Always You

I have a theory. It’s that we are pretty much who we’re going to be at an early age. That’s not to say that life experiences don’t change us, or that we can’t undertake change on our own. Stuff happens, our perspectives shift and we change.

But if you’re born left-handed, you’re probably going to stay left-handed for life.

The Internet is an unparalleled way to reconnect. I got this in my in-box:

“I don’t know if you remember me from elementary [school], but I’ll never forget you. I remember nervously walking into the school for the first time after I moved there at the beginning of the 3rd grade. Mrs. W (who scared me to death!) was showing me where the classroom was located — it was early and hardly any kids had arrived yet. You walked up to me from the other end of the hall and struck up a conversation, and made me feel like I wasn’t an outsider. I don’t know if I ever thanked you, but I always appreciated that. You made my transition to a new school much easier.”

I have to tell you, this email rocked me. Families tell stories of our youth, but they usually involve — in my case — where I made a complete and total fool of myself by saying or doing something incredibly dopey.

To hear a tale of my past, from an outside, objective observer is like watching a documentary of my life. No spin, no role-playing — just a glimpse of who I was in third grade. Priceless.

And know what? I don’t remember the woman who wrote me (I do remember the evil and wicked Mrs. W, our teacher. Still get the shivers mentioning her name). But a year or so after the incident my correspondent described, my family moved two thousand miles away and I haven’t been back to that little town since. So in writing me she had no relationship to mend, heal or promote — she just had an open, grateful heart and a place to share. What a gift to me.

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently working with clients — and myself — on discovering strengths. I ask questions like: What do you do best? What do you really like? How can you play to your strengths? Because when you play to your strengths, whatever you do feels…easy. Not at all like work. Even, dare I say, fun?

Can you imagine what life would be like if you played to the inherent strengths you’ve had your whole life? Since you were in, oh, third grade? How effortless would that be?

So, what parts of your childhood personality remain? Who were you then — and who are you now? Understanding who you were — to others, to yourself — can illuminate and inspire your life today. Turn the light on, and uncover your own, innate, wonderful strengths. Then put those natural strengths to use, and craft a meaningful, purpose-filled… easy life.

The Wizard of Oz & Other Narcissists

Ever had a relationship with Dr. Jekyll? Or was that Mr. Hyde? Whether it’s your boss, your brother or your spouse, if you think you could be dealing with a narcissist you need to read The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Familyby Eleanor Payson. Ellie was kind enough to answer some questions for me — hopefully, you’ll have an “Aha!” moment and know what to do:

How do you define narcissism to someone when they ask you “Hey, Ellie, I heard you wrote a book? What’s it about?”

When people use the word narcissist, or narcissistic in the informal context he/she may simply be referring to someone who is behaving selfishly or is self-absorbed in a given circumstance. On the other hand, in a more pathological sense narcissism references a pervasive preoccupation with self that is out of balance with a healthy give and take in his/her relationships. I should qualify here that this is particularly true of those inner circle relationships such as a significant other, close friends, or family members. In essence pathological degrees of narcissism reflect a disturbance that distorts a person’s relationship between “self and other.” The narcissistic individual is someone who has an undeveloped self, an immature “I,” and is compensating by striving to prop up a grandiose “me” (the false self of the narcissist.) In other words, his/her preoccupation with maintaining a grandiose me distorts and overrides an ability to give genuine consideration and regard for other(s).

When we think of the resources that are called narcissistic supplies we can begin to get a handle on what this means. Narcissistic supplies are those exchanges between people that foster the well being of each person in a relationship – well being that comes from knowing that we are individuals of value, special and important just because we breathe, just because we exist. A person with a healthy self is able to exchange an unconditional regard (verbally and nonverbally) in his/her relationships. This presence of unconditional regard may be seen in the admiring gleam in our eyes, a spoken appreciation, an effortful listening that seeks to understand and empathize, a willingness to hold ourselves accountable for injuries we may have caused, and so on. Someone who is narcissistically defended inevitably requires many more “strokes” of affirmation, recognition, efforts at understanding, support, etc., than they are able to give. In fact, there is a kind of obliviousness to the recognition of these exchanges in the unconditional sense. This is because the narcissistic individual is externally focused on conditional realities for maintaining the grandiose me such as; how much power and status one has, how beautiful or handsome one is, how effective in his/her career one is, etc. These external realities become the source of pseudo affirmation, and the narcissist is inevitably desperately attached to the maintenance of these external realities for self-worth. The individual with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) can barely acknowledge what is meant by unconditional regard of self and other. Consequently, the narcissist requires an endless supply of affirmation to keep his/her false, or substitute self, intact. Ironically, the narcissist is unable to make use of unconditional affirmation as true nourishment and similarly unable to give it.

How does a narcissist tip his hand? How do you know he’s a narcissist and not just a jerk?

Often the slang expressions of “jerk,” and perhaps more colorful terms, do seem to be the layperson’s language for describing narcissistic traits in a person. However, once we have “vented our spleen” we may want to take a deeper look at the person and our relationship so that we can act wisely and at times with the imperative for self-preservation. We may discover that there is more healthy substance to the person than we thought, or perhaps the opposite. The surface presentation of a person can appear to have any quality – from “jerk” to “charmer” to “sophisticate, intellectual, drama queen/king, officious professional,” etc. It is what exists under the surface (or perhaps more to the point – what does not exist under the surface) that we want to recognize. Developing discernment in taking the full measure of a person and the full measure of ourselves is what we must learn if we want to have more fulfilling and mature relationships. The misleading facade of individuals with personality disorders is the danger to be on the lookout for, and we can be tantalizingly tempted to forego the effortful discovery process. If we miss the presence of a deeper disturbance such as the narcissistic personality disorder in a person, we may end up struggling for our very psychological, financial, or even physical survival.

A few of the clues that I cite in my book are:
– Requires attention, admiration, special consideration, recognition
– Demonstrates a grandiose sense of entitlement
– Manipulates and pursues his/her agenda (often relentlessly, tenaciously)
– Criticizes self and others
– Holds unrealistic expectations of self and others, alongside an over-estimation of self and his/her needs
– Demonstrates an all or nothing approach to life — win/lose

Limited ability to:
– Fulfill mutually held “understandings.” Agreements seem to morph over time with creative “revisionist” ability
– Self-reflect and take ownership of a problem
– Tolerate anything perceived as criticism, or oversight
– Feel genuine or deep empathy for others
– Recognize the needs of others (except superficially)
– Recognize others as independent agents (separate selves)

These deeper limitations and disturbing defenses are inevitably camouflaged by the façade of some impressive or competent surface presentation mentioned earlier. The greatest danger here is that the outer demeanor often has a powerful aura of seduction emanating from a personality that projects the promise of larger than life charm, power, competence, originality, etc. The potency of this seduction is often so captivating that we can be induced into a kind of suspension of belief where our critical faculties for noticing distortions and inconsistencies are switched off. This is the crossroads, so to speak, of our own codependent tendencies that are necessary to heal if we really expect to steer clear of these dangerous relationships, or navigate them safely.

So, is narcissism treatable with therapy or drugs?

As far as the neurobiological issues that are involved, this is in many ways unchartered territory. However, I am always skeptical of individuals or approaches that lay claim to having all the answers from either the neurobiological side or the psychological side. In truth, we are a complex mix of both. Many individuals with a mental illness or a mental disorder will have what are called co-morbid issues, such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, that are in need of evaluation and treatment. Once we achieve relief from one or more of these conditions (sometimes through effective psychotropic medications) we stand a much better chance to develop a more effective self-observing ego that can allow greater possibilities for growth and change. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder almost without doubt have any number of co- morbid issues that once treated would allow him/her to function more appropriately.

What should someone who’s in a relationship with a narcissist do?

The first thing to do is reach out and get help and not stop until you feel that you have found someone who can validate and understand what you are going through. If the therapist is overly anxious and quick to dismiss the possibility that you are involved with someone with severe narcissism or perhaps full blown NPD then move on until you find a therapist who can appreciate the illusive nature of recognizing the realities of the problem. Then, second, commit to therapy to deal with your own issues (codependency, or a mix of narcissistic and codependency issues, etc.) and stay in the healing process as you utilize all the normal tools of therapy including books that can help with insight and empowerment. In therapy we need to be willing to work through our own blind spots, our shadow self as Carl Jung would call it. This is the only way out of our tendency to idealize which is often unconscious and compulsive. If there is any way of finding a support group or forming one, this is another invaluable tool.

Learning some immediate tools for asserting boundaries to create safety in these relationships is a must, and for this I believe, Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day by Anne Katherine is a must read. Since my book came out, I discovered books that I wish I had listed in my bibliography such as The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize it and How to Respond by Patricia Evans, and other books that have been published recently. offers excellent reviews for selecting these. On the home stretch of the healing process, coaching can be an invaluable tool for maintaining self-care and goals that lead to empowerment. Working with a coach like yourself, Michele, who is familiar with the depth of the issues and the importance for ongoing healing work is a true bonus.

Thanks for the plug, Ellie. To find out more about Eleanor Payson and her work, go to

How To Like What You Do

Susan’s complaining about her job. Oh, no, she likes her work — she’s just not crazy about the people she’s working with. She’s in a high-pressure, high-performance field where you “eat what you kill” — in other words, she’s paid a percentage of the contracts she closes.

The more we talk, it’s apparent that Susan’s frustrated because no one in the office is interested in working on projects with anyone else. No one refers Susan clients. No one comes to the parties she throws. People poach each other’s support staff. She’s never worked in a place like this and she’s thinking about leaving.

I recommended Susan take the Myers-Briggs assessment. “But that’s just for teams!” she blurted. “What can it do for an individual?” [note blatant set up here, which neatly introduces the subject I really want to write about!]

Back in the early 1920s, Katharine Cook Briggs discovered the work of pioneering psychologist Carl Jung. Katharine had been doing her own independent research on personality — hoping to devise a tool to identify personality differences so that people could understand themselves and others — and in Jung’s theories found a workable personality type framework.

Katharine, the daughter of a college professor, had been home-schooled, so she home-schooled her own daughter, Isabel, in the same manner. In time, Isabel Briggs Myers — armed with just a bachelor’s degree, her mother’s insights and her own determined curiosity — developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

I love the idea that a mother and her daughter, working together, developed such a useful and insightful tool. They encountered resistance from the academic community who scoffed at their indicator — they had no training, no credentials! Who did these women think they were?!

Katharine and Isabel, mother and daughter, weathered that storm. Eighty-some years after Katharine began her research, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is the the most widely used personality assessment in the world.

You may have taken the MBTI at some point — and found your personality type represented by four letters, E or I, S or N, T or F, P or J. Sound at all familiar? There are sixteen possible combinations. You have a preference for either Extroversion or Introversion. You either Sense or Intuit. You Think or you Feel. You Perceive or you Judge.

“But,” you say with a tiny whimper, “I am both Extroverted and Introverted. It depends on the situation.” You are absolutely right. Jung theorized that, at our best, we know when it’s appropriate to be Introverted and Extroverted, to Sense or to Intuit, and so on. The MBTI gets to what our innate preference is, regardless of which we may use in a particular situation.

Let’s try an example of preference. Cross your arms across your chest. Note which arm is on top. Now, switch your arms so that the top arm is on the bottom. How’s that feel? Awkward? Bet so. You have a marked preference for how you cross your arms, just as you have marked preferences for the way you see the world.

Neat, huh?

People with particular preferences tend to cluster in the same kind of field. Studies have shown, for instance, that people who choose the military have similar personality types — hierarchical, traditional, practical — and that makes sense, doesn’t it? Similarly, people in the nursing field tend to have similar personality characteristics — concerned with people, empathetic, open to solutions. Each type brings its own strengths and shortcomings, which naturally lend themselves to success or difficulty in particular fields.

After she took the Myers-Briggs assessment, I pointed out to Susan that one of the main problems might be that her type (ESFJ) has a strong preference for belonging. It’s important that she feel part of a team, that she work in a hierarchy with known roles and an objective system for promotion. That means she might not fit in with an organization that values and rewards autonomous lone wolves. To be happier in her career, she can 1) bring more belongingness into her current workplace, or 2) find a workplace that fosters belonging.

Her eyes opened with understanding, and her path forward became a little clearer. And that’s what Myers-Briggs is all about. Understanding yourself, and understanding those around you, so that you can be more effective and clear. Sure, MBTI is great for teams — and [shameless self-plug warning] I’m happy to come into your workplace to deliver a knockout program that will help your team become more efficient, communicate better, solve interpersonal problems and retain employees — but simply knowing and understanding your own personality type, and how it shapes your joys and your struggles, can be an eye-opening experience.