|The Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvador Dali, 1937|
Part One: Can Narcissists Change?
I feel compelled to offer my interpretation of data suggesting narcissists are capable of change. Some of you may disagree with my conclusions and others of you might agree, while others might erroneously accuse me of being a narcissist's "sympathizer."
I do have compassion for narcissists. I can't help it. Compassion is an innate ability for most human beings who care about one another's suffering. I hope with every fiber of my being, that narcissists are capable of sustained change. Not as much for the narcissist him or herself because they aren't nearly as miserable as the people they live with---but for the alleviation of other people's suffering. Those kind and goodly people who care about, or even love, someone with a narcissistic personality. If there were a treatment that guaranteed sustained change, I'd be the first person to tell people to support a loved one who was dedicated to improving their mental health.
In a society that is becoming more and more narcissistic by the minute, our challenge is not to separate ourselves from anyone displaying narcissistic traits but to prevent entanglement in their 'illusions'. Our quest is to avoid becoming exactly like they: superior, objectifying, entitled, judgmental, un-empathic, and justified in devaluing and discarding others. That's not to say that we should hang out with people who use us like disposable mirrors and it would never be my intent to encourage people to sacrifice their lives hoping a narcissist would eventually become the person they purport to be. An interpersonal relationship with a narcissist always causes undo pain to others. But let's face reality here: even divorced people are forced to co-parent with narcissists, children are stuck with narcissistic parents, we work with narcissists, we live with narcissistic neighbors, we cannot segregate society into Ns and Nons even though quarantine might be the safest solution, or the easiest. Rather than put up with narcissists as a necessary evil because we insist they cannot change, my hope is that society will hold them accountable for a disorder far more contagious than swine flu, for heaven's sakes.
For all those who continue to maintain a relationship with narcissistic people, my hope is that psychologists will create viable treatments resulting in healthy change for unhealthy narcissists. I wish this for all children who are dependent on narcissistic parents.
Do I believe that someone with NPD, a true NPD, is capable of sustained change allowing intimate family members to relax their boundaries and fearlessly trust the narcissist to hold him or herself accountable?
Even a narcissist who is taking responsibility for a disorder that causes stress and pain in other people's lives, will have negative impacts on supportive partners, family members, friends, and co-workers. Narcissists demand extraordinary patience and firm boundaries that by necessity hinder intimacy based on mutual trust and a lessening of boundaries. As soon as you relax your guard, something will happen and the narcissist will react first, correcting himself later. But only if the browbeaten can convince them their aggression was unwarranted.
My recommendation for anyone supporting a narcissist who is seeking therapy, is for YOU to seek individual therapy, too. Living with a narcissist will be stressful, anxiety-ridden, and risky. I write 'risky' because at any point, the narcissist can switch gears and decide (despite convincing arguments to the contrary), that therapy and longterm partners and children and parents and coworkers are Out To Get Them. That we are controlling their freedom and forcing them to obey social rules that are beneath their superior understanding. They can throw away people with no more empathy than throwing away broken mirrors.
It is a risky enterprise to base your entire life on someone else's ability to process the inevitable conflicts of any intimate relationship. No matter how 'authentic' someone might be with awesome boundaries, self-awareness, compassion, and intent to do the right thing, intimate relationships are fraught with emotional highs and lows. Maturation is not for the weak of heart or the fearful. If an intimate relationship is worthy of the investment of our lives, both people will be forced to examine themselves with a clarity that would frighten Siegmund Freud, or Melodie Beatty, or anyone who dares peer within and 'Know the Self'.
As long as everything goes as planned and life doesn't get in the way, there's a chance that a narcissistic person will break through ego defenses and begin trusting other people, empathizing and caring about other people, and sacrificing impulsive behaviors for the 'good of the relationship.' There's a chance. In my experience, I'd say it's about as certain as buying a lotto ticket. You can hope you've intuited the winning combination; but hope and a three bucks will buy a latte at Starbucks.
In my prior post, I referred to Elsa Ronningstam's excellent book, Understanding and Identifying the Narcissistic Personality along with her research study titled NPD: A Stable Disorder or a State of Being?
In her book she writes, "An analysis of patients' accounts of life events suggested that a decrease in pathological narcissism was related to three kinds of corrective life experiences: achievements, new durable relationships, and disappointments or disillusionments. In other words, our study suggests that factors and circumstances outside treatment---actual life events and the patient's specific experience of such events---contribute to change in people with NPD." (page 184)
People who are 'hopeful' might interpret Ronningstam's conclusions to mean that as long as they support the narcissist (corrective interpersonal relationship) and help him or her face narcissistic grandiosity (corrective disillusionment), support and applaud their successes (corrective achievements), the narcissist will eventually embrace intimacy, trust, personal responsibility, and a moral core that is incorruptible. This is high-risk betting and if the vision of your future includes a partner who will be a reliable companion in your old age, then walk away from the gaming table, my friend. Life is not controllable. Manageable, yes. Controllable, no. There are too many situations that are unpredictable. Old age requires learning to 'roll with the punches', not loading up the car when the partner gets sick and rolling down the hill gathering no moss.
Because stressful situations INCREASE as we age, you can plan on one thing happening if you've decided to play the wheel of fortune: when you need the narcissist the most, they will leave. Leaving might include being abandoned in the hospital when you need your partner to support you. Or it might mean being treated with disdain when times get tough and the narcissist loses face in the workplace. It might mean being blamed for spending too much time caring for your aged parents or paying more attention to your children than your spouse. Narcissists don't like Giving Support...they're only there to Get It.
Reality is hard to face and even harder to accept if someone is narcissistic. Old age means increased vulnerability and vulnerability terrifies narcissists. Uncontrollable defenses will come to their rescue whenever feelings of vulnerability, mortality, failure, or inferiority come up. So I hope you get my point about Growing Old with Narcissists. When they look in your face and see wrinkles, grey hair, and signs of decay, they're gonna seek another mirror that reflects what they WANT to see. Your maturation reminds them that before very long, they'll be facing the total loss of control: human mortality.
So perhaps as long as people are young, their ambitions are yet to be fulfilled, their limitations are unrealized, occasional rewards for hard work will keep the narcissist chasing a carrot and then yes, it may appear that narcissists have changed through corrective achievements. But is this change trustworthy in the long run?
As long as a corrective interpersonal relationship allows the narcissist to dump his garbage at home and not at the office, or gives the narcissist an inferior partner to make himself feel superior, perhaps 'change' can be qualified by a therapist. For sure, the interpersonal relater (that's you) will be doing his or her best to keep the narcissist on track. After all, your life depends on it.
No Excuses for having a Personality Disorder
If narcissists are allowed an escape clause, then there is no hope of change. We hear narcissists excuse their heartless selfishness and cruelty by saying, "I have NPD. I can't change. Why can't you accept me as I am?"
Letting narcissists off the hook by blaming their bad behavior on a disorder is a serious error on OUR part. Claiming to be unable to stop themselves from harming others is the first line of defense they'll use to excuse themselves from responsibility. Narcissists, by virtue of their disorder, project responsibility and fault. They will blame their bad behavior on a mental disorder reputed to be incurable. And yup, we're seeing NPD being used in jury trials now.
The thing to remember is that NPD is not a delusional illness like schizophrenia. Narcissists are fully aware of what they are doing AND they are making choices to serve themselves first and blame others later. So I say, tell the suckers that their narcissism can be treated and for all those who sincerely struggle with narcissistic defenses, encourage them to seek treatment. By all means, if you are so inclined, don't give up on the relationship if the narcissist is willing to subordinate his ego to a trained psychologist's superior knowledge; but do not ignore the facts about lifelong NPD.
Even if there are times when your relationship appears to be getting better, do not bank your life on the narcissist's ability to SUSTAIN this change. When push comes to shove, you-know-who ends up on the ground and you-know-who justifies standing on their heads. Even after years and years of compassionate, understanding and reliable support, the narcissist will say, "It wasn't enough. What you were willing to give me was inferior to what I deserved."