Contrary to popular belief, narcissists can change. They cannot change or heal their narcissism, but they can (and do) change their behavior.
The problem has never really been that narcissists cannot change. The problem is that the narcissist is generally unwilling to change. Changing a behavior means that the narcissist must admit that their behavior was wrong or in error. Generally they are unwilling (or unable) to do that. However, depending on the circumstances, the narcissist can indeed be motivated to change.
Now, don’t misunderstand this. The motivation is always a selfish and internal one. It has nothing to do with other people, which is why appealing to a narcissist generally will not work. Telling them how much they are hurting you or upsetting you does not sway them. It means nothing to them, in practical terms. They’re just words, and typically is interpreted as blame which they connect to shame. An important distinction to make here is that we are not talking about remorse—we are talking about shame.
Remorse is felt for other people, and narcissists are not capable of remorse because it is connected to empathy, which they generally don’t have.
Shame, however, especially pathological, unreasonable shame, is an old enemy of the narcissist. It triggers rage in them and puts them on the defensive. Now there’s a fight, and an angry narcissist is impossible to get through to. Their disorder specifically prevents this, regardless of what you say or how you say it. So remember: narcissists don’t care about your feelings at all. They only care about theirs.
Using logic won’t work either, because narcissists believe their feelings are facts. This is illogical and unreasonable, but it is how they operate and you cannot reason with it. There is nothing you can do to create or motivate a change within the narcissist.
The narcissist will only change their behavior on their terms, and for their reasons, no one else.
Overcoming Patterns and Impulses
Another big part of the problem is that many of the narcissist’s behaviors are deeply-ingrained habits and patterns. They gave themselves permission years ago to act the way they do, and this permission was reinforced by enablers around them. In this way, they are like children: if the behavior is rewarded, it will be repeated. Narcissists that throw fits or become violent have likely been that way their entire lives. It’s what they do when they are upset. This behavior is second nature to them by now and it has been reinforced by the fact that it worked in whatever way they need it to work. Because this behavior has been reinforced and repeated so long, it may no longer feel like a choice to them. They may claim it “just happens” and that they are unable to control it. It isn’t that they can’t control their behavior, but that they don’t think before they act.
Narcissists simply react a lot of the time. They are impulsive and careless. Even when they seem to be planning schemes and manipulations, they are simply reacting to a need or want they have without thinking about the consequences of what they are doing. These things don’t matter. All that matters is need and want. Because of their magical thinking, they believe it will all work out fine, and because of their denial, they are able to justify everything they do. This all takes place after their impulse though. It is a reaction to their reaction, so to speak.
Knee-Jerk Reactions and Consequences
As an example, a former client was married to a very physically-abusive narcissist. The narcissist claimed that he didn’t want to be violent because he didn’t want to be that kind of person (notice it had nothing to do with the pain he was causing his wife, only shame for himself), but that he couldn’t help himself because it was just a knee-jerk reaction that happened when he got upset.
This couple adopted a large breed male dog as a pup and as the pup got older, he began to confront the narcissist when the narcissist would physically attack the wife, even biting the narcissist on more than one occasion. The dog got very large, so the narcissist became afraid of him and stopped hitting the wife out of fear of injury.
The interesting thing is that not even a year later, the dog sadly had to be put to sleep (for an unrelated reason) and even though the threat to the narcissist’s safety was not around anymore, he did not resume hitting his wife. It seemed to be that the “knee-jerk reaction” of hitting his wife was not a knee-jerk reaction after all, but a choice he was making without realizing it. A habit, for lack of a better word. A pattern. The advent of the dog into the situation forced the narcissist to stop and think before he did something and once he did that, he was able to consider the consequences and make the choice not to do it. As of this writing, he has not been physical with his wife again, and that was years ago. He’s still a narcissist of course, but he is not physically violent anymore. He was forced to think before he acted and the pattern was broken. After that, he got into a different pattern and did not go back to the old one. This is a unique situation, but it is one that shows that narcissists can change their behavior if there are severe enough internal and external consequences.