One day, you find yourself looking in the mirror, and the voice in your head screams at you:
“I don’t want to be a narcissist anymore!”
If this is you, you’ve come to the right place. Narcissism is a complicated personality disorder that takes time to improve and recover from. But the great news for you is, it is entirely possible.
This guide will compliment your therapy sessions to help you recover from narcissistic personality disorder so you can start living life the way you want for yourself.
The Roman myth of Narcissus
The term “narcissism” is named after the Greco-Roman man of mythology, Narcissus. The story has been retold many times, but let’s look at the most famous retelling by Ovid.
Legend has it that Narcissus was the most handsome man in all the land. Many fell for his unquestionable beauty, and yet he rejected them all.
One day, Narcissus was walking through the forest when the nymph Echo saw him and called out to him. He predictably rejected her too, and she spent the rest of her days roaming the forest until all that was left was the faint echo of her calling out to him.
To teach him a lesson, the goddess of revenge, Nemesis, doomed him to fall in love with his own image. And that’s precisely what he did. He saw his reflection in the lake and became so obsessed with himself he fell in love with his reflection.
Narcissus spent his time staring at his reflection in the water. Then, many years later, as he realised his love couldn’t be reciprocated, he drowned in the lake.
The moral of the story is that it is dangerous to become so self-absorbed in your own image that you forget to live and share life with those around you.
What is narcissism?
Now that we know where the term narcissism comes from, what does it mean in modern society?
NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) is a mental health condition outlined in the DSM V Manual of Mental Health – otherwise known as the holy grail of mental health diagnostics.
Symptoms for NPD include (but are not limited to):
- An overly inflated sense of self-importance
- A strong need for constant attention
- Overly exaggerating abilities and accomplishments
- A lack of empathy for those around them
- Believing you are more beautiful, successful, and powerful than everyone else
- A strong sense of entitlement
- Taking advantage of others for personal gain
- Being incredibly sensitive to criticism
In short, those suffering from NPD have an overinflated sense of grandeur that makes them feel like the most important person in the world.
How can you tell if you are a narcissist?
Before you start trying to help your narcissism, it’s essential to gauge whether or not you are actually suffering from NPD or you just have narcissistic tendencies. While many of us can go through moments of selfishness and self-absorption, the actual rate of NPD in the population is very uncommon.
If you suspect you are suffering from NPD, you must talk to a trained therapist to diagnose you.
They may administer a medically approved personality test to confirm your diagnosis.
Whatever you do, do NOT do an online personality quiz to try and determine if you are suffering from NPD. These quizzes are not scientifically backed, and an NPD diagnosis requires a specialist to analyse your answers alongside discussion to get an accurate picture of your situation.
How do people become narcissists?
If you, or someone close to you, is suffering from NPD, you might be wondering how one develops this disorder.
It’s important to stress at this point that NPD is a personality disorder and not a trait, and just like any other mental or physical illness, it can happen to anyone.
With that said, which factors make it more likely that you could develop NPD?
If someone in your family suffers from NPD, especially a close relative like a parent, you are predisposed to a higher possibility of developing the disorder.
Childhood abuse and trauma
Our childhoods shape who we are as people. Therefore, when abuse and trauma happen in early life, it can have severe repercussions on our mental health later on in life. One such way this can manifest is through the development of NPD.
Everyone has personality traits that they develop throughout their life. For example, if your personality leans slightly more self-focused, there is a slight possibility you could develop NPD (though this is rare).
A defence mechanism to society by the ego
In psychology, the self comprises of three parts: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. The ego is the mediator between the Id and Superego and controls our morals. When we perceive threats, our body has a wealth of defence mechanisms, and it is theorised that NPD develops in some people as a defence mechanism to the society they live in.
Cultural norms and focus
NPD tends to be more prevalent in countries like the USA, where the culture is more centred on individual success and work.
Can Narcissists change their ways?
It is absolutely possible for a narcissist to change their ways. But it requires patience and a lot of hard work to do so.
Counselling and therapy are essential parts of the recovery process, as, without them, recovery is near impossible. It’s like treating appendicitis. In extremely rare cases, you’ll be ok, but the overwhelming norm is that you will need a surgeon to take out your appendix. NPD is the same. You need a trained professional to help you recover from it.
The final component you need for success is a willingness to change. Change can’t happen if you aren’t ready to put in your best effort to try. It doesn’t mean that it will happen just because you want it to, but it definitely won’t happen if you don’t.
Ways to heal your narcissism
Alongside therapy, these techniques will help you on your road to recovery.
Learn to stop devaluing other people
Devaluing usually happens as a defence mechanism when a narcissist feels threatened. It involves putting someone else down to make yourself feel better. It may not seem obvious that you are doing it at first. Making rude, unprovoked remarks may feel like second nature, and you may not feel particularly triggered at that moment. Nonetheless, it is still a defence mechanism that has been cultivated to keep you safe. Think of it as I’m going to throw the first punch so they can’t hit me first.
Sit down and try and explore the ways in which you tend to devalue people in your life. Maybe it’s making comments about the way they look or work. If you are struggling to pinpoint these occurrences, it can help to talk to someone you trust and ask them what devaluing things they have heard you say.
Once you’ve done that, think about why you say it. Do you genuinely believe it, or are you saying it to make yourself feel better?
And finally, work on recognising these feelings and trying to intercept yourself before you devalue someone and think of something nice you can say instead.
Look at the facts of your life
Evidence-based thinking is a tremendous CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) tool for mending disordered thinking.
Think about the ways you speak about yourself, your skills, and your accomplishments. Is there evidence to support the claims you are making, or have you been overexaggerating the truth?
Think about why you might do this. For example, are you worried that people will think less of you if your achievements and skills are less than perfect?
Practice speaking about yourself in a more evidence-based and kind way, accepting yourself as you are, not who you want people to think. As you get comfortable with this, you’ll find that people value you just as much.
Make a list of all the behaviours that cause you problems
No doubt if you want to recover from NPD, it’s because a number of your behaviours have become problematic in your life.
By listing out the individual behaviours you want to improve, you’ll find your journey to recovery more palatable as it will seem less daunting and give you milestones to aim for.
Learn to acknowledge how your behaviour affects those around you
When suffering from NPD, it can be extremely difficult to empathise with those around you, especially when it comes to your own behaviour.
It’s an extremely tough pill to swallow, but start asking those around you that you trust what behaviours they don’t like and how it makes them feel. And really listen to what they have to say.
It will be instinctual to get defensive immediately – no one likes to be told they are doing something bad, NPD or not – but make yourself available just to listen.
Try to understand how your behaviour affects that other person and put yourself in their shoes. For example, how would you feel if someone did that to you?
Practising empathy like this will help you gain perspective that will reduce your narcissistic tendencies.
Journaling – what are you afraid of?
We’ve established that NPD often comes as a defence mechanism. And more often than not, despite an inflated sense of self, narcissists are some of the most insecure people on the planet.
So, it’s time to explore those insecurities. What are you afraid will happen if you let your guard down?
The best way to do this is to pick up a journal and pen and start writing. Write exactly how you feel about yourself and challenge your beliefs. Maybe as a child, you were always praised for doing something better than everyone else and punished if your work wasn’t “good enough.” Perhaps a parent encouraged you to overexaggerate your talents in order to get ahead.
Whatever your thoughts and feelings are, write them down. In recognising these, you can start to work through them. And this knowledge will be especially valuable to build upon in therapy sessions.
Learn to accept that failure is a good thing
The most important thing you can do for your recovery is to accept failure as a part of life. Suffering from NPD means refusing to believe you can do any wrong and that it’s usually other people in the wrong, which makes them bad people.
But the idea that making a mistake or failing at something makes you a bad person just isn’t true. In fact, making mistakes and failing is the key to success. Without them, you don’t learn the lessons needed to improve.
So start to reframe mistakes and failure in your brain as something completely acceptable and then begin to embrace them on your journey to recovery.
Key points to remember on your journey to recovery
NPD is a mental health disorder that can take years to recover from. I know that’s daunting, but as such a complicated illness, a lot of work is required to improve your mental health state.
So show yourself some compassion throughout the journey. Sometimes it will be tough; other times, it will feel easy. After all, you are changing your core beliefs about yourself and the world around you – that’s a tall order for anyone! And you should be incredibly proud of yourself for recognising you need help and seeking ways to become healthier.
It's also important to remind yourself that progress isn’t linear. Just because you make significant progress today doesn’t mean you’ll make great progress tomorrow. And sometimes, your progress will regress slightly as you unlearn old patterns and replace them with new ones. But trust the process, and with time, you will get there.
With help from your therapist and some self-recovery tips from this guide, you’ll find the courage inside of yourself to embrace who you truly are and recover from the often isolating disorder that is NPD.
Best of luck with your recovery!