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Can a Narcissist Ever Change?

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhDPsychologistMarch 01, 2017
From the WebMD Archives

If you have a narcissist in your life – whether at home or at work, or in your family – you may wonder if it’s possible that they could ever change. Is there a chance that they could someday recognize their sense of entitlement and need for constant admiration and decide to act differently?

Like anyone else, a narcissist is unlikely to change as long as what they are doing works for them. Some people’s narcissistic traits are strong enough to cause significant problems – their relationships may suffer and they may frequently feel distraught over perceived criticisms or rejections. In these situations, it is important that they find help from a mental health professional because, though it is difficult to change such powerful personality traits, even these people can become less narcissistic.

Whether through therapy or personal experiences, people who tend toward narcissism can start to question their need to compete, their distrust of others, and their personal sense of vulnerability. As a result, they might be able to gain a more realistic view of their abilities and become more able to tolerate mistakes, failures, and even criticisms. They can also learn to reflect on the inner experiences of others, increasing a sense of empathy and understanding. Their relationships may improve, becoming more intimate and rewarding.

If you plan to remain in relationship with the narcissistic person in your life – whether you are stuck with them as a blood relation or co-worker, or you choose to stay because you enjoy parts of the relationship – there are a couple of things you can do to lessen the narcissism-related problems you experience with them. First, rather than thinking of them as “a narcissist,” it can be helpful to think of them as a person who tends to be narcissistic. Then, with this broader view of them, you’ll be more open to seeing their other, often more positive, traits. For instance, you might note that they are enthusiastic, funny, or insightful. By responding well to those traits, you may find that they show them more. Their narcissism may then become less glaring to you, and may even truly lessen.

When you need to discuss difficult topics with them, remember that if they feel threatened or uncomfortable, they may respond by exaggerating their superiority (this is a common reaction even among people who are not overly narcissistic). So, if you see this defense mechanism kicking in, you might find it helpful to empathize with their difficulty in the situation. When they feel understood and supported, they will feel less of a need to use self-inflation as a defense.

All of that said, narcissism is a personality trait, and personality traits in general tend to be firmly rooted. So, the more strongly narcissistic a person is, the less open they will be to influence or change. Even when a person’s narcissism persists, you may find that their other characteristics can help ease its negative effects.

Entries for the Relationships blog are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a licensed psychologist in NJ and NY, and is on staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset. She is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of Bouncing Back from Rejection and Insecure in Love.

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