What Would It Really Take for a Narcissist to Change Their Ways?

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Nobody wants to be called a narcissist. In our everyday dictionary, the term becomes an insult to abusive exes, discerning bosses, selfie-obsessed influencers, and celebrities who casually opt for public office. Often times, narcissists are reduced to self-centered idiots that are best avoided.
In the world of psychology, however, narcissism is far more complex. "As a personality trait, narcissism exists on a spectrum from healthy functioning to severe disorders," explains Mark Ettensohn, Psy.D., clinical psychologist and author of Unmasking Narcissism. Some level of narcissism is normal and even healthy and adaptable, he says. It is only when your narcissistic tendencies become a life-destroying constant that you enter the realm of a gullible mental illness known as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
According to DSM-5, people who live with NPD have an exaggerated self-image, an inexhaustible need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. They believe they are part of an elite group and therefore deserve the best of everything from special treatment at the DMV to perfect love that fits their idealized version of themselves. Approximately 6% of Americans may meet the criteria for a diagnosis of NPD at some point in their life. Risk factors include the fact that they are young, male, and single.
Are all narcissists the same?
There are two main subtypes of narcissists to consider, explains W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D., social psychologist and author of The New Science of Narcissism. Grandiose narcissists are most closely related to the stereotypical narcissist: they are often wizards with high self-esteem, driven by an inexorable need for more attention and higher status. Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, suffer from dangerously low self-esteem and can be calmer, more reserved and more angry, like the undiscovered “genius” who refuses to get a job “below” him.
If you suspect someone in your life is very narcissistic (or even living with NPD), maintaining your relationship can be a tremendous burden, especially if you are romantically involved, according to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Personality Disorders are. To support yourself, narcissists can knock you down, sabotage, or even publicly humiliate you, says Bill Eddy, L.C.S.W., therapist, attorney, and author of Splitting: Protect Yourself While Divorcing someone with borderline or narcissistic personality disorder. In the worst case, some people with NPD can also become aggressive or violent when they feel that their shaky ego is threatened.
As well as getting involved with you, narcissists can hurt themselves. Often times, a diagnosis is accompanied by health problems, including addiction, depression, and anxiety. All in all, people with NPD are more likely to face criminal convictions and spend time in jail.
If you live with a narcissist, the advice caring friends usually give is "run fast and don't look back." This makes sense for reasons of self-preservation. However, it is not always easy, or even possible, to disconnect from a narcissist if they are your parent, partner, or friend.
In this case, there are likely to be a few questions: Can narcissists change? And if so, what does it take? As someone who cares for them (or at least has to live with them), there is something you can do to aid their recovery while protecting yourself at the same time?
Can Narcissists Really Change?
Unfortunately, there is no simple "yes" or "no" answer to this question, and it may depend on exactly where that person falls on the spectrum of narcissism. "Everyone can change, but as with any personality disorder, the road to recovery is long and difficult," says Ettensohn.
While there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for narcissistic personality disorders, therapy with a skilled psychologist can help a narcissist reflect on their feelings, understand their history, and develop new skills to deal with their condition. With regard to the empathy deficit, research suggests that some narcissists may develop their ability to empathize if they practice taking another's perspective, Campbell says.
Ultimately, the biggest obstacle to a narcissist's success is their own narcissism. Narcissists need to be motivated to change, and many don't do it simply because they can't see that they have a problem or they just don't care. Sometimes they don't feel compelled to seek help until they experience a major personal crisis such as failure at work, the loss of an important relationship, or some other deeply humiliating experience.
Even if a narcissist makes it into therapy, engaging them in the hard work that requires real and lasting change can be a Herculean task, as many would rather stop than kill their ego.
What should you do if you believe someone in your life may have Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
If you're looking for a sign that change is possible, ask yourself if that person has ever taken responsibility for their own behavior or tried to act differently, says Eddy. An affirmation like "I'm sorry for hurting you, it was not my intention" may indicate that there is a way forward.
Then use these tips to navigate life with a narcissist:
1. Check in with yourself.
It is extremely difficult to change yourself, let alone your partner or family members. So remember that it is not your job to "fix" a narcissist in your life. While narcissism and abuse aren't always intertwined, your first priority should be your own safety, says Ettensohn, if this person is abusing you (or you've noticed some red flags in your relationship). Speaking to a domestic violence attorney or therapist can help you find out what next steps are right for you (to reach the national domestic violence hotline, call 1-800-799-7233 or send LOVEIS on 22522 ).
2. Don't call them a "narcissist".
Only a therapist or psychiatrist can make an official diagnosis of NPD. Just as you shouldn't diagnose yourself with a mental disorder, avoid throwing labels that could be stigmatizing or hurtful to a loved one.
"I wouldn't recommend suggesting that the person is narcissistic or has a narcissistic personality disorder because those terms are so loaded," says Ettensohn. And if they do actually meet the criteria for an NPD, it's important to carefully approach the problem as they are likely to be very sensitive to criticism, he says.
3. Focus on the symptoms.
Having NPD can be deeply distressing, especially when the person is in an endless struggle with low self-esteem. Therefore, it can be helpful to point out that they seem to have problems feeling consistently good, and that therapy could help them feel better, Ettensohn says. To make up for these observations, reassure them that they are loved and cherished for who they are, he suggests.
4. Set limits.
If this person has shown you that they are not interested in change, it is important to determine what you want from this relationship and what you are willing to put up with it. While setting boundaries can be a difficult task once you get used to hurtful behavior, it's a great way to protect yourself from someone's worst narcissistic tendencies, says Eddy.
For example, if you have a family member who frequently pokes at you with small insults, calmly and clearly state that you will not allow this, “If you talk to me like this, I will. You have to end this conversation and speak when You are willing to be respectful. It's not good for either of us if you talk to me like that. "
5. Go away.
"If a narcissistic loved one refuses to get help, consider whether staying in the relationship is the best option," says Ettensohn. While it is painful to break up, divorce, or distance yourself from a family member, especially after you've shared many great memories, it is possible to move on - for your and their benefit.
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