“Isn’t it reassuring to know that in a world of constant change, the narcissist remains the same”
This is a common question among the mental health/psychotherapist arena, but also is a very important question to address for those caught up in relationships with narcissists.
Can narcissistic people every really change their behavior? Can they be persuaded to reform and become less self absorbed and more considerate to the needs and feelings of others? A lot well meaning people who get tangled up with narcissists expend a lot of time and energy trying to make this happen, so it’s an important issue to address.
Here is a bottom line answer to this question that also capture the shades of grey of narcissism:
People who have some narcissistic traits can sometimes change if they believe it will gain them more favor and popularity. People with full blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) cannot change, since they do not believe anything is wrong with them and are completely resistant to any kind of therapy or reform.
For those in toxic relationships with narcissistic personalities, this is a crucial insight that needs to be fully internalized and acted upon, since otherwise you will spend months, years and even decades trying to change someone who is fundamentally unchangeable.
Fully understanding the spectrum of narcissism, as well as the incurable nature of the full blown Narcissistic disorder, will allow people involved in relationships with these personality types to make better choices for their own long term mental health, once they have a realistic picture of the chances of these people ever truly changing.
Let’s look at the issue of narcissism and change more fully, making the important distinction between narcissistic traits versus full blown narcissism, and making an assessment of the possibility of change in both cases.
People With Narcissistic Traits Can Sometimes Change
It is important to understand that some people we may classify as “narcissistic”, especially younger people, may certainly have some narcissistic traits that can be annoying to deal with, but are not yet at the point where they would have a full blown personality disorder.
Perhaps they were somewhat spoiled or put on too much of a pedestal by well meaning parents, but the pattern of behavior did not reach the point where over a number of years it literally destroyed the child’s real self and created a narcissistic shell in it’s place.
Maybe there was some of this behavior that created some moderate narcissistic traits, which are reversible over time as the child moves out in the world and learns, grows and matures as they interact with others.
To illustrate this point more clearly, let’s give a couple of examples of a person with some narcissistic traits, but not full blown narcissism, who does adapt and change their behavior as they mature, becoming less narcissistic and more healthily balanced as a person.
Example #1 – An adolescent boy is somewhat narcissistic, insensitive to the needs of others and sometimes rude, entitled and arrogant. He is often rude with shop staff, and pushes ahead in queues when he’s getting impatient. As he moves out into the world as an adult, he realizes this behavior doesn’t win him any popularity or favors, and therefore in order to gain more friends, he learns to tone down his behavior and show respect to the needs and feelings of others. He also thought he was good at sports in his own small circle, but as he moves into adulthood and competes against people who are really good (much better than him), he realizes he wasn’t as good or special as he thought. His self image becomes more realistic. As an adolescent, he was a bit of a brat, but as a 30 year old man, he’s a reasonably well adjusted adult who’s modified his behavior to better function in the world.
Example #2 – A girl who is idealized and put on a pedestal as “beautiful” and “special” by her parents a little bit too much, but her upbringing is not totally abusive or exploitative. She may in her adolescent years be a bit “full of herself”, considering herself better (and better looking) than other girls her age. As she moves into her later teens and twenties, she sees that other people actually don’t like this attitude, and men actually don’t find her as attractive as she thought. With some rough reality checks, she learns over time to be a bit more humble and act less superior to others. By the time she’s 30, she’s a more or less well adjusted adult, perhaps still a bit prickly and self absorbed, but not malignantly so. She registers that other people exist, with their own feelings and needs. Her narcissism did not extend to being a full blown disorder.
More generally the teen and early 20s years can arguably be seen as the years of narcissism, when sensitivity and emotional development is often low on the radar for many young people – it’s all about partying, having fun and getting approval from others. Most people are a bit “rough around the edges” as adolescents in terms of their emotional development; there’s nothing unusual in that.
As people grow and mature into their 30s and beyond, they often become more vocational and less self absorbed. They have children, often move towards vocational life goals, and become more considerate of others. The general pattern is more towards helping and respecting others and assuming responsibilities, rather than focusing only on oneself to an unhealthy degree. Other people and other things start to matter.
It’s the normal pattern of the life cycle that any limited narcissistic traits will fade in most people as they mature. When malignant traits continue to persist in people into their 30s and beyond, without any signs of growth or change, then this is more of a red flag.
In other words, it is when people develop full blow personality disorders that narcissism is problematic, since toxic traits in these cases become permanently embedded into the person’s character and do not change over time. Let’s cover this now.
Younger people especially can display some narcissistic traits, like vanity, but it doesn’t mean they’re full blown narcissists
People With Full Blown Narcissism (NPD) Cannot Change
“This is no way to cure or heal or glue together this fragmented, shrapnelled personality… A personality disorder is a disorder of your entirety. It’s a disorder of all of you. It permeates every single cell of your being, of your psychology, of your psycho-dynamic. There is no way to change all of you. There are ways to change some behaviors and some traits, but never all of you.
Sam Vaknin – narcissism expert – see here
Now let’s contrast this scenario of someone with narcissistic traits with someone with full blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
This is someone who has a clustering of enough narcissistic traits that it is not just a tendency but an actual entire personality structure or way of being.
There are different ways of measuring this, but perhaps the most popular criteria is the 9 traits of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM).
Here are the 9 traits of NPD as per the DSM:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g. exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believes that they are “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with their expectations).
- Is inter-personally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve their own ends).
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them.
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
If someone possesses at least 5 of these 9 traits, then they can be considered according to this criteria to have NPD and be a full blown narcissist. These are the types of narcissist that will not change.
Notice especially the sense of special-ness and perfection. If someone already believes they are special and there’s nothing wrong with them, then they won’t see any need to change. The Cluster B personalities in general don’t believe there is anything wrong with them to begin with. Exploitation and entitlement are two of other big ones that will be more readily apparent in everyday narcissists.
These are the most toxic and dangerous types of narcissist, since all of their interactions, even seemingly sincere and genuine ones, are aimed at manipulating others for their own ends. The entirety of their existence is driven by a need to prop up their false, grandiose self and feed themselves “narcissistic supply”. There is no real, authentic self or emotions left.
There are different theories and views as to how full blown narcissism forms, but here is a very sensible and logical explanation from the Sam Vaknin/Richard Grannon school of thought on NPD (Vaknin in particular is an authority on this, having been diagnosed as a narcissist twice, and has huge knowledge of personality disorders in general).
- Narcissism is often thought to originate from excessive un-boundaried spoiling in childhood, or else from an alternating pattern where one parent berates and abuses, whilst the other spoils the child to try and compensate.
- Common motifs here are a message of “you’re special” (in excess), “you’re important”, “you’re superior”. Sometimes there may be over the top messianic talk of the child’s “mission” or “purpose”, or of being “sent by God”.
- If this happens over a prolonged period of time, it will crush the real self and identity of the child. An image is being projected onto them that isn’t real.
- The common factor here is objectification – whether being abused or idealized, the child is treated not as a real human being but as an object to be used for the parent’s gratification.
- Over time the child’s real self is discarded, and a “narcissistic shell” self is presented to the world in it’s place.
- The real human emotions of the child are also hidden away inside the narcissistic shell.
- Over time, these authentic emotions atrophy and die inside the shell.
- From this point on, you have full blown NPD, where the person can engage and interact with others in a seemingly normal way on the surface, but where there are no real human emotions left.
- NPDs are then simply robots operating from a series of defense mechanisms designed to prop up their false, grandiose, shell self. They are constantly seeking “supply” from others to do this.
- The corollary of this is that they are psychologically allergic to any kind of real, authentic emotions or human engagement. As Vaknin himself points out, narcissism can be seen as a denial of the true self.
Once a person reaches this point of full blown NPD, meeting at least 5 of the 9 criteria listed above, there is no real possibility of them ever changing their behavior, save for some very, very rare exceptions we will cover below.
Moreover, you will find these people supremely manipulative and dishonest, and capable of appalling behavior towards others. These are not people you want in your life, and if they are, it is highly advised to get rid of them as soon as possible.
“If someone has just narcissistic tendencies… some therapists have reported that an effective way of dealing with a narcissistic personality is if the coach says to (the narcissist) ‘This is costing you. You don’t have as many friends as you would do otherwise. You need to be kinder to people because it’s having an impact on your life’. And they’ll be like ‘OK, I want more friends, I’ll do it’, if they’re a bit narcissistic.
(With full blown) NPD, you’ve got this nice thick (narcissistic) shell, you ain’t getting through it, no one’s getting through it. To date, there’s nothing we can do (to fix it).”
Richard Grannon, Spartan Life Coach
The Extremely Limited Circumstances in Which a Narcissist May Be Forced to Change
All this being said, it is impossible to say that 100% of narcissists who may have previously been diagnosable as full NPD have remained the way they are forever, and that none of them have ever changed at all.
This is more of a stretch, since if we are to accept the existence of free will and choice, then anyone can in theory make the choice to change if they want to.
It’s just that with deeply ingrained, toxic personality disorders like NPD, something huge has to happen in their external environment (NOT by others asking them to change, because this never works), that forces them to completely re-evaluate the person they are and rebuild themselves from scratch. Moreover, with something like full blown narcissism, this rebuilding of oneself would take years to accomplish.
This isn’t very likely or common. However, here are some examples of the very limited and narrow circumstances which may force a narcissist to change:
- Going through an intensive 12 step recovery program for addiction (a thorough and prolonged effort, not just turning up to a few group meetings).
- Facing criminal charges and/or incarceration which exposes them and breaks down their narcissistic image for all the public to see.
- Any other environment where they are exposed or “found out” and cannot escape to new people.
- Any other huge life upheaval which forces them to confront their personality defects over a prolonged period of time (years), not just in a fleeting and superficial way.
And note that even with some of these examples, they aren’t guaranteed to work. Readers interested in narcissism can consult the autobiography of Hank Haney, former swing coach for golfer Tiger Woods, someone who I believe was an absolute full blown narcissist in terms of his behavior towards those close to him in his earlier successful years before 2009.
Haney mentions how Tiger was often unpleasant and difficult to work with before his “crash scandal” and subsequent exposure in 2009, but he mentions that even after undergoing rigorous treatment for addiction and a 12 step recovery program in the best treatment centers money can buy, he was still not any more emotionally open with Haney, or easier to work with behind the scenes. The core of narcissism still remained (see Haney’s book, “The Big Miss”).
Therefore, it is important to be very careful when making even qualified claims that full blown narcissists can change. Whilst we can claim that long as humans have free will, then change is possible for anyone, the cases in which a narcissist has truly, authentically changed are exceptionally rare.
Sam Vaknin Life Story – Hitting Rock Bottom Can Force a Narcissist to Change
Beware of Hoovering (False Promises to Change)
Another reason it is important to be cautious when talking about narcissists changing their behavior, is that the more intelligent ones realize this is what normal people want and expect from people who have mistreated them, and can therefore make false promises of “change” in order to lure people back into relationships with them.
This tactic is often called “hoovering” in the abusive relationship recovery space, and involves the narcissist using all their manipulative skills, feigning sincerity to try and draw back in someone who may have grown tired of their toxic behavior and discarded them.
See the video just below for a perfect example of this.
Hoovering From The Psychopath/Narcissist
Here are some common patterns in the hoovering stage:
- They’ll contact you again out the blue on social media or by text, email or some other means. This is why no contact is important to stop them doing this.
- They’ll go back to the seemingly innocent, sweet, caring image if this is what they initially reeled you in with.
- They may issue seemingly heartfelt apologies about how sorry they are about how they hurt you.
- There will be promises that the cheating, gas-lighting, projection, lying etc. won’t happen again.
- If you had been trying to get them to go to therapy because of their toxic behavior, they’ll promise to get help if you take them back.
- Any other changes in their behavior that you wanted them to make first time but they never did, they’ll latch onto these and promise to do them now, or claim they are “growing/changing/evolving/self aware” now when they haven’t changed at all.
- The general message they’ll try to hoover you back in with is “I’ll be the person you always wanted me to be”.
- If you do take them back, they’ll keep up these apparent changes for a while, then drop them and go straight back to the old, abusive patterns.
The Implications of This For Relationships With Narcissists
It is very important to be aware of this hoovering tactic, because narcissists will often use it to exploit normal people’s desire to other people to change, and present the image and appearance of having done so, when in fact they haven’t changed at all.
Once we have a fuller understanding of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, we can step back from this and make a more realistic assessment of whether a narcissist’s claims of change are credible or not.
Here are some simple questions to ask yourself if you are faced with this situation of getting rid of (or thinking of getting rid of), a narcissist in your life, or allowing them back in, and you are either wondering whether any change is possible on their part, or are faced with sudden promises of change from them that you aren’t sure whether you should believe:
- Foundational question – has the narcissist ever sincerely apologized for their abusive/exploitative behavior? You’ll be surprised how often they actually don’t do this, even when trying to hoover you back in. They will often use clever word trickery that may sound conciliatory but avoids them actually ever taking any ownership and blame for their toxic behavior. See the hoovering video above.
- Have they undergone several years at least of intensive psychotherapy, with a skilled therapist well trained in personality disorders?
- Additionally, or alternatively, have they “hit rock bottom” in their lives – reached a low point where they have lost everyone and everything, and undergone a process of several years of fully rebuilding themselves from the ground up, which will also likely include the intensive, prolonged therapy mentioned in point #2?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, then the narcissist has not and will not change fundamentally, no matter how they are presenting themselves to you right now, this very moment. The underlying core narcissism will remain.
Even with prolonged intensive therapy, many experts like Sam Vaknin believe there is no way to change the core of a narcissist; the best that can be hoped for is to modify certain destructive behaviors and traits, and even modest reform like this will take many years for a full blown narcissist.
Therefore, be aware of skilled narcissists jumping on this point, claiming they have “hit rock bottom” as a way of “hoovering” (luring) you back into giving them another chance in an abusive relationship.
This is just more “game” and manipulation from the full blown narcissist, and the full process of change in these cases will take years of sustained effort on their part, not weeks or months. If they come back to you shortly after you breaking off with them, making claims of miraculous change and reform in a short space of time, you can simply apply the criteria above to see that this is more nonsense and manipulation, and you can dismiss them accordingly.
Once we have a realistic picture of the prospects of change for a narcissist, we can more easily come to the conclusion that efforts to save them or make them change their behavior in relationships are futile.
To again emphasize the nuance of the issue, it is true that anyone who has free will can technically change, but there is no way someone else can make a narcissist change. Something huge has to happen in their life which forces them to change over a period of years. Other people cannot make the narcissist go through this process, and we shouldn’t wait around hoping for it to miraculously happen either, because in almost all cases, it won’t.
By breaking off all contact and moving on sooner, we save ourselves time and rebuild our own lives with healthier relationships so much sooner, instead of going through the endless cycle of giving second, third and fourth chances to people who are never going to change.