At the end of May 2013, I wrote an article titled 5 Early Warning Signs You’re with a Narcissist. It sparked a number of rich conversations through comments, emails, facebook, and twitter. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of reactions came from people who feared they were currently in a relationship with a narcissist. Nevertheless, some of them—often among the most heartfelt and desperate of messages—came from people who’d either been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), or felt convinced they met criteria for the diagnosis. From both sides, the same question surfaced again and again: Is there hope for those with NPD and the people who love them? Is there anything we can do if we see early warning signs or actual diagnostic criteria besides end the relationship?
As simple as they might seem on the surface, questions like these resonate with some of the deepest concerns in psychology. Can we change our personalities? More to the point, can people who meet criteria for personality disorders open themselves up to new and better experiences in relationships and in the world?
I’m going to go on record as saying yes—I do believe it’s possible for people to change, even if they’ve been diagnosed with something as deeply entrenched and formidable as a personality disorder.
Trait labels like narcissist, or the admittedly less stigmatizing ones like extravert and introvert, merely provide a short hand description. They’re a stand in for “this person scored high on a trait measure of narcissism or extraversion or introversion.” They can never hope to capture the whole person. (Bear in mind that even Jung, who introduced the latter concepts, firmly believed we all possess both an introvert and an extravert side, regardless of how much we tend to one side or the other.) Nevertheless, when they become diagnostic labels, like “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. So what pattern does the narcissist follow?
Many have suggested that NPD 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 worthwhile human being (that’s simplifying a great deal of research and theory, but it’s a workable summary); hence, the correlation between narcissism and insecure attachment styles, in which fears of depending on anyone at all engender constant attempts to control the relationship or avoid intimacy altogether. If you devote yourself to directing interactions or holding people at arms length, it’s a lot harder to become vulnerable (needless to say, the “safety” is largely an illusion). People with NPD 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. 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 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 they need to hide their 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 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 towards 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.
The key, then, to interacting with someone you suspect is narcissistic is to break the vicious circle—to gently thwart their frantic efforts to control, distance, defend or blame in the relationship by sending the message that you’re more than willing to connect with them, but not on these terms; to invite them into a version of intimacy where they can be loved and admired, warts and all—if they only allow the experience to happen.
As a therapist, I've seen first hand that when we change relational patterns, it often transforms even the most inflexible "trait" into something softer, gentler—not a fixed feature, but a protection that eventually yields to touch and intimacy in all the ways one would hope. Narcissism is a way of relating. Not everyone can shift into a more flexible form of intimacy, but some can, and in the next post, I plan to share steps you can take to help you decide whether or not the person you’re with is capable of seeing themselves—and you—through a less constricting lens than the narcissistic world view.