Lessons from Esther Perel: The Impact of Presence and Narcissism in Relationships

About a month ago I got a chance to learn from one of the greats: Esther Perel.

About a month ago I had the good fortune to see Esther Perel live in Washington, DC.  It was a great evening mixed with her talking and answering questions.  A lot of it was her standard stuff that she talks about in her TED talks, podcasts, books and interviews.  However, there were two moments in the 90 minute presentation that stopped me in my tracks.

Lack of Presence is Painful

She showed us the following the video:

It’s very difficult to watch.  You just want to relieve the baby and let her know she’s ok through mirroring and affirmations. When it was over, Esther asked, “It’s really hard to watch, isn’t it?”  Then she highlighted how the baby did all of the things that previously delighted the mother to try to get her attention and when it didn’t work, the baby despaired and began to really cry.  

Here comes the gut punch:

Esther explained that when we get lost in our phones (or whatever) and are not fully present in the moment while our loved ones are trying to connect with us, our partners are feeling the same things that baby felt when the mother held a still face.  Our partners will also try to do all sorts of things to get our attention. And finally, they will collapse into despair.  So, if it’s so hard to watch a baby go through it, why do we do it to our partners?  She then took it a step further to point out how our partner’s despair after all the attention seeking behavior annoys us and we become irritated with them.  Imagine the mother then reengaging with the baby, but only to express irritation and disdain for their attention seeking.

Is He The Narcissist or Are You?

The next moment that stopped me in my tracks also stopped the whole theater in its tracks.  It was Q&A time.  Esther took all of the questions before answering any of them.  Then, she went through the questions with lightning speed, dropping lots of knowledge in the way that only she can do. One woman asked a question about her narcissistic boyfriend and her confusion about if he’s just a jerk or if it’s proper narcissism.  Without skipping a beat, Esther said, “The real problem here is that your narcissism is clashing with his narcissism.”  The whole theater gasped and went silent.  She continued to say, “You probably thought you’d be the one he’d change for. That’s your narcissism.  You’re not that powerful. Be in the relationship or leave. Stop complaining about it.”

In the therapy world, that’s a proper mic drop moment. Whoa.  But she’s 100% right. 

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