Narcissists often get flak for being incapable of change.
The reason, according to psychologists, is that most narcissists aren’t really aware of their narcissistic tendencies. These issues are often deep-seated, and self-preservation stops them from even recognizing their problems.
But chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re one of those who want to change. Admitting you might have Narcissistic Personality Disorder is already a step forward.
Self-aware narcissists can change. In this article, we’ve curated seven key steps on how to stop being a narcissist, according to some of the world’s top psychology experts. We then go through the negative impacts of narcissism, followed by a discussion on whether narcissists can really change.
What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
First of all, let’s explain what Narcissistic Personality Disorder is. According to The Mayo Clinic:
“Narcissistic Personality Disorder—one of several types of personality disorders—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.
“But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”
People who suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder experience negative impacts in areas like relationships and careers. Because of their incessant need for validation and attention, their motives are often selfish and reckless. They also have a hard time finding fulfillment in things, which can cause them to be quite unhappy.
If you think you may have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the first thing to be aware of is that it’s not a condition that you always have to live with. You have most likely developed a pattern of behaviors resulting from a childhood that left you with unmet needs and low self-esteem.
Symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
You have Narcissistic Personality Disorder if you:
- think quite highly of yourself, like you’re the only important person in the world.
- are self-entitled and feel that you deserve nothing but the best.
- demand recognition even if you didn’t do anything to deserve it.
- exaggerate your skills and achievements and brag about them excessively.
- make everything about you.
- use and manipulate people to get what you want.
- unwilling to recognize and value the needs of others.
Why do people develop Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is usually acquired because of trauma or an unhealthy upbringing.
According to Elinor Greenberg, internationally renowned Gestalt therapy trainer and Narcissistic Personality Disorder expert: “Narcissistic Personality Disorder can be looked at rather simply as an adaptation to a childhood home environment that left you with unstable self-esteem, low emotional empathy, and a particular set of coping skills that have now become automatic and habitual.”
Bad parenting, for one, seems to be a major contributor to developing narcissistic behavior. If parents are extremely authoritative to the point of demanding perfection, children often end up having inflated egos and a sense of superiority.
These behaviors and mentality are then carried on to adulthood, making them near impossible to change.
Because of this, narcissism becomes deeply ingrained in their psychological structure.
Greenberg explains: “As with any habit, your narcissistic responses are now encoded in your brain as a series of neuronal connections that fire together automatically in certain situations.”
However, that doesn’t mean change is impossible. According to Greenberg: “You can choose to learn new coping skills that you like better. With continued practice, the new, non-narcissistic strategies will eventually replace the old narcissistic ones.”
7 steps to overcoming your narcissism
Overcoming narcissism is no simple process. Absolute change may be near impossible. However, you can make changes that will create a positive impact on your life.
Here are nine achievable steps to help you stop being a narcissist, according to psychologists.
1. Know what your “triggers” are
Narcissistic behavior often emerges when a person suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder gets “triggered.”
According to Greenberg, “triggers” are: “…situations, words, or behaviors that arouse strong negative feelings in you. People with narcissistic issues tend to overreact when they are “triggered” and do things that they later regret.”
As a first step, it’s important to know in which situations your narcissism comes out. Learning what they are can help you identify the reasons behind your narcissism, so you may be able to handle them accordingly.
For example, if you experience narcissistic tendencies and want to become aware of your triggers, you may notice that you often feel a surge of anger when someone you perceive being of a “lower status” challenges your authority in the workplace.
Or you may notice that you are often dismissive of other people when they suggest ideas.
Whatever your particular triggers are, start to take note of them. It may be useful to carry a notebook with you or jot them down in a note-taking app on your phone.
Over time, you’ll start to notice patterns on when you feel triggered by others and react with narcissistic tendencies.
2. Manage your impulses
Narcissist people are often impulsive and make decisions without thinking of the consequences.
If you display narcissist tendencies, it’s important to emphasize thinking first and reacting later.
According to Greenberg: “Practice inhibiting or delaying your normal response when triggered. Your ‘normal’ response is the now unwanted one that you do automatically. It has become wired as a habit into the neurons of your brain.”
The key step to changing your behaviors is to become aware of your impulses. This gives you the opportunity to create behavioral change in your life.
Taking note of your triggers as recommended in step one will teach you to create some space between the stimulus of the trigger and your response. Pausing when triggered opens up the opportunity to create a new set of behaviors.
3. Consciously choose a new set of empathetic responses
It’s incredibly challenging for narcissists to think of others before thinking of themselves. Although difficult, it’s a crucial step to take.
Research shows that narcissists can learn to be empathetic. It comes down to making a habit out of empathetic behaviors.
Ni advises: “Express genuine interest in and curiosity about people in your life. Listen at least as much as you talk. Be careful not to thoughtlessly intrude upon others’ personal space, use their personal property, or take up their personal time without permission.”
You can start to train yourself to react differently to situations that trigger narcissistic tendencies now that you are becoming more aware of your impulses. Think about the triggers you’ve been taking note of in step one, and take some time out to think about how you would like to react. What would your reaction be if you were consciously thinking of others and demonstrating empathy?
It’s important to take some time out and consciously decide on the behaviors you regularly undertake.
Now that you’re taking note of when you feel triggered and learning to create a space between the stimulus of the trigger and your response, you can start to consciously react with an empathetic behavior every time you feel the trigger of narcissism.
It will feel strange doing so initially. It will also be incredibly frustrating. But over time, your new reactions will become ingrained behavior patterns.
4. Celebrate the decision you’ve made to be a better person
It sounds simple, but if you have identified yourself as having narcissistic tendencies, have started to take note of your impulses and reactions, and have begun to replace your narcissistic reactions with empathic ones, then you should be very satisfied with yourself.
You have made the decision to become a better version of yourself, and you’re following through with this decision.
It’s very important that this decision is yours and you’re doing it because you truly want to change. If this is the case, you should take pause to truly celebrate that you’ve come to this decision. It’s not an easy thing to do.
During the process of creating a new set of behavioral responses to your narcissistic tendencies, I recommend setting aside a set time each day for yourself to celebrate the decisions you’ve made. Think of the moments during the day when you noticed your triggers and substituted your usual response with an alternative empathetic behavior. Notice the times you weren’t able to substitute your response and understand that it takes time to create a new set of habits.
By taking time out for yourself each day to celebrate yourself, you’ll remind yourself about why you’re doing what you do. This will give you inner motivation to continue your quest to stop being a narcissist.
5. Take responsibility for everything that happens in your life
Narcissists have a reputation of rarely taking responsibility for what happens in their life. They either manipulate the situation to play the victim or make someone else feel guilty for the crime they committed themselves.
But not you. The fact that you’ve arrived at this point in the article shows that you are motivated to start taking responsibility for your narcissistic tendencies.
This journey of taking responsibility is far bigger than simply changing a set of narcissistic behavioral tendencies. It will have a far broader impact on your life.
As Dr. Alex Lickerman explains, taking responsibility simply means: “…to take full responsibility for your happiness … means recognizing that how things look at the outset doesn’t determine how things will end, and that although we can’t control everything (or perhaps anything) we want, we all have often enormous ability to influence how much happiness or suffering the events of our lives bring us.”
(If you’d like help in taking responsibility for your life, check out our eBook: Why Taking Responsibility is Key to Being the Best You)
6. Consider taking psychotherapy
Now that you’re taking responsibility for your narcissism, it’s worth considering complementing your approach to changing your behaviors with psychotherapy.
According to Bridges To Recovery, treatments include: “Working together, therapists and narcissistic patients will identify the attitudes and behaviors that create stress, conflict, and dissatisfaction in the patient’s life. As recovery progresses, therapists will encourage NPD sufferers to take constructive action to ameliorate the negative impact of their narcissistic symptoms, providing practical advice and instruction that can help them do so.”
7. Practice gratitude
Gratitude requires a whole lot of humility—something narcissists often have difficulty understanding.
But if there is one way to quench an inflated ego, practicing gratitude will certainly do the trick.
This is because gratitude shifts you from thinking about yourself to feeling grateful for other people and things in your life.
John Amadeo, award-winning author of Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships, explains: “Gratitude is a corrective to our sense of entitlement. One aspect of narcissism is the belief that we deserve to get without having to give. We feel that we’re entitled to fulfill our needs without being troubled by perceiving another’s world and responding to others’ needs. Our attention is fully absorbed within a limited and narrow sense of self.”
Negative impacts of narcissism
Unfortunately, people suffering from narcissism can almost be entirely unaware of their negative behavior and the impact it brings to their lives.
According to Professor Preston Ni, life coach and author of How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People: “Many narcissists are oblivious to their negative and often self-destructive behavioral patterns, which typically result in them experiencing life lessons the hard way.”
The negative impacts of narcissism in your life can include:
1. Loneliness and isolation
Narcissistic behavioral tendencies such as selfishness, lies, and apathy are not characteristics that attract long-lasting relationships.
Narcissists are often fueled to serve only themselves and are incapable of portraying empathy towards others. Because of this, they have trouble forming genuine and deep bonds with others.
According to psychiatrist Grant Hilary Brenner: “The need to do this self-reflective high-wire act in order to maintain a bubble of self-esteem is draining on oneself and others, forever threatening to expose a raw nerve, and pushing many valuable relationships into destructive cycles of envy and competition, or neediness and abuse, in extreme but all too common situations.”
This means narcissists live lonely lives and can only maintain superficial relationships.
2. Problems in career or school
Naturally, a narcissist’s social ineptness inhibits them from succeeding in the career or educational ladder.
According to Ni, problems arise from: “…rule breaking, gross irresponsibility, careless indulgence, or other indiscretions.”
In other words, narcissists lack the capacity to do well in the career ladder.
3. Unnecessary anger
Anger is something narcissistic people tend to foster.
According to Greenberg: “They get extremely mad at things that seem quite minor to most people, like waiting an extra ten minutes for a table in a restaurant. Their degree of fury and hurt will seem very disproportionate to the actual situation.”
This necessary negative emotion brings down every aspect of a narcissist’s life, making it even harder for them to achieve contentment or happiness.
4. Depression and anxiety
Narcissists are not at all invincible to internal emotional conflicts. Quite the contrary, they are more sensitive to depression and anxiety.
Yale research specialist Seth Rosenthal explains: “What people hypothesize is that narcissists are prone to higher highs and lower lows. They have this constant need to have their greatness verified by the world around them. When reality catches up with them, they may react by becoming depressed.”
The difference is, they use their struggles as fuel to abhorrent behavior, further alienating themselves to the world.
5. Deep-seated insecurity
People suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder may seem over-confident, but behind their shell is someone who is plagued by deep-seated insecurity.
According to Ni: “Many narcissists are easily upset at any real or perceived slights or inattentiveness. They are constantly hounded by the insecurity that people may not see them as the privileged, powerful, popular, or “special” individuals they make themselves to be.
“Deep down, many narcissists feel like the “ugly duckling”, even if they painfully don’t want to admit it.”
Can a narcissist really change?
But there’s a big if.
According to certified coach and improvement thought leader Barrie Davenport: “If a narcissist’s relational patterns can be changed in therapy, it can help decrease their inflexible narcissistic traits into a softer form of self-protection that eventually allows them to have healthy relationships.”
Change is possible with ongoing efforts. If you are open to making deep changes in your mentality and the way you live your life, you can overcome your narcissistic tendencies and have a better relationship with the world.
Denial is the number one pattern you need to break.
The only way to move forward is to accept that you have a problem, take responsibility for it, and be open to change.