Will Narcissists Ever Change?
Anyone who has ever carried out research to work out whether somebody in their life is a narcissist will probably have seen articles that suggest all narcissists are evil and will never change. However, such assumptions don’t take into account the complexity of narcissism. Everybody can change. However, many narcissists simply lack any desire to change.
Narcissists often fantasize and display grandiose behavior. They are arrogant and have low empathy, needing to be admired at all times. They feel entitled and are attention seekers. Yet, while these traits are usually very entrenched in their personality, they aren’t necessarily permanent. There is some evidence to suggest that narcissistic tendencies decrease naturally with age.
However, if you don’t want to wait for nature to run its course, it’s important to know whether it’s possible for the narcissist in your life to change now if they can find the right course of action to take.
What Is Narcissism?
We tend to use the word “narcissist” too much in the modern world. Usually, it’s used to refer to somebody who is full of themselves or vain. However, when we’re talking in terms of psychology, narcissism isn’t about self-love. Rather, narcissists have fallen in love with their own grandiose, idealized view of themselves. They love that inflated self-image because it helps them to avoid their own deep insecurities. Yet, maintaining those delusions of grandeur is a lot of hard work, so dysfunctional behaviors and attitudes are the result.
Narcissists display patterns of arrogant and self-centered behavior and thinking, with a lack of consideration and empathy for others. They are often described as being manipulative, cocky, patronizing, demanding and selfish, and their way of behaving and thinking impacts on all areas of their life, from their friendships to their work, and from their family to their romantic relationships.
Narcissists are also very resistant to making behavior changes, even if they’re experiencing problems. They usually prefer to blame others. Even worse, they are very sensitive, reacting badly to even slight disagreements, criticisms and perceived slights that they view as a personal attack.
Anyone in a narcissist’s life is usually keen to go with their demands so they can avoid the rages and coldness that ensue. However, if you learn more about this personality disorder it becomes easier to spot a narcissist and to protect yourself by establishing healthy boundaries.
What Are The Signs Of A Narcissist?
There are a number of signs that indicate someone in your life is a narcissist. These include:
- A sense of extreme self-importance – grandiosity is one of the hallmarks of a narcissist. Narcissists aren’t just vain or arrogant, they have an unrealistic sense of their own superiority. They believe they’re special or unique and can be understood only by other people who are special. They believe they’re too good for anything ordinary or average and only want to be associated with places, things and people of high-status. Narcissists believe they’re much better than other people and want to be recognized as such, even if they haven’t earned such praise. They often lie or exaggerate their talents and achievements, and when they’re discussing relationships or work, they only speak about how successful they are and how lucky others are to have them in their lives.
- Living in a world of fantasy – because the real world cannot support a narcissist’s grandiose self-view, they live in a world of fantasy that is propped up by magical thinking, self-deception and distortion. They create fantasies that glorify themselves as someone who is powerful, attractive, brilliant and successful to make themselves feel in control and special. Those fantasies help to keep them from feeling shame and inner emptiness. Therefore, any opinion or fact that contradicts them will be either ignored or rationalized. Anything threatening to burst that fantasy bubble will be met with rage and defensiveness, so those in the narcissist’s life will learn how to tiptoe around them and their denial of the real world.
- A constant need for admiration and praise – narcissists have a sense of superiority that needs to constantly be kept inflated. Occasional compliments aren’t enough. Narcissists must feed their ego on an ongoing basis, and so they choose to surround themselves with those who will cater to that obsessive need for affirmation. This makes their relationships one-sided, being only about what those people could do to help the narcissist rather than the other way about. When the admirer fails to show enough praise and attention, the narcissist sees it as a severe betrayal.
- A sense of entitlement – since they believe they’re special, narcissists think they should be treated favorably. They believe whatever they want should be theirs, and that those around them should comply automatically with their whims and wishes. If those around them can’t anticipate each need and meet it unwaveringly, they become useless, and should they ask for anything in return, they are faced with outrage and aggression.
- Exploiting other people with no shame or guilt – narcissists can’t identify with others’ feelings or put themselves in others’ shoes. They have no empathy. People in their lives are often viewed as objects that are necessary for serving their needs. They have no qualms about take advantage of other people to achieve their own goals. While sometimes the exploitation is malicious, quite often it’s just oblivious. A narcissist doesn’t think about the ways in which their behavior impacts on others. They just understand their own wants and needs.
- Frequently demeaning, intimidating, belittling or bullying others – narcissists are threatened if they meet somebody who has something that they lack. They especially feel threatened around people who are popular and confident as well as those who challenge them or don’t kowtow. They immediately show contempt as their defense mechanism – they have to put others down to prop their own ego up. Sometimes, this will take the form of dismissive or patronizing behavior, while other times it may take the form of bullying, threatening or name-calling.
Being Ready For Change
It is possible for narcissists to change, but they need to be ready to put in the effort. So, how do you know if the narcissist in your life would be open to the idea of changing? There isn’t one answer for everyone, although some of the things to look out for include:
- Acknowledging others’ feelings – some narcissists develop more empathy if they’re motivated. Usually, this happens if they consider the experiences of those who value them, or take on the perspective of someone wo seems to be similar to them. If they can show some concern or affection for certain people, they could be ready to undertake therapy.
- Interest in their own behavior – if a narcissist is wondering why they’re acting in the way that they do, they could be ready to undertake therapy. This may happen after reading a book or article about narcissism, or if their tendencies that way are pointed out to them.
- Willing to self-reflect – narcissists often find self-reflection challenging since it damages their perfect protective shell. Narcissists can’t see both negative and positive characteristics in people. There is no gray, only black and white. If they believe their perfection is being challenged they could lash out or begin to hate themselves. If a narcissist can reflect on and examine negative behavior without devaluing the person who criticizes them, they could be ready for therapy.
- A dual diagnosis – many narcissists have co-existing mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, substance misuse or an eating disorder. It is often these issues instead of their narcissistic tendencies that encourage sufferers to get therapy. They want to relieve their emotional pain, and their need to prevent distress in the future is a motivator to make changes.
What Does Treatment For Narcissistic Personality Disorder Look Like?
Although therapy is able to help the issues that are associated with narcissism, it will always work best if it is provided by a specialist therapist, preferably in a residential setting. There are a number of possible approaches for dealing with narcissistic personality disorder. These include:
- Identifying the sufferer’s defense mechanisms
- Learning new behavior patterns and practicing them
- Exploring the reasons behind those coping mechanisms
- Exploring how their behavior affects other people
- Examining the connections between the internal voice they hear and the way they treat others
Lasting progress can be achieved by:
- Helping the individual to see how they can benefit from positive change
- Helping them to explore the cause of their narcissistic defenses with no judgment or criticism
- Offering them validation
- Encouraging them to feel self-compassion and self-forgiveness to manage their vulnerability and shame
Supporting A Narcissist During Treatment To Help Them Change
It isn’t known why some people develop narcissistic personality disorder, but usually, these tendencies arise as a way of protecting oneself. People who suffer from narcissism often had a parent who was a narcissist, or experienced some form of neglect or abuse early in their life. The criticism and negative messages they absorbed in those early years become the voice they hear internally.
As a way of defending themselves against the negative internal voice, they start to develop narcissistic defenses or maladaptive coping mechanisms. The way they treat other people usually reflects the way they feel about themselves.
It’s possible to support a narcissist who is going through therapy to change themselves by:
- Offering validation and encouragement – usually narcissists respond well if they are praised. They often want to succeed so they can demonstrate their own abilities. By recognizing their effort, they become more motivated and increase the chance of successfully completing therapy.
- Understanding when progress is being made – it can take time to succeed at narcissism therapy, and progress usually happens slowly. Some changes may appear at an early stage – for example an attempt to avoid manipulation or dishonesty or to control outbursts. However, other behaviors such as anger when criticized may persist. It’s important to recognize and acknowledge when progress has been made in any area, however small.
Understanding how apologizing behavior looks – a key element of therapy involves spotting problematic behavior then learning ways of making amends. However, a narcissist will continue to struggle with admitting their wrongdoing and apologizing sincerely. Rather than talking about the situation and saying they are sorry, they may show their apology through gestures like doing a kind thing or buying a gift. These steps should be acknowledged.
Getting Help For Narcissistic Personality Disorder
If you spot the signs above in someone in your life, it’s important for that person to get help. The problem, though, is that, due to the disorder’s very nature, most sufferers won’t admit they’ve got a problem, much less seek the help they need. Even if a narcissist seeks help, treatment isn’t easy. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is no hope of change.
People with narcissistic personality disorder who are prepared to get help may be prescribed antidepressants, mood stabilizers or antipsychotic drugs to help. However, psychotherapy is usually the first line of treatment.
Residential treatment that involves working with skilled and experienced therapists helps narcissists to learn ways of accepting responsibility for their own actions, developing a better sense of proportion and building healthy relationships. They can also work on how to develop more emotional intelligence so that they can use, manage and understand their emotions positively so they can empathize and communicate more effectively with others and build up stronger relationships.
It is possible for narcissists to improve if they get the right support from a trained and compassionate therapist, and if support can be given by friends and family members, the chances of success are even higher. However, for change to take place, therapy requires considerable effort and commitment from the narcissistic personality disorder sufferer. Even during therapy and long after it, a narcissist may never respond how you wish they would. They may well continue struggling with vulnerability their whole life long, and may continue finding it difficult to find empathy with others.
The good news is that if the narcissist in your life is interested in changing and making improvements, by making small behavior improvements and altering their emotional outlook or even by attending residential treatment like a facility like ours, the result can be long-lasting positive change.