Yes, Narcissists Can Change—Here's How

Updated on December 23, 2018
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The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach and specialist in cluster B personality disorders.

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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:

  1. The narcissist's ability to understand that their own actions are creating their negative feelings.
  2. They must hate how the behavior makes them feel so much that they don't want to feel that way anymore.
  3. They must be able to understand that this behavior is a choice they are making.
  4. 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.

Narcissists are more inclined to feel shame than remorse, and they do not take the feeling lightly.
Narcissists are more inclined to feel shame than remorse, and they do not take the feeling lightly. | Source

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.

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Michelle 

        2 weeks ago

        A narcissist CANNOT and DOES NOT love you, so you have to make a choice of whether you want this type of relationship or not. I chose not and I divorced the narcissist in my life. If you are struggling with your feelings for the narcissist (like I did), may I suggest that you watch a few of the YouTube videos from The Royal We. The guy's name is Kevin and he even leaves his phone number if you need to talk about the abuse that you have experienced. God bless you all!

      • profile image

        Tina 

        2 weeks ago

        I recently came out of a relationship with a narcissist. We got married very fast (5 months) at his pressure. We only lasted 6 months until I was feeling like I was going crazy. We separated and tried counselling for 9 months with no change. The same cycle repeated over and over again. I have given up on him unfortunately. We will be divorced in March. Terrible spiral of fear, losing trust and pain. I can't fix him because he doesn't accept his actions. So much of what was said here is true. Thank you for the info.

      • profile image

        Laurencia 

        5 weeks ago

        Learning about narcissism enabled me to filed for divorce after thirty years. Now he is trying to convince me that things can change for the good after marriage counselling, which he refused in the past. The counseller is also convince that if I give him a chance, I will see a good man. Must I tell her that he is a narcist who is playing a game? How is it possible that she cant see through it?

      • profile image

        sushma 

        8 weeks ago

        my mother gets angry easily and shouts at my father and me. when we speak back to her words she gets tempted and hits her head to the wall and hit her head with the things like scissors, bottles and whatever is near to her. she falls down and shouts loudly and cries. she always says that my father doesnot work every thing in my home and our business is done by only my mother. she always insults my father by saying that he is irresponsible bt actually not. my father works alot more than my mother. she degrades everyone that she is very talented hardworker etc. is my mother suffering from narsiccist behaviour??

      • profile image

        Emilia 

        2 months ago

        For Josh,

        The fact that you are able to critisize yourself and see the faults in your behavior already shows, that you are most likely cabable in change and not "true narc", but perhaps one with several narcissist traits of personality. Believe me, I know, have been on a realtionship with narc for years now, and trying to fight myself. He is a typical narc and will never be able to see himself or his behaviour in realistic light. (Excuse any mispellings, writing this from a far away country, while seeking for help and trying to understand)...Just try to grow compassion on others and yourself.And be honest.

      • profile image

        Josh 

        2 months ago

        I am starting to realize that I am somewhere on this spectrum of narcissism, and it’s absolutey terrifying and extremely depressing to realize. It also makes complete sense when I look at my home life and how I was raised, my past relationship, my job, my relationships with my family. I don’t know if I’m one of those “rare” cases or not where you can break the habits but not the condition. I sincerely hope so. Most of the stuff I’ve read online this week says to turn tail and run from a narc, which I think is partly the problem. I think there is absolutely value in trying to understand the behavior better. That’s not to say it’s a reason to stay with a relationship with a narcissist.

        Anyways, not in a good place right now..

      • profile image

        Mary 

        2 months ago

        I have read a lot of information on narcissism through the years. This article was so helpful to me today, as I've once again been on the other end of a narcissist- my own son. His father is a narcissist and unfortunately our son began showing strong signs around the age of 11. I know it will never get better, it has been one heck of a painful almost 15 years of great heartache with my son. He is so evil, callous and without a trace of empathy or heart. This article describes both my son and my ex-husband perfectly. It's so sad for those of us who love them. I feel my son died long ago and resurrected into the devil himself. :(

      • profile image

        Cathy 

        3 months ago

        I recently was discarded by what I guess is a Narcissist...I didn’t even know they were capable of what they have done to me until they discarded me without an explanation or give me answers to all my questions....I don’t understand how they could tell me everyday that they love me and then just throw me away like a piece of trash and not care what it did to me...and they did it through a break up text message..we were together for 20 months and engaged and ready to be married...and then he broke up with me 2 weeks before we were suppose to be married...and will not talk to me or explain...and I have found out that he is getting involved with another woman already...that he says he is in love with them...and I think he is going to ask her to marry him already...I can’t understand any of this cause I have never dealt with anyone like this before in my life...it has devastated me so much that I feel so worthless now and that it was all my fault because he is telling everyone that I was too controlling...that I am to blame...so I hate myself for causing this to happen...I don’t want to be without him...I don’t know what to don’t know what to do anymore...

      • profile image

        Renea 

        3 months ago

        Ive been dealing with a narcisist for 3 yrs now i'm really coming to terms that this is just who he is and he will never change. We have 1 son together and another on the way. He chooses to wkrk and be around people that give him validation than to be around his own family. I believe mostly because he feels ashamed of the things hes done and feel inadequate that he can change. It hurts because he wasnt there for me when i had my first son znd hes not been here during this pregnancy. He comes around when its convenient for him. However at this point ive thrown up both my hsnds I have lost hope in him and the relationship or lack there of. Im healing for myself and my kids. Im sure hes off with other women says hes out of town now visiting his daughter he just lies and lies but i domt even question his behavior anymore. Its a waste of time and energy that is better used somewhere else. I will definately have my guard up when dating again which will be sometime from now. Healing my heart...Healing my soul

      • profile image

        Ana 

        4 months ago

        I am in a similar situation and understanding Narcissism is a "disorder" makes it clear there is some screws missing on these people. I guess the last advice is valid: dont have hope.

      • profile image

        Anne 

        4 months ago

        I think my partner is a narcissist, and I am an empath. He rarely tells me he loves me, but I think he needs me, so no matter how many times he would cheat, lot of times without being caught, he couldn't find someone else to like or choose over me. It's too painful. But somehow, lately, he would agree to my requests, without telling me of course... Maybe because I compliment him a lot. Yes, he loves compliments, sometimes he would forget about earning when there's an opportunity to be complimented. I urged him to be a speaker, because he's good at it and when he wouldn't do what should be done for the family, I would sometimes tell him, he considers himself a leader yet he wouldn't practice what he teaches. I don't tell him to his face, he avoids personal talks, he loves to talk about his work but never cared to ask about my day. I usually text him, and he learned not to read them. So when he tells me somebody texted him, I'd tell him he's always busy for everyone else except me. He hates to see me cry, he would blame me, but I'd learned that the best thing is to throw back his own words. It's so hard, sometimes I just want to disappear so that he might know what I really mean to him.

      • profile image

        Cheree’ 

        4 months ago

        Sad! Truly sad.

      • profile image

        Kaye 

        8 months ago

        My husband the narcissist. Nearly killed me, with my own meds in my morning coffee he made for me everyday. It was super scared once I figured out what he was doing. He did this to me for 2 years. Once away from him for a weekend I wasn’t sick anymore.

      • profile image

        Deepak Bhatia 

        8 months ago

        If a Narcissist genuinely realise that he has a problem and he would like to change. Are there any recommendations for him which will help him change and make it permanent change in his core personality. Please

      • profile image

        Trusted 

        9 months ago

        Totally agree that Narcisst will change for them. I'm married to one. Things went way south after my daughter was born. But I also learned to be more confident before him. When he throws his rants, I look into his face and won't move from where I'm right in front of him. After he is done shaking up, I used to sum up why he is upset and always added "I thought you can better handle this small problem than this way " . That caused shame on him and he slowly changed. Every single thing he did I reminded him even before the situation occurred , please remember I'm not capable of doing this(what ever that is in question), you better do it yourself. Slowly but steadily he doesn't hurt me anymore. He doesn't love me for sure.

      • profile image

        A nony mouse 

        10 months ago

        They only change if they want to change and whether they are genuine about wanting to change is probably difficult for a therapist to figure out. For the therapist, they have little idea if the client is just making the right noises to buy themselves time in another manipulation game and it is probably quite concerning that they could find themselves drawn into one of these psychodramas by the narcissist.

        As the article said the narcissist will only change out of concern that their behaviour will somehow damage themselves rather than out of concern for the recipient of their bad behaviour. This is probably because this sort of malignant dynamic has been modelled to them as children and they have not identified with the target of the abuse, but with the abuser, who almost always gets what they want by behaving in this way. To a narcissist, this is the way that the world works.

      • profile image

        A nony mouse 

        10 months ago

        Mara,

        You have my sympathies. I too was married to a guy like this, his DV started around the time of the birth of our son, very little obvious signs before this. It resulted in divorce, he hid £250K in a trust fund which left me having to pay him £80K.

        The divorce was hell. Unfortunately, the judge ordered unsupervised child contact and he used pick ups and drop offs to further his abuse. He bad mouthed me to other people, also. In the end, I had to abandon my career as a research scientist and move over 100 miles away and go no contact with anyone that we knew in common to stop the problems reappearing in my life. Fortunately, as he was unhappy that we had moved he put the matter of child contact before the courts again. This time the courts put a stop to child contact.

        In December 2015 the police turned up on my parent's doorstep concerned about my safety. My parents told them that I lived in hiding because of my ex's abuse. My parents 'phoned me and the police asked me to contact another police force on the other side of the country with regards to my ex.

        This other police force asked me about our marriage so I detailed to them how our marriage disintegrated into a mess of abuse upon the birth of our son. They told me that 90% of what I had described he had perpetrated on his new wife. She is foreign and had 4 children that were living in an African country, she had bought 2 of them to this country 6 months previously and this had precipitated a deterioration of their relationship.

        He had been held in a police cell overnight, DNA samples were taken and computers were taken from his workplace. He was initially bailed, but new evidence came to light, bail was rescinded and he was remanded into custody, he spent Christmas in jail; Karma.(Just hope he got a big, hairy cellmate by the name of Ben Dover!)

        Back to you. Sorry to say your guy will not change, you need to use any respite you have whilest he is in jail to get as far away from this guy as you can. He knows how to press your buttons by writing the romantic poetry, that, sad to say, is it. He does not mean it or he would not have 7 DV felonies to his name.Those occasional selfless acts you see him perform are nothing more than an act to maintain the facade.

        I have no idea how you came to see so little of your son, but your relationship has been modelling some very dangerous behaviours to him. You need to make your son your number one priority, so if not for your own sake then for the sake of your son you need to get this guy out of your lives. It will not be pleasant and it will require sacrifices on your part, if you are able to do a disappearing act then do so. I live in the UK and I have given up my home, my friends and my career as an Oxbridge scientist to escape. To make my escape complete, I am not on the electoral roll, it means that I can no longer vote or have credit cards or loans. It does mean that even the police found me difficult to find, I take some relief from that, because if they had problems, so would my ex. Things have not worked out for my ex and I know that he has moved away from the stink that he has caused. He is now on the look out for wife number 3, but by not being to easy to locate, he hopefully has the message that I will not tolerate his shit and he will move on to some other poor hapless woman who will fall victim to his empty patter and shallow charm.

        Good luck

      • profile image

        Mara 

        11 months ago

        I TOTALLY agree with everything said in this article. My husband is a narcissist. He is currently serving a 5 year sentence for raping his friend (The charge was originally Rape 3,which in Washington state, is the "least violent" form of rape one can be charged with. Eg: Rape 1 involves using a weapon and the victim is usually physically abused/hurt as well; Rape 2 involves the victim being hurt/threatened also, without a weapon and are usually held against their will. Rape 3 (not to minimize the seriousness AT ALL) is like date rape, statutory rape, etc. I was raped by my husband also, which I didn't even realize until I spoke with a DV Advocate. Anyway, he pleaded to Assault 3 with intent to Rape. He has been arrested 44 times and has 7 DV felonies. My point is, when he is in jail, he is ALWAYS sorry for how he treated me, he is ALWAYS going to change. He becomes the romantic poet, the beautiful man I thought he was when he was first lovebombing me. It's absolutely INSIDIOUS because I truly start to doubt myself every time. This is DEFINITELY the worst. The longest he's ever been away was 3 months. This man has ruined my life. I am a shell of who I once was. I have nothing left monetarily either. No car, no home, nothing. I haven't even seen my 12 year old son but twice in 2 years because of him. Physically, my body is even falling apart. I don't know how to stop taking care of him. I think he BELIEVES he loves me although he has no idea what love is. As said in the article, NPD is a spectrum disorder. Nothing is black and white. I constantly try to place him low on the narcissistic spectrum because it seems I have witnessed him showing occasional selflessness or empathy(literally a couple of times) where I believe it was real. I tend to focus on those rare instances rather than how awful he was(that WAY outweighs the good). I am an addict also and it feels the same as when I want drugs, knowing logically and intellectually how detrimental they are, but do them anyway. It's maddening. I know this is my chance to get my life back with him locked up, but I don't know how to get the will, the desire to change. To realize im worth it. What do I do?

      • profile image

        Mike 

        11 months ago

        Run like Hell from the narc. Words don't work ,honesty means nothing. Run boy run...

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