Americans are sometimes accused by other people of being self-indulgent, egocentric, and certain that whatever they do is right.
This portrait of national egotism isn’t borne out by the millions of dollars and thousands of hours that average citizens contributed to helping Southeast Asian tsunami victims, not to mention Hurricane Katrina refugees. On an individual level, though, we all know people who seem totally focused on themselves and are disconnected from the needs of others around them and society as a whole.
When you come across this “me” mentality in clients or their families, there may be ways to help these people broaden their perspective. Here are some ideas.
A workhorse who puts in 70- to 80-hour weeks, my longtime client has also been having an affair with his secretary. His fed-up wife has decided to divorce him and take the kids. My client is furious, and wants me to juggle his financial accounts to reduce the amount of alimony and child support she can receive. How can I help him reconsider this? Although you’re not a therapist, you may be able to help this self-centered client reflect on the situation he’s created for himself.
I would begin by letting him air his grievances about his wife and her decision. Once he’s calmed down, ask him some thought-provoking questions about the person he’d wish to be and the relationships he’d like to cultivate. For example, what kind of husband does he think he has been? What kind of father? How good a relationship does he have with his kids? How does this compare with the relationship he would like to have with them?
I would also ask if he is prepared to make a commitment to the other woman he is seeing. If so, does he intend to walk away from his children and their mother?
Once you know more about what he’s thinking and feeling, you may be able to advise him to do the right thing by those he once loved (and perhaps still loves), instead of reacting with fury and vindictiveness. Remind him that decisions prompted by hurt, anger, spite, fear, or any other intense emotion may feel satisfying in the moment, but are likely to create more problems in the longer term. If he behaves honorably toward his wife and children, he will build bridges that can serve him well later on.
Getting him to see this may take time and patience. If he prefers licking his “narcissistic wound” to listening to your advice, you may need to tell him outright that you are not comfortable helping him withhold support from his family. Learning that you do not condone his behavior could shock him into rethinking his attitude.
With more than enough money to support her luxurious lifestyle, my client spends lavishly on her own pleasures. Her divorced sister, who has health problems, has asked her for money to help raise her children. My client thinks it’s a bad idea to let her sister become dependent on her, but she wants my advice. How can I disagree with her without alienating her? I’d try to learn more about what’s behind your client’s thinking. Did she create her own wealth through hard work, or is it family money? What kind of relationship does she have with the sister and her children? Why is she worried about her sister depending on her? Is she concerned about having to deprive herself if she gives her sister money?
I would speculate that if your client has been living so much better than her sibling, she may fear opening up an awkward dialogue about her own lavish lifestyle. Perhaps she hopes that by refusing to give her any money, she will be able to stay walled off from her sister’s potential rebukes. You might suggest that acting more generously could defuse criticism, at least in part. See if you can steer the conversation to aspirations she may have to make a difference with her money–either in the wider world or, more narrowly, for her family.
If you listen non-judgmentally to her story and her needs, desires, and fears, she may feel comfortable enough to ask what you would do in her situation. Though giving or lending to family members is always rather risky, in some situations it’s a risk worth taking. If you truly feel that helping her sister is the right thing to do, I’d tell her so. Then suggest ways to set limits around her giving, so she can help her family without fearing that their expectations will turn into a bottomless pit.
My widowed client’s daughter has moved in with her after a futile job search. To pay this extra expense, my client has been spending more than her budget allows. Now her son, whom she has just put through college, has asked if he can move back too. She wants to build on another bathroom for him and pay for it out of her life insurance settlement, which is currently invested for her retirement. I’m not in favor of this, but she says she doesn’t want to be “selfish” with her money. How can I help her be more objective? It will be easier to avoid sounding like a heartless ogre if you have children of your own. Let your client know that you understand a parent’s instinctive desire to spare his or her children any pain, struggle, or deprivation.