narcissistic fatherDuring a session yesterday, I was shocked when Jeff told me that his former pastor and friend was charging him for their “sessions,” calling to tell Jeff when he needed a session, and going so far as to ask Jeff to pay off his credit cards. It seemed unethical, and a betrayal of trust.

This got me thinking about relationship dynamics, and what happens when the person who’s supposed to be the one giving — in a kind of parental role, so to speak — becomes the needy (and exploitative) one. It stirred up thoughts about Jeff’s aged father who’s been calling him 10-20 times per day. It’s become clear to me that during Jeff’s childhood, his father was a highly anxious man who relied upon his children to help manage that anxiety. Jeff talks repeatedly about the pressure he felt growing up to become a lawyer as his father had wanted to do, and his feeling that he wouldn’t be loved if he didn’t do so. Yet Jeff always insists that he “for some reason” misinterpreted reality and came to the mistaken view that he wasn’t lovable.

Getting Jeff to question his parents, or think about them in a critical way, has been a challenge. Jeff insists he knows they love him unconditionally; he is a dutiful and devoted son. Whenever I suggest to him that his massive feelings of low self-worth, the inner feelings of shame and ugliness, must have their roots in his childhood, he agrees in theory but can’t seem to connect it to his experience. In in yesterday’s session, it felt as if we made some progress.

When we were discussing those feelings of self-hatred, and I once again pointed toward his childhood, he reiterated his belief that his parents love him unconditionally. I said, “Even if that’s true now, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they felt the same way about you back then.” I reminded him of his feeling that he wouldn’t be loved if he didn’t become a lawyer. “Maybe you didn’t just make that up. Maybe there was something accurate about what you perceived.”

“There must’ve been,” he said. Then he quickly added, “I feel guilty. I feel bad thinking like that about my parents.” Lightbulb moment. I put it together for him: as a child, he felt that he need to fulfill his father’s desire to have a son who would become a lawyer, regardless of what he, Jeff, wanted. Even now, in his own therapy session, he felt he had to protect his father, as if there wasn’t room for Jeff and his actual feelings. He seemed confused. He told me that none of the other therapists he’d seen had ever talked about these ideas to him before. He didn’t know what to make of them. “I feel guilty,” he repeated. We had to end on that note.

Afterwards, I was thinking about the way he always tells me how much he appreciates me. He is far and away the most grateful client I’ve ever known. I wonder if he feels that he has to make me feel good about myself, that his role in therapy is to bolster my ego rather than to get what he needs. Something we’ll have to explore.

Pastor photo available from Shutterstock