Can a narcissist change?
The most prominent quality of someone with narcissistic personality disorder or narcissistic tendencies is that they are very single-minded, often believing that they are never in the wrong.
They are stubborn and steadfast in their views of the world, themselves, and the people around them. So how do you get someone who is controlling and thinks they are always right to change their tendencies or even want to change them in the first place? Is it even possible?
“Not all narcissists can change,” says Elinor Greenberg, PhD, a licensed psychologist and author of Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety. “They have to be very motivated and willing to self-reflect. But if they are, it is possible.” Here are the conditions they must meet and the keys to helping a narcissist you love change their behaviors and become more empathetic and caring.
The extent of their narcissism
There are different degrees of narcissism a person may possess or project, and where they land on that spectrum plays a role in the likelihood that they can change.
“People can adopt narcissistic tendencies and behaviors when feeling physically or emotionally threatened, or if they’re in the throes of addiction or another mental health issue. In these cases, once the threat is removed or addressed, empathy and self-awareness can return,” says Mike Gallagher, licensed professional clinical counselor and clinical director at the Shoreline Recovery Center in Encinitas, California.
“With narcissistic personality disorder, though, we are dealing with a personality and not a situation or circumstance. Changing a personality, which is a construct of characteristics and qualities that develop through experience, is extremely difficult.”
Greenberg notes that some forms of therapy, such as types that focus on childhood relationships (object relations therapy), are successful with people with a narcissistic personality disorder. Some strategies can help them change their behaviors. But for those with a diagnosed personality disorder, the road to change will be longer.
(Here are some narcissist quotes that can help you deal with the narcissist in your life.)
The change has to be their idea
“One of the most frequent requests I get is a spouse who wants to get their narcissistic mate into therapy under another pretense. That doesn’t really work,” shares Greenberg. To start to evaluate their tendencies and how they act towards those around them, the narcissist needs to be the one who decides they want to make a change.
But that doesn’t mean friends and family can’t offer a little help to get them to that point. “The best strategy is not to change the person’s narcissism directly, but instead, to change the person’s desire to change,” says W. Keith Campbell, PhD, psychology professor at the University of Georgia and author of The New Science of Narcissism. “In other words, convince the narcissist to want to change, and then you can help if needed, but they must do the changing alone.”
For example, this strategy may work if the narcissist naturally has a mind for psychology. “Some narcissists will get really involved in their own therapy,” notes Greenberg, adding that if they are made an ally in their own journey to self-awareness, then they may feel a degree of power and control in the process that spurs their desire to change.
(Here’s how reframing your thoughts can change your life.)
The motivation itself is the most crucial step toward change—if the narcissist doesn’t have a reason to want to change, then change is unlikely to occur.
One common reason for change that Greenberg sees is that the narcissist feels like a failure or feels they are about to be exposed as one. “I’ve seen people who experience such a severe failure that they are in a self-hating depression as a result,” she says. “They know they are narcissists, but they have also reached their lowest and don’t know how to get themselves out.”
While reaching bottom can certainly be bleak, both for the person experiencing it and those around them, it may be the motivation they need to reckon with the narcissist in the mirror.
But hitting rock bottom is not the only way to motivate change. “Many people with narcissistic personality disorder will make changes to their behavior if there are perceived benefits,” says Gallagher. “Enacting change in these cases often revolves around creating habitual structures that reward the narcissist for changing.” And those structures and conditions must always center around the narcissist’s behavior and that alone.
“When I’m in therapy with a narcissist, the only things they are allowed to talk about are what they want for themselves, what they want to change,” Greenberg explains. “They can’t tell tangential stories, blame other people for things, or complain about their partner. It has to be about them.”
While this may be painful at first, it forces the narcissist to reconcile with their behaviors while also giving them a challenge that they need to meet, which will help them work toward change.
(Here are the signs of narcissistic abuse.)
Understanding what needs changing
In 2018, Campbell co-authored a study published in Personality Disorders that provided a game-changing clue into what might motivate narcissists to change. “I had thought for years (and the field had thought so as well) that narcissists, especially grandiose narcissists, didn’t want to change because they loved who they were,” he explains.
“In some ways, this is still what we observe. Grandiose narcissists have high self-esteem, are happy, and feel closer to their ideal selves than the rest of us. When it comes to their more antagonistic and callous personality traits, however, such as their manipulative nature or lack of empathy, narcissists typically see these qualities as negative and want to change them.”
This is a critical finding, especially for the people pulling for a narcissist they know to make a change, as it posits that they already know that they possess traits that are worth changing. The key, then, lies not in convincing them that they need to change but in being patient, making it clear when they are antagonistic or callous, and helping them reach a point at which they will choose to pursue change on their own.
“In this case,” adds Campbell, “we want to encourage narcissistic individuals to map out the life that they want to have and then consider how their narcissistic personality interferes with that.”
The bottom line
“Changing another’s personality is a challenge,” says Campbell. “The challenge is that narcissism is a trade-off, so it isn’t as simple as getting rid of traits. People are complex.” But new research and therapists’ continuing experience reveal that if the narcissist has the motivation and the will to change, then change is possible.