Can An Old Narcissist Learn New Tricks?

The greatest irony (or should I say, tragedy) of being in a relationship with a narcissist is that narcissists tend to choose mates that are highly sensitive, empathetic, unconditionally loving, and forgiving… exactly the kind of mate that could them heal. But instead of allowing the mate to heal them, the narcissist ends up destroying the mate. In my opinion, before the narcissist’s traumatic abuse begins to take its toll on the victim, this hopeful possibility is extremely obvious. There is no way the narcissist could possibly miss it. So, then, why does the narcissist destroy his victims, instead of allowing them to heal him? What prevents the healing from taking place?

Why is it that, instead of finding the courage to feel gratitude…instead of thanking their lucky stars that they found someone so willing to love, and forgive and help them heal… the narcissist sets about his diabolical mission to destroy the the very person who was sent to save them? In this question, I think, we find the absolute, most maddening, mind-boggling aspect of the narcissistic relationship. With the  possibility of love, and happiness, right in the palm of their hand, why does the narcissist reject it?

Over time, as the relationship inevitably deteriorates, and the victim suffers more and more trauma, which leads to the victim exhibiting more and more narcissistic behavior themselves, it’s easy to see why the narcissist would no longer trust that the victim could, in fact, help them heal. But, why, in the beginning- when hope abounds- does the narcissist so vehemently reject his own salvation?  It’s a sick, and needless, tragedy. Truly.

This tragic mystery has boggled psychologist, counselors, therapists, and all manner of mental health professionals, for as long as personality disorders have been acknowledged as a true disorder. So much so, that the medical community has deemed personality disorders ‘incurable’, and many healthcare professionals refuse to even attempt to treat personality disordered patients. But could they have overlooked something? In looking at the bigger picture, they missed an opportunity for healing in the details of the narcissist’s disorder?

Could it be that the narcissist is truly incapable of changing? Or could there possibly be some light left at the end of this tunnel? Could the narcissist learn to do something different? Could he learn to change? In my opinion(which I know doesn’t account for much, as I am no professional, or anything), the answer is ‘yes’, and ‘no’.

On the one hand, the narcissist is absolutely, 100% NOT capable of changing. The reason lying in the workings of the narcissist’s brain. Let me  me give you a crash course in neurobiology, in case you’re unfamiliar.

See, any time we experience something in life- whether it be a smell, a new taste, or the feeling of love- we have these thingies in our brains, called neurons, that fire. For example, if we reach out to another person for connection, a neuron fires. If that person rejects us, another neuron fires. If we experience this same situation enough times, a synaptic connection forms, and the more likely it is that any time we reach out for connection, the rejection neuron will fire…regardless of the other person’s actual response. (Note: I’m pretty sure I got all the terminology there correct, but the process is the important part-LOL)

Over time, and especially when the experience is infused with intense emotion (such as shame), the connection becomes rigid, and literally blocks other connections from forming. The forming of various connections is what categorizes “growth” in our brain (that added complexity of connections). The lack of complexity is synonymous with a lack of growth in a person. A rigid connection, literally, prevents the brain from learning any new information in that area. This is exactly what has happened to the narcissist’s brain.

As a child, or adolescent, the narcissist experienced rejection, humiliation, or shame, when he reached out for love and connection, or just from being himself, that he came to believe that he, himself, must be defective in some way… unlovable. It was the only explanation he could give himself for why those, who were supposed to love and care for him, caused him so much pain. His brain formed a seriously strong connection (called a neural net) between love/connection/attachment, and shame/pain/worthlessness. The narcissist’s brain, basically, became hard-wired to see every loving, or potentially intimate, interaction through a lens of shame.

At that point, shame, or rejection, was no longer a state of being (as we experience such emotions), but became a stable personality trait. This means that, no matter how another person responds to the narcissist’s bids for love, and connection, he will almost always experience their response to him as though that person were criticizing, rejecting, humiliating, or shaming him. We see this evidenced by the narcissist’s hyper-sensitivity to any perceived slight, or criticism.

So, from that perspective, the answer to whether, or not, the narcissist can change is a resounding ‘No’. His brain simply isn’t wired for growth, or change.


On the other hand… There is one exception, to the narcissist’s perception of “all things cause pain/shame”, and is during the idealization phase of a relationship, when the narcissist is experiencing a “high” from falling in love.

I have a theory that the release of extra dopamine & serotonin, and all those “feel-good chemicals” in the brain, creates a sort of “window of opportunity” where the neural nets might be more receptive to disruption…which is what would be needed in order for the narcissist to break the cycle of toxic shame. The question is- How do we disrupt such strong neural connections?

I believe that the answer lies, partly, in the subconscious mind. You see, most of the decisions we make in our lives come not from our conscious mind (as we like too think), but from our unconscious, also called our “automatic self”. In the unconscious is where we store all our core beliefs. These are the set of principles that dictate how we feel about things, how we act, and who we are. This is where the narcissist’s  belief that he is “unlovable”, or “defective”, is stored. I believe that by using a process I call  ‘subconscious re-scripting’  (or any other of a number of methods for reprogramming the subconscious), that the core beliefs of the narcissist could be changed, therefore allowing for a different experience of love, and intimacy, for the narcissist.

Also, I believe that with the use of mindfulness meditation, and the teaching of compassion towards his self,  the healing of the narcissist’s toxic shame could be accomplished, thereby disrupting the synaptic connection that keeps him stuck in intimacy avoidant behaviors.  This is a huge part of healing narcissism, as much of the abusive behaviors the narcissist exhibits, are for the express purpose of avoiding connection with others (remaining separate from them).

From that perspective, the answer to our baffling question, then, becomes ‘Yes. The narcissist can change.’

The trick, of course, would be convincing the narcissist that change is needed. That in, and of, itself would be a grueling task. One that, perhaps, is impossible. But, maybe, that’s only because we approach the narcissist’s change from the position of needing him to take responsibility for the horrible things he has done.

Perhaps, if we let go of our need for the narcissist to be accountable for his narcissism…at least in the beginning (when he is, literally, incapable of that), and we focus simply on helping the narcissist to resolve painful feelings he IS aware of having, he could effect enough change, that the motivation to follow through the rest of way, with his healing, would arise naturally.

Of course, that is all wild speculation…and from a woman with no formal degree on the subject. So, what do I know?


Until Next Time
~The Narcissist’s Wife

Hi. I’m Story Lynne, (a.k.a. The Narcissist’s Wife). Nice to meet you. I’m the mother of 4 amazing kids, the (soon-to-be-ex) wife of a narcissist, and the author of this blog. I’m also a teacher, a healer, an intuitive empath, and Angel Card Reader.
I love fairies, angels, the color pink, anything sparkly, and Legos. (the Elves are my absolute favorites). I also love fixing cars, building shit, and shooting my bow (as in, bow and arrow).

6 thoughts on “Can An Old Narcissist Learn New Tricks?

  • Veronica Guillen

    Thank you so much for the clarity of my life with my husband the past 25 years and knew him even longer, I always believed he was narcissistic but never really knew what it was really about me I thought moody, anger and mean but was truly blind to the truth about what he is and I really just started reading about it too the fullest when I found out about a affair he was having always thought it but I guess I would believe the reason he gave me and I just thought after all this time and pain he put me through that we were good and he wouldn’t hurt me cause after all the abuse in the beginning it stopped many years ago and I stayed, I knew the verbal abuse had never left but I knew he was hurting from his child hood and I actually love him so much and felt compassion for him he never returned it and the past year he really showed me he doesn’t like me and I beg him to be honest and let me know what he wanted cause I knew it was not me the more I pushed the more mean he was but would buy me gifts and send me away on vacation and still managed to laugh with me and spend time with me and our family. I was completely hurt and he promised that he will never hurt me and all the love bombing etc but I pushed it to far recently and he couldn’t explain why or any of the other details, I wish I could have just accepted the truth about what I knew and left it but he turned into the old him, cold and mean he hates me all over again, I am happy I’ve got a explanation for the past couple decades cause I really thought I was crazy. I just don’t know what to do next cause he is very powerful and has more than me, I am praying for peace and joy and happiness. For all of my family we have built something beautiful and it’s a huge blow to everyone.

  • Cy

    Yes. A narcissist can change, to a point. I myself have. I suggest you read Sam Vaknin. His explanation of a personality disorder is spot on. Narcissists cannot go back to a self they’ve never been. The biggest change in my life was realizing that I had no right to treat others as I had been. I was at my most vulnerable and therefore had no defenses against the realization that I was a narcissist who was raised by a narcissist. I was black sheeped in my family. I suffered overwhelming fear and envy, unbeknownst to me. I had an external loci and therefore was reactive and saw no other way of being. In short, I was proving my parents right. Understanding integrity was pivotal. I had very high self esteem, yet no self respect ( read George Simon, Character Disturbance). My values were situationally based. Thus, I had no true self. I could not have expressed my fear, not only because of my overwhelming fear of exposure and annihilation (a symptom of Projection Identity), but because I lacked any knowledge of what the feeling was or even a name for it. Nor could I have believed anyone cared for me since I knew they could not possibly know me, as I was hiding. I had to research the definitions and examples of emotions, values, subjectiive/objective, defenses, honsesty, integrety, empathy, COMPASSION, FEAR etc. For me, narcissism was a result of never being acknowledged and living in an untenable situation (which itself was and is still unacknowledged in my family).
    So, that began in my 20s when I knew something was wrong and what I was doing wasn’t working. I had a toddler who’s father is bipolar and I had to figure out what to do before I doomed my son. I came upon a book called Narcissism by Alexander Lowen and read descriptions of myself and my family. I realized that there was no ‘me’, after all here this guy had written my biography 20 years earlier! I was a walking ball of symptoms, a reaction. I believed him. It was scary. Then I read philosophy, psych, theology, fiction…and had to allow my false self to die, accept it WAS NOT REAL!! Now in my 40s, I know how to behave. I know how to choose between right and wrong. I understand entitlement and boundaries and exploitation and know how NOT to do it. But, although I am a better friend to all and am a reliable person. I rarely feel deeply connected. I am loyal to a fault because it is right. I hold myself to high moral standards. They are my roadmap to integrity and self respect. But they do not lead me to intimacy; I often do not feel. It is uncomfortable to me. And if I’m honest, I often feel the calling of my old ways: detached and separate and untouchable. I always wanted to go live in a cave somewhere. But, of course could not because I NEEDED others to validate who I was. It’s a catch 22 and narcissists resent and envy the others’ power over their fragile view of self. I know I cannot allow narcissism to run amok in my life, although it seems to never really go away (not the manipulative exploitive ways, but numbness and distance are here still). It leads me to anxiety, depression, panic, hiding/agoraphobia, anger, blaming, and of course into my own reality which I will then waste my (and everyone’s around me) life trying to manage and control and create. Sam Vaknin has a new therapy called Cold Therapy. It sounds promising. I feel that I would have to suffer a psychotic break( completely broken) and simultaneously be transported to an unknown benevolent culture and re-loved and re-raised in order to change. It’s not about healing. That only goes so far. It helps; I can assume responsibilty for myself and make proactive choices, refraining from projection… But, the feelings were never there to begin with. Maybe they’re there and buried and damaged…but, I have my doubts. I have good people in my life, and I like them at arms length. I work on allowing feelings and identifying and naming them. It does help. It does get better. Narcissists do know the difference between right and wrong. They do experience empathy, but it is cold instead of welcoming and therefore easy to manipulate for our own uses. It is compassion and altruism that are lacking…and they are chouces. The biggest word for me was and is UNTENABLE. It was what shaped my childhood and interactions and reactions. I had been black sheeped and scapegoated and there was no way to change it. Only find a way to live through it and not end up in a mental institution. Because, it was crazy and cruel and infuriatingly unfair and I was a child, blamed for it. I did not have a safe place to feel nor acknowledgement of my feelings. I was told from so young that I was cold and selfish and arrogant and if I would only stop being that way, I would be acknowledged and spoken to and validated. I tried; it did not work… That is only one way narcissism is formed. Covert, vulnerable narcissism. Not grandiose, as that would have been even worse in my situation, certainly not rewarded. Narcissism healed?? In a way, I guess. The false self can be gotten rid of. But, the true self must then be built and with a deficiency of emotions or even impetus. I do not crave what I lost. It was never there. I crave self respect. Integrity. To do what’s right, not only because it’s right but so I am blameless and can breathe a sigh of relief.

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