Narcissistic Client – Narcissistic Coach: recognize them, refer them, avoid them! by Maria Biquet

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Narcissism is a topic that continually bubbles at the surface for Coaching, Psychotherapy and Leadership. If you do a quick search on the internet you’ll find millions and millions of articles and documentation on the subject.


 What this tells me:

  1. “Victims” of Narcissists are abound in personal and professional relationships.

  2. It is estimated that 1-3% of the general population[1]* have the disorder, mostly men who represent 50 – 75% of the total.

  3. According to the google search, it would seem to suggest that even within the coaching pool of written pieces that approximately 3.5% talk about narcissist coaching, and that reduces again by 50% to 1.8% of how coaches deal with narcissist leadership.

This is what led me to write this article, and discuss when we should refer a client who shows ‘consistent’ signs of narcissistic disorder to a psychiatrist and how to manage yourself as a coach in these situations.

The signs of Narcissistic disorder.

Most coaches have not been trained to ‘diagnose’ personality disorders, unless they have been educated to conduct an evaluation as a mental health specialist (psychiatrist and psychologists). This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t learn about them through self-study or other specialized trainings, to understand the symptoms of the disorder and know when to tactfully pass onto the right professionals.  

According to the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5),

"Many highly successful individuals display personality traits that might be considered narcissistic. Only when these traits are inflexible, maladaptive, and persisting and cause significant functional impairment or subjective distress do they constitute narcissistic personality disorder."

Not every person who shows slightly some of the behaviors has the disorder; some of the behaviors may be annoying to colleagues, partners and friends but they are not necessarily signs of the disorder. 

The DSM-5 indicates that persons with narcissistic personality disorders (NPD)usually display some  or all of the following symptoms against what’s considered to be a normal population of healthy individuals, typically without the commensurate qualities or accomplishments:

  • Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from other people

  • Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration

  • Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it

  •  Exaggerate achievements and talents

  • Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate

  • Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people

  • Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior

  • Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations

  • Take advantage of others to get what they want

  • Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others

  • Be envious of others and believe others envy them

  • Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful and pretentious

  • Insist on having the best of everything — for instance, the best car or office

To diagnose a person with the disorder the psychiatrist will take into consideration the symptoms, their frequency and their intensity in different contexts and relationships.

Due to the high-functionality associated with narcissism, some people may not view it as impairment in their lives.  Although overconfidence tends to make individuals with NPD ambitious, it does not necessarily lead to success and high achievement professionally. These individuals may be unwilling to compete or may refuse to take any risks in order to avoid appearing like a failure. In addition, their inability to tolerate setbacks, disagreements or criticism, along with lack of empathy, make it difficult for such individuals to work cooperatively with others or to maintain long-term professional relationships with superiors and colleagues.

When working or interacting with Narcissists, one of the behaviors I have recognized with this particular disorder is that they don’t connect. They very often know how to make you feel very appreciated as if you were the most important person in their lives and in the very next moment they abuse you in the most outrageous way; this is how they have learnt to emotionally manipulate their victim through confusion and misuse of trust. Their inability to ‘connect’ with their inner self, and needless to say with others, when they go through a crisis, it can be very challenging for them to  find the necessary resources to consider other ways of doing things that’s good for them and others around them.  

Help! My Coachee is a Narcissist! When to coach them

It is very rare that a Narcissist would embark on a coaching programme to improve their abilities; they are perfect; nobody is better than then, so who could ever be worth the honour to become their Coach?

However, there are some cases they would use your Coaching support to nurture their Narcissistic personality that craves for attention and special treatment.  Remember: especially those coaches who specialize in transformational coaching or prefer to coach beyond performance/skills, you will struggle to develop that sort of ‘intimate’ coaching relationship because they wouldn’t be able to connect deeply..

In most cases, clients just display a few of the narcissistic behaviors and do not have the disorder as described above; therefore we can manage them with some attention and coach them to their goals as we do with anybody else.

Remember: this category of people are coachable and above all can relate to others and connect at some level – they don’t have the disorder.

When to refer them to a psychiatrist

Signs and symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder and the severity of symptoms vary (please see above). At the same time, people with narcissistic personality disorder have trouble handling anything they perceive as criticism, and according to the Mayo clinic[2] and, they can:

  • Become impatient or angry when they don't receive special treatment

  • Have significant interpersonal problems and easily feel slighted

  • React with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior

  • Have difficulty regulating emotions and behavior

  • Experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change

  • Feel depressed and moody because they fall short of perfection

  • Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation

In such cases we need to consider the signs, confirm that you are observing these patterns of behavior and firmly managethe contract itself, and where possible, suggest them to work with a psychiatrist. Because as coaches, we don’t have the specialised skills or training to support them in the appropriate way.

Why me?

It may also happen that Narcissists pick you to be their Coach; for some reason you attract them and even like to work them. We have to admit that Narcissists are charming people and excel at manipulation; they always tell you what you want to hear; they treat you the way you should be treated in the coaching relationship and then they start abusing that relationship that can have a personal impact on how you normally operate as a professional.

If it happens to you often i.e. it becomes a recurring pattern that you attract Narcissists who at some stage start abusing you: for example by wasting your time or ignoring you during the conversation or turning aggressive when you ask a question or depreciate your work, then you must check with your own inner needs and self-image. For example. in personal relationships we may attract Narcissists because we lack in self-esteem, and transferring that to our professional work by attracting that category of clients may be an important signal about our inner need to become victims. So, if you attract them often, please check with yourself. You have the skills and knowledge to reflect and be self-aware; you can also discuss about it in Supervision and get support.      

Get rid of them and avoid them…

Although it is not easy to lose clients especially in financially difficult periods, we must be professionals and psychologically healthy. Ethically, this is also what needs to be done in order to ensure that the right, and suitable, professional properly handles the disorder. As coaches, we’re not. Sometimes we need to invite a mental health specialist into the coaching relationship to check our judgements before we decide on the best course of action and then share with the client. If it’s because we, the coach, are unable to work with the client because of our behaviours, we need to refer on. If it is because of the client, we need to refer on. And most importantly we need to maintain our balance to help the clients who need us and build healthy and productive relationships with us.


To connect with Maria Biquet

[1] : Wikipedia, Mayo Clinic, Getting Help by Jeffrey C. Wood* /Narcissistic_personality_disorder