Can Narcissists Change

Can Narcissists Change?

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Today, we’re diving deep into the world of narcissism, but not from the usual psychological perspective. We’re going to explore the question, Can Narcissists Change, the neuroscience behind this complex personality disorder, and debunk some common myths about its treatment.

Buckle up, because what you’re about to learn might challenge everything you thought you knew about narcissism.

The Narcissistic Brain

Recent neuroimaging studies have revealed that the brains of individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) show distinct structural differences compared to non-narcissistic individuals. These differences are particularly notable in areas associated with empathy, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.

For instance, a 2013 study published in the journal ‘Brain’ found that narcissists have less gray matter in the left anterior insula, a region crucial for emotional empathy and compassion. This finding helps explain the characteristic lack of empathy in narcissistic individuals. 

Since 2013 and even further back, neuroscience has shown these brain abnormalities in narcissistic individuals, yet mainstream psychology isn’t talking about this very much.  Their narrative continues to be that narcissism is a cloak to cover deep-rooted insecurities and shame, even though neuroscience has shown this to be largely false. 

Interestingly, these brain abnormalities share similarities with those observed in psychopaths. Both conditions show reduced activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area involved in moral reasoning and decision-making. This parallel suggests that narcissism and psychopathy have some common neurological roots.

The Myth of Self-Aware Narcissists

Now, let’s address a pervasive myth: the idea that narcissists can be effectively treated through traditional therapy if they’re self-aware. This notion is problematic for several reasons:

Self-awareness in narcissists is often superficial. They may recognize their behaviors but not truly understand or feel their impact on others.

Even with awareness, the narcissist’s core traits – grandiosity, lack of empathy, and need for admiration – remain intact.

What appears to be self-awareness may sometimes be a superficial understanding that doesn’t translate to deep emotional insight or behavioral change.  In many cases, narcissists might use their “self-awareness” as a tool to manipulate others, claiming insight while continuing harmful behaviors

Most importantly, true change requires neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to form new neural connections. And this is where the challenge lies where narcissists are involved.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. It’s the basis for learning and adaptation. However, significant neuroplastic changes require consistent effort and emotional investment – precisely what narcissists avoid.

Narcissists are often described as emotionally lazy. They’re used to quick fixes and instant gratification. The long-term, consistent effort required for true neuroplastic change is often beyond their willingness or capability.

True change requires not just awareness, but also sustained effort, therapy, and a genuine desire to improve relationships and behavior. The concept of a “self-aware narcissist” should be approached with caution, as it doesn’t negate the potential for continued harmful behavior or guarantee meaningful personal growth.

Moreover, the very brain regions that need to change – those involved in empathy and emotional regulation – are the ones that narcissists rely on least. This makes the process of change even more challenging, if not impossible.

The Reality of Treatment Outcomes

So, what about the changes we sometimes observe in narcissists undergoing therapy? Unfortunately, these are just surface-level behavioral modifications. They might learn to mimic empathy or control their outbursts, but these changes are usually short-lived and goal-oriented, meaning, they may make temporary changes in order to fulfill and agenda.

Long-term, fundamental change in narcissistic individuals is rarely observed. If there were an effective treatment for NPD, it would revolutionize the field of psychology. The harsh reality is that no such treatment currently exists.  Granted, there are mental health professionals who believe their treatments are actually helping their narcissistic clients, but those living back at home with these narcissists are seeing these so-called changes, except as it relates to the narcissist using therapy as a way to be a better manipulator.

How to Know if Someone is a Full-Blown Narcissist or Just Has Narcissistic Traits

This is an area where targets of abuse tend to gaslight themselves when it comes to the narcissist they know. They may see something published by someone in mainstream psychology that insists everyone has narcissistic traits or that there’s a huge difference between ‘having traits’ and being a full-blown narcissist. 

When you’re in a relationship with someone who consistently displays narcissistic behaviors, the distinction between “traits” and “disorder” becomes irrelevant. Here’s why:

Impact is what matters: Whether someone has diagnosable NPD or just strong narcissistic traits, the effect on you can be equally devastating. Emotional manipulation, gaslighting, and abuse don’t hurt less because the person inflicting them hasn’t been formally diagnosed.

Self-gaslighting is common: Victims of narcissistic abuse often downplay their experiences, telling themselves “it’s not that bad” or “they just have some narcissistic traits.” This is a form of self-protection, as accepting the full reality of the situation can be overwhelming. 

Hope as a trap: Believing someone just has “traits” rather than being a “true narcissist” can give false hope that they might change or that the situation isn’t as serious as it feels. This hope can keep you trapped in an abusive cycle.

Narcissists rarely seek help: Whether traits or full NPD, narcissists typically don’t recognize their behavior as problematic. They’re unlikely to seek diagnosis or treatment, making the clinical distinction moot in practical terms.

Consistency is key: If someone consistently behaves in narcissistic ways that harm you, it doesn’t matter if it’s “just traits.” Persistent harmful behavior is the issue, regardless of the label.

The reality is this.  The longer one stays in an emotionally abusive relationship, the more damage they will experience to their mental and physical health, their other important relationships, and often their very livelihood.  The sooner one accepts they’re dealing with someone deeply toxic, the sooner they can get on with healing.

Recognizing the Truth

If you’re questioning whether someone in your life is a narcissist or supposedly “just has traits”, here’s what to do:

One – Focus on patterns: Look at consistent behaviors over time, not isolated incidents.

Two – Trust your feelings: If you feel consistently devalued, manipulated, or abused, your feelings are valid regardless of the abuser’s diagnosis.

Three – Seek outside perspective: Narcissistic abuse often involves gaslighting, making it hard to trust your own judgment. Talk to someone who is educated on the topic of narcissism, well-rounded, and non-biased.  It’s often the case that well-meaning family and friends can cause more confusion and guilt.

Four – Prioritize your well-being: Whether it’s “traits” or “true narcissism,” if the relationship is harming you, you have the right to protect yourself and you SHOULD protect yourself.

Remember, you don’t need to prove someone has NPD to justify feeling hurt, seeking help, or ending the relationship.

In Conclusion

While it’s important to understand narcissism, we must also be realistic about the prospects for change. The neurological basis of narcissism presents significant challenges to treatment. As we move forward, perhaps our focus should shift from trying to ‘cure’ narcissism to developing better strategies for those affected by narcissistic individuals in their lives.

If you found this information valuable, please join Kim’s newsletter and subscribe to her YouTube channel for more evidence-based content on neuroscience.

Kim Saeed is a leading voice in the field of narcissistic abuse recovery. Drawing from her 13+ years of extensive expertise, she guides survivors to reclaim their power and rebuild their lives after enduring the trauma of psychological abuse and manipulation.  If you’d like to work with Kim, visit the Schedule a Session Page.

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  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.).
  2. Kernberg, O. F. (2016). Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In G. O. Gabbard (Ed.), Gabbard’s Treatments of Psychiatric Disorders (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing.
  3. Pincus, A. L., & Lukowitsky, M. R. (2010). Pathological Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 6, 421-446.
  4. Psychological Medicine, Volume 41 , Issue 8 , August 2011 , pp. 1641 – 165

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