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How Do I Stop Being a Narcissist?

If I knew better I would do better.

Key points

  • Many individuals whom others label as narcissistic do not intentionally act hurtfully.
  • Much narcissistic behavior stems from dialogue patterns characteristic of young children.
  • Narcissisism particularly indicates deficits in listening skills.
Narcissistic habits stem from a belief that I am more important than others so I don't really need to listen to them.
Source: TopVectors/fotosearch

A reader of my blog on this website sent me an email that impressed me with the writer's poignant plea: "How do I stop being a narcissist?"

"I can't be the only person who is aware of narcissistic traits without any idea how to change or get rid of them. Almost all articles I’ve read about narcissism write as if the narcissist is behaving in these ways intentionally. In my opinion, narcissists don't realize what they are doing. Can you help us to see our narcissism more clearly, and to figure out what we can do differently? How do I stop being a narcissist?"

What is the essence of narcissism?

The essence of narcissism is a listening disorder. Folks who function narcissistically insufficiently engage in give-and-take, throw-and catch, dialogue. Instead, they too often act like young children, focusing mostly on themselves, seldom on others. This tendency becomes especially a problem when they pursue something they strongly want without taking into account the concerns of others.

To grow beyond narcissistic functioning, develop the ability to do what I call bilateral listening. That is, learn to listen to both sides, to yourself and, equally, to others' concerns and perspectives.

Here are five main areas in which listening deficits emerge, plus tips on how to upgrade your listening habits.

It's all about me.

Narcissistic listening manifests in habits of hearing one's own inner voices loudly, with relative disinterest and even deafness to others' viewpoints. The result: low levels of what psychologists call theory of mind, that is, ability to uptake others' perspectives.

Want to overcome the all-about-me habit?

  1. Be aware of your relative air time: Pay attention to how much air time you utilize in conversations. Do you talk more than others? A significantly larger proportion of talking than listening time probably suggests narcissism, especially in a two-person conversation. Aim instead for roughly equal time talking and listening.
  2. Note the subject: Note who you are talking about. Are you focusing the spotlight of attention as much on the other person as on you? Or is the discussion 'all about me?'
  3. Instead of talking about yourself, make a general point: Describing what you ate for dinner last night would be all about you. Describing how a particular restaurant prepares chicken offers information about cooking, not just about you and what you did.
  4. Ask questions: Questions indicate interest in others. Good questions generally begin with What or How (plus occasionally Where or When or Who). "What do you think about . . . ?" "How did you react when . . . ?" These open-ended question starter-words invite the other to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. By contrast, "Do you . . .?" or "Will you . . ." invite mostly just yes or no responses.
  5. Beware of personalizing: Personalizing, or taking things personally, refers to assuming that whatever others do must be about you in some way. So, if your friend is suddenly quiet, you would interpret his silence as "He must be mad at me." The antidote to personalizing? Ask. "I noticed you have been quiet the last few minutes. How come? What have you been thinking about?"

Avoid BUT listening

The word but indicates rejection of what the other person has said. But is like a subtraction sign, removing instead of uptaking what you have heard.

What antidotes can replace a but habit?

  1. Listen with your good ear: I refer to listening to respond with but, that is, with your rebuttal, as listening with your bad ear. The bad ear listens for what is wrong in what others are saying. Instead, listen to learn. If you can't hear what makes sense or is helpful in what you are hearing, ask a question (with how or what) to better understand what you heard. After you have genuinely taken in the other person's contribution, only then is it your turn to add your perspective. Build upon instead of replacing what was said.
  2. Augment, then add: Instead of negating what the other person has said by starting with the word butˆ, launch the information you want to add with and. Better yet, especially if your perspective differs from the other person's, launch with the phrase and at the same time.
  3. Assume that both of you are right: Change your either/or—I'm right and you are wrong—thinking to both/and thinking. Listen for what is right in both of your perspectives.

Difficulty hearing criticism

An especially challenging time for hearing what is right in what another person is saying is when they are offering criticism—and even worse, offering the feedback with a tone of irritation, anger, or blame.

  1. Focus on what could be useful information in the feedback: You are not perfect; no one is. So listen to learn from their comment. You will get more of what you want if you can hear what others want from you.
  2. Mistakes are for learning: Receiving feedback about how or where you are acting in a way that turned out to be problematic and hearing what you could do differently next time turns errors into opportunities to learn.

Frequent anger

Anger induces both the speaker and the receiver to close their ears. As a friend once explained to me, "When I am angry, what I want is holy; what you want is irrelevant."

  1. Tell yourself, "Anger is a stop sign": What do you do at a stop sign? Stop. Calm down before you attempt to discuss the problem further. Otherwise, you will not be able to hear the other person's concerns. Once you have returned to calm, instead of insisting on "getting my way," you hopefully will be able to seek a win-win solution.
  2. Ask yourself, "What do each of us want?": Aim for bilateral listening. "Win" arguments by finding a plan of action that works for both of you.


To further develop these and further anti-narcissism skills, check out my book and workbook called The Power of Two. With practice and determination, you can end your narcissistic habits.

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