The following was published by Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D., CGP in Psychology Today
The common “wisdom” is that narcissists do not want to change. When I tell people that I work with a number of clients who have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, they say, “Why? They aren’t really interested in psychotherapy.” The truth is that while many narcissists are not ready to do psychotherapy because they find it too painful to take a close look at themselves, some people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder actually do want to change. I know this, because the more motivated ones stay in therapy.
My narcissistic clients come to therapy and tell me things that they admit to no one else:
They realize that they behave inappropriately when they become enraged.
They know that they are overreacting, but do not know why they do it or how to stop.
They are tired of living with their rapidly fluctuating self-esteem and constantly having to chase new sources of validation.
They have lost confidence that the next promotion, car, or mate will make a lasting difference in their life.
They keep sinking into shame-based, self-hating depressions and feel helpless to prevent their own overly harsh inner attacks on their self-esteem.
What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
If you are reading this because you think that you may be narcissistic and are looking for a way forward, I want to assure you that there is path you can take. Narcissistic Personality Disorder can be looked at rather simply as an adaptation to a childhood home environment that left you with unstable self-esteem, low emotional empathy, and a particular set of coping skills that have now become automatic and habitual.
As with any habit, your narcissistic responses are now encoded in your brain as a series of neuronal connections that fire together automatically in certain situations. You can choose to learn new coping skills that you like better. With continued practice, the new, non-narcissistic strategies will eventually replace the old narcissistic ones. Most of us regularly update our computer apps and our smartphones, but do not think to update our coping strategies.
Choose What You Want to Change
Here is a simple seven-step plan you can use on your own that is based on what has worked for many of my narcissistic clients. It is very important that you be the one who chooses which issues to work on. People around you may be suggesting lots of things that they wish you would do differently, because those behaviors hurt them. I understand that, but you have to do this for yourself, not for them. For the moment, you have my permission to ignore everyone else’s input. To succeed, you have to begin with something you care about deeply. It has to be a behavior that impacts you negatively in some way. That will keep you motivated.
1. Identify the “triggers” for the behavior that you want to change.
“Triggers” are situations, words, or behaviors that arouse strong negative feelings in you. People with narcissistic issues tend to overreact when they are “triggered” and do things that they later regret.
Example: Bob’s goal and his list of triggers
Write a list of your triggers: As you go through your day, notice what triggers you. Write a list of your usual triggers in a journal or on your phone.
2. Identify potentially triggering situations.
Start to identify the situations in which you are most like to get triggered. Write them down as well.
3. Identify the behaviors you want to change.
Identify the behaviors you engage in when you are triggered that you would like to change. Make a list of them next to the situations that cause you to react that way.
4. Imagine your ideal reaction.
Think about how you would ideally like to react when you are triggered instead of how you have been reacting. Write that down.
5. Inhibit or delay unwanted behaviors.
Practice inhibiting or delaying your normal response when triggered. Your “normal” response is the now unwanted one that you do automatically. It has become wired as a habit into the neurons of your brain. You have done it so often that your brain can do it very quickly. Here are some ways to calm yourself down and delay your response:
Count to 25 before responding.
Take three deep, slow, calming breaths. Breathe in to the count of four, hold each breath for the count of four, then breath out to the count of four to eight.
Take the time to remember the last time you were in a situation like this and what happened when you acted in the way that you now want to change.
6. Substitute a new response.
Once you can delay or inhibit your old, and no longer desired, response to the “trigger,” substitute your new response. Each time that you are able to inhibit the old response and do the new one instead, put a checkmark that means “Success!!” next to the behavior on your list.
Picture one of the typical things that gets you furious. Picture the other person’s face and what they are saying or doing. Then imagine yourself responding with your new ideal response. Do this over and over. Then pick another thing that typically triggers this same undesirable response. Visualize that scene in detail with you doing your new ideal response instead of the old one. Do it over and over again. Keep going until the new response starts to feel normal.
7. Review your successes and areas to improve.
Choose a time period that feels right to you, either the end of each day or once per week, to review your successes and where you need to focus more.
Note: Rewiring your brain takes time. Be patient and kind to yourself. This will not happen overnight. You have to be persistent and keep going. If you do this diligently every day, by the end of 90 days (if not before), you should see positive changes.
Some failures are inevitable. This is like learning a musical instrument or a new athletic skill. You would not expect to do either perfectly right away.
Punchline: Narcissistic behaviors are mainly habits that we learned during childhood. Habits can be changed
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Times of change can be a challenge, no doubt! Whether it’s a relationship breakup, job loss, or being diagnosed with a serious health issue. Or you may WANT things to be different, but it feels a little scary or overwhelming. The butterfly reminds us change can be beautiful, even necessary, in order to realize our full potential and live our best life.