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Narcissism Part 8: Can A Narcissist Change?

Photo courtesy of Susanne Nilsson via Flickr
Photo courtesy of Susanne Nilsson via Flickr

I remember a particular phone call with a classic narcissist. His wife of many years had finally had enough and kicked him out of the house. He was about to lose everything. His marriage. His kids. His financial future. The very image he had worked to build was collapsing around him. He phoned me to rage and cry about what he was losing. He was willing to try harder. Why wouldn’t she give him another shot? How could she just end things like this? He was in so much pain.

But he was only aware of his own pain.

He was only aware of how she was affecting him.

I said “Jim (not his real name), here’s my concern. You seem to have a deep and clear awareness of what you are experiencing, the pain you are feeling right now. I get that. The pain is real. What concerns me is that you seem to have zero awareness of the pain you have inflicted on her for the last 17 years. You seem to think that you are separated right now and potentially losing everything because she kicked you out. But the reality is that you are separated right now and potentially losing everything because you have been an abusive, selfish, manipulative ass to her for the last 17 years. She’s all but lost herself in the process of being your emotional furniture and she’s finally had enough. What I’m wondering is when you are going to face what you’ve taken from her and grieve the devastating and destructive role you’ve played in her life and in the life of your children?”

Doesn’t sound very “pastoral” does it?

They are back together now and rebuilding a life worth having together. He has changed and is changing. He surrendered his fear. He surrendered his control. He has owned and is owning the effect he has had on her life. This is positioning him to intentionally have a different effect on her. She likes it. She loves him. They still have a ways to go but they are going.

He surrendered and Jesus is truly becoming his source.

Yes. A narcissist can change.

Jesus can transform anyone’s life. Of course change is possible. But the nature of Narcissism is that they seldom surrender in the ways that will produce true and lasting change. Transformation always involves the vulnerable and authentic surrender of our true selves to the grace of Jesus. Narcissists have their true selves carefully hidden away and are only interested in presenting their facade/image to God or to anyone else. The gospel offers sight to the blind. Narcissists are actually committed to blindness while at the same time being committed to the false claim that they can see.

But I have seen true change occur. Here are my observations regarding what’s required for a narcissist to experience true and lasting transformation.

1. They must surrender their fear.
Fear is the way we experience and respond to reality when we don’t know how to cultivate meaningful connections in relationships with other people. The lack of connection brings pain. Pain is something we fear. Self-protection results from fear and pain.

Narcissism is a framework for self-protection that encompasses the entire life. The self-protection narcissism offers is supposed to keep us safe from rejection, safe from shame, safe from isolation, and safe from failure. No one gets to see or know the real us, only the image of us we hope to present, or the strategies we use to punish and manipulate others into alignment with that image.

Fear is a protector but not a very good one. Fear eventually produces the very outcome it promises to save us from. For a narcissist to truly change, they must surrender their fear; they must renounce their agreement with fear as their source of safety and protection. This is not a change of behavior it is a change of source.

2. They must surrender control.
Control is a specific strategy of narcissistic self-protection. The image must be controlled. Others exist to support and prop up the image, so their behaviors must be controlled. Anger, shame, guilt, flattery, charm, affection, rejection, spirituality, withdrawal, silence, aggression, bribery, blackmail, generosity (with strings attached), violence, threats and more are all ways the narcissist, in the grip of fear/insecurity, attempts to sustain their image through manipulative control. How they are doing is controlled by everyone else. Their job is to control how everyone else affects them and their image.

Transformation involves a shift in locus of control, from a victim mentality where (false) identity is rooted in the decisions of others, to an internal locus of control where the person is fully committed to self-control and has absolutely abandoned the need to control others in an effort to protect desired outcomes or appearances.

3. They must own their effect on other people.
A narcissist doesn’t really see other people as distinct individuals living their own story with their own experiences. For true change to occur, they must begin to see the personhood of other people. Only when those around them are true people with value, experiences, feelings, dreams, hopes, hurts and struggles, can the narcissist begin to realize that these people truly experience the narcissist’s choices, attitudes and behaviors.

I take from them and they experience loss. I betray them and they experience hurt. I fail to meet their needs and trust is undermined. I am part of their story. What role have I played in their story? How have I contributed? Have I added to the momentum of blessing in their life or am I an obstruction they have to overcome? When they begin to recognize their affect on others they will discover a great many such effects that they need to grieve. There are messes to clean up. There is trust to rebuild.

But none of that can be seen until they see other people as persons they affect.  Empathy, the capacity to respond to others from an awareness of how they are experiencing reality, first assumes that others exist independently of me and have experiences that are their own. Narcissism is a limitation in empathy that results from a failure to differentiate. Others are not seen as distinct from self, but rather as extensions of self. This is a failure to differentiate, and empathy is impossible until this failure is corrected.

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I have found that a true narcissist will only consider surrendering their fear if they are first faced with something they fear more. As long as the status quo is an option, they will remain committed to their narcissistic tendencies. Consistent confrontation and boundaries in regards to their manipulative (control) behaviors will remove the status quo as a future option and they will be required to choose between continuing their narcissism without you or abandoning their narcissism with you. They will have to choose between their image and true connection. Most will still choose the former, but they will never choose the latter apart from confrontation and boundaries.

Are you in a relationship with a narcissist? They may never change. But they will never change unless you are willing to start managing you and that will look like confrontation and boundaries. Praying Jesus will change them while at the same time passively being part of the problem through your enablement is not likely to bring about the change you’re asking for.

For more from our 10 part series on narcissism, check back next week or read previous posts:

Part 1 | Communicating Needs In A Relationship

Part 2 | Life With A Narcissist

Part 3 | Understanding Human Development

Part 4 | What Do I Do?

Part 5 | Why They Are Un-Confrontable

Part 6 | Why Intimacy Is Impossible

Part 7 | The Narcissistic Parent

About Alan Smith

Alan is married to Nancy, and father to Lauren (16), Anna (14) and Teddy (9). He is the pastor of Freedom Ministries at Gateway Church in Southlake,Texas, and is the author of the new book "Unveiled, The Transforming Power of God’s Presence and Voice."
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