Published On: January 17, 2020
Reviewed On: January 17, 2020
Updated On: November 3, 2023
There once was a man who fell in love with his own reflection. Forget polished Instagram feeds and curated Tinder profiles: this is the original story of self-obsession.
In Greek mythology, Narcissus gazed into a pool of water, and fell in love with what he saw there. He was doomed to spend eternity staring into his own reflection, pining for a love that would never materialise.
But what about modern-day narcissists? Can they ever change their ways, or like Narcissus, will they be stuck in a cycle of self-obsession forever?
Narcissist is a label that gets thrown around a lot, so it’s worth nailing down the definition here. Some narcissistic tendencies, like vanity or occasional selfishness, are normal. Taking ages to perfect your latest selfie doesn’t actually make you a narcissist.
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), on the other hand, is a “mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
People with NPD exaggerate their own achievements, belittle and take advantage of others, have trouble managing their emotions, and are quick to rage and anger. They may appear confident, but they actually have very fragile self-esteem and can’t handle even the smallest criticism.
They either can’t or don’t want to acknowledge the needs and feelings of others. This can make forming all kinds of relationships — from those at work to friendships and romantic partnerships — extremely difficult.
If those behaviors sound all too familiar to you, then you might know someone with narcissistic personality disorder. And maybe you’ve found yourself wondering if they’re ever going to change.
A recent study attempted to answer that very question. A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored how narcissism develops from young adulthood to middle age. Dr. Eunike Wetzel and her team of researchers from the University of Vienna used data spanning 23 years to figure out how narcissistic traits evolve.
“Interestingly, they found evidence to suggest that narcissists become less narcissistic over time,” summarized Mark Travers Ph.D. in Psychology Today.
The researchers looked at people’s answers to personality questions, given when they were 18 and then again aged 41. They concluded that on average, narcissism decreased over that period. The decrease was most pronounced for the trait of entitlement, and least pronounced for the trait of vanity.
Dr. Craig Malkin is a psychologist and Harvard Medical School lecturer who wrote the critically acclaimed book Rethinking Narcissism.
“Anyone can change if (and that’s not just a big, but a crucial, if) they want to,” Dr. Malkin tells Talkspace.
“I’ve seen dramatic changes from clients with NPD who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do deep emotional work, to learn to build mutually caring, connected, trusting relationships.”
Dr. Malkin does point out, however, that there is one crucial caveat. “Some people with NPD are abusive. They have to end their abusive behaviors with the people who love them. That’s 100% their responsibility and relationships can’t heal at all until they end their abuse. That’s the first and most important change.”
People with narcissistic personality disorder change when they develop “attachments security,” according to Dr. Malkin.
“That is: when they’re sad, scared, blue, lonely, ashamed, feeling vulnerable, they need to learn how to deeply feel (it’s not enough to just say the feelings) and share those emotions, with those close to them, beginning with a therapist.”
“Most people with NPD have learned, growing up, to fear and avoid this kind of closeness. They know how to be special for people (becoming a performance), but have little experience of being special to those they love, which is the kind of mutual care and concern that secure love is all about.”
He adds: “We know that the more securely attached people are, the less narcissistic they are.”
So how can we put this knowledge into practice with narcissists in our own lives? Can we help them to grow?
“The best we can do is make sure we, ourselves, are being open and clear emotionally,” says Dr. Malkin. “Because narcissistic loved ones need to learn how to be in a relationship where that kind of genuine closeness is possible. That can’t happen if we tiptoe or attack or avoid closeness ourselves. If you’re angry or scared or sad or disappointed, yourself, you have to be able to say so with clarity and compassion — and without fearing attack or abandonment.”
Whatever your views are on whether people can evolve in general, it seems there is a growing body of evidence to support the idea that narcissists can change.
There are two crucial steps:
“It’s in experiences that immerse [narcissists] in close relationships, community, deep feeling, and a sense of belonging that brings them to that place [of change],” Dr. Malkin says. “In therapy it involves intense risk taking and honesty.”
“It takes great courage and commitment, but it’s within reach.” If you think you might have narcissistic tendencies and would like to change your habits and behaviors, it’s vital to work with a licensed therapist — and to start working with one today, try online therapy.
Clare Wiley is a freelance journalist and editor from Ireland, based in Los Angeles. She covers mental health, culture and lifestyle, with work in The Guardian, Vice, Cosmopolitan, and others. She previously worked for a leading mental health charity in the UK.