Last Updated on July 4, 2022 by Alexander Burgemeester
“They did the personality test, and by process of elimination, it was concluded that it was narcissistic personality disorder. So from that moment on, I started treatment, because I didn’t want to have that.”
Those are the words of a narcissist interviewed by SBS in 2019.
After six and a half years of treatment, he was released and now runs counseling sessions to help other narcissists change and to help victims of narcissistic abuse deal with what they are going through.
Is this truly a case of successful treatment? And if it is, is this a common outcome? Can a Narcissist Change with proper treatment or motivation?
Can a narcissist ever change without therapy?
There are a few ways of looking at this, and we need to define the question a little better.
If we’re asking “is it possible for a narcissist to change?”, the answer is yes.
As we’ve seen in the example above, there are cases of narcissists changing their ways through therapy – although it is a notoriously difficult condition to treat.
But what about without therapy? Do narcissists ever change by themselves?
Well, a number of studies have shown that narcissism tends to decrease over the course of life.
One study tracked nearly 500 people over 23 years and found a decrease in narcissistic traits as people reached their 40s.
The narcissistic traits don’t disappear, but they do seem to fade slightly as people age.
Interestingly, the study also found that narcissism decreased more in people who had stable family lives (including having children), and people who didn’t work in leadership or supervisory job roles.
Now, because of how the study was conducted, we can’t be sure about the cause and effect here.
It could be that people higher in narcissism tend not to start families, and also tend to seek out roles where they are in charge of other people.
But, it’s also possible that stable family life, and avoiding leadership roles, can prevent narcissism from blossoming as much as it otherwise would.
But, one problem with these types of study is that they measure narcissistic traits in otherwise healthy people.
What about full-blown narcissists, people who have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)?
Are Narcissists Able to Change
Changing any part of our personality is difficult, but when we get into the realms of NPD, change becomes even less likely.
This boils down to the nature of Narcissistic Personality Disorder itself.
If you have a mental health issue, and you want to fix it, you have to go through a few stages:
1) Self-awareness: understanding what you’re going through
2) Acceptance: realising you need help
3) Action: seeking out help and following a treatment plan
NPD blocks this process at every step. Let’s go through them one-by-one.
Reading Suggestion: I Don’t Want To Be a Narcissist Anymore
1) Self-awareness: Do narcissists know they are narcissists?
Narcissists have a massively inflated image of themselves, and they do all they can to get flattery and praise from other people so that they can maintain that image.
This is why narcissists often brag, show off, and act in arrogant ways.
And in this respect, they are indeed self-aware. They might not have heard the term “narcissist” before, but they are aware of the ways they behave.
What’s more, they are proud of it! In their minds, you’d act that way too, if you were as successful, talented, and good-looking as they are!
So while they may have some self-awareness about the way they behave, narcissists find it difficult to see this as a problem. In their eyes, how they think and act is totally justified.
You can learn more about this in my main article: do narcissists know they are narcissists?
2) Acceptance: Can narcissists realise they need help
However, while narcissists know how they act, they lack awareness of why they act in the ways that they do.
Underneath all the bravado hides a deep vulnerability. It’s extremely painful for a narcissist to be confronted with this vulnerability, and in many ways, their whole lives revolves around covering it up.
Anything that makes them see their true, insecure self will trigger a narcissistic injury – and this includes accepting that they have a personality disorder.
So say a narcissist learns about Narcissistic Personality Disorder one day.
Maybe they read a blog like this one, or maybe someone tells them they are a narcissist.
Even if they then reach the self-awareness stage (“Huh, that does sound like me…”), the step from there to realizing they have a problem, is a huge one.
It means facing a narcissistic injury and pushing through anyway. This is a huge hurdle.
3) Action: Can narcissists seek help?
There is a stigma around mental health conditions, and sometimes people who need help won’t seek it out because they are worried about what other people will think.
Since narcissists put most (some would argue almost all) of their efforts into portraying themselves as strong and superior – both to others, and to themselves – this is even harder for them.
But there’s another roadblock – control. To seek help for a mental illness puts you in a position of vulnerability.
You’ll have to really open up to another person and put yourself in their hands, which narcissists generally aren’t inclined to do.
Narcissists strive for control – it’s what enables them to manage how people act around them so that they can push them towards behaving in ways that give them their narcissistic supply.
They are not going to get that by honestly engaging with therapist – in fact, almost the opposite.
They’ll be in a position where they face their inner demons, and they’ll have little control over where that path leads.
This is difficult for anyone, and for a narcissist, even more so.
Can a narcissist Change with therapy?
While the success rate for Narcissistic Personality Disorder treatment isn’t great, I don’t want to paint too negative a picture.
For some narcissists, certainly not all, change is possible. But how much change, exactly? Can narcissism be cured?
Well, let’s go back to the gentleman we talked about in the beginning of the article.
This man, after six years of hard work, was discharged by his therapists, and now spends some of his time helping others deal with NPD.
By his account, he would seem like a model example, right? A success story.
Yet, even he admits, “because I am aware that I’m a narcissist… I have to second-guess all my decisions. It will be that way until the end of time.”
It seems that, even in the positive cases, “cure” might be too strong a word.
Let’s explore how therapy works for narcissism, and the changes that we might hope for.
Treatment for narcissism involves some examination of thought patterns.
This is often through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), but another common approach is called schema therapy.
Schema therapy is sometimes called “reparenting”. The idea is that Narcissistic Personality Disorder is more likely to spring up in people who didn’t get certain needs met as children (such as warmth and affection from their parents).
This leaves a hole in the narcissist, that they try to cover up with their posturing and abusive behavior.
The therapist works with the narcissist to uncover these unmet needs, and find ways to meet them in healthier ways.
It also involves increasing their self-awareness – so that the narcissist becomes more aware of their actions, and realizes that they are only lashing out, bragging, and lying to protect their vulnerable inner self.
And if they realize they are doing this, they can try to change how they behave.
This all sounds great on paper, but there’s not a lot of research behind scheme therapy yet, so we can’t be too sure how effective it is.
It’s often said that people with NPD have a lack of empathy, but this isn’t quite correct.
While some narcissists might be incapable of empathy (which we class as malignant narcissists), most simply have very low levels of it. This might be something we can work with.
In one interesting study, a group of people high in narcissism was compared to a group of non-narcissists.
They were asked to watch a video of a domestic abuse victim talking about her experiences.
While watching the video, the participants were hooked up to a heart rate monitor.
The non-narcissists saw an increase in their heart rates – because of their empathy, they were able to put themselves in the victim’s shoes and feel what she felt.
This causes a stress response, which increased their heart rate. The narcissists’ heart rates, on the other hand, were flat. A complete lack of empathy.
However, in a follow-up study, the researchers trained the narcissists in empathy.
They taught them about perspective-taking – how to pretend they were the other person, and imagine how they would feel in that situation.
This time, the narcissists’ heart rates did increase when watching the video.
This is a similar approach taken in many reform programs for people who commit serial violent offenses.
Again, the success rate here isn’t high, but it at least shows there is a chink in the armor of NPD, and for some people, it might help.
What Should a Narcissist Do To Change??
You’ve probably heard the expression that for any therapy to work, the patient has to want to change.
This is true, but for narcissism, it takes even more than that. According to psychologist Elinor Greenberg, for narcissists to do well in therapy, they need to be:
1) Motivated – they have to want to change
2) High-functioning – being able to get by in life despite their NPD
3) Psychologically-minded – being interested in the mind and behviour
4) Self-reflective – the capacity for self-awareness is key, as we’ve already seen
5) Intelligent – being able to see the larger picture of their actions and the effect of them
6) Emotional stability – narcissists are well-known for their angry outbursts. The better control they have over this, the better
7) Self-improvers – narcissists who are willing to put time into things like learning new skills or languages are more likely to put serious effort into therapy
Of these, perhaps motivation is the most important. Let’s look at a particular motivation you might be wondering about…
Can a narcissist change for love?
If you are in a relationship with a narcissist or in love, you might hold out hope that they will change in order to save the relationship.
However, this all depends on whether they are in love in the first place.
Most people with NPD don’t experience love in the same way as other people.
They are not in love with you, exactly. They are in love with the way they feel when they are with you.
They love what a catch you are, as having someone so great makes them look good in the eyes of others. They love the narcissistic supply you give them.
This doesn’t mean they have no positive feelings towards you. It doesn’t mean they don’t want to be with you, and they won’t take steps to stay with you.
Indeed, some narcissists who went into therapy did so on the insistence of their romantic partners.
However, in all likelihood, the motivation wasn’t love. It’s most likely a practical matter.
They feel they have more to gain by staying with you and trying to change than they do by you leaving them.
Can a narcissist change in a new relationship?
For people with narcissistic tendencies when it comes to new relationships, the possibility of change is even lower.
In the initial phases of a relationship, narcissists really turn on the charm.
They know that first impressions count, and they will “love-bomb” you with attention and affection.
But, they can’t keep this up forever, and soon enough, their true, often abusive self, will rear its head.
This is where they start to leverage control over you, to put you in a weaker position so that they can manage your behaviour and keep you in-line.
At this point, they have something to gain by keeping you, as you’ve proven yourself a good source of narcissistic supply.
However, in the early phases, they are too busy turning the charm dial up to 11 to worry about changing.
You haven’t yet proven yourself as a steady, controllable source of supply, so there’s no leverage. Changing is probably the last thing on their minds.
How to help a narcissist change?
If you have a narcissist in your life, you might want to help them change.
Can you teach a narcissist how to not be a narcissist? As we’ve seen in our discussion up to now, the outlook sadly isn’t great.
But if you do decide to go down this route, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Be realistic: refer back to Greenberg’s seven criteria for success in therapy above. Does your narcissist meet all of these criteria? Any of them? The fewer of them that he meets, the less optimistic you should be about your chances of success. If the narcissist doesn’t look like a good candidate for success in therapy, don’t pretend that they are.
- Work with your own therapist: it will be a difficult path for both of you. If you are sure that this is what you want to do, then you should certainly work with a therapist yourself. This will help you deal with the likely emotional turmoil ahead.
- Maintain boundaries: it’s very important to set and maintain boundaries with narcissists, even if they do appear to be making some progress. One boundary might be, for example, if they speak to you in an insulting way, you will leave the house and stay somewhere else for the night. If some time down the line, they do start saying nasty things to you, you must follow through on this. They will try to turn you around: “Oh I’m sorry, it was just a slip-up, I’ve been doing great up to now, it won’t happen again.” But you must follow through. Otherwise, you are rewarding the very behaviors that you’re trying to discourage.
- Be prepared to bail out: Beyond boundaries, you should also know what behaviours are full-on deal breakers. Even though you may love the narcissist, and you may understand that they act the way they do because of a mental health condition, there are some behaviours you should not accept. If they engage in abuse of any kind (physical, sexual, or emotional), take steps towards leaving them. You’re not obliged to endure abuse under any circumstances.
Have you ever known a narcissist to change? Have you ever tried to help a narcissist change? If so, let me know your experiences below!
5 thoughts on “Can a Narcissist Change? What Do Experts Say?”
Narcissists can certainly be cured if the society does not support their narcissism. They get support for their bad behaviors, so they do not feel the necessity to change themselves.
I am a narcissist, albeit probably lower on the spectrum. Just to give some insight: I compulsively lie to keep the conversation on myself, do not accept criticism well, make enemies of people who oppose me or expect me to be mature or submissive, and I see myself as a victim. Sounds pretty bad, right? It is bad. I know that some people consider me a monster and definitely toxic. However, last year, someone I love dearly (yes, I do actually love them instead of idealizing them, because I am aware they are not perfect and that they see me as I really am, not who I wish I were) told me that he thinks I might be a narcissist. If it had come from anyone else, I doubt I would have even considered it. And up until this time, I thought therapy and psychology were “not really science” – quote myself. As I began to read online, it was painful and definitely caused a wound – narcissistic injury. I wanted to deny it, and even tried to make myself believe that the person who told me might be the real narcissist. Nope, just wasn’t possible. I know that they are flawed and even struggle with addiction and shame avoidance, but they are one of the most empathetic I have ever met. So, I grieved. I cried. I grieved and I cried. Drank some water, and cried some more. I didn’t know how I was going to ever deal with the intense shame and pain that this was causing. But, I couldnt unknow what I had learned. I wouldn’t be able to continue patters of narcissistic supply acquiring and discarding. And I began to see that I was the real problem in my past relationships. I was a big man-child with a fisher price tool box of emotional intelligence and adaptations, trying to build a house to store my relationships. The collapses were only my fault. So, I pitied myself for a while. But, eventually I realized that I needed to stop with the pity and start feeling compassion toward that little kid inside of me. I began to imagine what I would say if there were a child version of me handling things the way that I do. I would never condone the bad behavior, but I would help him to understand his emotions and control the behavior. This required a lot of honesty with myself and others, and a lot of reflection and mindfulness…. and many more tears. My friends and family would ask me constantly, “why are you crying?” I would sometimes feel deep grief over the simplest thing: something triggering a memory when I had hurt someone, or felt hurt, or failed to show empathy in my past. I felt real remorse. Not failure by itself, but actual remorse for hurting people that likely cared for me and trusted me to care for them in a healthy way. Realize that if someone you love is a narcissist and they do become healthy, more will change than just the bad behavior. I used to present myself is a scruffy, stoic, dominate male. This sort of thing would make me more attractive. The true me, is sensitive, emotional (but appropriate), compassionate, and more nurturing than other men my age. Sometimes, I feel pangs of shame when I see things online telling me to be the alpha male and setting that as the standard of manliness and attractiveness. I cannot be these things and maintain my authenticity. And honestly, trying to maintain that image may be toxic in and of itself. I made good efforts to stop all the behaviors I knew were manipulative or dishonest, which was not as easy nor in my control as I had always imagined. Once you feed the beast for 30 years, its hard to get it back in it’s cage. However, I was committed to honesty, even if it was humiliating. This meant humbling myself and saying specifically and out-loud, “That story wasn’t actually true and I was just aftaid if I didn’t tell something interesting, you guys would be bored with me.” or “I deflected responsibility back there but i was late for the meeting because I wouldn’t get off the phone, it had nothing to do with traffic. I am sorry I was late and I am even more sorry I tried to make an excuse that wasn’t truthful.” In my personal relationships, it meant owning a lot of things I have worked hard to make everyone else’s fault for a long time, and a good deal of it I have not even been aware of entirely. Old situations come to mind all the time, and I just say it out loud. You begin to realize that gaslighting was just a way of life, and many times you didn’t even know you were doing it. That is the really scary part, realizing that you aren’t always aware of your destructive behavior, so it isnt just a matter of ending it, but also learning about it. You become a detective in your own life and mind. This is where therapy really helps and challenges you to see life and relationships differently. You begin to see that once you stop bull$#!+ing people, you begin to stop believing that everyone is doing it to you. You begin to trust in the authenticity of others. And for all I know, perhaps they weren’t authentic before because they couldn’t afford to trust you enough to show you what is really going on with them. I know people like sam vaknin say that we never heal, and I certianly think i have a long way to go, but I think he is wrong. Or at least, that is his experience and this is mine. I think with time, things will keep getting better. I have fewer days where I am so fragile that I cry so much. I am starting to trust that I can be good and decent. I do not have a fear of being found-out anymore and that has made the anxiety all but disappear. Best of all, I am really connecting with my friends and family more. Relationships are being healed and I am realizing that we are all flawed, and people dont really need to hide their flaws with healthy people. Also, my curiosity about others has developed. I really want to know how the new job is going, if your son is enjoying playing team sports, how youre feeling today, and even if I have said or done something that has disappointed you. These are all opportunities to give and receive validation and significance. I understand this is long-winded (how narcissitic of me lol) but if you are looking to heal, I hope this provides some motivation. I may never be as though I never was, but we all carry scars. Learning that its ok to just be ok is fine. I am not perfect, but I dont expect anyone else to be anymore either. (there go the tears again 🙂 ) If you are hoping someone in your life will heal, then look to see if they become obsessed with this topic. I know I did. I became very curious to know how to heal. I think that is probably the best indicator that it might turn out alright. If they are just changing because you are threatening to leave but dont seem to be curious about the possibility that they have a very serious mental and personality disorder, then it’s probably just manipulation and love-bombing all over again. Healing or not, abuse is never ok. If you are being abused, then leave the situation. I hope the best for anyone reading this, and I am glad I appreciate having the chance to post something positive.
Thank you for this.
Thank you so much for this insight from the narc perspective Russell.
Hi Russell, thank you for your authentic sharing. Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boost, it is not proud. 1 Corinthians 13:4