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Can a narcissist change? Causes and effective treatments for narcissism

Can a narcissist change? Causes and effective treatments for narcissism

Narcissism can be a destructive pattern that affects the lives of others as well as those with it. Because of this, many wonder whether narcissism is a treatable condition — whether narcissists can change.

Those with narcissism or narcissistic traits can certainly change. The key, however, is that they need to be willing to adjust their patterns and commit to getting help. Without consistent treatment and openness to change, it is very challenging for someone with narcissism to change without necessary support.

What Is Narcissism?

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a pervasive lifelong pattern of self-centeredness, grandiosity, deep insecurity, and lack of empathy that is present in multiple settings throughout one’s life and causes functional impairment and distress in most — if not all — areas of one’s life. 

People can exhibit narcissistic traits without having NPD, but their symptoms would likely have less of an impact on their lives than clinically significant symptoms of NPD. Even if someone displays similar traits and can act like a “narcissist,” there is a big difference between selfishness and narcissism, so it’s best not to use that term lightly.

People with NPD or narcissistic traits often have difficulty with interpersonal relationships, their arrogance and lack of empathy making it difficult to form meaningful and respectful relationships with others.

What Is the Root Cause of Narcissism?

There are many possible causes of NPD: 

  • Genetics
  • Environment
  • Trauma
  • Upbringing

NPD can be caused by just one of these factors but is also often tied to more than one. The causes for narcissistic traits, though, usually have something to do with an aspect of their upbringing. They may have been raised by a narcissistic parent or one with undiagnosed NPD. 

They may have also been the center of attention as a child with limited boundaries. This can either cause them to become arrogant and self-important or very anxious and insecure caused by a lack of responsibility and an inability to build confidence over time. Either of these factors can cause someone to exhibit narcissistic personality traits.

What Are the 5 Main Habits of a Narcissist?

Each case of narcissism is different, which means that each narcissistic individual will display different traits and habits. However, there are a few habits that commonly characterize narcissism and NPD:

  • Not empathizing with others
  • Demonstrating unreasonably high self-esteem
  • Acting entitled
  • Asking for validation and praise
  • Exploiting others 

Displaying these habits does not automatically mean that someone is narcissistic, but it’s rare that narcissists and those with NPD will act contrary to them.

Can a Narcissist Change and Get Better?

Yes, those with narcissism or NPD can change, but it takes a lot of hard work and persistence. This is largely due to the fact that the symptoms and traits caused by their NPD can make them very unwilling to change.

Their traits of arrogance, self-centeredness, inability to take criticism, and belief in their rightness make it very difficult for narcissists to see why they would ever need to change. 

For those with just the traits of narcissism, sometimes it’s possible to put a mirror up to their actions and background and help them realize what they’re doing. This can be enough to help them change, as the root of their actions is not a clinical issue or pattern. 

Helping those with NPD, though, can be much harder because suggesting that their actions are in the wrong and need to change challenges many of their core beliefs, such as their infallibility. Unless there are already cracks in their facade that a mental health professional can draw attention to, they might not see anything wrong with how they act and will see no reason to change something that works for them. 

Can Someone Stop Being a Narcissist?

Yes, people can stop being narcissists — including no longer meeting diagnostic criteria for NPD. However, this is not an easy process. It requires narcissists to realize that their patterns aren’t helpful and that they should be adjusted. In most cases, the forces promoting change have to outweigh the other side very much in order to inspire sustained commitment.

When the root of the problem is eventually reached and healed, which sometimes requires continued care, then someone can “heal out” of NPD.

For people with narcissistic tendencies, the root of their behavior must similarly be reached. However, since their symptoms and patterns aren’t a clinical issue, it’s likely that it could take less time and work to get to the center of things, make the needed adjustments, and curb further narcissistic behavior.

Can a Narcissist Change for Love?

Whether or not a person with NPD or narcissistic personality traits could change for love is a scenario specific to any relationship, which means it’s nearly impossible to make a general statement about the idea. Loving someone might inspire someone to want to change in order to be a better partner or family member for the person they love, but it’s tricky to depend on that idea, especially when that person has the traits of a narcissist.

Love requires mutual care, empathy, and respect, including for boundaries. Due to the diagnostic criteria for NPD, it is very hard for people with it to meet these standards. Therefore, it needs to be considered whether the love you believe you share with someone with NPD is truly healthy and good for both of you. 

The best and most infallible reason for someone to change, though, is for themselves — to reach their own goals and improve their quality of life. Changing for others can cause resentment to form or make one’s efforts to change disingenuous and misguided. In order for true, healthy change to occur, the person doing the work of changing has to want it for themselves.

If this idea is on your mind, consider getting support for yourself. Being in love with someone with NPD or narcissistic traits can be difficult, and even if they agree to get help and change their patterns, it’s a long process. Talking to a mental health professional about your situation is the best way to get consistent and informed support for yourself. They can help you protect your own well-being by showing you how to set healthy boundaries and develop other helpful strategies. 

If you are considering leaving your narcissistic partner, talk to a mental health professional and the people close to you in your life about it. Those with narcissistic traits can try to manipulate certain factors like finances, housing, or other relationships against you in order to make you stay, so it’s important to develop a plan to keep you safe and supported during this process.

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Can a Narcissist Change If They Seek Therapy?

Yes, therapy is a key part of helping people with NPD or narcissistic traits change through developing healthier patterns and relationships. 

What Kind of Therapeutic Techniques Can Help a Narcissistic Person Change?

There are many types of therapeutic techniques used to treat NPD that therapists and counselors implement as they see fit, depending on the needs and symptoms of their clients. Examples of common treatment approaches for narcissism include:

  • Mentalization-based therapy: This approach focuses on establishing a more resolute sense of self and sustained mentalization of the perspectives of others. Stabilizing one’s sense of self can help decrease levels of insecurity and anxiety, and thinking through other people’s perspectives can increase one’s empathy.
  • Trauma-focused therapy: This type of therapy uses techniques like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) to help people process any traumatic events from their past that are impacting their lives and functioning. Sometimes, childhood trauma can cause people to develop narcissistic traits, so when those events are processed and the wounds healed, narcissists can then change their current unhelpful patterns.
  • Skills development and behavioral work: These approaches can use other techniques, such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), to help people with NPD  improve their interpersonal skills, develop their ability to regulate their emotions, reduce levels of isolation, teach mindfulness and introspection, and build accountability.
  • Intensive wraparound care: This is a holistic approach that involves the use of a care team. Each member of the team will treat a different aspect of NPD, though each type of treatment will be tied together within a comprehensive treatment plan.

All of these can be incredibly effective in treating NPD or can be used to treat narcissistic patterns as necessary. However, as previously mentioned, those receiving treatment must be open to change and willing to put in work. 

If someone close to you with NPD is not willing to commit to getting help and treating their condition, you must consider whether staying in relationship with them is a healthy prospect. Make sure to set firm boundaries with them and do everything you can to protect yourself and your own well-being — including seeing a mental health professional.

  • Medical writer
  • Editorial writer
  • Clinical reviewer
  • 1 sources
Kate Hanselman, PMHNP in New Haven, CT
Kate Hanselman, PMHNP-BCBoard-Certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
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Kate Hanselman is a board-certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC). She specializes in family conflict, transgender issues, grief, sexual orientation issues, trauma, PTSD, anxiety, behavioral issues, and women’s issues.

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Alexandra “Alex” Cromer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has 4 years of experience partnering with adults, families, adolescents, and couples seeking help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders.

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Hannah DeWittMental Health Writer

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

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  • Irwin, H. J. (n.d.). Codependence, narcissism, and childhood trauma. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 51(5), 658–665.

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