How many times have you pled with a narcissist to stop being, well, narcissistic?

“Are you that dense?”
“What will it take for you to stop being so difficult?”
“Just be honest with me, that’s all I’m asking for.”
“You told me you’d do better, but it’s not happening!”
“Won’t you please listen for once?”

Implied in such comments or questions is the presumption that narcissists can indeed choose differently…it’s just a matter of willpower. Right?

So, let’s focus on the question: Can narcissists actually change? Can they choose? Is it reasonable to expect or assume they can minimize their selfishness and blend cohesively with you? The answer is yes, maybe, not really…so let me clarify.

Narcissists struggle with the same psychodynamics as anyone else. When I was in my counseling practice (spanning 41 years and 65,000 sessions), some strongly narcissistic people would sit across from me as we sifted through the need for adjustments. As I would with all my other patients, we would attempt to address various themes.

For instance, we would explore:

  • The theme of control. When is it reasonable to take control of your life so you can meet personal goals, but when might those efforts to control inhibit relationship cohesion?
  • The theme of responding to contrarian people. Each of us faces those who differ greatly from us. Can you respond to diversity constructively when that is required?
  • The theme of anger management. Everyone feels angry at times, perhaps even legitimately so. Do you have well-conceived plans for handling that emotion constructively, or is it destructive?
  • The theme of defensiveness. People in your presence can be offensive. Are you able to practice self-care without excessive defense? Do you resort to stonewalling? Are you secretive? Evasive? Paranoid?
  • The theme of incompatibility. Everyone has someone who refuses to meet their needs. Can you navigate those relationships with decency and dignity intact?
  • The theme of insecurity. In what ways might your responses to others reveal problems with insecurity and the codependence that accompanies it?

There are many other themes requiring attention as change is sought, but the point is that patterns can be identified, and efforts can be made to maximize healthy responses while minimizing those that are not healthy.

Other factors

In addition to focusing on behavioral and emotional themes, the change process consists of other factors. For instance, it is good to examine how current tendencies are the result of lifelong coping patterns. What historical experiences have impacted your current behaviors and emotions? What about the influence of members inside your family of origin? Cultural influences? Social structures? Episodes of trauma? Your inborn temperament?

Likewise, to change, it is necessary to read the behind-the-scenes cues from others who clash with you. How well have you developed that skill? Do you know how and when to set personal boundaries? Can you become objective enough to read the meanings of others’ various emotional strategies?

When you observe how one might respond to these matters and more, you can get a good idea about a person’s capacity for change.

So, can narcissists choose not to be narcissistic? The short answer is yes, but only in superficial, strategic ways. Part of the definition of narcissism is the presence of a False Self that compels the individual to construct an Alternate Reality to suit that person’s insecure, controlling cravings. If they change, then, it is not likely to be such that the False Self will be altered.

Taking it further, to gauge if narcissists might be able to change and respond in non-narcissistic ways, it is necessary to distinguish between two types of adjustments.

They are:

  1. Adjustments of one’s skillset.
  2. Adjustments of one’s mindset.

Narcissists can [sometimes] be pragmatists. In their self-serving ways of thinking, they can assess what may or may not work in the pursuit of immediate goals, making tactical changes along the way. So, they might indeed make adjustments in their relational skillset, but only for the purpose of being less offensive and more effective in satisfying their controlling agenda.

True change, however, comes as individuals adjust their mindset. This means they examine not just external skills, but their personality’s essence, who they are at the core, and their reason for being. A change of mindset requires fundamental insight into real motives, not just a smoothing of rough spots, but examining the why’s related to one’s mannerisms. And it is this type of change that is almost completely lacking in narcissists.

Can they choose?

Over the decades, I have concluded that psychological insight is a gift that some possess while others simply do not. Much in the same way that some are gifted at mathematics or music or salesmanship, while others clearly are not, the capacity for psychological insight is not universal. Some have it, but others have no ability to access it.

Every now and then a narcissist might experience a calamity or crisis so intense that it spurs that person toward a change in mindset, but the odds of it happening are minimal. Realistically, most narcissists return to what is most familiar.

Until further notice, when you are tempted to plead your case with a narcissist, insisting they should choose to be something other than what they are, save your breath. Assume that narcissists are not inclined toward examining their essence. If the narcissist proves to be one of the few who can change, be glad. Otherwise, remain emotionally sober. The very essence of narcissism includes the lack of wisdom regarding one’s core being.

To watch the video version of this topic, please click here.

~Dr. Les Carter