“It wasn’t until I went through the horrible ‘use-and-abuse’ cycles too many times that I lost everything, and it dawned on me, that it was me.”a recovering narcissist
“I was the narcissist. I didn’t know I was the narcissist—I was just really unhappy with my life, and I was looking for that exact right thing that would fill the hole.”
This highlights something that’s isn’t talked about too often in the narcissism blogosphere. While some narcissists can make life hell for the people around them, this behaviour often comes from a place suffering.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying we should not feel sorry for people who engage in abuse – we should make no excuses for that. The point I’m moving towards, is aimed at narcissists themselves – understanding your narcissism, and working on managing it, is not just good for those around you – it’s good for you, too.
Are you a self-aware narcissist, who is ready to make a change? If so, the fact that you’re here, reading this article, is a good sign. But there’s a long path ahead. In this article, I want to lay out what you have in store for you, and hopefully, give you some tools that will help you succeed.
But before we get into how to stop being a narcissist, it might help to talk a little bit about what causes narcissism in the first place.
What Causes a Person To Become a Narcissist?
Unfortunately, researchers have not defined the causes of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) as clearly as they have with other conditions. However there are a couple of things we do know – first, that there is no single cause of narcissism (it springs out when a number of other factors are in place), and second, it starts early in life. Let’s look now at the two causes that, at this present time, we are pretty sure play a role in the development of NPD.
A number of studies have shown that there is a genetic aspect to narcissism – it runs in families. Now, this doesn’t mean that there’s a “narcissism gene”. More likely, it means that there’s a combination of genes that, when they end up in the same person, put that person at a higher risk of developing NPD.
It’s important to note that “genetic” does not mean “fixed.” It does seem like the genetic factors need to be in place, however, not everyone who has these genes will develop NPD. Certain experiences in childhood appear to “activate” these genes. Think of these genes like the trigger of a gun – the gun is harmless unless someone pulls it. You can learn more about narcissism and genetics in my main post about this: is narcissism genetic.
The impact of the parents
If genes are the trigger of NPD, then certain difficult childhood experiences seem to be the finger that pulls it. One study in 2015 tracked 565 children over a two year period. Throughout this time, they assessed the children for narcissistic traits – but they also assessed the parents, to find out their parenting style.
They found two key results.
Firstly, increases in narcissism were linked to overvaluation by the parents. When parents overvaluate, they pin every perfection they can think of onto the child, even when there is no cause, rhyme, or reason to do so.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with encouraging or praising children – it can help them build confidence and security. However, you can have too much of a good thing. With overvaluation, children start to need and expect this praise.
They don’t learn that praise and accolades in life come from their actions – from doing something moral, from working hard, from helping others. They simply expect it – and so when it doesn’t come, they have to get it in other ways.
The second key finding has to do with parental warmth. A secure, caring connection between parent and child is key to the development of self-esteem. However, this parental warmth is often lacking in narcissists’ childhoods. They are overvalued, but under-loved.
So when a parent is cold and indifferent – but at the same time, overvalues their child, well, you can see how NPD might spring up. The child ends up with both low self-esteem and a strong need for praise. Sound familiar?
Can You Stop Being a Narcissist?
So what’s the prognosis? Can you change from being a narcissist?
Well, compared to other conditions, the research on treatment for narcissism is pretty sparse.
There are no well-studied treatment approaches with proven success, and there are no medications that are recommended for the treatment of NPD. It is well-known to be a difficult condition to treat.
However, that’s not to say there is no hope, and there have been a number of positive results. Let’s look through the options available to you.
How To Not Be a Narcissist
Now that we know what we’re dealing with, we can start on solutions: how do you stop narcissism?
The first step is to realise that you probably won’t be able to pull yourself out of this by your own bootstraps. In all likelihood, you’re going to need help from a mental health professional.
For someone with NPD, this can be a difficult thing to do. Seeking help is not in the nature of narcissists, and the nature of therapy itself is something that narcissists will generally find quite difficult.
The relationship between therapist and client implies a superiority of the therapist – they are the expert, and you are going to them for help. You likely don’t see yourself as someone who would ever need help, so this immediately challenges your image of yourself. Also, simply asking for help in the first place implies there’s something about you that’s not perfect – which can be a hard pill to swallow.
Then there’s the process of therapy itself, which involves a transformation from your current view of yourself, to something else. That “something else” might be, in your eyes, a weaker, lesser, perhaps pitiable version of your current self. Of course, the truth is, that your current image of yourself is distorted, and path the way to improvement starts with realising and accepting this.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, of course. And when you come out the other side, you’ll have a more secure self-esteem than you do now, you’ll be able to maintain healthier relationships, and your behaviour will be less harmful to others. The problem is, it’s not easy to go through that tunnel! Indeed, one study in 2009 found a 63% drop-out rate for narcissism treatment.
When treatment works, it often takes many years, and it’s not so much about “curing” yourself. The outcome is more about managing the condition, while making small, slow, and gradual improvements.
I’m not saying this to put you off – I’m saying it to prepare you. And with that said, let’s now look at a few ways you can improve your odds.
Find a therapist who specialises in NPD
Treating someone with NPD is kind of a unique situation. Your odds will be much better if you can find a therapist in your area who has experience in treating the condition. Such therapists will have a better idea of what you’re going through, simply because they’ve worked with many people who have similar symptoms to you. They’ll also be more up-to-date on the latest research in the field, and they’ll have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t.
Stick to the program
Treating NPD is usually a multi-year process, and, as we’ve just learned, many people who take the brave step of seeking help end up dropping out of the process.
There are two common reasons people drop out of therapy.
The first, is because it’s too difficult. Therapy involves being vulnerable, facing old wounds that might go back to childhood, and taking an honest look at oneself even though we might not like what we see at first. Things might get worse before they get better, and many can’t face that.
The second reason, is almost the opposite – they get some quick improvements, and assume they’re finished. This might be an initial improvement in their symptoms, or maybe someone pushed them into therapy, and now they feel they’ve done enough to appease that person.
Understand that if you want to learn how to be less narcissistic, you’re in it for the long haul. There will be ups and downs, and both present a risk of dropping out. But your best chance is to stick with it long-term.
Understand your own psychology
One big hurdle in the treatment of NPD is a lack of self-awareness. Narcissists are often very reactive – for example you may find that you become angry or frustrated with other people very easily. But you don’t have a deep knowledge of why you do this.
The first step is to build self-awareness by understanding your own psychology. This is a key aspect of something called “schema therapy”, which is related to cognitive-behavioural therapy. In this process, you identify and label your common ways of acting and behaving.
For example, say you often become frustrated when you’re not the focus of the conversation, and this leads you to take control of the conversation and bring the topic back where you want it. That is a schema. You might label that the “attention seeker” schema. Once you know you do this, and you have a name for it, you can try to notice it when it arises, and step in with a different behaviour – a new schema.
It’s a common misconception that narcissists have no empathy. The reality is more complicated than that. Psychologists believe that many narcissists have impaired empathy – it may be present, at certain times, or with certain people. You might even have moments where you feel strong empathy, and actually do something very selfless for another person. But generally speaking, for narcissists, empathy is at a much lower level than we see in people without NPD.
However, the fact that there’s some there at all gives us something to work with, and it turns out that empathy is a bit like building muscle in a gym – you can build it through training. Just as not everyone has the potential to become a champion bodybuilder, not all of us can become ultra-empaths. But we can all make improvements if we work on it.
There are three types of empathy you can develop, these are called “cognitive empathy”, “emotional empathy”, and “empathic concern.”
This means developing an intellectual understanding of other people’s wants and needs. So you might consciously ask yourself, “What does my wife want or need from me right now?” If she acts in a certain way, or says a certain thing, try to identify her wants and needs (it can sometimes be easiest to just ask), and then – importantly – do what you can to fulfil these needs.
This will go against the grain of your natural instincts, which are to focus on your own wants and needs, and to make sure that these are fulfilled. It will feel uncomfortable at first, like you’re giving up control. This is why it has to be a conscious, deliberate process – you’re trying to become more aware of where your natural instincts are, and then step in with new habits.
This means developing an emotional understanding of other people. You have to put yourself in their shoes, and imagine that you are them. If you experienced what they did, how would it make you feel? Try to visualise, and really get into the mindset of the other person, until you actually feel the emotion that they would be feeling in that situation.
It can be especially useful to do this regarding your own behaviour. How would you feel if someone spoke to you the way you just spoke to your work colleague? If it would make you feel bad, then don’t say things like that to others!
Again, at first it will be a conscious, deliberate exercise, and not necessarily something you are able to do automatically or “on the fly.” You’ll probably start by taking a few minutes out each day while alone to do this. Then when you get better at it, you can start using it in the moment.
This is going a step further from knowing and feeling what another person is going through, to having concern for their well-being. This is a process that you can learn, and it usually takes the form of meditations, in which you try to generate feelings of concern and compassion for another person. There is a good example of such a mediation here.
Stopping Narcissistic Behaviour
Up to now, we’ve mostly focused on the internal world – fixing the issue from the inside out. But we can go the other direction too – stopping narcissistic behaviours. It’s important to do both, of course, but working from the “outside-in” might be where the “quick wins” are, especially in terms of the quality of your relationships with other people.
This might seem like a band-aid solution, covering over the condition without changing it, but it’s more than that. For one thing, if you want to learn how to stop being narcissistic, the behaviours have to change at some point. Why not work on them directly?
But beyond that, how we consistently act over time begins to shape our psychology. So identifying the behaviours that need to change (and your schema therapy can help with this part), and learning new habits, is an important part of the process too.
Here’s where to start.
Stop devaluing others
For people with NPD, devaluing other people can become habitual. It’s a quick easy way to get a boost in self-esteem, or otherwise to feel a little better, at the expense of another person. Examples might include, making fun of someone because you feel bored, or insulting someone because you aren’t getting enough attention from them.
If you want to overcome NPD and develop a true sense of self-worth, this is something that has to stop. And if you really think about it, devaluing is simply a sign of weakness in itself – you use it to make yourself feel better, or stronger. But people with true self-worth don’t feel this need in the first place.
Try to notice when you do this, and no matter what prompted it, just let it slide. This means you’ll have to feel some discomfort, instead of resorting to this negative defence mechanism. Which brings me to…
Let unpleasant feelings be
Many narcissistic behaviours are a reaction to an unpleasant emotional state. You feel insecure, attacked, bored, weak, unimportant – and so you do something about this. Maybe you lie, take over a conversation, brag, throw insults, or devalue someone. You think you are gaining back control by doing this, but you really aren’t. The emotions are in control of you.
If you are able to “be with” these unpleasant feelings, you won’t feel the need to respond to them. This is a principle you can learn with mindfulness meditation. It takes practice, of course, but if you can just let that unpleasant feeling just be there, and experience it without reacting to it, it will soon pass – or at least reduce in its intensity.
Learn to listen
A common trait of narcissists is their dominance of conversation. Someone just spent a week in Mexico? That’s nothing, you went abroad for six months last year. They just got a new job? Yeah well you earn more in yours. There’s this urge to bring the conversation back to what where you want it to be, and maybe big yourself up in the process.
Instead, learn to listen. When people tell you something, ask them more about it. Use open-ended questions, rather than yes/no questions. And really listen to their answers, pay full attention. Listen, and then respond – without changing the topic.
So, Can You Change From Being a Narcissist?
Can you stop being a Narcissist? Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground here! If there’s one conclusion I could draw from all of this, it’s that change is possible, but it will take time and a lot effort. But if you’re willing to put in the work, and you stick to it long-term, there’s a better life on the other side, for you and for other people.