Ah, Narcissus, the demigod who would forever change how we look at the self-obsessed. In Greek mythology Narcissus is absolutely distinguished for his beauty, yet he’s never seen himself. One day, Narcissus sees a reflection of himself in a river and he’s so enamored with his own beauty, he falls into the river and drowns. On the banks of the river, a Narcissus plant grows. Today we call them daffodils.
In his honor… or rather, in his legacy, we have the term narcissist. While we equate toxic exes with the term, there’s a real personality disorder associated with it. I’m certainly no psychologist, but I’ve dealt with some true characters.
First off, what are the traits of a narcissist?
According to the Mayo Clinic, a person with narcissistic personality disorder has an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy.
Before we even know if a narcissist can change, we need to be able to spot them in the wild. There’s two subtypes: grandiose and vulnerable. The grandiose fits the stereotype of what we’d consider a narcissist. A vulnerable, or covert, narcissist is slightly different. They suffer from low self-esteem and are more on the reserved (and resentful!) side of the tracks.
Perhaps you’ve spotted an ex who had to have the best of the best and if they didn’t, hell broke loose. Or you have a quiet coworker who’s bitter when they’re passed over for a management position when in their words, “I’m much more qualified than (x).” Now, being a jerk does not equate to being a narcissist. The two terms are not interconnected.
All narcissists can be jerks, but not all jerks are narcissists.
Narcissists seem charming at first, love-bombing you. And you don’t know what’s hit you til it’s too late. You try to talk about your day, only to be interrupted by their complaint that their work presentation wasn’t as lauded as it ought to have been. While you tell them how smart and beautiful they are, it’s never enough.
And are those compliments reciprocated? Usually not! You’ve broken your foot and have to hobble around on crutches. A normal partner will help take care of you, order your favorite foods and suffer through the latest season of Bridgerton with you while you heal. Not the narcissist. You’re lucky if they open the door for you.
Their lack of empathy is a huge red flag– and not the fun kind we see at carnivals. While you’ve had your bevy of besties since college, you can’t really think of any friends the narcissist in your life has. Not any that stick around for long, anyway.
A normal jab in a relationship is common. Perhaps you’ve joked about your boyfriend’s dad bod as he downs pizza and beer. However, when the joking turns darker, and more constant, it can be par for the course. And even if confronted about their lack of empathy and teasing, they’ll insist you’re being too sensitive and insist they’re in the right. They’ll gaslight the hell out of you.
This all begs the question, can narcissists change?
The answer is not black and white or yes or no. It’s truly up to the person. If they recognize they have damaging behaviors and show a true desire for change, the good news is that it is possible – with proper help.
And since when will a narcissist seek or accept help when they can do it on their own? They know themselves better than some silly Freudian flocker who wants them to sit on a couch. Confronted with their traits, many will continue to gaslight you. While my scope of relationship expertise is limited to writing articles and my own personal experiences, when I realized my narcissistic ex was never going to change and balked at therapy, I ran away as fast and as far as I could.
The biggest block to a narcissist changing is their own sense of self-importance. In other words, they’re their own worst enemy.
To be blunt, if they can get over themselves, they can change. With proper therapy and a lot of work, they can start to see their behavior patterns. A psychiatrist can diagnose if there’s an actual personality disorder to treat. If you feel this person is a danger to themselves or others, seek immediate help. Otherwise, you’re simply dealing with a grade-A jerk. But jerks can change.
Narcissus was so focused on himself, he drowned from the weight of it. That implosion gave way to something beautiful. Whether or not your narcissist changes depends on a number of factors, but the number one thing to worry about is taking care of yourself while dealing with these circumstances. Self-care is not selfish. After all, even Narcissus could appreciate you uh, stopping to smell the flowers.