In my coaching practice, helping people navigate dysfunctional relationships, one of the most common questions I get is “Can a narcissist change?”
Today we’re going to talk about a few key distinctions regarding a narcissist and talk about what you need to know to see if someone can change or not.
First, this is just my opinion. Although it’s an educated perspective with over a decade of hands-on experience, I’m not necessarily giving you the gospel or an absolute answer. What I am doing is giving you food for thought. So, know that even if you hear something today that doesn’t give you a lot of hope that they’re going to change, you may still be on the fence about whether you should stay or go and you may need more clarity. Of course, I always recommend seeking out wise counsel such as a codependency coach (like myself) or a therapist to help you further.
In any case, you don’t have to make any big decisions today; you just have to take the first step which is cultivating awareness .
A lot of time we stay in a dysfunctional or toxic relationship because we don’t even know we’re in one. We just think of it as being “complicated” or we believe we’re with a “difficult person”. There’s a big difference between someone with tendencies to be narcissistic and someone who has narcissistic personality disorder. As laypeople, (not psychologists) we don’t necessarily make the distinction between those two things but we sure as heck throw that word around a lot!
Most lump everybody into the category of narcissist and conflate that with actually having a disorder. The truth is many times somebody isn’t a diagnosable narcissistic but has a lot of the same watered down traits. It’s important that we suss that out because those differences answer the question, “Can a narcissist change?”
What we’re really talking about is nature versus nurture. From my perspective and for the purposes of explaining this, Nature is like a deep embedded psychological disorder that has a low probability for change. This is how someone IS. Nurture is a behavior pattern that one adopts that hasn’t been ingrained; it’s just the way they’re “showing up”. This is how someone is behaving. Nurture can change. Nature likely does not.
I work with people all of the time to help them undo those dysfunctional “Nurture” behavior patterns they adopted as a way to connect, thrive, survive, connect or cope. I call them Attachment Personality Patterns. Think of these as attachment styles. And these can be changed.
And I work with others to help them see and accept other’s true “Nature”, helping them let go of unrealistic, hurtful and self damaging expectations they hold for others to be someone other than who they are and are not capable of being.
Obviously, knowing the difference between the two is paramount. This is by no means a complete list of traits.I am not attempting to diagnose anyone (One needs to employ a Psychologist for a diagnostic session to do that). I’m simply putting forth an educated and experienced perspective to help increase your awareness.
Let’s review some common criteria for narcissistic tendencies.
- A feeling of superiority. There is a belief that they are better than everyone if not most people. They do not see themselves as having any issues and often project those issues onto others. They believe their way of thinking and believing is the absolute right and best way. In a class I took at Yale, I learned that most people actually think they’re better looking than they are. smarter than they are and are optimistic when it comes to themselves. So we can all run the risk of thinking we’re superior.
But it crosses a line whenever a person degrades other people,constantly putting other people down to just propel themselves up. Narcissism at the end of the day, is this is a regulation tool to regulate self-esteem. You need to ask the question, “Is this person attempting to make themselves feel better by pretending they are better? And they know they’re pretending? If they’re putting on an act, they can lay down the role and choose another character. They can change. .
But what if this person truly believes they ARE better?
Is this person dismissive and putting people down, being extremely judgmental? Do they believe that their way is the only way and the right way? If so, the odds of somebody like that changing that behavior is slim. A person like that is in denial and unable to recognize that their superiority is a problem.
2. A sense of entitlement.
We can all run the risk of believing we are entitled and on our worst behavior, we may demand we be treated better or differently. We can go to the restaurant and just be expected to get seated right away. Or, we think we should get the best seat, the best deal, or the best outcome. Some even have the belief they shouldn’t’ have to work that hard for anything. And if we can recognize our tendencies to behave this way, we can change it!
So, when does that behavior move from annoying and changeable to engrained and dangerous? When a true narcissist feels so entitled that they TAKE from you or anyone else whatever it is they desire without regard to how you feel about it. What likely cannot change is somebody who demands you go along with what they demand. There’s an intense element of control over you.
This type of person will take from you when you are not willing to give it. This can get into an abusive situation. If you are being violated emotionally physically, financially or sexually, you can take steps to remove yourself and discuss it with someone at www.thehotline.org.
A Narcissist takes and takes without regard to you because a Narcissistic Personality Disorder lacks empathy. They do NOT have insight into how their behavior is impacting you and if they do suddenly seem to feel remorse, it’s often in an attempt to manipulate you into coming back to them.
This person is not going to change.
3. A lack of empathy. At a benign level, this shows up as someone being emotionally slow on the uptake. They don’t have a handle on how to see others perspectives. One will say something like, “I just don’t get why people feel bad for addicts or homeless people. They should get a job.” This is a lack of compassion. But it turns into a lack of empathy when someone cannot understand why someone is suffering. One might say, “I don’t get why they feel bad. They should just change it.”
I think we do this a lot in our society with “toxic positivity”. We want to tell people to suck it up, stop feeling bad and get off the pity pot. We tell them to put their big girl pants on or to buck up, toughen up. Not allowing or being able to see others feelings is a lack of empathy. We can all fall into this category from time to time and this doesn’t make us a diagnosable narcissist. And this, we CAN change.
But when is it likely NOT to change?
When someone is actively hurting another human being and living in complete denial of that fact. When the narcissist continues to inflict emotional, psychological, physical or financial pain on another person/people and does not stop the behavior when confronted with the feelings of the others, this is pathological.
And/or when the narcissist is confronted with hurting you and gaslights you. I’ve done other videos and written other articles detailing gaslighting. But in essence, it’s when one attempts to make you question your own perceptions, beliefs or reality. They may even blame you for playing a supposed part in the pain they inflicted. Or they tell you how to think, feel or behave about the pain they inflicted.. This is very sick, manipulative and will not change.
4. Manipulation Tactics. To some extent, many of us play games, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. There are Youtube videos with millions of views where the title is, “How to make him want you. “How to get her to text you back.” “How to make him crazy for you. “How to win her back.” That’s ALL manipulation and they are games we play to trigger people’s insecurity. This is changeable if we can recognize and interrupt the games we play, trading it for a more authentic experience which will create more meaningful relationships.
But when is it likely not to change? When the manipulation feels like the gaslighting I mentioned earlier. There’s an element of feeling like you’re crazy. You start to believe the lies and accept unacceptable behavior. You find that you “keep getting sucked back in” despite your best intentions to move on.
Instead of wondering why they haven’t texted you back, you start to wonder if they even like you because they play a game like an avoidant personality: “I love you, go away.”I hate you, don’t leave me.” “they blame you for their infidelity of unacceptable behavior and you believe it.
5. Control Issues. Alright, I confess. I can be a very controlling person. If you’re into the Enneagram I happen to be an 8. And an 8 on the Enneagram is a confident assured person who likes control and power. While that can be a very good thing for helping YOU find YOUR power, it can also be destructive when it’s unhealthy. Before I did the work necessary to heal my codependency (controlling is a pattern), I found myself trying to curate other’s opinions of me by controlling what others saw in me, only sharing just enough but still maintaining distance. I saw vulnerability as weakness, so I felt I needed to maintain control of myself, and sometimes others, at all times. I didn’t want others to make “mistakes” so I attempted to control how they did things to ensure the “best “ outcome. Healthy? NO! Changeable? YES! I knew controlling things was killing me. It actually contributed to an immense anxiety issue that I self medicate with alcohol. So, when I healed, I learned the art of surrender which I used to think was a dirty word. My study of taoism has helped me tremendously with this concept.
It becomes troubling and unlikely unchangeable when you’re not “allowed” to have a different opinion from someone and you are being convinced how to think, feel and behave. You’re not “allowed” to express your feelings when they’re differing. The problem is in the “Not Allowed”. If at any time you feel you’re not “allowed” to do anything, this is a dangerous and controlling partner. And likely not to change. I’ve worked with clients who ask, “What if they are controlling me for my own good?”
Well, to believe that any of us truly has any control over another human being is the ultimate narcissistic viewpoint.
So, can a narcissist change?
Hopefully you know now that the only time things are likely to change is when you’re dealing with someone who has narcissistic tendencies not someone who has a Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
If one has this disorder, research shows that only long term therapy is helpful, however little change is actually made if at all. The truth about why narcissists don’t change is actually because by the nature of their disorder, they don’t recognize they have a problem.
Most are forced into therapy by way of threatened connection. And they go begrudgingly, mostly in the hopes to clear their name.
Now what? If you’re in a relationship and you are identifying that these are only tendencies and not a diagnosable disorder, this is great news! Things can change! And you can seek out support to take the next steps!
But what if you see this may be unchangeable? You have to ask yourself if you’re willing to stay with this person if nothing changes.
Thanks for reading and I hope you found this helpful. If you’d like more help and resources you can find them at www.LoveCoachHeidi.Com