If you believe you have narcissistic traits or are living with narcissistic personality disorder, you might feel angry, confused, or even hopeless.
While there is now more awareness about narcissism, most resources empower other people to set boundaries or leave the narcissist. They often paint narcissists as callous monsters who are incapable of long-term change.
Of course, believing this mindset can be demoralizing. Like any mental health condition, narcissism isn’t a choice. However, there are action-based steps you can take to improve how you change your behavior.
Be Aware of Your Patterns
How do you respond when you feel stressed? When someone upsets you, how do you typically react? When you feel rejected, what happens next?
We all have behavioral patterns, and you must commit to becoming aware of your habits as they happen in real-time. Doing so is one of the best ways you can change your reactions.
Spend a few weeks tracking your typical patterns. You might want to use a journal to write down any “questionable moments” throughout the day. A questionable moment should consist of any action that might have been offensive, rude, or unethical. Some examples of these moments might include:
- Yelling or raising your voice.
- Making real or imaginary threats to intimidate someone.
- Lying (even if it’s a white lie or omission).
- Ignoring someone when they talk (or only pretending to listen).
- Gossiping behind someone’s back.
- Engaging in escape behaviors instead of coping with your emotions.
- Being passive-aggressive.
After recognizing these patterns, you will want to commit to increased mindfulness. If you aren’t mindful of how you feel in the present moment, you’re likely to continue engaging in the same toxic habits you want to change.
But when you are mindful, you can take a moment to reflect, step back, and analyze what you want to do next. As a result, you aren’t entirely dependent on your emotions. You aren’t nearly as impulsive or erratic.
Implement More Stress Management
Narcissists struggle immensely with stress. When faced with adversity, they tend to find some culprit to blame, lash out at others, or sabotage themselves. These reactions, of course, don’t fix the stressful situation. Instead, they add even more stress to your current state.
Try to focus on how you can implement more relaxation and healthy coping throughout your day. Some valuable skills to consider include:
- Deep breathing.
- Taking more breaks throughout your day.
- Walking away from stressful situations (before saying something harmful).
- Creative expression (drawing, writing, singing, dancing, etc.).
Certain skills will work better at different times than others. That’s why you may need several stress management skills in your toolbox. Try to engage in these skills as part of your daily routine- don’t just wait until you’re entirely overwhelmed. The more you practice them, the more second nature they become.
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Reduce Your Defensiveness
At the core of narcissism lies a tremendous fear of abandonment and unlovability. Therefore, when you feel threatened, you probably become overly defensive and hostile towards others. Of course, this reaction is a self-preservation tactic, but it can be incredibly hurtful to others.
Learning how to take feedback- even if it’s negative- is an essential life skill. Of course, you are not perfect, and nobody expects you to be. But it’s still crucial to want to grow and learn from other people.
The next time someone gives you feedback, pause and remember:
- Their thoughts and feelings are entirely valid.
- They don’t necessarily hate or want to challenge you.
- You don’t need to defend yourself 24/7 (and doing so often frustrates other people).
Harness More Gratitude
Research shows that recognizing your gratitude regularly can significantly boost your mental health. In addition, it can improve your emotional state and strengthen the quality of your relationships.
You can implement more gratitude by:
- Meditating and reflecting on the good parts of your day.
- Authentically thanking people in their life when you feel appreciative of them.
- Writing down your thankfulness.
- Having a gratitude accountability partner (check-in at designated intervals to reflect on your gratitude together).
- Downloading an app or using a journal to write down good moments as they arise.
Gratitude moves you beyond entitlement and ego. It helps you become more reflective and humble towards yourself and others. Over time, this can increase your empathy. It can also help you keep life in perspective.
Cultivate Greater Meaning
What is your true purpose on this planet? What activities or relationships make you feel most fulfilled? When do you lose track of time doing something you love?
If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you may need to devote some time to more introspection. Happy, well-rounded people instill meaning into their daily lives. They value having a purpose, and they often build their days around maintaining their sense of purpose.
Unfortunately, narcissists tend to have more shallow goals. For example, you might focus on your appearance or net worth or the size of their house. While these goals aren’t insignificant, you may compromise your values to achieve these goals if they are your core focus. And, unfortunately, even if you reach them, you might find that the end feeling is relatively hollow.
You can try to cultivate more meaning by:
- Committing to deepening old or new friendships.
- Pursuing volunteer work.
- Affiliating yourself with a religious or spiritual organization.
- Engaging in old hobbies that you once enjoyed.
- Trying new hobbies that pique your interest.
- Adding a meditation practice to your day.
Meaning isn’t just about feeling good in the world. Happy people still experience a myriad of emotions- they are not exempt from pain. But happy, well-rounded people also know that life is worth living, and they make conscious efforts to make the most of what they have.
Hold Yourself Accountable
Narcissists manipulate, gaslight, yell, threaten, withdraw, and intimidate others to restore a sense of power and control. This statement isn’t meant to shame you. Instead, it’s intended to shed light on the toxic patterns that you may have unknowingly participated in at some point in life.
Whether you like it or not, you have probably hurt many people if you identify as a narcissist. While you might be conscious of some of these wrongdoings, there is a good chance that you aren’t even fully aware of all the damage.
Therefore, change requires personal responsibility. It’s imperative that you own up to your mistakes and apologize for them as soon as you can. It might feel scary, but you must commit to working through that fear. If you don’t, you will likely continue hurting people.
These apologies must be genuine and without any defensiveness or explanation. Be specific about your action and let the other person know you are dedicated to changing your pattern.
Holding yourself accountable can be as simple as telling someone, Hey, it was wrong of me to criticize your input on the project. I was insensitive to your feelings, and you don’t deserve that. If there’s anything else I can do to make this right, please let me know.
Furthermore, keep in mind people won’t always accept your apology. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to give them one.
Finally, the best apology is changed behavior. Words are easy, and if you’ve apologized numerous times in the past, your words may fall flat. That’s why focusing on changing your patterns is the best gift you can give yourself and your loved ones.
Remember that personal accountability is an ongoing process. It may not feel comfortable owning your baggage, but respectable people do it all the time. After all, nobody likes a leader, friend, or partner who can’t acknowledge their own mistakes. Likewise, nobody wants to be yelled at or threatened when they attempt to give feedback.
Practice More Self-Compassion
How kind are you to yourself? How often do you give yourself patience or grace?
Some people assume that narcissists love themselves mercilessly. But that isn’t always the case. On the contrary, many narcissists feel immense shame and self-loathing over their behaviors. So even if they come across as cocky, they often feel incredibly fragile.
Even if it’s easy to boast about your accomplishments, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to practice genuine self-compassion. Self-compassion is not the same as self-indulgence or self-esteem. Instead, self-compassion focuses on attuning and comforting yourself during vulnerable times. Instead of judging yourself, it’s an attempt to be empathic with the struggles you face.
Self-compassion also entails some level of acceptance. You are not perfect, and life is not perfect. The more you resist accepting that, the more you will likely suffer. Self-compassionate people honor their humanness and recognize that everyone experiences pain.
Try Opposite Actions
You can work on untangling narcissistic patterns simply by engaging in opposite actions. Opposite actions are rooted in dialectical behavior therapy, and they can help you gain more control over your usual responses.
For example, if you always want to control a project at work, the opposite action would be letting someone else take charge. Or, if you often get angry at waitstaff and stiff out on a tip, an opposite action would be tipping your next server generously. If you become passive-aggressive when a friend hurts your feelings, you could try to assert your feelings next time.
Don’t wait to feel motivated to engage in the opposite action. We tend to be creatures of habit, and that motivation might not come! Instead, commit to disciplining yourself to try as many opposite actions as you can over the next few weeks and months.
If this work scares you, keep embracing it. Overcoming fear is an integral part of growth.
This dramatic change may feel extremely uncomfortable at first. You will likely resist and want to go back to the way things were. But, try to stick with it. You will notice that you might tap into greater empathy, connection, and patience- all of which can dismantle narcissism.
Therapy can help you with your narcissism, but therapy can also address other co-occurring issues that often coincide with narcissistic personality disorder. For example, it’s common for narcissists to struggle with:
- Relationship issues
- Problems at work or school
- Impulsive control
- Substance use
- Eating disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
These issues can exacerbate narcissism, and narcissism can exacerbate other mental health symptoms. Therapy allows you to focus inward and explore your triggers, patterns, and goals for change. It’s a safe place where you can be yourself without judgment.
It’s important to be as honest as you can with your therapist. Don’t try to present yourself as “better” than you really are. Try to avoid any lying, downplaying, or disregarding your symptoms. Doing so may feel “more comfortable,” but it won’t help you progress.
Be Consistent With Implementing New Changes
Breaking patterns isn’t about changing things for a few weeks and returning to your usual status quo. It’s about committing to a long process of real change. It’s about weathering any setbacks that inevitably occur and noting what needs to improve as you move along your way.
Changing yourself is undoubtedly hard. Nobody will deny that. But it is possible. If you dedicate yourself to implementing new responses, your feelings will change. Your relationships will improve, and your reactions will become less intense.
With that in mind, consistency is key. Focus on implementing small steps every day. If you find yourself regressing, don’t dwell on it. Instead, reflect on what’s happening. Then, think about what you need to change, and make an effort to change it.
Living with narcissism can be frustrating and scary. But labels don’t have to define your identity.
At any given moment, you can choose how you change your behavior. For example, you can focus on strengthening how you respond to others. You can practice more empathy and gratitude for the people in your life.
While you didn’t choose to become narcissistic, you can choose what you do next. You have the power and tools needed to change. You just need to take action.