If you’ve ever done research to determine whether someone you know is a narcissist, you’ve probably encountered plenty of articles alleging that narcissists are inherently evil and incapable of change.
These assumptions don’t do justice to narcissism’s complexity, though. The truth is, everyone is capableof change. It’s just that many people with narcissism lack the desire or face other barriers (including harmful stereotypes).
People with narcissistic tendencies may display:
- grandiose behavior and fantasies
- arrogance and entitlement
- low empathy
- a need for admiration and attention
These traits, while often deeply entrenched, aren’t always permanent. In fact, a 2019 study suggests that narcissistic tendencies naturally tend to decrease with age.
That doesn’t mean you have to wait around for nature to take its course, though. If someone’s ready to change, therapy offers a faster, more effective path.
Again, some people with narcissistic tendencies might not have an interest in changing. But others do.
How do you determine whether you or someone close to you is ready to change? There’s no single answer.
“Someone would have to recognize that primarily seeing others as resources, rather than people with their own interests, is causing them to suffer, and be interested enough in their thoughts and feelings to find out how and why they approach others in that way,” says Jason Wheeler, PhD, a New York psychologist.
These following signs suggest someone is open to examining their behavior and exploring ways to create change.
Acknowledging the feelings of others
Many people believe “narcissism” equals “no empathy.” While people with narcissistic tendencies often find it difficult to consider the feelings and perspectives of other people, research from 2014 suggests that empathy, while often low, isn’t always absent.
People with narcissism can develop greater empathy when motivated to do so, most notably when taking on the perspective of a person they see as similar to themselves or when considering the experiences of their children or others who idealize or value them.
Someone who shows affection or concern for certain people may be ready to explore further change in therapy.
Interest in their behavior
Someone who wonders why they act the way they do may be open to exploring their behavior in therapy. This interest might come about after reading articles or books on narcissism, or when someone points out their narcissistic tendencies.
It’s possible for people with narcissistic traits to function fairly well in daily life. Intelligence and a drive to succeed can fuel an interest in not only their own behavior, but the behavior of others. This can lead to progress toward viewing other people as equals rather than inferiors.
Willingness to self-reflect
Self-reflection can be a challenge for people dealing with narcissism because it damages their protective shell of perfection.
A key characteristic of narcissism is the inability to see the mix of positive and negative characteristics that all people possess (known as whole object relations).
Instead, most people with narcissistic traits tend to see people, themselves included, as entirely good (perfect) or entirely bad (worthless). If their assumption of their own perfection is challenged, they might lash out or become trapped in a spiral of shame and self-hatred.
Those who can examine and reflect on negative behaviors — without responding by devaluing the person offering criticism or themselves — may be ready for more extensive exploration.
It’s not uncommon for people with narcissistic tendencies to experience other mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, anorexia nervosa, and substance misuse.
These other issues, rather than narcissistic traits, often encourage people to seek therapy. The desire to relieve existing emotional pain and prevent future distress may be a strong motivator to work toward change.
While therapy can help address issues related to narcissism, it works best when provided by a therapist with specialized training for dealing with narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Even with a qualified therapist, the process can take several years. It’s not uncommon for people to leave therapy once they see some improvement of specific unwanted symptoms, such as depression, or when they no longer feel invested in the work involved.
There are several approaches to dealing with narcissism, but therapy typically involves these essential steps:
- identifying existing defense mechanisms
- exploring reasons behind these coping methods
- learning and practicing new patterns of behavior
- exploring how behaviors affect others
- examining connections between their internal voice and their treatment of others
The key to lasting progress often lies in:
- helping someone see how positive change can benefit them
- helping them explore causes of narcissistic defenses without criticism or judgment
- offering validation
- encouraging self-forgiveness and self-compassion to manage shame and vulnerability
There are a few types of therapy that are particularly useful for dealing with narcissism.
Schema therapy, a newer approach to treatment shown to have benefit for treating narcissism, works to help people address trauma of early experiences that may have contributed to narcissistic defenses.
Other beneficial therapies include:
- Gestalt therapy
- mentalization-based therapy
- transference-focused psychotherapy
Dr. Wheeler also emphasizes the importance of group therapy for people with personality-related issues. Group therapy provides an opportunity for people to see how others perceive them. It also allows people to note how parts of their personality impact others.
The causes of personality disorders aren’t fully known, but narcissistic tendencies typically emerge as a type of self-protection.
In other words, many people with narcissism had a narcissistic parent or experienced some type of abuse or neglect early in life. The negative messages and criticism they absorb become their internal voice.
To defend against this negative voice, they develop maladaptive coping strategies, or narcissistic defenses. Their treatment of others typically reflects how they feel about themselves.
If someone you love has chosen to get help for narcissism, here are some ways you can support them.
Offer encouragement and validation
People with narcissism typically respond well to praise. They may want to do well in order to demonstrate their ability, especially as therapy begins. Your recognition of the effort they’re putting in may motivate them to keep going and increase the likelihood of successful therapy.
Understand when they’re making progress
Therapy for narcissism can take a long time, and progress may happen slowly. You might notice some changes early on, such as attempts to control outbursts or avoid dishonesty or manipulation. But other behaviors, like anger in response to perceived criticism, may persist.
Working with your own therapist can help you learn to recognize improvements and determine for yourself what behavioral change has to happen for you to continue the relationship.
Learn what apologizing behaviors look like
Part of therapy may involve recognizing problematic behavior and learning to make amends. But the person will probably continue having a hard time admitting wrongdoing or sincerely apologizing.
Instead of discussing the situation or saying, “I’m sorry,” they may opt to show a gesture of apology, such as treating you to a fancy dinner or doing something nice for you.
When maintaining a relationship with someone who has narcissistic traits, remember that mental health conditions don’t excuse abuse and other bad behavior. Your well-being should remain your priority.
Look out for abuse
Narcissistic behaviors aren’t always abusive, but keep an eye out for:
- put-downs, gaslighting, and silent treatment
- become enraged when they don’t receive what they see as their due
- lashing out when feeling insecure or humiliated
It’s never wrong to have compassion, but don’t let it keep you from noting abuse or manipulation. You may care about your partner, but you also have to look after yourself.
Don’t treat therapy like a miracle cure
Therapy can have a lot of benefit, but it may not be enough to help you and your partner to sustain a mutually fulfilling relationship.
Also keep in mind that small positive changes don’t suggest total improvement. Try to accept and encourage these instances of growth without expecting more of the same to follow right away.
Pushing someone too hard may lead them to resist further change, so it often helps to pick your battles.
You might choose to call out attempts at manipulation, for example, but let self-admiring remarks go by without comment. Balancing this with encouragement for their effort can also have positive results.
Don’t let boundaries slip
Maybe you’ve previously said, “If you use nasty language, I’ll leave for the night.” After a few months of your partner offering some kind words with no put-downs, they devalue you on one occasion during an argument.
You feel inclined to let this go, since they’ve been doing so well. But this can reinforce the behavior, which hurts you both. Instead, stick to your boundary while encouraging them to keep up their progress.
Narcissistic tendencies can improve with support from a compassionate, trained therapist. If you choose to remain in a relationship someone dealing with these issues, it’s essential to work with your own therapist to establish healthy boundaries and develop resilience.
Therapy does require a significant commitment and effort. Even during and after therapy, your partner may never respond in the way you hope. They may struggle with vulnerability throughout life and continue to find empathy challenging.
If they have interest in the process and stick with it, though, small improvements in their behavior and emotional outlook may lead to greater, lasting change.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.