I'm a narcissist. What next?
March 18, 2017 5:39 AM   Subscribe

I just had an insight with my therapist: I am a narcissist, introverted/covert variety. What next?

I am 55 and it's an unbelievable relief after a lifetime of wondering what was wrong with me, why relationships and emotions didn't seem real, why I couldn't perform at work to "my potential," and so much more.

But it's also terrifying. I never thought twice about narcissism until I had an affair a couple of years ago with someone who was, it became clear, a textbook narcissist with psychopathic tendencies. So for the past couple years, while I've been trying to heal my marriage (successfully, so far), I've been learning a lot about narcissism and the damage they so to those around them. (To be clear, I've taken full responsibility for my infidelity.)

So I'm terrified because the world, including me, seems to view narcissists as monsters. Every book I can find is about avoiding them and recovering from their abuse.

My question is, how does one recover from narcissism? What's the cure, prognosis, treatment? Where are the case studies?

I get that narcissists, almost by definition, don't want to be "cured," if they even self-identify. But I do. I'll continue in therapy. But what kind of hope is there for me?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I think there is a lot of hope for you. First, you accepted your therapist's diagnosis, not something a narcissist normally does according to my therapist. Second, you're actively seeking help! Some say people don't change, and sometimes that is true, but I've seen people change a lot as they age, often for the better.
posted by waving at 6:09 AM on March 18, 2017 [11 favorites]

Everyone has some degree of narcissism. You can absolutely be "cured" in the sense that you can reduce pathological behaviors motivated by a higher level of narcissism than what is considered "acceptable" in the larger culture. You have to get in touch with the true self and stop feeding the false one. Stop turning away from your pain and low self-worth and turn toward it instead. The prognosis is better for anyone that tries to see themselves clearly.
posted by crunchy potato at 6:12 AM on March 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

To the extent that your question is a medical one, about changing your mindset, it's really one to work on with your therapist. My sense is that this work - which is important and necessary for your happiness and stability - can to some extent be separated from the question of avoiding damage to others around you. The latter is a question of ethics, and depends on the basic skills of behaving reliably and following through on commitments, being kind to others to the best of one's knowledge of what they need and fear (ie avoiding intentional cruelty at least) and controlling what one says and does. You don't have to feel like doing these things to do them. There may be an emotional gap where your desire for other people's welfare should be. It's definitely worth doing whatever your therapist says will help to fill that, but your decision to actually promote their welfare isn't contingent on feeling any such emotion. So I wouldn't worry too much about the narcissists = damaging monsters story, provided you are doing your best to take others seriously and treat them well, at the level of behaviour. Mindset and emotions are hard, and can make behaviours harder, but difficulties there don't make anyone monstrous.
posted by Aravis76 at 6:14 AM on March 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

I grew up in a household led by a person with NPD. So what I am saying may be harsher than you want to hear. But based on my reading and my experience, the hope of "curing" a narcissist depends on trying to get the narcissist to understand that *other* people really are just as real, deserving, and important as the narcissist is. And what I am getting from your post is concern for yourself - not concern for how you can be better to others in your life. I understand that this shift in focus *is* the long-term goal and that it can't be accomplished at the beginning; but I hope that you try *at least* to act like it is part of your goal, rather than just being focused on YOUR terror, YOUR hope for YOU, etc.
posted by sheldman at 6:16 AM on March 18, 2017 [20 favorites]

My guess is that this question is going to be most helpfully answered by people with a background in treating mental health issues or by people who have dealt with this issue themselves. I understand that a lot of people have a lot of pain and resentment from their own encounters with narcissistic people in their lives, but that doesn't seem super relevant to the question.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:52 AM on March 18, 2017 [39 favorites]

Congrats for figuring this out about yourself and starting to work on change. I went through a few periods of self directed personal change. I found the practice of fake it til you make it helpful. If I do something over and over, I become the kind of person who does those things. Rather than letting my thoughts and feelings shape what I do, I let what I do shape my thoughts and feelings.

You'll likely feel like a giant fraud for a bit. Meditation makes the transition to a new self easier for me, but I haven't found it necessary to change. Metta meditation might be particularly effective for your particular goals since it helps transform self love to love of other people, and vice versa.
posted by congen at 6:57 AM on March 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

[One deleted, and yes, agreed with ArbitraryAndCapricious: Please only offer help if you have constructive advice or particular helpful insight from your own experience with this problem or pertinent training. Thanks.]
posted by taz (staff) at 6:59 AM on March 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

There is absolutely hope! Therapy is helpful and especially when you have had the insight that this fits for you. Schema therapy and psychodynamic therapy have been particularly good fits for NPD. It takes time and it takes work, but there is absolutely hope that you can make changes that will bring you more peace and more satisfaction in your life.
posted by goggie at 7:16 AM on March 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Every book I can find is about avoiding them and recovering from their abuse.

Yeah, this is the case for a lot of the personality disorders, and it is absolutely dreadful -- helpful to the person who suffered but very detrimental to someone totally different who's got a PD. The spectrum of behaviour is enormous. It may be easier to start thinking about yourself as having the features of NPD, rather than "being" NPD -- the personality disorders are more spoken of nowadays as features than an overarching Thing. This may also make it easier to realise that this is not a life sentence and you may well present one day as not having the features of NPD.

What's the cure,

Therapy, DBT may help (it's not just for BPD, albeit discuss it first with therapist).


Up to you, it's definitely not FOREVER though and do not get seduced into the "NPD is always NPD" thing. Getting into the slough of "this is my Identity, guess I better live with it around my neck" can very often make things feel worse.


Is your therapist an expert in NPD? One-on-one therapy is top, but if you can visit any specific workshops or groups that are purely NPD that may really help. Help groups are very variable: if they're guided well they can be fantastic, if not then they can kind of be appalling. Take your cue from your therapist. If you've got anything co-morbid (depression, anxiety, etc) get that sorted too as it can really throw a spanner into getting better.

Keep strong, and the very best of luck to you.
posted by monster truck weekend at 7:36 AM on March 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

Well, mine got deleted, so I will try again. My comments addressed the necessity of someone diagnosed in this manner to remain cognizant of how their actions and behaviors affect other people. By definition, a narcissist cannot exist in a vacuum. It's how you engage with other people that forms the very diagnosis you have accepted.

Therefore, any recovery trajectory has to provide in some significant way for addressing the role others play in your life. As you worked with your therapist, I would expect that you had discussions about things others may have said, or reactions they have expressed; and through those discussions, arrived at enough points of congruence with established narcissism markers to warrant this diagnosis.

So, "Is there hope for me?" is IMO only answerable if there is hope for increased understanding of how your relationships with others may need to be addressed now and going forward (which may include touching back on past interactions). This Psychology Today article addresses many of the things that can be done to work on your interpersonal relationships, and become more mindful of how you engage with those around you, like:

Be cognizant of where the self ends, and another human being begins. Exercise greater consideration for other people’s existence, thoughts, and feelings. Practical tips on how to achieve this include:
- Address people by their names, both in speaking and in writing.
- Listen at least as much as you talk.
- Express genuine interest in and curiosity about people in your life.
- Ask appropriate questions to learn more about what’s new and important to them.
- Give space for the other person to exercise free choice. Respect the choice, even if it’s not what you want every time.

posted by I_Love_Bananas at 7:38 AM on March 18, 2017 [19 favorites]

It may be easier to start thinking about yourself as having the features of NPD, rather than "being" NPD -- the personality disorders are more spoken of nowadays as features than an overarching Thing. This may also make it easier to realise that this is not a life sentence and you may well present one day as not having the features of NPD.

I want to second this. I will also note that in talking to my own therapists etc it's become clear that some of the thinking surrounding certain personality disorders is changing. I can speak to at least one case where covert NPD seems pretty clearly the result of both acute and developmental trauma (my own mother). If that's the case for you -- and it might be worth exploring if it is, particularly if your parents were NPD -- it can be helpful to deal with the developmental trauma on its own. The inability to or difficulty with empathizing with others and recognizing them as independent entities is not all that dissimilar to (or may be an emergent manifestation of) the deficits that occur when you never learned attunement as a child, for example.

It's worth exploring, especially because there are far more resources for people suffering from trauma than there are for people suffering from NPD.

These are the standard books I offer to people wanting to learn more about both complex PTSD and developmental trauma:

Healing Developmental Trauma

Complex PTSD
posted by schadenfrau at 9:59 AM on March 18, 2017 [8 favorites]

As simple as it may sound now, a very crucial, foundational step after this acceptance of your diagnosis will be continuing to accept your diagnosis. This is true across a range of divergences/disorders -- bipolar, major depression, as well as other PDs more closely grouped with narcissism.

You're making a big step now, one which will pay off for you (important) and those around you (just as, if not more, important, I promise). But there may be a time either where you feel like you're 'cured' or 'better' or more likely in this case, situations where it feels inconvenient and discordant to have this label on "who you really are". You, having more access to your thoughts than anyone else, may decide there was a misunderstanding, or you were in a bad place, or most commonly that you were manipulated into believing this. Every fiber of your being may, at some point, urge you to reject the label. It is vital you set up ways now to mitigate that.

I don't mean this to be harsh, I mean it to be supportive and strategic: you need to start shoring up your defenses against yourself now. I was in a long-enough term relationship with a narcissist, who I loved and continue to love to this day. The first time he had this break-through, he wrote down the conclusion in his phone and would check it around once a day or have it on hand during arguments. This only lasted 2-3 weeks but those weeks were amazing. You can make rapid progress and it will greatly benefit those around you. But after that period he decided that neither of us were medical doctors and so didn't have the authority to actually make a call of such gravity, deleted the note and we went about our lives largely as they were before those weeks, with him getting very sensitive about it being brought up. Later that year, he did finally see a therapist who confirmed it, and again he briefly accepted the diagnosis. His acceptance and desire to improve was palpably real and sincere. It didn't last the week.

(He chose over what seemed like frivolous reasons (but everyone gets to make these choices) to stop seeing that doctor. He's generally avoided all therapy since, now convinced it has little to offer him. We aren't together; life goes on.)

No matter what, life will go on for you and I deeply applaud this step because its a commitment to trying your best to shape how that life effects people around you -- the people who need those books, but also the people who share your characteristics who perhaps you can come to help in the future, to write the book for how to thrive and navigate a shared world with this particular divergence. But its also only a first step, and a step that can easily be wiped from the sand.

The best second step you can take it to make every attempt you can to overrule your Future-Self and keep from going backward. Involve your wife and a few trusted family members or friends, preferably those who can also lean on each other. You don't need to "come out" on Facebook or in the office, but you need accountability and it can't just be one person, that is too much pressure. Write a letter to your future self, that accounts for possible doubts or excuses you might formulate. If you're someone who values money highly enough to not cancel, consider pre-paying for your appointments for an extended period. Make it extremely hard to shy away from this, and you'll only be helping yourself walk into the empathetic and intersubjective light at the end of this tunnel.
posted by Chipmazing at 10:07 AM on March 18, 2017 [12 favorites]

I get that narcissists, almost by definition, don't want to be "cured," if they even self-identify.

This, in large part, is why case studies may not be super-abundant.

What is getting more research is empathy in general, and how to cultivate it. If you're looking for practical ideas or approaches without running into the "Narcissists are evil!" rhetoric, that might one idea.

I think it's also important to ask these questions of your therapist and to get their take. Narcissism is tricky in individual therapy, because the entire structure of therapy encourages it -- you have a trained listener hanging on your every word, and generally no ethical ways for the therapist to get objective outside takes on what's actually going on! The fact that you came to this conclusion in therapy, however, which presumably means the therapist agrees with it, is likely a good sign of a skillful therapist. If I were you, I'd talk to them a lot more about what all this means and what the path forward might look like, along with asking about any other add-ons (groups, etc.) that might be helpful.
posted by lazuli at 10:46 AM on March 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

For the record, I know plenty of narcissists, there are several in my family. They are people I love and respect. I do not think they are monsters. But they can do things which can lead to trauma and/or dysfunction in those who love them. Hurtful things. And they don't even realize that those things are hurtful, nor that are long-term consequences to those things. There are good reasons why there are so many books and resources for those trying to recover from having a narcissist in their lives.

I am impressed and respect you for admitting to having a problem and wanting to take steps to improve yourself. This is huge. Congratulations.

I nth the recommendation of seeing yourself not as someone with NPD but as someone with narcissistic traits. Why? Because I've seen way too many people embrace the, "oh well I have X personality disorder and that's a life-long thing so everyone just has to deal with that". As in, this is everyone else's problem, not mine. No. Absolutely not. This is something YOU have to work with. Change can only come from within. Unless you want to push away everyone you hold dear.

The one thing I've seen with concerning vulnerable narcissist (another name for the introvert/covert), which severely hinders their happiness, is that they view themselves as victims, that they are the absolute target of wrong-doing, and become defensive in response. This can be on a personal level (others are purposefully trying to hurt them, betray their trust, sabotage their career, etc) or sometimes even on a systemic level (their religion or beliefs are being attacked, their profession is being undermined by society, etc).
Problem is, their minds go out of their way to confirm this, resulting in very strained personal relationships with family and close to zero friends.
Things that other people would allow to roll off their shoulders or not think twice about, a vulnerable narcissist takes very personally and uses it as evidence that they must defend themselves from and be hostile to this other person.

My point is: try to re-evaluate and question how you perceive certain interactions. If there is a common theme, remember you are the common denominator. Maybe people's actions aren't about hurting you. Maybe it was just absent-mindedness on their part. Or they genuinely had good personal reasons. Your ability to empathize with them will help you tremendously here.

Best of luck to you.
posted by Neekee at 11:05 AM on March 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

The person I grew up with, whom your linked passage would seem to describe, has a very frustrating and hurtful habit: they almost never ask for anything they want, but instead try to manipulate and browbeat me into doing things for them or giving things to them, frequently by expressing contempt or hostility. It seems to be related to a desire to never be wrong about anything and to never have to say "please."

So, I have no idea if this would apply to you or others with narcissism diagnoses, but if you behave similarly then simply disciplining yourself to ask when you want something, and accept that the answer might be "no", may improve relationships with other people; to commit to using words for communication rather than manipulation.
posted by Sockpuppet Liberation Front at 11:28 AM on March 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Narcissism exists either because it is the result of a random throw of genetic dice where the combination of otherwise positive traits combined to create a negative personality, or because it provides an advantage to the person who has it, or because it provides and advantage to the close genetic kin of the person who has it.

This means that narcissism has some benefits to you or to your kin. So consider the diagnosis from this angle: Now that you have some understanding of a pattern of personality traits, what can you do with those traits to improve your life, and improve the life of your people, without making things worse for yourself or for your people.

This is the same as if you get a diagnosis of having Aspergers. It means you are not average and that you are therefore rubbing up against an environment that is not optimized for your psychological needs. However we tend to pathologize this things into an either/or binary where on one side of the divide you are bad and on the other side you are normal. But normal and bad are not the two halves of a binary.

If everybody was an altruist nobody would ever get out of burning building because everyone would try get out last...

Narcissism seems to be a trait of self absorption and deficiencies in interest or awareness in others. Nobody is going to agree on the exact correct degree that everyone should be altruistic vs. selfish. Everyone has an opinion on if you should donate a kidney or not, or if you should raise your prices to make a greater profit. However, in your case you and your therapist have come to the conclusion that your narcissism is making you (and maybe others) less happy and less successful than they could be.

So, since you are probably capable of thinking deeply about yourself, think about what you can do to improve your life by using your narcissistic traits. And while you are at it think about what you can do with those traits to also improve the lives of your people.

From your link it sounds like have unrealistic expectations for yourself has caused you to decline challenges. For example you might have been good enough to be a star high school football player, but, since you did not have the aptitude to be a professional or Olympic level football player you never went out for the team. It was either world class or nothing.

This means that you did not compete in a field where you could have achieved well. Other kids who could play football and who were more competitive, or more realistic than you joined the team, played and trained through high school and become the High School heroes. And you missed it. Your life... wasted?

Hopefully not being the top dog in a school of 700 kids back in 1975 was not the most important thing you could have done with your life.

The link places a high value on achieving without explaining why you should have been successful. Now, it is true that successful people tend to get a bigger share of the resources, power, money, promotions etc. But they do not turn out happier, or healthier than people who have enough. And in many cases their success takes it away from other people. The 1% may be successful, but they are not exactly held up as the moral model for the rest of us to follow. Their success frequently involves getting an unfair share of the pie.

Be aware that success isn't all its cracked up to be. Medical students, for example, are successful, but they also are so stressed that they have a nasty high rate of mental illnesses, and the process of becoming an MD is designed to be as awful as possible so that only a tiny fraction of the people who would like to become a doctor actually get through premed, get accepted, complete training and graduate. Forcing yourself to do something like that for most people is absolutely miserable. When you discount yourself for not having done double doctorates in both law and medicine and now be on track to parlay your position of senator into Trump's new Cabinet pick for health, remember that the number of hours required to achieve something like that is not "I should have tried harder" but, "I am willing to get seriously addicted to drugs that will keep me awake long enough to study for 80 plus hours a week on top of a rigourous fitness schedule and attending all my classes and labs."

Now, yes, those successful people are also often narcissists, but of the OTHER type, the type that tramples other people. Your narcissism seems to be more a matter of thinking too much, not being able to get out of your own head, and your own imagination until you paralyze yourself.

So.... do you cause your family grief by this? How about your friends or your children? Do your old friends get unlisted phone numbers to avoid you? Do your children cry a lot about the things you make them do? Is your wife nervous to talk to you?

It might just be that as a narcissist you are kinda clueless about people but not harmful to them. It depends on if you control them or not. If you spend a lot of time angry at your wife, kids and family for letting you down either you have a bad family, or you are a harmful over controlling narcissist. But if it's a matter of being in your own world, preoccupied by your own things, coming out of it with a start to realize you forgot a birthday and need to make it up to them, and then do your best to make it up to them, I think you can conclude that you are not a harmful type of narcissist.

So what do you want to do with your diagnosis? Nothing has changed. You now have a new tool for self understanding. You can't use it as a free pass because people won't cut you extra slack for being a narcissist. It's more like when you realise that you are a racist. You don't get a free-pass not to be offended by seeing people with different skin colours; you get a tool to examine your feelings about other people. Similarly, the diagnosis doesn't mean that you should give up on working to make your relationships with other people better. Instead it tells you that likely you have been overlooking information about them while thinking about yourself, and you may have been overlooking strategies in working with them, from your narcissistic vantage that you can go back and consider again.

Here is a simple strategy to try: If you were a character in a book in which your wife was the protagonist, what would you need to do in order to make the book have a happy ending?
You are the hero of your own story, but you are only a supporting character or an antagonist in other people's stories. How would you have to behave to be a good character instead of a villain?

Okay, how about if the book was a history book about your neighbourhood? Or a report on your company?

If you can't think except through a filter that drowns out other data because of a cry, "Me, Me, Me, Me....!" try and lean a bit more towards, "Us, Us, Us, Us...!" Try and consider your story as being the first book in a trilogy, the second and third that will be about your legacy after you are dead, the saga of your survivors and children.

Try to make a list of things that are true about yourself, and then a list of the people about whom those things are more true. So if you are really lonely, admit the possibility that you might not be the most lonely of all the people you ever met. List someone you know or you have met who is lonelier than you. If you are gifted musically, list a few people who, even if you had studied music professionally would still have turned out as a better musician? What about Mozart?

There are a few things that you can do better than anyone else in the world. You can be a better husband to your wife than any other man, because she chose to try a marriage with you. Compete at that. You can be a better father to your kids; you are in their life. Making those goals to excel at. You can be a better you than anyone else. How do you make life better for the people in it that you cherish. Do that, keep doing that.

What do you do that makes life worse for the people in your life? Do less of that, or if you can stop doing that.

If you can't think along those lines you may be a harmful narcissist. If the thought that overrides all the others is that your wife would have been a better wife and your kids should have been better kids, then yo are not adding good things to their lives and you are a harmful narcissist.

But you can be better than that, can't you?
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:08 PM on March 18, 2017 [10 favorites]

The thing to do right now is set up an ongoing plan with your therapist. Seeing someone who's job it is to catch you on bad behaviour is very important. It's even a good thing for otherwise mentally healthy people sometimes, but with a personality disorder, having someone to give you reality checks is paramount.

Also, while I understand your desire to stay away from reading stories from victims of narcissists, try to understand that most of those stories are about people dealing with grandiose narcissism, which is different from what you have and it is indeed as scary as those stories would suggest. I find it kind of rude to delegitimise all those experiences and say they're all saying "narcissists are evil" if the story is from a victim's perspective.

I'd suggest reading stories of those who have vulnerable or introverted narcissist loved ones or family. Because often the damage done in those relationships is hard to see even when you're the one being hurt, let alone the person who might be doing it.

Being able to catch yourself on the little things that harm those around you is going to be just as important as getting the basics of decent behaviour and empathy down. Being a good person who doesn't harm others doesn't just mean avoiding yelling at people or outright insulting them. There's subtle levels of respect and boundaries you're gonna have to learn from the ground up.

I will say that I'm happy you're serious about getting help, but it will need to be as much about preventing harm to others as it is to healing and building a better you. Many narcissists, even those who only mean well, will fall off the wagon when they realise they don't want to hear critique of behavior. But we all, NPD people or others, need to be able to take criticism and understand the impact our behaviour has on those around us.
posted by InkDrinker at 12:31 PM on March 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

The only thing to do is be simple and integrate altruistic love into your heart - giving for the sake of giving to another without reward or recognition. Learn how to love for the sake of loving. Heal your heart with this. Find someone who can teach you about love and what is heart intelligence. Move from your head to your heart - then balance both to meet at a loving intersection.
posted by watercarrier at 9:16 PM on March 18, 2017

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