Can a Narcissist Change?
Resources from healthy relating and faith
Posted February 2, 2019
A young couple who I will call Tom and Carol came to see me in therapy stating that they felt their recent marriage “had started steering off the tracks.” Both star athletes and young professionals from an Ivy League college, they described themselves as the products of wealthy, educated, and loving families that were active in their faith traditions. From their reports, their childhoods revealed no difficult problems, and neither of them could explain their marital stupor, describing life, heretofore, as “fulfilling” and “exciting.”
Carol approached the marital slump as a challenge, feeling committed to the marriage regardless of obstacles. She embraced her beliefs that marriage is a life-long commitment in which you must work through difficulties. Tom expressed reservations about their future and lacked recognition of the impact of the marital distress upon Carol. He underscored that he deserved to be happy. He was preoccupied with his own needs, desires, and pleasures (obsessive about his distress and unable to express empathy for his wife). While both parties stated that they wanted to make their marriage work, Tom felt increasingly removed from the couples work and presented skepticism about their future together. A repeated theme in their sessions was that “something was missing.”
After struggling to identify any specific difficulty in their relationship, Tom’s self-interested concerns increasingly surfaced, asserting his dissatisfaction with both his marital and professional choices, feeling depressed, and complaining that his circumstances were “unfair.” Perceiving that individual difficulties were interfering with their ability to address their marital problems, the couple suggested that Tom work with me and Carol with a female colleague, before returning to the couples work.
Emphasizing an idealized sense of his potentiality across several fields and describing wide interests and proficiencies in diverse subject areas, Tom led me to consider that his preoccupation presented a psychological defense of “reversal of self‑doubt” (describing confidence when actually feeling uncertainty). So I circled back to his reported experiences of his “perfect childhood,” anticipating that some essential “supplies” (referencing emotional, nurturing needs) were missing. However, Tom assured me with his mantra that he came from a “perfect home,” countering that his past was unrelated to his current elusive marital difficulties.
One evening following a session, Tom texted me, reporting an emergency. Parked at the side of a highway, in a state of panic, he insisted that he needed to speak with me immediately. After reflecting about his session, he felt overcome by an avalanche of memories from his early life that he related to his emotional vacancy in the marriage. As a wave of tears overcame him, he could hardly speak on the phone.
He finally blurted out that it just hit him, although he had been told since childhood, “My twin brother had been breastfed by my mother but I was not!” He struggled in his tears to continue his sentences, as the impact of the symbolic image of denied being breastfed fell upon him like a ton of bricks. This symbol re-presented his deeply repressed feelings that his mother “always favored” his twin brother. Tom went on, as he agonized to speak, explaining that he attributed her behavior to his physical condition: “I was born with club feet—and she saw me as damaged.” As if lancing an abscess, his pain of feeling dismissed and inadequate, bottled up over the years, had now spilled into his consciousness.
Tom later shared with me a letter that he said he reported “feverishly writing” to his mother from the car that night:
In therapy, my anger is starting to surface. I have a lot. It's my problem, but its your fault. This must surprise you. The other night you said something like “Your problems couldn't be due to us, we even confirmed this with the the other kids. [Tom had five siblings].
You've heard all the breast feeding arguments…Some say that it is a significant event which cannot be by‑passed and others say it creates a bond between mother and child which carries the relationship to a more meaningful level. Let's put aside those arguments and concentrate on the uniqueness of what you did. You breast fed one twin and not the other. That is incredible to me. Babies can survive without breastfeeding, and seem to do so quite well; but you created this devastating dynamic that played out throughout my childhood!
I would think a woman of your intelligence would at least have suspected that what she was doing was not wise, and monitored the situation as time went on. Just the other night, you and Dad showed that “Steve always did the talking for the two of you.” –Like that's normal for two kids, equal in intelligence? That's not normal. And in the same conversation you mention that “I always had to compete with Steve. “Yes, Mom you are right–to get whatever love was left over…”
Tom amplified the action of being denied his mother’s “breast” as it symbolized his displacement and rejection by his mother, the preference of his brother, and his feelings of insufficient care. Often in psychotherapy, a patient will identify a poignant event that captures the perceived narrative theme. Tom concluded that his deeper feelings of emptiness were rooted in his mother’s functional mis-attunement. Tom felt that his character flaws grew out of self-doubt as a product of his insecure maternal attachment. His gnawing preoccupation with himself and excelling everywhere was borne out of his need to prove himself worthy of her love. He stated that he was “never satisfied, always wanted more and more…whatever it is, is never enough.” His notes continued:
I felt much pain early in life. To accommodate this pain, I developed my personality style. This pain, of course, has not been dealt with and has festered to a point where I am an angry young man who is missing a good portion of life's experience. The therapy, and now the medicine, is helping me to understand these issues and to decide for myself how I wish to live.
Healthy dependence on a loved one establishes a secure base (Johnson, 2019), as it provides a source of strength and resilience that enables one to grow in competency and autonomy. Tom’s diary in counseling unraveled his deeper insecurities:
My pain was the deprivation of breastfeeding. There are many babies who aren't breast‑fed and go on to live normal lives. However, my twin was receiving it. To aggravate this feeling of deprivation, my mother would breast feed me occasionally, for a little while.
By trial and error, I learned behaviors that would get my parents to show me love. For instance, I would take the blame when my twin did something wrong. When my parents found out, they would give me love: (“Oh, isn't he a nice boy for doing that”).
I went elsewhere to establish a connection. I was a fanatic sports fan and vehemently followed the New York teams. I would often cry when my team lost a game. Then, and still now, I vicariously experience the teams ups and downs. In high school, I found drugs as a way to escape further from my pain. Of course, this means of escape further damaged by relationship with my parents. I later found athletics and music as a way of drawing attention to myself.
My experiences in college and in my work life are very similar to those experienced in grade school and grammar school. I am an organism constantly seeking attention. I don't experience people as they are; I model them in my brain and decide how I rank against them. I gloat on successes by showing them to everyone. I despair and lose faith in myself over failures. I am not in balance.
Tom felt conditionally loved. His mother did not successfully form a secure attachment as normatively accomplished. Susan Johnson describes this as “perceived accessibility, responsiveness, and emotional engagement of attachment figures” (Johnson, 2019). Using analogies from his computer engineering background, we discussed his emotional wiring as if these were “missing chips.” Isolation from attachment heightens one sense of danger, vulnerability, and helplessness…Insecure attachment makes people susceptible to depression and anxiety (Johnson, 2019). Tom developed narcissistic coping strategies to remain regulated.
While feeling support in his early religious experiences that quelled the feeling that “something was missing,” Tom also began to feel that this soothing assurances and support was contaminated by his mother’s responses to his concerns:
The spiritual erosion is rooted in the problems with my mother. My mother became a Catholic when she married my father. She has developed a strong faith and always dealt with any crisis, large or small, with the tenet to “It's in His hands.” If things were ever going poorly for someone in our family, she always recommended that we “offer it up.” I wasn't able to understand why I reacted so negatively to Church at the time, but now it is clear that I felt my mother was hypocritical: she practiced conditional love while she preached unconditional love. This turned me against organized religion as a solution.*
The conditional love of Tom’s mother, as he calls it, complicated by his rejection of security that he originally felt in church, from his mother’s direction to go to God directly to get what he needed from her, left him alone. Could he now participate in a marriage when he's missing essential elements of what relationship requires (identity, confidence, and authenticity from a secure attachment)?
Attachment has its roots in early infancy. It is a product of caregiver‑infant interaction. Preceding issues are continuously reworked in facing later issues. As Erikson suggested, early trust provides the foundation for autonomy, but trust is also deepened by the clarity, firmness, and support parents provide during increased child autonomy and later phases. Children who earlier were securely “attached” were independently described by their teachers as “highly resilient” (Scoufe, 1979). What children experience, early and later, makes a difference. We cannot assume that early experiences will somehow be cancelled by later experiences. Such cases show that lasting consequences of early inadequate experiences may be subtle and complex–particularly as one encounters vulnerability and/or seeks intimate adult relationships and/or parenting. Avoidantly attached individuals dismiss their own needs and those of others, unable to express empathy and interpersonal support. They are unable to benefit from the resources that they have from safe connections, just as Tom unintentionally cut off both his invaluable relationship with Carol and his faith to do it alone.
As Tom worked through his painful history and the unresolved feelings with his parents, he began reconstructing his reactions and relationships to fortify his insecure attachment to function effectively in an intimate adult attachment bond, both with his wife and regarding his faith. He recognized that his maternal transference impeded his marriage and his spiritual resources. Tom began to see Carol as separate from mother with whom he had immense anger and pain; he stopped seeing Carol as an abandoning wife and began to see her as a person in her own right. Because he had been turned off to spirituality and religious growth by his mother’s response that essentially he go to God rather than seek comfort with her. Tom now recognized that he shut the door on religion and spirituality that offered him a powerful and positive infusion of affirmation, peace, self-awareness, and perspective in life. As part of his therapy he sought to renew his spirituality from boyhood. He recognized that his marital relationship was not only a setting to honor him but a basis from which constructively to build an authentic relationship and facilitate honor and healing in himself—and others.
As years passed, Tom directed his talents on his growing family and in faith which resulted in authentic rewards as he differentiated himself from the neediness of his past. In both psychology and religion, Tom drew upon resources that challenged his growth. He directed strengths learned from his athletic discipline to self-discipline and that transformed his narcissism to healthy care for self and others.
*Releases were provided to share this information.
Johnson, Susan M. (2019). Attachment Theory in Process. New York: The Guilford Press.
Scoufe, L.D. (1979). Continuity of individual adaptation from infancy to Kindergarten: A predictive study of ego-resiliency and curiosity in preschoolers, Child Development.