If you are dealing with a lover, family member or close friend who is a narcissist, you may have held out a glimmer of hope that they could improve over time–become less manipulative, self-serving, toxic. But are your hopes misplaced? We crowdsourced this question to a panel of professionals. Read on to learn what they had to say.
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Incredibly difficult and rare
Whilst it is possible for a narcissist to change, it’s incredibly difficult and rare. Narcissists with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) have learned most of their dysfunctional behaviours from a young age. And they’re ingrained into that person’s personality. Hence the “disordered” personality. To reverse this takes many years of hard work and therapy.
A major problem with this is that the vast majority of narcissists don’t seek help. This is because they believe they’re perfect the way they are. It’s in the nature of narcissists to believe they’re flawless. Narcissists usually harbour delusions of superiority and perfection. So seeking help challenges their delusions. And narcissists usually fight tooth and nail to maintain them.
And even when a narcissist does seek therapy, it’s usually short-lived. Narcissists find it difficult to go through their past and self-reflect. They’re usually frightened of what they might find because they don’t want to feel anything less than perfect. And they certainly don’t want to relive situations where they felt powerless. Narcissists would rather bury these memories away and kid themselves as to how great they are.
Narcissists are highly sensitive people, and often interpret things discussed in therapy as criticism. It’s really common for the therapeutic relationship to break down when the narcissist takes offense to something said or done (or not done). And often the narcissist leaves in a huff, never to return.
So whilst it is possible for narcissists to change, it’s very difficult. It requires a lot of intense therapy for many years. But there are so many obstacles in the way, that it rarely happens.
If they are willing to put an effort
Yes, absolutely narcissists can change. But they must want to change and be willing to put in the effort to learn new skills and practice new behaviors. That is the hard part.
What makes change so hard is that narcissism is characterized by arrogance, self-admiration, and entitlement–traits that make one unlikely to want to change themselves. And the underlying causes for narcissism—like shame or fear of failure—only compound the difficulty of addressing the root of the problem.
The good news is that if a narcissist is committed to change, then there are actionable steps that help. Like with any other automatic coping mechanism or habit, narcissists can “re-wire” their brains so that more helpful strategies and habits replace old ones. It just takes conscious practice over time.
Some evidence-backed ways to reduce narcissism include increasing self-awareness of what triggers unhelpful narcissistic behavior (e.g., ego threats), deciding in advance on helpful ways to respond to ego threats such as breathing exercises or leaving the situation and practicing perspective-taking to better understand and empathize with others.
And one of my favorite tips is to practice self-compassion and self-care. This is important because narcissism often stems from fear of failure or shame, and narcissists seek constant external praise to support their ironically fragile egos. Learning to be kind to oneself is thus a much more adaptive and reliable way to build self-esteem. Some ways to practice self-compassion and self-care include:
- Acknowledge that everything and everyone (even you) is flawed but still valuable
- Each night, write down one thing you did well that day and one thing you will work on tomorrow
- Schedule regular time to “look outside” of yourself and enrich your life in ways unrelated to your ego. This could be spending time in nature, volunteering, or reading fiction.
A therapist can help identify what triggers their unhelpful behaviors and develop new strategies. But even without a therapist, narcissists can benefit from setting aside time to think about their triggers and write down specific solutions. I recommend trying one new skill or solution each week and practicing each one over at least a month. That gives the new strategies time to develop into habits that last a lifetime.
Elizabeth Gilbert, PhD
Dr. Rick Patterson
Thankful to be a recovering narcissist.
I suppose to the untrained this may sound like a joke – especially given the popularity of the subject of narcissism over the past few years – but it’s no joke.
T.S. Eliot warned us about the power of narcissism when he wrote this:
Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm– but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves. T. S. Eliot, The CocktailParty, (1974), p. 111
I didn’t realize the extent of the harm that narcissism can generate in this world and to those around me until I began to see the effects for myself. Granted, the process started quite a while ago when I took a break from corporate America to go into professional ministry and raise a sibling group of African American kids my wife and I adopted.
When educated, employed white folks reach out to their community like that, we are heralded as heroes – saviors. We are the “wealthy” and “they” are the “needy.” We are the “haves” and they are the “have-nots.” Not only is this a racist stereotype, but points to the savior complex that can be embodied in interracial adoption specifically, but in the hearts and souls of so many of us in general.
For some reason, I was allowed to become aware of my narcissism – mostly because I became aware that the welfare of my family required it. This is the part that is truly miraculous and life-changing. Many, if not most, narcissists will live their entire lives unaware of one or the other or both. I was given what seems to be a rare combination of awareness and desire that has allowed me to rescue myself from this silent killer.
I don’t call it a “killer” lightly either – nor do I say it as some kind of cliché. Narcissism is a death sentence. It’s a frequently incurable condition rooted not in self-love but in shame and self-hatred that requires frequent and repeated soothing at the expense of the well-being of others that purges you of any opportunity to have meaningful relationships with other people or yourself.
That is not life. That is not living. It is death.
Loosely translated, the Bible says it this way: you must die to self to truly live. That “death to self” is an ongoing, long, and painful path of re-learning what matters and re-learning what it means to live. The depression and suffering involved with resisting your narcissism to live a life of meaning and purpose can’t be underestimated but, as the Bible also says, it’s a cross that must be carried if we want to live a life of meaning and purpose.
I am thankful I was given a rare opportunity to become aware of and do battle with this hidden and fatal condition and am hopeful that I will come out the other side having truly lived.
They can absolutely appear to make changes
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a cluster B personality disorder characterized by many harmful traits, but specifically the inability to be introspective and recognize where their actions are harmful to others. Instead, they justify their unyielding persistence to abuse others with the guise of protecting themselves as victims.
They can absolutely appear to make changes, however, this is a start to a short-lived bout of great acting. They have studied their victims and are very calculated when they want to appear to give their victims exactly what they need to stay.
This is often long enough for the victim to let their guard down, then the narcissist will return to devaluing/abusing.
It’s much like being on a rollercoaster that doesn’t stop. Once the victim realizes the highs come at the expense of the lows, the only way for it to stop is to get off and walk away.
Stephanie Wijkstrom, MS, LPC, NCC
Heal their inner wound with self-love
It is possible for narcissists to change, though the degree of change and ability to be self-aware is centered upon the narcissistic person’s degree of insight into their own behavior. Narcissists, due to their inner wound, use a lot of projection and gaslighting in their interpersonal relationships to protect against the shame that they will feel if they acknowledge their true self.
If the narcissist is able to work through the layers of their consciousness and heal their inner wound with self-love, they will likely be able to move toward a more reciprocal love for others. True narcissists will maintain an endless focus on themselves, but they can learn to also, at times, tune into others in supportive ways.
It takes time and dedication
If you or anyone you know is a narcissist that’s willing or hoping to change, then it’s best to seek help from therapists who specialize in treating narcissism and NPD. Though therapy is indeed a slow process, the improvements that one gains after are very much worth it. One just needs to remember that healing is not linear and it takes time and dedication.
This is a crowdsourced article. Contributors are not necessarily affiliated with this website and their statements do not necessarily reflect the opinion of this website, other people, businesses, or other contributors.