Jeremy Clyman Psy.D.

Reel Therapy

How I Met Your Mother: Curing Narcissism

The secret behind one of television's most complex characters

Posted Oct 15, 2009

Having become an annual shoe-in for an Emmy nomination, the television show "How I Met Your Mother" has entered its fifth season with a lot of steam. The clearest explanation for this is Barney, a side character who is central to the show's popularity. In the past few weeks an interesting shift has occurred in his character, and it offers up what President Obama calls "a teachable moment." Barney spends most of his time entertaining us with his boundless energy and effortless charm, and what is equally obvious but less addressed in the show is the fact that his admirable but exhausting proclivity to entertain stems from his management of a chronic mental illness - narcissistic personality disorder. In other words, all that energy and charm might seems to be the result of an adamant perhaps subconscious commitment to a grandiose public image and a relentless pursuit of the kind of bachelor fantasies that many men harbor but rarely prioritize. For four seasons his guarded, womanizing ways have been tolerated if not accepted by his friends, namely Ted, the exceedingly likable protagonist. Not anymore. Now that Barney has fallen head over hells for a friend, Robin, he wants intimacy. The "teachable moment" is the recent attempt to "cure" Barney. As Ted attempts to educate Barney about Robin and, more generally, the nature of commitment and intimacy he inadvertently plays therapist. The result is a recent episode that contains many insights about an effective means of treatment fo narcissism.

The episode in question (aired October 5th, I believe) begins with a predictable conflict. There is an interpersonal backlash in which the recently committed Barney begins to question the monogomous relationship. His anxiety about "real" commitment, a fear he is facing for the first time in his adult life, intensifies. We find out at the end of the episode that he feels this way because he's "very scared that Robin is going to dump him." Discussing how and why he yo-yo's from a knee-jerk withdrawal from intimacy to a guilt-ridden confession of insecurity offers insight into one of television's most complex character's. After all, few are as charming and capable, while at the same, as obnoxious and disturbed.

Barney displays many symptoms of narcissism, meaning, he acts like he loves himself way, way too much. Paradoxically, this tends to cover up deeper, truer emotions that are contradictory to this fascade. Deep down, he doesn't love himself enough. In fact, not to mind-read too much, but he probably thinks he's unlovable. Since we all need love and a sense of belonging to be happy if not functional the question becomes, what does one do when one thinks that others are going to easily and quickly turn off the love faucet? The answer: a desperate pursuit for the center of attention. If Barney can keep the attention of others aimed at him by being incessantly entertaining then he won't be punted out of the pack, left out in the cold to die (these core beliefs of self are received by a brain that is shaped by the nomadic concerns we evolved from). He needs constant attention because he doesn't have the sense of self to feel worthy on his own. Remember, he feels unlovable, which more precisely means he is incapable of loving himself. This gets complicated. For instance, what if the "others" that he so desperately depends upon for love and support reject him? To be alone is to be left with an unloved self - quite the scary thought. This makes the stakes for interpersonal love way too high for betting. This next part is going to sound weird but stay with me. Logically speaking, the best way to protect oneself from potential rejection is to ensure that an opportunity for rejection never develops. This is what a perfectly rational but emotionally cutoff person like Barney does, he keeps others at arms length so that no single person can get close enough to really know and/or hurt him. He accomplishes this self-sabotaging task by never showing his true "perceived as unlovable" self. After all, he's willing to bet any amount that upon presentation of genuine self he'll be abandoned by the pack faster than a cripple who won't shutup. But, if he presents a bigger, better "fake" version of himself that entertains with dazzling performances of wit and cleverness then he will surely keep the love a' flowing. People can fall in love with the "fake" self without hesitation but the real self, now that's a concern.

The problem with this, of course, is that the thing that other people actually want, the thing that will incite the love and adoration that Barney so dearly craves is authenticity, the very thing he refuses to provide. Think of narcissism as a disorder in authenticity. When the time comes for intimacy with Robin his defenses flare up. A lifetime of doing this over and over again has led to an emotional IQ that is in the tank. Barney knows his own emotions as well as a distant, fourth cousin, twice removed. Here, is where the "cure" begins to surface. Ted attempts to raise the level of his emotional management abilities by teaching him how to identify what emotion is currently being expressed, both in himself and others. As far as others are concerned, the window into emotions is the human face. The better you can read the flashes of facial motions, the better you can mind-read the emotional state. Ted shows Barney pictures of Robin's emotional states, specifically the facial expressions. Interestingly, this mirrors what is done in the most sophisticated research studies on emotional intelligence and empathy. Anyway, back to the show...

Getting better at this is more than possible given the fact that there are only a finite set of universal emotions that are represented by a handful of different facial expressions. Of note, Barney is hyper-scared of Robin's "angry" face, which, by the way involves the flared nostrils, widened eyes and furrowed brow that every person's "angry face" contains. Why is he so scared? Remember, the thing about what rejections means to a narcissist...

Another point of treatment comes from understanding the origins of narcissism. Where does Barney's unlovable schema come from considering that people are not born writing tragic self narratives? As it turns out, attachment is key. We all learn and develop our sense of self from our parents and other significant attachments in our lives. Our sense of who we are is made-up of the bits of knowledge we attain from receiving the reactions of our attachment figures in childhood. I know that's a mouthful. The love and approval of our parents is reflected back to us, and the communication they send to us about how awesome or horrible we are becomes internalized. Narcissism, logically, derives from the distinct absence of love and approval, and is highly prevalent in negligent and/or abusive households. In this light it does not surprise that Barney's father disappeared into thin air and his mother was too busy modeling self-absorption to be present and caring. During the Robin "lesson" Ted develops a professor routine that counteracts the failings of Barney's parents. He diplays everything from tough love to chearleading.

These two themes - emotional intelligence and positive mirroring - are important components to treating treating narcissism. Stay tuned to find out whether the show's hidden character, Barney's narcissism, lives or dies.

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