Contrary to popular belief, narcissists can change. They can’t change or cure their narcissism, but they can (and do) change their behaviour.
The problem has never really been that narcissists can’t change. The problem is that the narcissist is generally unwilling to change. Changing behaviour means that the narcissist has to admit that their behaviour was wrong or flawed. Generally, they are unwilling (or unable) to do that. However, depending on the circumstances, the narcissist may actually be motivated to change.
Now don’t get this wrong. The motivation is always selfish and internal. It has nothing to do with other people, which is why appealing to a narcissist usually won’t work. Telling them how much they hurt or upset you won’t change their mind. It means practically nothing to them. They are just words and are typically interpreted as a censure that they associate with shame.
One important difference is that we’re not talking about repentance here – we’re talking about shame.
Remorse is felt for other people, and narcissists are unable to feel remorse because it is associated with empathy that they generally don’t have.
However, shame, especially pathological, unreasonable shame, is an old enemy of the narcissist. It triggers anger in them and puts them on the defensive. Now there is a fight and an angry narcissist is impossible to reach. Your disturbance specifically prevents this from happening, no matter what you say or how you say it. So remember: narcissists don’t care about your feelings at all. They only care about their own.
Using logic won’t work either, because narcissists believe their feelings are facts. It’s illogical and unreasonable, but that’s how they work and you can’t argue with them. There is nothing you can do to make a change in the narcissist or to motivate him.
The narcissist will only change their behaviour 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 behaviours are ingrained habits and patterns. They gave themselves permission to do as they did years ago, and that permission has been reinforced by the enablers around them. They are like children in this regard: when the behaviour is rewarded, it is repeated.
Narcissists who have tantrums or become violent have likely been like this all their lives. That’s what they do when they’re upset. This behaviour has become second nature to them and has been reinforced by the fact that it has worked the way they need it to be. Because this behaviour has been reinforced and repeated for so long, it may no longer feel like a choice to them.
They may claim that it “just happens” and that they cannot control it. It’s not that they can’t control their behaviour, it’s that they don’t think before acting.
Narcissists are just reacting most of the time. You are impulsive and careless. Even when they appear to be planning plans and manipulations, they simply respond to a need or desire they have without thinking about the consequences of their actions. These things don’t matter. All that matters are needs and want.
Because of their magical thinking, they believe that everything will go well, and because of their denial, they are able to justify whatever they do. However, all of this takes place on their impulse. It’s a reaction to their reaction, so to speak.
Kneecap Reactions and Consequences
For example, a former client was married to a very physically abusive narcissist. The narcissist claimed that he did not want to be violent because he did not want to be that type of person (note that it had nothing to do with the pain he inflicted on his wife, just the shame for himself), but that he couldn’t help it because it was simply a kneecap reaction that happened when he was excited.
The couple adopted a large dog as a puppy, and as the puppy got older, he began to confront the narcissist when he physically assaulted the woman and bit the narcissist on more than one occasion. The dog grew very large, so the narcissist became scared of him and stopped beating the woman for fear of injury.
The interesting thing is that, unfortunately, not even a year later, the dog had to be euthanized (for another reason) and although the threat to the narcissist’s safety was no longer there, he didn’t start beating his wife again. It seemed that the “kneecap reaction” to beating his wife wasn’t a kneecap reaction at all, but a decision he made without realizing it. A habit for want of a better word. A pattern.
The dog’s appearance in the situation forced the narcissist to pause and think before doing anything and once he did that he was able to consider the consequences and make the decision not to do it. He hasn’t been physically back with his wife until now, and that was years ago. He’s still a narcissist, of course, but he’s no longer physically violent. He was forced to think before acting and the pattern was broken. After that, it got into a different pattern and never returned to the old one.
This is a one-off situation, but it shows that narcissists can change their behaviour if there are severe enough internal and external consequences.
The narcissist and the reflection
Consequences only work if someone understands them and if they take care of them. For example, ending the relationship with the narcissist means something only if the loss of the relationship means something about himself to the narcissist. If this is not the case, it is not a threat and therefore not a consequence.
The narcissist doesn’t care what you think about their behaviour. They live behind a Teflon armour and your feelings, accusations and complaints cannot harm them. In order for narcissists to be motivated to change their behaviour, they need to loathe their own behaviour and the way it makes them feel so much that they no longer want to feel that way, and they need to be able to focus on it to stay even when they are upset.
Das ist das Einzige, was einen Narzissten motivieren wird, etwas zu ändern, was er tut: seine eigenen Gefühle.
Da sie Experten in Rechtfertigung, Verleugnung, Abschottung und Schuldverschiebung sind, ist es sehr schwer für sie, diese Situation zu erreichen. Sie müssen erst erkennen, dass ihr eigenes Verhalten das Problem ist, bevor sie damit aufhören können. In unserem Beispiel mit dem Hund konnte der Narzisst sein Verhalten jahrelang rechtfertigen, indem er seiner Frau die Schuld dafür gab und behauptete, es sei nur eine unkontrollierbare Reaktion, wenn er wütend wurde.
And it probably was, for he had no idea how to go back and withdraw permission to act like that, and no idea how to react any differently than the way he had always reacted. However, once a consequence was introduced into the situation that forced him to stop and think, he took control of himself.
He did not revert to this behaviour even when the outward consequence – the dog – was gone because he didn’t like how he felt about these things. He didn’t like to think of himself as the kind of man who beats women.
While the negative outward consequence may have been the vehicle through which behaviour change was made possible, it is the negative inward consequence that made it a real change. If it had only been dependent on external consequences, the change would not have been permanent and the abuse would have started again as soon as the dog was no longer there.
This applies to most behavioural changes and most motivation to change. People really have to feel it, otherwise, it won’t last. The difference with narcissists is that their disorder makes it much more difficult for them to realize that their behaviour is a problem. Narcissists justify their problematic behaviour in many different ways, and it is very difficult to see that something is wrong or should change when you feel justified in what you are doing. How can it be wrong if you have a reason for it?
Returning to our example of domestic violence, what took the narcissist so long to change his behaviour was that he felt perfectly justified in beating his wife. He didn’t like how he felt afterwards and he knew it wasn’t right, but it was her fault that she pissed him off and pushed his buttons.
Should she change, the problem would be solved and he wouldn’t have to feel bad anymore. In this way, narcissists skillfully and effectively eliminate any chance of seeing a problem with their own behaviour.
The narrative is, “No, it wasn’t wrong because it was.” Or, “Yes, it was wrong, but you made me do it.” Narcissists very well understand what is right and what is wrong. They just don’t believe they did something wrong because they have “reasons” and those reasons are always feelings. The problem is always someone else making you feel.
That is of course not true. People are responsible for their own feelings and their reactions to those feelings. Narcissists see themselves simply in response to the things that happen to them rather than as someone in control of the things that happen. As long as this is the case, the behaviour is very difficult to change.
Make the decision to change
So, in order to change negative or abusive behaviour, first, the narcissist must be able to understand that his own actions are causing his negative feelings.
Second, he must hate his behaviour so much that he no longer wants to feel that way.
Third, they need to be able to understand that this behaviour is a choice they are making.
And fourth, they need to be able to recognize when the choice is being made and make another – even when they are upset.
These are all things that are extremely difficult for narcissists to do. Their disorder was created to prevent them from receiving inappropriate blame and criticism as children, but it has deformed and evolved into something that as adults do not make them take responsibility for anything.
They also have serious problems with impulse control, controlling their emotions, and self-control in general. These are all things that make just recognizing, let alone changing problem behaviour, extremely difficult. In the end, the task is just too big for many of them.
Yes, narcissists can change their behaviour. Because narcissism is a spectrum, some have it easier than others. But holding your breath and waiting for them to want to do it is usually not advisable. It took you years to get into these patterns and it can take you years to get out of them. Many never make it. And even if they change something about their behaviour, they are still narcissists.
They can’t change that any more than you can grow two inches by tomorrow. They cannot feel empathy for other people, they cannot love other people. You cannot become someone else any more than anyone else can. Even the best you can hope for in a narcissist is actually not hope at all.