Yes, Narcissists Can Change—Here's How
The Path to Change
Contrary to popular belief, narcissists can change. They cannot change or heal their narcissism, but they can (and do) change their behavior. The problem has never been that narcissists cannot change. The problem is that the narcissist is generally unwilling to change. Changing a behavior means that the narcissist must admit that their behavior was wrong. Generally they are unwilling (or unable) to do that. However, depending on the circumstances, the narcissist can indeed be motivated to change.
The process for change involves:
- The narcissist's ability to understand that their own actions are creating their negative feelings.
- They must hate how the behavior makes them feel so much that they don't want to feel that way anymore.
- They must be able to understand that this behavior is a choice they are making.
- They must be able to recognize when the choice is being made and make a different one—even when they are upset.
Keep in Mind
Since love and selflessness are unfamiliar to narcissists, only their personal interests can make them change their behavior.
Now, don't misunderstand this. The motivation is always a selfish and internal one. It has nothing to do with other people, which is why appealing to a narcissist generally will not work. Telling them how much they are hurting you or upsetting you does not sway them. It means nothing to them, in practical terms. They're just words, and typically is interpreted as blame which they connect to shame. An important distinction to make here is that we are not talking about remorse—we are talking about shame. Remorse is felt for other people, and narcissists are not capable of remorse because it is connected to empathy, which they generally don't have. Shame, however, especially pathological, unreasonable shame, is an old enemy of the narcissist. It triggers rage in them and puts them on the defensive. Now there's a fight, and an angry narcissist is impossible to get through to. Their disorder specifically prevents this, regardless of what you say or how you say it. So remember: narcissists don't care about your feelings at all. They only care about theirs.
Using logic won't work either, because narcissists believe their feelings are facts. This is illogical and unreasonable, but it is how they operate and you cannot reason with it. There is nothing you can do to create or motivate a change within the narcissist. The narcissist will only change their behavior on their terms, and for their reasons, no one else.
Overcoming Patterns and Impulses
Another big part of the problem is that many of the narcissist's behaviors are deeply-ingrained habits and patterns. They gave themselves permission years ago to act the way they do, and this permission was reinforced by enablers around them. In this way, they are like children: if the behavior is rewarded, it will be repeated. Narcissists that throw fits or become violent have likely been that way their entire lives. It's what they do when they are upset. This behavior is second nature to them by now and it has been reinforced by the fact that it worked in whatever way they need it to work. Because this behavior has been reinforced and repeated so long, it may no longer feel like a choice to them. They may claim it "just happens" and that they are unable to control it. It isn't that they can't control their behavior, but that they don't think before they act.
Narcissists simply react a lot of the time. They are impulsive and careless. Even when they seem to be planning schemes and manipulations, they are simply reacting to a need or want they have without thinking about the consequences of what they are doing. These things don't matter. All that matters is need and want. Because of their magical thinking, they believe it will all work out fine, and because of their denial, they are able to justify everything they do. This all takes place after their impulse though. It is a reaction to their reaction, so to speak.
Knee-Jerk Reactions and Consequences
As an example, a former client was married to a very physically-abusive narcissist. The narcissist claimed that he didn't want to be violent because he didn't want to be that kind of person (notice it had nothing to do with the pain he was causing his wife, only shame for himself), but that he couldn't help himself because it was just a knee-jerk reaction that happened when he got upset. This couple adopted a large breed male dog as a pup and as the pup got older, he began to confront the narcissist when the narcissist would physically attack the wife, even biting the narcissist on more than one occasion. The dog got very large, so the narcissist became afraid of him and stopped hitting the wife out of fear of injury.
The interesting thing is that not even a year later, the dog sadly had to be put to sleep (for an unrelated reason) and even though the threat to the narcissist's safety was not around anymore, he did not resume hitting his wife. It seemed to be that the "knee-jerk reaction" of hitting his wife was not a knee-jerk reaction after all, but a choice he was making without realizing it. A habit, for lack of a better word. A pattern. The advent of the dog into the situation forced the narcissist to stop and think before he did something and once he did that, he was able to consider the consequences and make the choice not to do it. As of this writing, he has not been physical with his wife again, and that was years ago. He's still a narcissist of course, but he is not physically violent anymore. He was forced to think before he acted and the pattern was broken. After that, he got into a different pattern and did not go back to the old one. This is a unique situation, but it is one that shows that narcissists can change their behavior if there are severe enough internal and external consequences.
Behavior Modification and Internal Consequences
Consequences only work if someone understands them and if they care. For example, ending the relationship with the narcissist only matters if the loss of the relationship means something to the narcissist about himself. If it doesn't, this is no threat and therefore, no consequence. The narcissist doesn't care about what you think of their behavior. They live behind Teflon armor and your feelings, accusations and complaints can't touch them. In order for narcissists to be motivated to change their behavior, they have to dislike their own behavior and the way it makes them feel so much that they don't want to feel that way anymore, and they have to be able to remain focused on that even when they are upset. This is the only thing that will motivate a narcissist to change something they are doing: their own feelings.
Because they are experts in justification, denial, compartmentalization and blame shifting, it is very hard for this situation to come about. They have to realize their own behavior is the problem before they can stop doing it. In our example involving the dog, the narcissist was able to justify his behavior for years by blaming his wife for causing it and by claiming it was just an uncontrollable reaction when he got angry. And it probably was, because he had no idea how to go back and rescind permission for himself to behave that way, and no idea how to react a different way than the way he had always reacted. However, once a consequence was introduced to the situation that forced him to stop and think, he controlled himself. He did not go back to that behavior even when the external consequence - the dog - was gone because he did not like the way doing those things made him feel. He did not like thinking of himself as the kind of man who hits women.
While the negative external consequence may have been the vehicle through which the behavior modification was possible, it is the negative internal consequence that made it a true change. If it were solely dependent on external consequences, the change would not have been permanent, and abuse would have started back up as soon as the dog was no longer present.
This is true for most behavior modification and most motivation for change. People have to truly feel it or it won't last. The difference with narcissists is that because of their disorder it is much harder for them to see that their behavior is a problem. Narcissists justify their trouble behaviors in many different ways, and it's very hard to see something is wrong or should change if you feel justified in doing it. How can it be wrong when you have a reason?
Looking again to our domestic abuse example, what took the narcissist so long to change his behavior was that he felt totally justified in hitting his wife. He didn't like the way it made him feel afterward and he knew it was not the right thing to do, but it was her fault for upsetting him and pushing his buttons. She should change, then the problem would be solved and he wouldn't have to feel bad about himself. In this way, narcissists neatly and effectively remove any possibility of seeing a problem with their own behavior. The narrative is, "No, it wasn't wrong because of this." Or "Yes, it was wrong but you made me do it." Narcissists do understand right from wrong. They just don't believe they did anything wrong because they have "reasons" and those reasons are always feelings. The problem is always somebody else causing feelings in them. This is of course, not true. People are responsible for their own feelings and their reactions to those feelings. Narcissists see themselves as simply reacting to things that are happening to them, rather than as someone who is in control of things happening. As long as this is true, behavior is very difficult to change.
Making the Choice to Change
So, in order to change negative or abusive behavior the narcissist must first, be able to understand that their own actions are creating their negative feelings. Secondly, they must hate how the behavior makes them feel so much that they don't want to feel that way anymore. Thirdly, they must be able to understand that this behavior is a choice they are making, and fourth, they must be able to recognize when the choice is being made and make a different one - even when they are upset.
These are all things that are extremely difficult for narcissists to do. Their disorder was created as a way to prevent them from taking unreasonable blame and criticism as children but has deformed and evolved into something that will not let them take responsibility for anything as adults. They also have serious issues with impulse control, controlling their emotions and self-control in general. These are all things that make even just recognizing, let alone changing problem behaviors extremely difficult. In the end, the task is just too great for many of them.
Yes, narcissists can change their behavior. Since narcissism is a spectrum, some may have an easier time than others. But holding your breath waiting for them to want to do so is usually not advisable. It took them years to get into those patterns and it can take years to get out of them. Many never make it. And even if they do change some of their behavior, they are still narcissists. They can no more change this than you can grow two inches by tomorrow. They cannot feel empathy for other people, they cannot love other people. They cannot become someone else any more than anybody else can. Even the best you could hope for from a narcissist is really no hope at all.
Maintaining Motivation by Celebrating Small Victories
Overcoming narcissistic tendencies is about incremental victories. So far, this article has highlighted the importance of balancing the external and internal motivation. Health and wellness expert Caleb Backe recaps what the uphill journey will entail: "one of the key ways that narcissists are able to identify their need to change is through the meaningful consequence of change. There’s needs to be something motivating them, and their own needs that will benefit them if they became less narcissistic. Whether this is the possibility of losing a loved one or the threat of losing their job, there needs to be a trigger for them to see that they need to change their ways." The idea to maintain motivation is inspired by the "bottom-out" process.
Maintaining motivation is integral in the narcissist's commitment to cultivating a healthy relationship with anyone, especially a partnership with their significant other. They most overcome their own unpredictability that comes with being self-centered and unconcerned with the needs of their partner. Ultimately, these dynamics unbalance the relationship. Psychologically, it’s hard to focus on the other person’s needs when your own needs are screaming out to be cared for. Narcissists unknowingly sabotage the dual nature of the relationship in this way and end up being unapologetic about their priorities.
Acquiring and maintaining the motivation for change comes from understanding what’s at stake if they don’t change and what’s to gain if they do. Setting up boundaries and being more mindful are all ways to enhance their understanding of why this change is so important and necessary.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.