Can narcissists change? The answer is “yes, but.” They can change, but are they willing to do the work, no matter how unnatural it would feel? That’s the more pertinent question. Sometimes narcissists can hit their rock bottom, realizing something needs to be very different, and that something is internal, not external. When a person indicates that they are in that psychological space, I’m willing to see where it might lead. (I’m also not so naïve to think that narcissists are not above faking the effort.)
Narcissists who are on the far end of the spectrum are not likely to consider the need for change…at all.
They can be so imprisoned by a caustic worldview that they are forever stuck. Some, though, might take the initial steps toward reconstructing their interior, though my experience tells me that a fairly low percentage (10-15%?) will make a true transition.
Moving away from narcissism requires a reconstruction of personal priorities arising from a mindset of humility and curiosity. It’s worth noting that those two ingredients are antithetical to the narcissistic way of life, but it could happen.
It’s also worth noting that many people who have been negatively impacted by a narcissist will admit channeling their own latent narcissistic tendencies. They too have work to do to get back onto the healthy path, but they usually have better chances for change since they possess core ingredients that can be awakened.
That understood, let’s identify seven crucial adjustments that, if applied consistently, could wipe away the bent toward narcissism:
- Change the reflex to control into a willingness to serve. Instead of singularly seeking one’s agenda, it is necessary to focus on the “us” in relationships. You could ask: “Who are you at the heart level? What are your needs and yearnings? How can I become a positive presence in your life? I want you to feel free to be you…how might I facilitate such an effort?”
- Change indifference into conscientiousness. One of the richest descriptors of a healthy personality, conscientiousness includes all sorts of uplifting traits: reliability, anticipation, courteousness, being tuned in, coordination, helpfulness. Apathy would be replaced by harmony. But for this quality to be real, it cannot be applied as an assignment. It needs to emanate from a heart of good will.
- Change a conniving inclination into openness. Cloaked in secretiveness, narcissists seek to exploit and use others. So, to wipe out narcissism, that sinister mindset needs to give way to openness and accountability. The lack of narcissism includes a desire to be safe and trustworthy, authentic and readily known. There are no hidden agendas.
- Change agitation into respect. Narcissism is accompanied by an undertow of irritability and annoyance, which gives rise to easy anger. The elimination of narcissism calls for a respectful and measured approach toward circumstances that might evoke malice. Problems would be resolved constructively with civility remaining intact. Even (especially) in conflict, dignity is conferred upon the person in front of you.
- Change binary thinking into analytical thinking. Eliminating narcissistic tendencies requires the willingness to drop rigid, authoritarian attitudes. Understanding that individuals do not exist to fit an unbending formula, you would consider the many nuanced aspects of the other’s approach to life. This requires pensive thinking, guided by patience, leading to wisdom.
- Change judgments into descriptions. It is reasonable to hold beliefs about right and wrong, to be guided by a moral compass. The person seeking to eliminate narcissism, however, refuses to judge others whose compass guides them differently. Instead, they ask: “What motivates this person? What unique influences are at play? What is the meaning of the emotions we are experiencing?”
- Changing disdain for goodness into integrity. To narcissists, difficult circumstances create harsh attitudes. Commonly, they address problems with blustery or combative attitudes. Healthy people can set boundaries and hold onto convictions, but they filter their decisions through love, kindness, and honor. Decency is first nature.
Let’s underscore, there are not enough individuals willing to make these changes, especially when it becomes apparent that change requires much concentration. So, as individuals say they want to be better, there are a few questions to ponder:
- Are you in enough pain to assure that you cannot and will not go back into a manner of life that perpetuates suffering?
- Do you truly have the resolve to stay the course? In other words, do you see change as more than just a good idea?
- Is someone else driving your effort to change or is this your idea? Who has ownership of your thoughts?
- Are you willing to receive ongoing coaching and counsel? Can you take directives? Do you fully appreciate the necessity of internal change that must precede external change?
- Will you commit to being a lifelong learner?
- Above all, are you focused on your character, even when others question the validity of your motives?
Wiping out narcissism is a challenging task. You would need to maintain focus on the ultimate goals of love and goodness. Then, you would accept that the process of staying on the path is what makes the journey worthwhile.
~Les Carter, Ph.D.
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