Can a Narcissist Change?
Although it is possible for a narcissist to change, the likeliness of that happening is low.
A true narcissist is unlikely to become an empathic and selfless individual.
However, if a narcissist believes their behavior is harmful to others and themselves, wants to change, and is willing to actively participate in therapy, some change can occur.
The narcissist’s willingness and ability to change is in direct proportion to their likelihood of changing.
It is best not to ask how you can change someone but rather how you can care for yourself if you have a relationship with a narcissist or how to leave if you can no longer tolerate the relationship.
Let’s first examine what qualities are associated with narcissism.
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What is Narcissism?
Narcissism is defined as a pathological self-absorption. The narcissist has an inflated sense of self-importance and little or no regard for others, except as objects of exploitation or insofar as they bolster the narcissist’s self-worth.
However, behind their self-confident, arrogant mask hides an insatiable need for validation and proof that they are enough.
Narcissism was first identified as a mental disorder in 1898 by British physician Havelock Ellis.
The condition gets its name from the character of Narcissus of Greek mythology, a beautiful and vain youth who fell in love with his own reflection and wasted away gazing at himself.
The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, noted that young children are usually self-absorbed, but considered this narcissistic tendency typical in children.
However, when narcissistic traits and behaviors show up in adulthood, it’s problematic — as much or more for the narcissist’s entourage as for the person themself.
The narcissist is typically selfish, vain, and enjoys attention. They may be the life of the party and very charismatic.
It’s all about them, and they can often exhibit an air of entitlement, expectations of special treatment, and furious tantrum-like outbursts when they don’t get their way.
Most of their energy and attention focuses on building and maintaining a positive self-image.
Meanwhile, the needs of others, even those closest to them, are not high on the narcissist’s list of priorities. Their relationships are primarily superficial.
The Narcissism Spectrum
Many of us know someone who has some of these narcissistic tendencies.
That doesn’t necessarily make them a narcissist. There is a wide range of narcissistic behaviors, and not all of them qualifies as pathological.
Licensed clinical psychologist and one of the country’s leading experts on narcissistic personality disorder, Dr. Ramani Durvasula, has identified 30 narcissistic traits. Some people will exhibit only a few, while others living with actual NPD will tick almost all the boxes.
Some of these traits include grandiosity, entitlement, validation-seeking, lack of empathy and avoidance, or shifting of responsibility.
These traits can show up as commandeering every conversation, always needing to be the center of attention, an inability to admit or apologize for mistakes, a pattern of unreliability, assigning blame to others, acting charming in public and hurtfully in private, an inability to accept criticism or advice, and the need to always be right.
Of course, everyone exhibits some of these traits occasionally.
The friend who is always late for appointments with you may well be a narcissist, or they may simply be disorganized, have too much on their plate, or come from a background where punctuality was not prioritized.
On the other hand, someone who is always late, never apologizes, spends lunch talking about themselves, never once asks how you’re doing — and takes offense if you dare to call them out on any of this behavior — is likely to be somewhere on the narcissism spectrum.
Dr. Ramani estimates that 10-15% of people can be classified as narcissists. (In some locations, she estimates it may be as great as 50%).
Narcissism VS Narcissistic Personality Disorder
One of the main differences between someone with narcissistic traits, or who one might call a narcissist, and the person living with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is that the former may recognize there is a problem and be open to therapy, while someone with NPD will unlikely be open to examining themselves or exposing their vulnerabilities, even in the safest of contexts.
Being narcissistic does not automatically mean you have narcissistic personality disorder.
Those living with NPD will find that their narcissistic traits are causing them harm or causing damage to their lives. For example, they may be combative at work and lose a job they loved, or create conflict with their spouse and end up in a divorce.
In short, not all narcissists are living with NPD but all of those diagnosed with NPD are narcissists.
What Kind of Narcissist Are You Dealing With?
According to Dr. Ramani, there are four main categories of narcissism.
1. The Grandiose Narcissist
This is the garden variety type most of us think of when we hear someone described as a narcissist.
This person desires to show off the best of everything, whether it’s toys, their home or their significant other.
They are ultra-competitive, egotistical, entitled and arrogant. They’d rather hear themselves talk than listen to others.
This person is someone many people would think of as simply “a jerk.”
2. The Malignant Narcissist
This type can be more harmful to the people around them.
The malignant narcissist has all the traits of the classic grandiose narcissist, with the additional quality of being intentionally mean, cruel or destructive.
This type of person can cheat on their partner or embezzle their company without feeling much guilt or remorse.
They can lie, cheat, or steal to get what they feel is their due.
3. The Covert Narcissist
A covert narcissist gets their significance and validation by playing the victim.
They don’t look like the typical narcissist because they don’t appear to be showing off.
Because of their “poor me” outlook, they are often mistaken as depressed.
But their victimhood is just their narcissistic way of shifting responsibility for their failures onto others or “the system.”
A covert narcissist may is likely to say or have thoughts such as;
If not for all the slings and arrows I’ve had to face in life, I could have been successful.
They are ultra-sensitive to criticism, and use it only to prove their case: the world refuses to acknowledge my greatness.
4. The Communal Narcissist
This type of narcissist tries to make themselves look good by doing good.
You’ll often find them posting on social media about causes they’re supporting, but their communication is more about them than the cause.
They may donate money to a hospital in order to have a wing named after them, for example.
They claim they’re all about helping, yet exhibit a lack of empathy for those who are receiving the help. That’s because the main purpose of their activity is recognition.
What Causes Narcissism?
According to Dr. Ramani, narcissists are made, not born.
This means that even someone diagnosed with NPD didn’t start out that way in any biological sense, as in the case of psychopathy or schizophrenia.
Narcissism is a set of personality traits, not a disease.
She estimates that men are four times more likely than women to become narcissists, in large part due to socialization.
Traditionally, males have not been brought up to value compassion, vulnerability, and empathy, so it’s something of a use-it-or-lose-it scenario for boys who grow up to be narcissists.
At the same time, men have been historically evaluated and applauded for their outward achievements, such as how much money they make or the car they drive. An exaggerated need for this kind of validation shows up as narcissism in adulthood.
Narcissism often starts in childhood with a parent who is both over involved in their child’s life and, at the same time, disengaged.
This parent, who may be a narcissist themself, will cheer enthusiastically their child’s achievements on the playing field or in school, and bask in the reflected glory. At the same time, they don’t have much time or concern for their child’s true interests or feelings.
The child naturally concludes that their only value is through their achievements and their outward image.
They develop a deep insecurity that they are not enough all by themselves and spend the rest of their lives in a futile attempt to build a case for their self-worth, especially through validation from others.
This is why most narcissists are compelled to act the way they do, even when they have enough self-awareness to understand how unproductive and hurtful to others, their behavior can be.
How to Live with a Narcissist
Because it is unlikely the narcissist can or will change, healthily managing the relationship is critical.
The best way to manage life with a narcissist, whether in an intimate relationship, someone in your family, or a co-worker or boss, is not to try to manage them, but yourself.
Don’t Try to Change The Narcissist
Too many people in close relationship with narcissists feel that they can somehow get them to change by caring more, or by doing or being better themselves.
This only leads to feelings that they themselves are not enough.
If only they tried harder, loved more, and understood their partner or friend better, the person would see the light and transform. But this is a recipe for frustration and worse: depression, anxiety, and even PTSD as they find themselves constantly walking on eggshells and still failing to please or get through to the narcissist in their life.
It’s tempting to try to reason with the narcissist and point out what’s wrong with their behavior.
This usually backfires, as the narcissist is invested in protecting their self-image at all costs. They will become defensive or shift the blame onto their “accuser.” Trying to change or “train” a narcissist out of their behavior is a losing proposition.
Realize that the narcissist’s behavior likely stems from deep-rooted insecurity. They may be grandiose on the outside but profoundly vulnerable and questioning of their self-worth on the inside.
Prioritize Your Own Emotional Health
If you are in a committed relationship with a narcissist, they value your relationship and are self-aware enough to recognize there is a problem; it may be possible to get them to seek therapy. However, the smartest and surest way to cope with a narcissist is to take care of yourself.
What is Gaslighting?
Some narcissists are experts in “gaslighting”, and will try to convince you that you are the problem.
Gaslighting is a tactic where someone makes another person question their reality and sometimes doubt their sanity.
Realize it’s not your fault that they are acting the way they are.
If you are married to, or in an intimate relationship with a narcissist, look to other relationships for the empathy you may be missing.
This doesn’t mean being unfaithful in your marriage, but getting the support of friends or other family members.
Focus on your self-care and seek therapy if you are feeling anxious or depressed.
Are You Dating a Narcissist?
Notice the dynamics going on in relationships you habitually choose. Many people who grew up with a narcissistic parent who was overly critical will repeat the scenario over and over in adulthood by entering into relationships with friends and intimate partners who put them down and use them to bolster their own self-image.
Most narcissists don’t think they have a problem, but this personality trait can cause a lot of issues for them and for those who know, love, and work with them. Recognizing the signs and understanding what you can change and what you can’t, can help limit the damage.