Can Narcissists Change?

What are the characteristics of a narcissistic person? Can they change their way of being and relating to others? Find out in this article.
Can Narcissists Change?
José Padilla

Written and verified by the psychologist José Padilla.

Last update: 30 November, 2022

Narcissists are arrogant, conceited, self-centered, and self-important. They perceive themselves as superior to others and strive to possess items that reflect their status and make them appear successful. Although they possess feelings of grandeur, they rely on the praise and attention they receive from others to bolster their ego.

As a consequence of this, narcissists tend to be extremely sensitive to criticism. In fact, they interpret it as a personal attack. But, can an individual with this pattern of being and relating to the world change? Can the personality of a narcissistic person be modified?

Man talking on the phone
Narcissistic tendencies tend to naturally decrease with age.

The characteristics of a narcissist

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines this personality disorder as a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (fantasy or behavior), a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy, beginning in early adulthood and characterized by the presence of at least five of the following criteria:

  • Feelings of grandeur and arrogant behavior. For example, they exaggerate their achievements and talents. Moreover, they expect to be recognized as superior even though their successes don’t correspond to this expectation.
  • Being engrossed in fantasies of success, power, brilliance, beauty, or perfect love.
  • Believing that they’re special and unique and that they can only really be understood or related to by other special people (or institutions).
  • An excessive need for admiration.
  • Feelings of privilege. For instance, they have unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment or automatic fulfillment of their expectations.
  • The exploitation of interpersonal relationships. In other words, they take advantage of others to achieve their own ends.
  • A lack of empathy. They’re unwilling to identify with the needs of others.
  • Envy toward others. Or, they believe that others are envious of them.
  • Arrogant and haughty behaviors and attitudes.

As a rule, narcissists believe that they’re better than everyone else. Narcissism can also encourage aggressive behavior, in both men and women. This type of behavior can arise as a mechanism for the individual to defend themselves because they feel threatened and want to protect their ego.

Causes of narcissism

Some studies have suggested a genetic predisposition toward the disorder. Traits such as aggression, lack of tolerance for distress, and poor emotional regulation are evident in narcissistic people (Weinberg, 2006).

It’s also been suggested that experiences of a negative nature, such as being rejected as a child and having built a fragile ego during early childhood, may contribute to the onset of the disorder in adulthood (Žvelc, 2010; Otway & Vignoles, 2006). Similarly, excessive praise and the belief that a child has extraordinary abilities can lead to the development of narcissism.

Other early experiences that contribute to this disorder include:

  • Abuse or trauma.
  • Lack of an authentic validation environment.
  • Parental overindulgence.
  • A deficient emotional upbringing.

Can narcissists change?

If you’ve done any research on narcissism, you may have come across statements regarding how difficult it is for these people to change. However, this isn’t necessarily so. In reality, everyone is capable of change if they’re willing to work to change their behavior patterns.

The problem is that narcissists don’t want to change. It’s not that they can’t, it’s that they don’t see enough reasons to do so. That’s because their grandiose self-image means they perceive themselves as perfect. That said, research does suggest that narcissistic tendencies tend to naturally decline with age.

The problem with treating a narcissist lies, not in the misconception that they can’t change, but in the difficulty in convincing them that they need treatment. They simply don’t accept that there’s anything wrong with them. They’re proud of the way they are and how they act with others.

As we mentioned earlier, narcissists consider themselves to be superior and don’t recognize the importance of changing and being different. Usually, when it’s recommended that they see a specialist, they think that the other person is envious of them. Naturally, this makes it really difficult for change to be a possibility for them.

Man undergoing therapy, representing that narcissists can change
Narcissists often resist psychological therapy because they believe they’re superior to others and see no reason for them to change.

How to tell if a narcissist is open to change

If a narcissist is willing to change they:

  • Begin to take responsibility for their negative actions.
  • Become willing to listen to others.
  • Try to improve their emotional regulation skills.
  • Apologize when any of their actions cause harm.
  • Acknowledge the feelings of others.
  • Show interest in the motivations for their behavior.
  • Examine and reflect on their behaviors without devaluing other people.

Once a narcissist is committed to change, therapy can help them accept responsibility and learn how to:

  • Establish and maintain personal relationships.
  • Collaborate with others and not use them as a means for their own selfish ends.
  • Recognize and accept real and possible capabilities, in order to tolerate criticism and failure.
  • Increase their ability to understand and regulate their emotions.
  • Improve their self-esteem, making it more independent of the feedback of others.
  • Free themselves from the desire to achieve impossible goals.
  • Recognize what’s possible and what goals can be achieved without falling prey to idealistic fantasies of success.

Treatment may also include:

  • Identifying the narcissistic behaviors that are causing problems.
  • Examining past experiences and assumptions that led to their current behaviors.
  • Reflecting on how their behaviors affect others.
  • Replacing grandiose thoughts with more realistic ones.
  • Exploring new behavior patterns and practicing them.
  • Recognizing the benefits of new habits.

Finally, narcissists aren’t doomed to maladjustment. They can change if they commit to the therapeutic process and materialize their desire to improve their way of relating to others. They must also become aware of the value of others and reject the temptation to use them as if they were instruments whose sole purpose is to satisfy their desires, either directly or indirectly.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.