When I was collecting questions from readers for my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood, It’s not surprising that this question was submitted numerous times, referring to both romantic partners and parents; this post is adapted from the book. As it happens, the word “narcissist” has taken on a life of its own. Google the word and an astounding 55,000,000-plus references will come up, along with a box labeled “Narcissistic personality disorder” defined by the Mayo Clinic, which calls the condition “rare” and states that there are 200,000 diagnoses in the United State annually. There’s no question that narcissism is the Little Black Dress of Pop Psychology and ready-made for amateur diagnosis but do we have it right?
Noting the difference between NPD and “narcissistic”
Because in the world of the Internet, “NPD” and “narcissism” are often used interchangeably, it’s important to offer a small corrective and then to turn to Dr. Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism and a working therapist (and instructor at Harvard Medical School) to help answer this question about change. Dr. Malkin encourages us, first of all, to separate NPD from what he calls a “trait label” and, even though the Internet is full of memes and articles telling you to run like the wind if you’re in a relationship with someone high in narcissistic traits, he does believe that it is possible for these people to change, though it’s neither easy nor a slam-dunk.
Trait label vs. diagnosis
Being narcissistic is a trait label, as he points out, not very different from the much friendlier trait labels like “introverted” or “extroverted.” He reminds us that:
“When they become diagnostic labels, like ‘pathological narcissist’ or ’Narcissistic Personality Disorder,’ these stark descriptions imply something that goes far beyond a tendency or a style; they suggest permanence and a set of stable, enduring features. I have more hope than this. I believe that rather than simply being ‘who we are,’ our personalities are also patterns of interaction. That is, personality, whether disordered or not, has as much to do with how (and with whom) we interact as it does with our genes and wired-in temperament. It’s the patterns of interaction that set those with NPD or high in narcissistic traits apart.”
How narcissists become narcissists
For those of you who haven’t read Rethinking Narcissism, which explains narcissism as a spectrum (from the lack of healthy narcissism called “echoism” to healthy self-regard to what we’re discussing here), I highly recommend you do. But let’s continue with Dr. Malkin’s explanation of both NPD and narcissism as a trait, which he, among other theorists and practitioners, sees as a response to an environment in the family of origin. You’ll note that his explanation converges with the discussions of avoidant insecure attachment in my book, Daughter Detox:
“NPD or being high in narcissistic traits emerges from an environment in which vulnerability comes to feel dangerous, representing, at worst, either a grave defect, or at best, a stubborn barrier to becoming a worth-while human being. That explains the correlation between narcissism and insecure attachment styles, in which the fear of depending on anyone at all triggers consistent attempts to control the relationship or avoid intimacy altogether. If you devote yourself to directing interactions or holding people at arm’s length, it’s a lot harder to become vulnerable. No matter how they appear to the outside world—whether supremely confident or in control—they have learned to ignore, suppress, deny, project, and disavow their vulnerabilities (or at least try) in their attempts to shape and reshape ‘who they are’ in their interactions.”
The risk that change involves for the narcissistic parent or person
You may have already known about the armored and frightened self that is hidden beneath that public persona, but the key here is how that self connects to the possibility of change. I think Dr. Malkin does a nuanced job of explaining why it’s very hard but perhaps—note the “perhaps” I have added—not impossible. This is what Dr. Malkin has to say:
“Change—allowing the vulnerability back in—means opening up to the very feelings they’ve learned to avoid at all costs. It’s not that people with NPD or those high in narcissistic traits can’t change; it’s that it often threatens their sense of personhood to try. And their failed relationships often confirm, in their minds, that narcissism is the safest way to live. Put another way, narcissists can’t be narcissistic in a vacuum. They need the right audience in order to feel like a star, for example, so they often cultivate relationships with people who stick around for the show, instead of the person. Over time, as their perfect façade starts to slip, their constant fear that people will find them lacking becomes a horrifying reality. The very people who stuck around for the show lose interest when it ends—which merely convinces the narcissist that he or she needs to hide those flaws and put on a better show. Alternatively, even when they fall for someone who could be more than just an adoring fan—someone who offers the hope of a more authentic, enduring love—narcissists still live with the paralyzing fear they’ll somehow be deemed unworthy. Their terror is frequently out of conscious awareness, and nearly always managed with bravado and blame, but it’s profound and palpable. Sadly, their anger at having their mistakes and missteps exposed ultimately alienates their loved ones, and the demise of yet another relationship prompts them to redouble their efforts to avoid vulnerability—in short, it pushes them toward more narcissism. The sad irony of the narcissistic condition is that, in an effort to protect themselves, narcissists inevitably invite the very rejection and abandonment they fear in the first place.”
This strikes me as true in so many aspects, even though I certainly lack the empathy Dr. Malkin evinces as a human and a therapist. Reading this, I will say, doesn’t fill me with sadness but frustration and, yes, an impulse to find my running shoes or a good lawyer.
So back to Dr. Malkin and his advice, which I think is kind, smart, and true and which I hope in my heart of hearts is possible:
“The key, then, to interacting with someone you suspect is narcissistic is to break the vicious circle—to gently thwart his or her frantic efforts to control, distance, defend, or blame in the relationship by sending the message that you’re more than willing to connect with him or her, but not on these terms, and to extend an invitation to a version of intimacy where he or she can be loved and admired, warts and all. That’s only possible if the person allows the experience to happen.”
Please note the last phrase: “if the person allows the experience to happen.” This strikes me as hugely important, and is a lesson that deserves to be underscored always; the only person you can change is yourself.
So, can a narcissist change? Only if he or she wants to and is willing to take the risk.
Photograph by Sandy Millar. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Copyright © 2019, 2020 by Peg Streep. All rights reserved. Adapted from The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book,