Can Narcissists Ever Change?
Research suggests we may shift to the healthier side of the trait.
Posted Apr 07, 2015
Self-centered, egotistical, and manipulative are all traits we associate with narcissism. Carried to an extreme, this set of traits can become the basis for a psychological disorder which, as such, must meet certain diagnostic criteria in the DSM-5.
However, even in its more moderate forms, narcissistic traits can make life pretty difficult both for the individual and for those who care about him or her.
Throughout psychology’s attempts to understand narcissism have come occasional proclamations that it’s not really so bad. We distinguish between narcissism that is “pathological” and narcissism that is potentially healthy. As stated by Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Roche and colleagues (2013), “normal narcissism involves an organization of mature regulatory mechanisms that promote adaptive and attainable self-enhancement experiences and realistic ambitions consistent with an authentic and relatively positive view of self” (p. 237). In other words, healthy narcissists feel pretty good about themselves and are able to behave in a way that allows them to act positively and effectively in the world.
Because narcissism is so often slandered in the literature, particularly when authors write about our presumably narcissistically-entitled millennials—and the parents who made them that way—it’s important to keep in mind that a certain degree of self-esteem can be adaptive. Children raised to feel good about themselves by parents who praise their behavior don’t always turn into adults constantly expecting to be worshipped. Noted psychologist Carl Rogers spoke of the importance of parents providing unconditional positive regard, in which they allow their children to feel like the old Stuart Smalley character from "Saturday Night Live": “I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
The opposite scenario occurs when parents place conditions of worth on their children, making kids to feel anxious and uncertain about whether they are, in fact, “good enough.” Such inner anxiety can become the basis for pathological narcissism, in which, as adults, these individuals try to cover insecurities about their self-worth through a variety of self-aggrandizing strategies.
Other approaches distinguish between the “grandiose” and “vulnerable” narcissist, both of which represent pathological forms of the trait. With an inner core of insecurity, the pathological narcissist either presents an outward show of bravado (grandiose) or constantly seeks approval and attention from others (vulnerable).
In evaluating the ever-expanding body of psychological research on narcissism, Roche and colleagues proposed that the key ingredient to its healthy form is the ability to “self-regulate.” This means that an individual learns to manage the occasional threats to self-esteem that we all encounter, while still pursuing important life goals. Yes, your parents might not always satisfy all of your needs, but with a secure basis for your sense of self, you can manage those lapses without flying into a fit of anger, frustration, and disappointment. It’s this mature self-regulation that, over time, increasingly characterizes the healthy form of narcissism.
Roche and his fellow researchers developed a matrix in which they combined two dimensions of self-regulation: primitive and mature. They assume that everyone has needs for admiration and recognition as components of self-esteem. Mature forms of self-regulation lead to a person feeling ambitious, successful, and reasonably satisfied. You can be high or low on this dimension. Primitive forms of self-regulation, however, involve feeling better about yourself by developing grandiose fantasies of greatness, exploiting others to get ahead, and becoming enraged when others challenge you. Both grandiose and vulnerable narcissists are high on the primitive self-regulation dimension.
Combining these two dimensions into high and low on each produces 3 cells (the 4th possibility is not theorized to exist) with these qualities:
- Predominantly primitive: Sees other people in black-and-white terms (all good or all bad), feels helpless, and experiences feelings of shame, anxiety and distress when threatened.
- Mixed: Sees other people in black-and-white terms, is high in “hubris” (false self-pride), but exploits others to get ahead and becomes enraged when thwarted.
- Predominantly mature: Sees others in more complex ways, expresses the desire to act in healthy ways, has reasonable ambitions, can handle frustration, and is able to be self-disciplined and hard-working to achieve his or her goals.
As you can see, then, of the 3 forms of narcissism, one represents the healthy, psychologically mature person who behaves in reasonable ways in order to feel effective, secure, and liked. In testing their model on several large samples of undergraduates, Roche and team found support for this three-part model of narcissism. Because the sample comprised young adults, we might imagine them as on different trajectories, in which the two less mature types might eventually evolve into the mature type as they become older, and better able to handle frustration and disappointment.
Supporting the idea that even immature narcissists can evolve over time, University of Michigan psychologist Robin Edelstein and associates (2012) examined longitudinal patterns of narcissism among women in midlife. Although they did not use the Roche et al. model, they studied similar qualities—hypersensitivity (vulnerability to criticism), willfulness (grandiosity), and autonomy (self-reliance and self-directedness). Over time, the women in the sample retained their standings relative to one another, but all showed a decrease in hypersensitivity. However, for narcissism to mature in a healthy way, the conditions have to be right. The women in the sample had all graduated from an elite college and, as they passed through midlife, perhaps felt challenges associated with aging in a youth-oriented society. Their sense of willfulness went up, suggesting they were trying to overcome these challenges, but their sense of autonomy decreased, suggesting perhaps why they felt thwarted from realizing their goals.
The transition over time from unhealthy to healthy, mature narcissism may not happen automatically. Your inner resolve needs sustenance from other people who allow you to feel supported, loved, and needed. Though children need the most support of this nature, we never lose the dependence we have on others to maintain a positive sense of self and identity. Your behavior may, in part, determine whether this support comes your way, because people react negatively to the immature narcissist, regardless of age. As you gain in self-confidence, experience success in your endeavors, and grow through your relationships, you can gradually chip away at those narcissistic tendencies and allow your healthy, inner self to achieve expression and fulfillment.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015
Edelstein, R. S., Newton, N. J., & Stewart, A. J. (2012). Narcissism in midlife: Longitudinal changes in and correlates of women's narcissistic personality traits. Journal Of Personality, 80(5), 1179-1204. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2011.00755.x
Roche, M. J., Pincus, A. L., Lukowitsky, M. R., Ménard, K. S., & Conroy, D. E. (2013). An Integrative Approach to the Assessment of Narcissism. Journal Of Personality Assessment, 95(3), 237-248.