3 Strategies for Recovering Narcissists

Can you be a recovering narcissist?

Posted Dec 18, 2020

Ian Dooley/Unsplash
Source: Ian Dooley/Unsplash

Narcissism has gotten a lot of attention lately, but few articles address how people can overcome it.  For almost every problem, from Borderline Personality Disorder to sexual offending, psychology aims to offer evidence-based solutions. This includes conditions that result in harm and pain to others. We attempt to de-shame many conditions. Yet, often, we don't apply this attitude to narcissism. Narcissism articles frequently carry a "shame on you" tone. 

Can you be a recovering narcissist? Sure. This applies even if you don't have a strong motivation for that right now. It's quite common for people to have little insight into their conditions initially, or desire to change. I could give many diverse examples of this, including some perhaps surprising ones. For example, someone with Anorexia usually has no desire to gain weight, hoarders often don't want to stop hoarding, and people with agoraphobia don't necessarily want to start leaving their house. Someone with one of these conditions might desire to feel better (e.g., less anxious), but doesn't want to change their behavior or give up their crutch. So, a narcissist's limited insight or desire to change isn't a unique barrier.

Insight and desire to change will vary from person to person. A narcissist may end up in therapy for a different reason — for example, relationship, drug or alcohol problems, or depression. In fact, folks who are vulnerable narcissists are, by definition, neurotic.

Narcissists will generally only be interested in changing their ways when doing so would clearly benefit them, and accelerate their success and happiness. But that's ok, we can work with that.

Here are three strategies to consider if you're a recovering narcissist or desire to be.

1. Understand your personality better, and its plusses and minuses.

I've written several posts about self-help strategies for people who have some insight into their narcissism. This one about 9 types of entitlement tendencies and how to overcome them is a good starting point. If you lack insight into your narcissism but are even slightly open to getting some, then this post about self-sabotaging things narcissists do is worth a read. Scott Barry Kaufman's article on why narcissism and imposter syndrome are linked is interesting and has the potential to help you understand yourself more completely. And so will this provocatively titled article "23 Signs You're Secretly a Narcissist Masquerading as a Sensitive Introvert," which is about vulnerable/covert narcissism. 

2. Find someone insightful you're willing to take advice from.

A narcissist is inclined to view other people as beneath them. Therefore, they will be resistant to others' advice and points of view. However, a narcissist can be responsive to outside advice if they view it as potentially valuable to them, and especially if they feel a sense of prestige about being associated with the advice giver. 

A narcissist will want to surround themselves with people who fluff their ego. A skilled therapist will challenge a narcissist without battering their ego so much they're unresponsive to being challenged.

Even if a narcissist isn't seeking therapy for narcissism, work done during therapy for other problems (e.g., depression or stress) can help the person see more points of view and defend their ego less.

In other domains, like work, narcissists can benefit from mentors whom they respect enough to allow themselves to be challenged, and whose advice they're willing to follow, without needing every idea they pursue to have been theirs. 

3. Consider embracing the label.

Recognizing you have some narcissistic tendencies isn't the end of the world. The term narcissist shouldn't be used as a label that equates to "you are a bad person" who's not worthy of love, self-esteem, growth, or any of the other fundamental human needs. Any type of extreme personality causes people problems with getting ahead and getting along. While your narcissism might have some benefits for you, it probably has some downsides too.

People who are prone to vulnerable narcissism (rather than grandiose narcissism) typically feel quite a lot of emotional pain and anxiety, which can be addressed. You can see working on your narcissism as a part of a general self-improvement project.  It's not easy, but it's helpful if you allow people you love to call you on your narcissism when they notice it. This can help you learn to notice it better.

You don't have to label yourself a clinical narcissist, but you might face up to having some narcissistic tendencies. No one will want to identify with a label if they think doing so will categorize themselves as a hopeless case or not worthy of help. That's why psychology shouldn't use narcissism like a slur or a term of derision. Psychology can be a bit slow in reforming those types of attitudes. For example, Borderline Personality Disorder used to be seen like that, but then better treatments came along, and psychologists' attitudes toward folks with those tendencies improved.