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How to Identify a Narcissist In Family or Couples Counseling

1 controlHow does a therapist identify a narcissist in therapy? They leave this to the narcissist. Narcissists self-identify.

They cannot help it. To an experienced therapist, a narcissist identifies themselves.

What if you’re not experienced, however? Or you’re a client in joint therapy as a partner or family member? How do you recognize them?  Here’s a list of behaviors to look for:

They come dictating the terms. They’ve labeled their partner as the main and only problem, and signal this to the therapist.

They expect things done “their” way, otherwise they threaten to quit therapy or leave their relationship.

They hoard therapy time, derail the focus of conversations, absorb the therapist’s energy on what’s wrong with their partner.

They refuse to cooperate with simple therapy processes if they are held accountable to change or own their role in healing the relationship.

They dismiss the views of others in the family when those views differ from their own.

They lack empathy for others, but mostly because they feel it’s beneath them, and associate this trait with those who are weak, for example, they may refuse to participate in empathy/active listening exercises when asked to reflect back the words and feelings another person expressed.

They try to get out of taking responsibility for their hurtful actions, and instantly dismiss any complaints as “against” them, unjustified, untrue, perhaps also complain that therapist is siding against them.

They interact with the therapist, as if it were a competition, for whose in control of the focus, and direction of therapy with regard to what the “real” issues are, etc. (It’s common for them to contact the therapist privately to provide a bullet list of ways their spouse “needs” to be fixed — either prior to the initial meeting or shortly thereafter.)

They come with rigid, predetermined ideas of “what’s happening” in the family — and what or whose to blame — and this view is designed to make them look good — and key others bad.

They display a “neediness” to be seen as ideal, never questioned, and expect others in the family to promote the “image” they have of themselves (“or else”).

They feel entitled to make their pain, disappointments, concerns, etc.,  the sole focus of therapy, and may retaliate, pout, act bored or display anger if others’ concerns get attention.

They feel “entitled” to preferential treatment in therapy, and expect the therapist to side with them and their case against their spouse or family member.

They feel it necessary to let the therapist know, directly or indirectly, if they’re pleased or displeased, a form of emotional manipulation of therapist to keep them on track, focused on their concerns.

They belittle or lash out or make excuses to get out of showing empathy or hearing another family member’s pain.

They use the “gas lighting” technique to redirect focus of discussion away from others’ complaints .. and casually treat or make others feel like they’re the “crazy” ones, to include lying, making up stories, accusing others of what they do.

They are dismissive or scornful of those who do not conform with their wishes, and attempt to discredit or dismiss their views, thoughts, perceptions, etc.

They feel entitled to not follow the same rules as other family members, and to make or break rules as they please.

They demand a lot and give little or no emotional support to others, and pretend they are autonomous, and don’t “need” a thing from others.

They expect loyalty and relentlessly seek proof of this — using a combination of rewards (i.e., money) and punishments (i.e., shaming, guilting) to keep their victims hooked.

They have little or no capacity to listen to or understand another’s pain even when they are the ones who have wronged or hurt the other, i.e., infidelity.

They exhibit temper tantrums or avoid situations, i.e., therapy, when things don’t go their way.

They demand everyone in family — to include therapist — stay focused on their pain, and satisfy their “neediness” to make their concerns the sole focus of everyone’s attention.

They feel entitled and think its okay to hurt others to keep them “in line” — and, refusing to acknowledge that they’ve hurt others, they act as if others should appreciate the favor.

They look for evidence of their “effectiveness” in intimidating or making others feel small, subservient and in agreement that they deserved any punitive or cruel treatment.

They expect others to feel honored by their presence or attention, however minimal or cruel.

Their goal is to prove their superiority in relation to others, make others feel insecure and inferior as a way of getting others to act subservient — and feel very insecure when this fails, which is when they may either attack, avoid or turn on the charm.

In short, they cannot help it. They take pleasure in exercising their power to disarm others, subvert their will, keep their attention captive, which is also what makes them their own worst enemy when it comes to relationships. 

With that said, overt narcissists are easier to identify, than covert ones. Overt narcissist are proud of their ability to openly bully and con others. In contrast, covert narcissists tend to avoid confrontation, and present as laid back, likable; they are skilled at setting their partner up to get angry, accuse them of being crazy, needing medications. In worst case scenarios, they work behind the scent to turn others, even the children, against their partner, making them appear as demanding, controlling, emasculating, and so on.

The biggest problem is their inability to feel or empathize with other’s pain, in particular, for those they’ve hurt. This is connected to their inability to feel and deal with (to self-soothe) their own pain, rooted in a limiting belief that has trained their brain and body to experience, thus, perceive pain overall as evidence of weakness, defect and inferiority.


How to Identify a Narcissist In Family or Couples Counseling

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2018). How to Identify a Narcissist In Family or Couples Counseling. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 23 Jul 2018
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