Yes, today I’m going to talk about the dirtiest word on the internet. Narcissist. It’s a word that’s gained a lot of traction online recently. So much so, in fact, that we’ve kind of lost the ball in terms of what narcissism really is. We call everyone narcissists, and everything narcissistic. But the truth is, very few people are certifiably, diagnostically narcissists, as in, people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
We all, to some extent, have narcissistic traits. When kept in check, narcissistic traits aren’t even that bad. They help us focus on our own health, and progress, and safety. But when allowed to careen out of control, narcissistic traits can be incredibly damaging and nearly impossible to overcome. This blog is going to discuss people with narcissistic traits — not diagnosed narcissists with NPD. I will use the term “narcissists” as a form of shorthand. Just know that for the purposes of this blog, we’re talking about people who are on the high end of the spectrum of narcissistic traits.
So, can narcissists change?
I think the answer is complex. Technically, yes, narcissists can change. The problem is that they have to be willing to do it. And therein lies the problem. Being willing to change means being able to first recognize that something needs to be changed. It means having the self-awareness to see that there is a problem that needs to be fixed.
Narcissists’ main objective is to avoid shame. They despise shame and will do anything to avoid having to feel it. I think the first step in being able to change is being willing to acknowledge their shortcomings. But unfortunately, since narcissists equate shortcomings with shame, they can never fully accept the willingness to change.
But what if they go to therapy?
This is my personal opinion, not a professional one, but I think that even therapy is ineffective on most narcissists. There are exceptions, like Lee Hammock — the self-aware diagnosed narcissist of TikTok. But for the most part, here is what I’ve learned from narcissists who (reluctantly) agree to go to therapy:
- Their reason for going isn’t about personal growth or healing. It’s usually to check off a box, to say, “see, I did it. Now leave me alone about it.”
- Because narcissists have naturally inflated egos and tend to overestimate their intellect and charm, they often think that they will be able to convince the therapist that they are the victims in your relationship. They typically start right off the bat with their efforts to get the therapist on their side, and sometimes, it works. Once, a highly narcissistic person said to me, “it’s no use for me to go to therapy. I just charm the therapist and soon enough they’re telling me that I’m the one who should be the therapist instead of them!”
- Narcissists will typically use therapy as an opportunity to learn the lingo and become better at gaslighting and manipulating. Once they observe the tools that therapists use to address narcissistic behavior, they embrace those tools as their own and weaponize them against other people.
- The combination of narcissists’ shame avoidance and sense of superiority will make it almost impossible for them to take anything the therapist says seriously. Even in the unlikely event that a breakthrough happens in the therapy session, the narcissist will usually shake it off by the time they’ve walked out the door.
Ultimately, although I think it’s possible for some narcissists to achieve real change through therapy, I just don’t think it’s likely for most.
Maybe love could make them change?
No, dear reader. No amount of love can make a narcissist change. You cannot love a narcissist enough to make them change because love has no true value to narcissists. It’s true that narcissists see love as currency, but that doesn’t mean it has value. Narcissists value love to the extent that they can use it to get what they want — love is a literal currency that they can use for their personal gain. If the kind of love you give benefits them in some way, then it has value. But if your love is inconvenient, if it requires action on their part, if it demands reciprocity and fairness, it is no longer valuable.
Love that asks the narcissist to do better is not a kind of love they will accept.
A narcissist will never love you more than they love themselves. They will never love you enough to feel even a little bit of shame in service of becoming better people. Their idea of love is too self-serving, too self-centered, for anything like that.
So, is there any hope?
In all likelihood, probably not. And I don’t say that to be cruel, dear reader. I say it because you need to know the truth. You need to know that the narcissist in your life is not likely to change so that you can make an informed decision about what to do next.
There are people who have the resilience to stick it out with narcissistic people. I’d say, though, that those people are probably very rare. For most of us, keeping the narcissist in our lives is only going to end in heartache and an endless supply of therapy invoices. Narcissists don’t respond well to being asked for reciprocity, for kindness, or putting in some effort. What’s most likely to happen if you begin asking for these things is gaslighting, manipulation, and an insistence that you are, in fact, the narcissist. It is a special kind of brainfuck when a narcissist tells you that you are the one with the problem. Mostly because, somehow, they’ll probably convince you that you are the problem.
And frankly, friend, it’s just not worth all that. I know this hurts to hear, but you’re better off walking away. You deserve better. You deserve, at the barest of bare minimum, reciprocity. You deserve respect, kindness, mutual positive regard. You deserve to have people in your life who make your feelings a priority, who desire to show up for you the way you need.
Let the narcissist go. They’ve already got one foot out the door, anyway.
Amber Wardell is a cognitive psychologist and author who writes about women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the FREE newsletter to get exclusive content delivered directly to your inbox and to never miss an upload!