certainly need(ed) it, at least I recognize this. It has helped me. I did the same thing raising my son. He has very fond memories of the therapist we saw, lots of sandboxes and stuffed animals in his office.

    I also feel for "Anonymous" regarding her brother and you gave wonderful advice. I have a brother ten years older. Same deal as hers only his words have been much harsher.

    It's hard to stop wanting someone, like a ten year-older brother to love and support us. As far as him being faced with the same situation, well, mine actually is, as I write, but has not one inch more of empathy for me. Zilch.

    That well is dry but sure took me a long time to begin coming to terms with that.

    I like the image that you used. I wanted to share with you, if you are not already familiar with this, a fellow blogger's site. She creates what I would call, "Fine art Icons," that you might enjoy. She recently created a series about justice. But she also did some sweet Easter one's that looked like yours so thought you might enjoy taking a look. She is Leslie, at

    Hope you are having a nice day!

  5. "That well is dry but sure took me a long time to begin coming to terms with that." ~Dogkisses

    It is really hard to stop going to the well for a bucket of water, isn't it? We have to let people be who they are which frees us in a way, to be who we are.

    Once those illusions are out of the way, the relationship becomes much clearer and cleaner. You can actually get along with someone if you know their limitations and don't expect them to be anything other than the person they are.

    It might make you kinda sad about 'what could have been' but it's easier to live with sorrow than constant frustration. ha!

    I will check out Leslie's website. I have listed a neat blog by a woman who creates backgrounds and clip art for Google blogs. It will be my pleasure to list Leslie's site, too. Thank you!


  6. Hi CZ,

    Thank you so much for posting this article, I have searched the internet and while there is an abundance of material on victims , there is hardly anything on how to treat narcissistic qualities. Trust me a person who displays narcissism is suffering much more deep down. I'm 29 years old, and you could call what I've been going through nothing short of a midlife crisis. For all of my adulthood I have wandering from job to job, most ending of me either not showing up or being fired. I've always felt uneasy around people, like I was faking my personality and judging people. (To be fair we all judge people a little. I grew up with a huge sense of entitlement that did not phase me at all. I believe the way my parents raised me is how I developed the ego or sense of self. My dad displays some narc traits and was really rigid and disciplinary raising me. On the other hand my mom showered me with love, the Apple of her eye. I could do no wrong. She pulled me out of public school at a very young age and sent me to the best private schools. I developed this personality that I was better than people, a judgement. While visible friendly and happy go lucky on the outside but miserable, confused and searching for something on the inside. Tried really hard, working at a law firm making good money for a 20 something. I soon realized I might be the problem. My anxiety unbearable probably to keep of this false image I had constructed. It gives me hope because I don't think i am truely narcissistic but have displayed a lot of the qualities. And the fact that I've recognized it and have been in and out of therapy to try to change for most of my adulthood. I can't keep living like this but it is a miserable existence. Thanks for the support, good luck to all.


    1. Hello Dan! Thank you for leaving a comment!

      I know how deeply people with pathological narcissism suffer. It is what kept me close to my (ex) husband because I witnessed his suffering through the years. Many people have reported similar experiences with their narcissistic partners and most of those people, like myself, were eventually discarded (sad to say!)

      You mentioned that your father was rigid and mostly likely: authoritarian. I have read several times that authoritarian parenting leads to narcissism in children. So much for "spoil the rod and spare the child" rules, eh? Rigid, punitive and authoritarian parenting is not the best way to treat a child if we want that child to have a positive and healthy view of themselves. A positive, healthy and rosy view of oneself prevents the development of a narcissistic ego.

      And then it sounds like your mother was overly-permissive, treating you as if you were better than other people. The thing is: we are all special and should be the "apple of our parent's eyes." The problem isn't that parents see us as special; it's that children are taught they are better than others. It's the comparison thing that causes problems for a child who is consequently disconnected from others by being more special. Being special is a lonely feeling---as if you're the only petunia in the onion patch. This disconnection (superiority to others) fosters unhealthy narcissism.

      Recognizing your feelings and taking responsibility for them by getting therapy and learning about NPD is a very positive thing, Dan. You might be surprised by the numbers of narcissistic people who cannot take responsibility for themselves---their lack of insight is hard to imagine. As long as you are able to "see yourself" and tolerate the pain everyone experiences when they cut through their own bs and admit they've made mistakes, you'll make it. You'll make it to a healthier way of living even if you must white-knuckle your sadness and grief at times.

      What I know is that it's almost unbearable, admitting we aren't everything we expected ourselves to be. It's almost unbearable accepting being ordinary after having our egos fed on a diet of exceptionalism. BUT, if you can let yourself feel those negative and yes, painful feelings---you can make it out the other side where being ordinary is extraordinary!

      In a society that expects everyone to be exceptional and "special", it is extraordinary to fall in love with our ordinary selves; to be satisfied with doing what we could to make life better for others; to love others exactly as they are and stop expecting people (including ourselves) to leap tall buildings and solve world peace before meriting a crumb of compassion and/or love. Nothing has been as liberating for me as letting go of the impossible expectations placed on my shoulders at an early age. I wish the same freedom for you.



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