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7 Reasons Narcissists Rarely Grow Emotionally

Narcissists are notorious for not changing. Here's why they get stuck.

Key points

  • Narcissistic behavior often begins in childhood as a form of self-defense against feeling unloved.
  • The resulting self-protective patterns can block narcissists from personal growth.
  • Narcissistic personalities can change, but they have to be open to self-reflection and criticism and not get stuck in comforting delusions.
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One of the most frustrating things about narcissistic personalities is their resistance to growth. Throughout life, we all—including narcissists—have the capacity to develop ourselves. So why do they rarely evolve?

Narcissistic behavior begins as self-protection from the shame and low self-esteem that result from insecure attachment with parents. Children who are developing a narcissistic personality will adopt defensive behavior patterns to shield themselves from negative feedback, both from others and from their own thoughts and feelings.

7 reasons narcissists rarely grow emotionally

Keeping their negative self-concept out of consciousness (repressed) and compensating with self-aggrandizing superiority is meant as a failsafe from pain, but it's a deal with the devil that also blocks them from personal growth.

1. They avoid self-reflection.

A hallmark of emotional maturity is the habit of self-reflection. We check in with ourselves about how we're feeling, how others are responding to us, and what we're doing that is successful and not successful. Self-reflection is an act of self-agency that enables us to learn from our experiences and better adapt to our circumstances.

Narcissists' refusal to self-reflect allows them to repress their shame and avoid looking at how their grandiosity affects others, but it also prevents them from developing self-awareness and learning from their mistakes. This is why they tend to have a simplistic view of their childhoods, lack insight into their relationships, and become enraged when confronted with their own behavior. Narcissists are strangers to themselves, and they want to keep it that way.

2. They distort reality.

Along with avoiding introspection, narcissistic people hold facts at a distance and substitute lies and distortions that conform to their inflated self-beliefs. From denying inconvenient truths to having delusions of superiority and entitlement, to rationalizing neglect and abuse, to gaslighting those around them, narcissists continuously attempt to elude reality, making objectivity, fairness, and accountability impossible. Clinging to magical thinking, they fail to engage with the truths that enable us to know ourselves and others.

3. They project negatives.

Another self-protective mechanism of narcissistic people is projecting their own negative thoughts, feelings, and actions onto others. Like avoiding introspection and denying reality, externalizing what they wish to disown in themselves onto people around them allows them to dump uncomfortable emotions, such as aggression and jealousy, while giving them free rein to sidestep consequences, repudiate responsibility, and shift blame. Narcissists' compulsion to project makes them reckless, cruel, and impervious to the learning that only comes from honest self-assessment and accountability.

4. They see themselves as special or perfect.

Absurd as it sounds, narcissists have a grandiose special or perfect delusion meant to insulate them from any possibility of flaw or fault. By telling themselves they are never wrong, deserve special treatment, and should be exempt from rules and consequences, they rationalize never having to question themselves or answer to others. Even covert narcissists, who may not appear grandiose, harbor these underlying beliefs. As they see it, change is something others need to do, never themselves.

5. They have a victim narrative.

Like the special or perfect defense, feeling victimized is a common mindset of narcissistic people, particularly more passive-aggressive types. Adopting the stance that they are always the wronged party when they don't get what they want is a loophole that allows them to avoid accountability and blame others. Playing the victim violin is also a strategy to get attention, sympathy, and caretaking from others. The problem with framing experience as constantly unjust is the lack of agency inherent in seeing themselves as perpetual victims helpless to change their circumstances.

6. They don't empathize.

Narcissists' lack of empathy is perhaps their greatest deficit and obstacle to growth. Not connecting emotionally with the experience or feeling states of others stems from their inner alienation and lack of compassion for the vulnerable child self. Standing at a distance from their own humanity is meant to buffer them from vulnerability, but it keeps them fear-driven, rigid, and isolated.

7. Others shield them from consequences.

Narcissistic people are emotionally dysregulated, ruthlessly self-serving, and profoundly traumatizing to others, particularly their family members. Many have been shielded from consequences in childhood (while also being emotionally deprived). As adults, they seek out partners who similarly accept and enable their delusions and abusive behavior, and they often align with narcissistic professions and institutions that reinforce their entitlement.

The narcissistic trap

Like the rest of us, people who are narcissistic can change and evolve. But as long as they shun self-reflection, distort reality, project negatives, self-aggrandize, play the victim, and disconnect emotionally while never being held to account by the people around them, they will not get the traction they need to develop moral responsibility and healthier ways of coping. What begins as a childhood defense against feelings of unlovability becomes a self-fulfilling trap that makes it impossible to experience trust and loving connection with the self or others.

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