If you’re reading this, then chances are you’re grappling with the question of how to deal with a narcissist in your life.
Whether it's a close friend, a parent, or someone you're romantically involved with, you suspect their actions are taking a toll on your wellbeing, and you’re doubting whether you can hold space for them in your life anymore.
“If only they could change,” you think to yourself. “If only they could be the person they were at the beginning.”
Just maybe, they can be. Here’s what you need to know about whether a narcissist can change for good.
What is narcissism?
A narcissist is someone who is preoccupied with themselves, lacks empathy, and has a tendency to exploit others. It’s basically extreme ego, where the narcissist is so self-absorbed that it makes them ignore the needs of others.
Surprisingly, narcissism is not a one-size-fits-all concept—it actually spans a wide spectrum. Most people occupy the lower end. While they may display narcissistic traits every now and again, they are able to maintain a healthy balance between self-love and emotional intelligence. This stops them from becoming too selfish and power hungry.
At the higher end of the spectrum are people with pronounced narcissistic traits who might meet the criteria for a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. NPD is a diagnosable mental health condition characterized by entitlement, an obsessive need for admiration, disregard for other people’s feelings, and manipulation. People with NPD frequently encounter difficulties in maintaining healthy relationships, both professionally and personally. Even though they can be charming and confident at first, their disorder means they are intensely ego-driven, constantly putting themselves first with little regard given to their impact on others.
Most people will demonstrate some traits of narcissism at a point in their life. However, being diagnosed with NPD is rare. According to the DSM-V, which is the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the United States, between 0.5 and 1 percent of the population are diagnosed with NPD.
Can a narcissist stop being narcissistic?
The first point here is that you definitely cannot fix or cure a narcissist—they simply don’t possess the levels of empathy required to adjust their behaviors for other people. If anything, they might become angry and spiteful at the suggestion you think they need to change.
However, that’s not to say that narcissistic individuals can’t get better on their own accord. With the right attitude, willingness and professional support, individuals with narcissism traits can learn to manage their symptoms.
Here are three signs that indicate whether the narcissist in your life might be able to change for the better.
1. The intensity of their tendencies
The further along the narcissistic spectrum someone is, the harder it will be for them to change their behavior. For example, someone who chronically struggles with empathy will likely find it more difficult to see an issue with their behavior than someone who only acts narcissistically during times of conflict.
Remember, there’s a difference between a narcissist and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Someone with NPD will probably need to practice specific therapeutic strategies, with the support of a trained professional, to learn healthier ways of navigating the world.
2. Their levels of self-awareness
If you’ve taken our emotional intelligence test, you’ll know that three important facets of EQ are self-awareness (your ability to understand your own emotions), other-awareness (your ability to understand other people’s emotions and how your words and actions impact others), and emotional control (your ability to regulate and manage your emotions so your response is appropriate and proportionate to the situation).
If a narcissist is going to change, they’ll need to lean into skills in all these areas. Can they spot their own narcissistic thoughts or are they blind to the fact that there’s a problem? Are they conscious of how the people around them feel when they demean and belittle them? Are they capable of behaving appropriately, for example, by not flying off the handle or seeking revenge if someone says something they don’t like?
Not all narcissists are created equal. If the narcissist in your life is willing to self-reflect on their dysfunctional behaviors, there is a better chance they can change.
3. Their desire to change
You cannot force a narcissist to change—it’s up to them to seek help. Unfortunately, the very nature of narcissism means that individuals at the higher end of the narcissism spectrum are unlikely to do so. They see themselves as better than others and struggle to admit their weaknesses.
Saying this, change is possible if they realize that their way of operating is unhealthy—both for themselves and the people around them. You can try to help them gain this level of insight, but the commitment to learn healthier coping strategies will have to come from the narcissist themselves.
If they won’t change, you can
At this point, it’s worth reflecting on why you asked the question: can a narcissist change?
Are you in a relationship that is hurting your sense of self-worth? Do you feel like you're not the person you used to be? Are you stuck in a cycle of all-consuming highs and lows?
If so, perhaps it's time to shift your focus away from whether they can change and, instead, think about the steps you can take to look after yourself. Caring about someone with narcissistic traits can be extremely draining and challenging. In fact, research shows that people close to those with NPD are more likely to suffer significant psychological symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, than others. And that's not exclusive to those close to individuals diagnosed with NPD. Even exposure to less severe narcissistic traits can lead to emotional turmoil and stress, as the constant need for validation and disregard for others can be overwhelming and damaging.
Ultimately, if the narcissist in your life won’t change, you have the power to change how much space they take up in your life. This may mean setting boundaries, practicing self-care, and seeking support from friends or a therapist. And even if the person with narcissistic traits chooses to get help, the road ahead will be long—there is no overnight fix for narcissism, and change will require time, effort and patience. Look after yourself first.