Hitting Bottom Can Help a Narcissist

Hitting Bottom

Anyone who has lived or dealt with a narcissist wonders if such a person  can ever change. The answer might surprise you. Most folks think it impossible. But like anyone, these highly disturbed personalities can indeed change. But will they? And how likely is it? Those are the bigger questions. Of course, the answer is: it depends. Depends on what? Primarily, it depends on whether circumstances are just right. Given just the right conditions, even the most character-impaired among us can experience metanoia (i.e. a radical change of heart and mind). (See also: How to Spot a Converted Heart.) It also depends on how seriously narcissistic someone is. Remember, character disturbance exists along a continuum of severity. (See: The Character Disturbance Spectrum, Narcissism Spectrum.)

Generally speaking, for the grandiose among us to change they first have to fall. And it can’t be just any fall. It has to be a crushing, decimating fall. Folks involved in 12-step programs call this “hitting bottom.” And it’s far more than just reaching a low point in life. And it’s more than simply failing. Rather, it’s suffering utter defeat. And it’s not the same as being humiliated. Instead, it’s more about being humbled. The humbled person is broken. They realize they simply can’t do as they’ve always done . Why? Because their life has become unmanageable. And more importantly, they feel powerless to do anything about it. That’s because all their usual coping devices simply aren’t working anymore.

The Essential Ingredients

Hitting bottom is utter defeat combined with another crucial factor. And that factor is the inability to deny the true cause of one’s defeat. You see, narcissists are great at pointing fingers when things go wrong. They blame everything and everyone else. And they refuse to point any fingers at themselves. So, the most fortuitous kind of fall is one where it’s simply impossible to blame anyone or anything else for it. That’s when opportunity opens for constructive self-reflection. And that’s also when becomes possible for the first time to consider an attitudinal course correction.

The Perils of a Rescue

For most of us, it’s really hard to watch someone suffer. That’s because we have empathy. And when see see someone hurting we’re often motivated to do what we can to alleviate their pain. Now, that’s certainly not all bad. Sometimes, folks experience hardship and suffering through no fault of their own. And that’s when they need understanding and support. But there are times when it’s perilous to come to the rescue. And such is the case when the lofty among us fall. Move too quickly to pick them up and you’re ripe for exploitation. Rescuing doesn’t do the fallen any good, either. Hitting bottom is truly a blessing, especially for a narcissist.

Now, a “recovering” narcissist will indeed need support. But you have to be careful how you go about that. You’ll want to avoid even the tiniest of rescues. You can give the best support by reinforcing every sincere effort someone makes at attitudinal and behavioral change. We always do well to encourage. But we only thwart the prospect of true recovery if we save someone from the consequences of their own choices. Now, a longtime narcissist might fall several times during their recovery. That’s often a necessary part of the process. We have to let them fall. And we have hold back on support until they’ve honestly reckoned with the reasons for falling.

Suffering and Redemption

Some suffering in life is  completely uninvited. And suffering can also seem both senseless and purely destructive. But suffering can also be constructive and redemptive. That’s particularly true of hitting bottom. And that’s because such suffering is generally of our own making. It’s the price of our “sin.” Still, our redemption depends on how we respond to the suffering we justly deserve.

It’s hard to see the love of a higher power at work whenever we suffer. Only the truly humbled heart can see that love at work, even in the midst of suffering. Hitting bottom then becomes the “first step” toward a new life. How? Because we become awakened to the workings of a higher power. And for the narcissist, this is a really big deal. Remember, at the heart of their pathology their refusal to recognize, let alone serve, a higher power. (See: pp. 91-92 in Character Disturbance.) Hitting bottom is no fun. But seeing the incredible love in our higher power allowing it is the beginning of redemption.

You can find more on the spirituality of “recovery” in The Judas Syndrome.


28 thoughts on “Hitting Bottom Can Help a Narcissist

  1. Dr. Simon,

    This article really hits home with all the narcissists I have encountered in my life. Many of the CDN will say they do recognize God, a Creator, a Power greater than themselves. However, we know the CDN are make up their own truths and believe their own version of lies even if the truth is staring them in the face. Others, who haven’t any belief systems are the same as the CDN which purport a a belief system. The reality being, they all believe they are their own little Gods.

    I have know many that have fallen and as soon as their victim mentality and whining starts the CDN are great at getting others to feel sorry for them. So many times it becomes impossible for the CDN to fall. I myself was guilty of this and was a party to not letting the CDN feel the reality of their lies and false self.

    Many CDN who fall and are sliding in the gutter of slime are capable of concocting a deeper false reality to the point of one thinking they are psychotic. In truth the CDN knows the have fabricated another facade to protect their false self.

    Yes, I do agree, wholeheartedly it is “SIN”, and the sins encompass all the 10 Commandments and more which I would think most would agree with.. All the CDN I have dealt with know they were committing a sin, harm, a complete disregard for others and they could had cared less.

    I hope in the future many CDN will come to the knowledge of the truth, though I think there will be few will “Submit” to any power greater than themselves for any period of time.

    I do know of two peoples lives who did change drastically and I have written about them in the past.

  2. This article really hits home with me. I’m a recovering narcissist that can unequivocally say that life is much better now that I know what I am and how I need to deal with it. Didn’t know that I was narcissistic in my thinking patterns until my wife’s boss (pastor) pushed her out of our church. Although she was the Children’s Ministry Director and he was the pastor, he was envious of her and constantly schemed to get ride of her. Daily, she brought home bizarre stories of his underhanded dealings with her and others. I wanted to leave the church but she loved the children and the people so we stayed too long. He concocted a bunch of lies and pushed her out which sent me into a rage. I felt humiliated and seethed with anger. Poor wife was caught in the cross fire of two narcs. I started googling reasons why people lie, manipulate, envy and slander which led me to Dr. Simon. This site, Celebrate Recovery (CR) and Biblical Perspectives on Narcissism led me to realize that I too am on the self-absorbed spectrum. CR has been very instrumental in helping me recover from my character flaws. I would highly recommend it to anyone with addictions like mine (anger, control) and co-dependency (people pleasing). Now, I can joyfully say that my Higher Power (Jesus Christ) has used my wife’s dismissal to lead me to greener pastures, still water and contentment. Wife found another job with a church whose pastor has a “inner pot of gold.” Life is good because God is good. Let Him lead you out of the wilderness.

    1. Tony,

      Thank you for sharing your story. If I may ask you, how old are you and after your enlightenment can you pin point the age you started to be narcissistic?

      Thank you in advance for your reply.

  3. BTOV: I am 63 years old. My parents were good people who worked hard to provide for their 3 sons but both possessed serious character flaws themselves. Mother was addicted to cigarettes to sooth her stress levels. Father had control and anger issues. Sometimes he was fun to be with but most of the time he was distant and controlling. When he didn’t get his way he got very angry and expressed it by yelling which sometimes led to physical abuse. He hit and he hit hard. At this time, I was shy and withdrawn but very efficient at not getting caught when misbehaving. By the time I went to college, I realized I had something that most people did not. I could get “my way” by physically fighting with those who opposed me. (I won two regional golden glove championships.) At this time I did not realize my anger and lack of remorse was a classical narcissism. I married at 30 and tried my best to control my anger but wife and children were often victims of suppressed emotions that erupted when stressed. When I accepted Christ as my Savior and Lord (it was obvious to me that I needed help), some of my anger diminished. But, life’s challenges continued to expose my inner core. Get control by manipulating others via rage. I hit bottom (age 60) when I began to plot ways to punish the pastor and not get caught. At this time I realized my life was unmanageable because I could not contain my rage. The Lord spoke to me very clearly when I attended my first CR meeting. Their first step rang true with my conscience: “we admitted we were powerless over over addictions and compulsive behavior, that our lives had become unmanageable.” Bottom line is that I didn’t realize I was on the self-absorption spectrum in my early twenties to four decades later because I always thought I was right and others were wrong. Freud was correct when he said we will protect our egos at all cost. And this cost is way too high!

  4. Tony,

    I hope you stay for a while as I have many questions and In my asking you and your answering I am hoping you will help enlighten me to where I may be of help to others. As Dr. Simon stated narcissism determines many factors and that being where a person is on the continuum and that alone I believe can be an overwhelming determination if another can be helped or in essence have the ability to change, ie., their come to Jesus Moment.

    As you have read the blog I am sure you have come to realize many of the stories presented by many of the victims of the CDNSP are unbelievable horror stories and lived realities compared to many of the stories we speak of in our individual cases. So in essence many may find your story somewhat unfounded in the realm of the true CDN compared to theirs. Please, I am by no means discounting your story, just trying to understand in a lighter view compared to the more atrocious scenarios spoken of on this blog.

    Something you said that stood out was the control you stated you gained from using rage. Interesting, this is something I observed too, not in all cases, but something that is of interest to me that someone I know uses in a very nonchalant way. Other points of interest is the onset of these behaviors.

    I have maintained in all this the CDNSP are in reality addicted to themselves and I agree the DC will protect themselves at all costs. Is this something you have witnessed too?

    I think above all Dr. Simon and you have helped to affirm the beginning of perhaps making the change that is needed in this world where it is imperative we hold the DC accountable with the hopes the CDN will come to the realization that there is a power greater than themselves.

    I hope you continue to add to this conversation and I hope a not to recent poster Eric will continue to add his thoughts to this most relevant topic of our time.

    Thank you and Gods Peace be with you

  5. Albert Einstein said it best “The thing that makes me so hazy is wondering if I or are the others crazy” ???

    How do you ever know if it’s YOU or THEM ??

    I subscribe to the whole “spectrum/scale” theory that quantifies the level of psychological abnormality of someone, but I take issue with the current unfeathered and widespread use of the labels of “narcissist”, “sociopath”, and “psychopath” because I believe that it severely underscores the significance of these personality abnormalities.

    There are many average people stumbling upon this website and this article specifically because (I presume) they’re struggling with someone that very well could be a bonafide narcissist/sociopath/psychopath – and if so – the last thing they need to hear is that the person can “change” – ESPECIALLY when current neuroscience dictates that people afflicted with TRUE psychopathology can’t change (its a hardwired brain abnormality – Dr. Rhonda Freeman – Neuroinstincts)

    I “generally” agree with a lot that Dr. Simon says but I’ve also learned a great deal from Sandra Brown – author of “Women who love psychopaths” and “How to spot a dangerous man before getting involved”…. (saferelationshipsmagazine.com)

    No matter how much I’ve learned – I still don’t believe it’s possible for any of us to know for certain if someone is a bonafide narcissist/sociopath/psychopath – ESPECIALLY when the most highly educated among us (Robert Hare – author of “Without Conscience”) has admitted to being “duped”.

    I highly recommend reading “Women who love psychopaths” by Sandra Brown.

    I also ask you to refrain from using “narcissist” so liberally because doing so only undermines the severity of destruction they cause.

  6. Tony,
    Thanks for sharing your story. Sounds like you learned tactics from your father, the anger, rage, then the result he wanted. You learned by example.
    What’s interesting to me, because it’s personal to my situation, when you talk about using rage to get your means.
    During marriage counseling I learned the X used “fake anger” to make me go away during a confrontation with him, so he wouldn’t have to answer my questions. That was a huge aha moment. I’d always become intimidated by the loud voice and perceived “anger” that I’d walk away. Once I became aware of his tactic I was on him like he’d never experienced, would not back away or walk away, to the point he would be the one to walk out.
    You know you could teach us all a lot about what goes on in the mind of a CDN to give us clarity on why we experienced what we did.
    I do hope you are able to become the person you strive to be. Seems to me once one is aware of behavior and no longer liking who they are, that they can “retrain” thoughts and behaviors. I don’t know. Maybe not.
    You’re giving yourself a second chance for a good clean life. I hope it works out for you.

  7. “I hope you stay for a while” I appreciate the encouragement. I have been viewing this website for the past 3 years and have benefited by learning about how narcissistic characteristics affect others. Celebrate Recovery’s advice guides me. I need to focus on my own recovery. Hence, I usually do not offer advice to others. I added my story to this blog because I wanted to confirm that a narcissist must hit bottom before he/she will realize their responsibility in their problems.
    “…help enlighten me to where I may be of help to others” This is a noble goal but I’m not sure how effective you could be to help the perpetrator. My suggestion would be to focus on the victims. Lately, I’ve read a lot of books on narcissism. Leslie Vernick’s book The Emotionally Destructive Relationship gives good advice to victims. Narcissists cannot’ change on their own because they deeply believe they are always right. But, with God all thing are possible. The Scriptures are loaded with events documenting narcissism. King Jesus Himself instructed his followers to “let them alone” referring to the prideful Pharisees in Matthew 15:14 (ESV). He confronted them in love but did not attempt to change them. St. Paul was a narcissist before the Lord took him down. He hit rock bottom on his trip to Damascus. Paul was so self-righteous that he threw stones at others who had a different perspective. He later declared, “I am the worse of sinners.” 1 Timothy 1:15 (NIV)
    “…many of the stories presented by many of the victims of the CDNSP are unbelievable horror stories … true CDN compared to theirs…more atrocious scenarios spoken of on this blog.”
    I’m aware of the horror stories caused by malignant narcissists. I regret saying that I was verbally abusive to my wife. Words can hurt just as much as physical abuse. TV shows are full of these evil stories. The Science of Evil by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen provides an adequate explanation for the source of evil. According to him, evil actions are the result of zero empathy. Empathy falls on a quantitative scale or spectrum. Zero degrees of empathy is the common denominator for the individuals that demonstrate malignant narcissism, sociopath and psychopathic disorders. Dr. Scott Peck suggested society qualify evil as a scientific field and study it in order to more fully understand it. His book People of the Lie is a must read for anyone trying to understand evil people. He mentions a good indicator of evil: “The evil always hides their motives with lies.” Gas lighting and scapegoating come to mind.
    “…onset of these behaviors” There is still much to be learned about ego development. I think most narcissists use whatever wily assets they naturally possess. Through trial and error, they quickly learn what works best to get their way. Onset of narcissistic tendencies may be determined subconsciously or consciously by the individual. For me, I realized in my late teens that I could manipulate others by my anger and means to back it up.
    “You know you could teach us all a lot about what goes on in the mind of a CDN to give us clarity on why we experienced what we did.” I don’t remember ever telling myself to use anger as a manipulate others. I instinctively got angry when I didn’t get my way. People afflicted with autism can be very rigid. Based on my observations, they may also have a low frustration tolerance especially when they don’t get their way, routine or same daily pattern. Men that get mad (at their wives) share some of these same characteristics.

    1. I just found this website today..

      I now have hope.. My Husband is currently in a facility and undergoing treatment.

      He admits his behaviors and wants to build a new relationship that is not based on lies, deceit and manipulation.
      I have to admit, I like my life now.. just the way it is and I’m very anxious for him to return.

      He has agreed to returning on my terms.

      He has agreed to continued therapy individually and together..

      I just really appreciated seeing this post today. I know it’s from 2019 and I hope your journey has been successful and that you and your wife are happier than ever!

  8. How do I get my ex to realize that he is a narcissist? He is slandering me to his new girlfriend, saying that I’m crazy and harass him when I’ve completely cut the cord from him and I have resisted the urge to tell her the truth about him because I know she won’t believe me. I believed the lies about his ex and I’m sure she believes the lies about me. He calls himself a “God fearing conservative” on Facebook, all the while he tormented me, threatened to do crazy things to ruin my reputation when I confronted him about his lies, and is now going with the narrative that I harass him. His “mommy” enables him and he has a ton of female friends who coddle him, and it’s just sickening because he’s teaching his son to be just like him. His daughter already hates him and is acting out with boys because of the dysfunction, and I spend a LOT of time praying for him to realize that he needs to change for their sake. Am I wasting my time praying? Does it make me a doormat to pray for someone who continues to trash me? (To be clear I never want to be in a relationship with him ever again. I simply don’t want him to screw up his precious children.)

    1. Frustrated Survivor

      You need to cut the cord sharper because you are still thinking about him, wanting to change him, wanting to warn others, praying, spending your time with him in your thoughts.

      You won’t be able to shut him up so you have to accept that he’s going to keep up with the lies, the slander. Believe me. I’ve been there, still there with lies being spread but it honestly does not disturb me any longer. I guess you’ll get used to it. No sense in fighting it because nothing will change. You Have To Let It Go to have peace.

      It’s not your job to warn new girlfriends, family members, or anyone else. They have to deal with him on their own.

      You’ve broken ties with him. Now live your best life! Heal. Break completely away from him, no matter what he does, because he No Longer Matters To You.

      Focus on YOU, not him. Focus on how you can restore yourself, rebuild yourself, heal yourself. Push him off as your past, not your now or future.

      It does take awhile to break the pattern of obsessing about another person, but you can do this. Stop the “stinkin thinkin” about him.
      You’ve got a life to live.

  9. Tony and Eric,

    Are you both of you still following along? Many times I tend to think deeply on things and it takes time for me to articulate how to ask the questions I am asking for or for that matter answer as I am not regurgitating copy and paste what others have said. Please understand, like many I have, lets say necessary needs I must address and at times am limited to getting back to the blog.

    Thank you, as both of you have me investigating internal questions not many in the medical profession have answered for me. Dr. Simon is in a realm way beyond the norm. (Complement)

    God Bless All

  10. I’m having to deal with two cdn’s that are married and miserable so they’re trying to hurt me all the time.
    They think they have a leg up on me so to speak right now but they’ve got another thing coming!!!
    I joined a group and everyone is praying for me. I felt God had given me a new strategy with them yesterday and in the coming weeks I’m going to implement it.
    It’s this or NO CONTACT which I’m trying to avoid for the sake of two little lives.
    Thankful for this post by Dr Simon for some reason I’m not receiving by email anymore. Hope my posting reinstates me?!!!

  11. Great article up until you started talking about a “Higher Power”, in other words its all about selling your religion. Credibility lost and I see your agenda all along. This is of no help.

    1. I have written many times about what I call “higher power” (term admittedly borrowed from A.A. and other 12-step programs) issues, but I take care not write about “God” or anyone’s religion (even though some of the commentators do) in these or other strictly character-related posts (I have a book for that). And while I find it unfortunate, it comes as no surprise to me that you might dissmiss out of hand any “credibility” to the article’s content, and also assert knowledge of and ascribe an “agenda” to me that you cannot possibly know of or understand merely because I reference the concept of a bigger than us something (however one might choose to attempt to describe it). I would hope that after purusing all the articles, any reader, including yourself, might glean at least the essence of the nature of my motives. Still, your comment stands on its own and will remain here, inasmuch as I’m sure there are other readers who might benefit from seeing it and the “higher power” issues it reflects.

    2. Graham, it would be of immense benefit to open your mind to the terminology that Dr Simon utilises here. Sorry I just needed to be blunt about that. People have become so numb to “God” now that even referring to a “higher power” have rendered otherwise sound-minded, logical folk to be put off or feathers ruffled, almost instinctively now. What has happened to humans in recent times to become thus hardened in this manner? Nevertheless, I did not interpret any agenda pushing whatsoever on the part of this researcher in any of these posts. Might I add, many are very glad to be able to glean from the decades of research here.

  12. Emotional numbness can follow devastation of the false self. And at the root of the dilemma is a hesitancy to trust the painful “process” of growth, which so often necessarily involves death and rebirth. Numbness is the result of fear and mistrust. When you take the leap of faith in the process itself, you’ll begin to feel again, and in a better way than ever.

  13. Curious if the approach is somewhat different for an adult in their 30’s who was/is an verbal/emotional abuse survivor and a victim of parental alienation through gaslighting. And now doesn’t trust anyone and who lashed out against the person who actually cared for her/supported her. (shes a fighter) Who now appears to be waking up to reality and her part in it and is changing her behavior?

    How does one approach supporting hat person w/o discouraging her or enabling her manipulative/aggressive coping/survival strategies?

  14. Thank you so much for this. I know it is years old, but I’ve just discovered Dr Simon and have been reading everything on the site.

    ‘Hitting bottom’ is exactly how I describe the turning point in the beginning of my recovery from narcissism, which goes on to this day, more than 30 years later. I am pretty sure that people whose personalities are organised around destructive behaviours don’t change until they have no other choice. When my husband divorced me, and I lost my job and friends, and could no longer support the fictions I had always clung to, to convince myself that I was so special, God’s little special child, it was like a death. I felt physical and emotional pain at the loss of that fantasy. For a while, I could only reason that if I weren’t special, and basically a very good person (no matter who I had hurt or what I had done), then I must be a bad person who could never do anything worthwhile.

    Then there came a moment when I recalled a couple of times I had come through for other people just because they needed something that I could give. I wasn’t manipulating them or doing something to impress someone or make myself feel important or get one up on someone, just doing a good thing for someone. And I clung to those couple of examples as proof that I wasn’t entirely rotten. I also realised that all the evil I had done to people couldn’t wipe out those moments, just as living like Mother Teresa for the rest of my life (which I knew I couldn’t do) couldn’t erase the hurt I’d caused and the damage I had done to others.

    But, for the first time in my life, I realised that I had a choice. The kind of person I was, the kind of life I lived, depended on my choosing kindness, patience, generosity, forgiveness, honesty, responsibility, gratitude, self-sacrifice even, whenever I could perceive there was a choice to be made, including where I allowed my mind to play. I really wanted to be worthy of friendship, of love, of trust, and knew I had to live a new life if that were going to be true. I think of it as the beginning of learning to be a human being. A flawed, imperfect yet still acceptable human being. Just like everyone else.

    There is a very useful concept in medicine. ‘Within normal limits.’ After decades in recovery, and in a loving marriage, with good friends around me, with some normal tragedies in my past, I am an honest person now ‘within normal limits,’ a caring one ‘within normal limits,’ a kind, patient one ‘within normal limits.’ For someone like me, ‘within normal limits’ is a triumph. I look back on the things I did now with horror and shame. And I would never, never attempt to contact my ex unless he made it clear that such contact would be welcome. I don’t expect he ever will.

    But it is all rather like learning a second language. I’m fluent in humanity now, but sometimes I spot someone who clearly grew up in a loving, accepting family and I look with envy on the grace with which they are kind, their relaxed demeanour in relationships, the ease with which they express affection and appreciation. I learn from them. That last bit sounds sad, I know, and I suppose it is, but it is so much better than the life I lived before I hit bottom. I am grateful.

      1. Susie,

        Don’t know if you are asking for yourself or for someone you know. If it’s for yourself, an excellent book for insights, in my opinion, is The Drama Of The Gifted Child by Alice Miller. It’s an amazing little book. Would have loved to have her as a therapist.

  15. Jenny,
    It’s refreshing to see that you’ve actually made good changes, are happier and can enjoy life now in a way that you never had. I really did not know someone could change as you have.

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