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.