Stacey was frustrated by her adult 35-year-old son with two failed marriages (everything was the ex’s fault), five career changes (his bosses hated him and wanted to get rid of him), a couple of DUIs, and now living back at home. No matter what happened, other people were to blame for his relationship and career failures. Stacey was sympathetic but exhausted from the constant drama in her son’s life.
As part of the agreement for her son living with her again, he committed to helping with the yard work. But when Stacey asked him to take down the holiday decorations a month later, he exploded on her calling her names and treating her abusively. This was not the first time he reacted this way but lately, it seemed to be more of a pattern rather than a one time event.
Stacey stumbled on the definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and believed her son displayed all the characteristics. But the big question was: can he be fixed?
The answer depends solely on the narcissist. There are some aspects that can be changed and then there are some that cannot. There are three components to the formation of narcissism: biology, environment, and choice. The fourth element of support reinforces the narcissistic behavior.
- Biology: DNA contains genetic characteristics that define the individuality of a person. A quick glance at the family tree often reveals some of those common traits within a family unit. Personality disorders do run in families. Even when a person does not have the disorder, the familiarity of it increases the likelihood that they will marry someone with one. This further perpetuates the disorder within a family unit.
- Solution: DNA cannot be changed. However, when a person knows that high blood pressure runs in the family, they can take action to avoid hypertension. The same is true for narcissism. This is not easy however because it is so contrary to the superiority belief which is a defining characteristic. Yet, their egotistic attitude propels a narcissistic person to believe they can overcome anything including the disorder itself.
- Example: One of the best ways to expose the family narcissistic traits is to have the narcissist do a family tree. Many narcissists like to think that they are unique even within their family unit. By showing them that no one in their family apologizes or empathizes, their natural desire to outdo others within the family causes them to want to change this aspect.
- Environment: The maladaptation of Erik Erikson’s second stage of psychosocial development is shame/doubt instead of the positive outcome of autonomy. Trauma during the time of 18 months to 3 years old encourages the negative outcome. This is where narcissism is often born. At the heart of every narcissist is deep-rooted insecurity that they desperately try to cover up. Childhood trauma, narcissistic parenting, and/or being bullied (at school or home) are common environmental factors in the reinforcement of the narcissist trait.
- Solution: Once the insecurity and/or trauma have been discovered, healing from this reduces the need to mask it. In addition, other adult traumas resulting from narcissistic behaviors should also be addressed. This purging of environmental factors removes the underlying need for narcissistic behavior.
- Example: Any type of abuse done at an early age can spark narcissism, especially sexual abuse. Discovering this trauma is difficult as most narcissists do just about anything to hide from their embarrassment. Once it is revealed, removing the shame and guilt associated with the event takes the wind out of narcissism.
- Choice: Personality disorders are not identified until a person reaches 18 years old. This is because the fifth stage of psychosocial development is role identity versus confusion which begins at 12 years old and ends at 18. During these formative years, a teen tries on the roles of various persons to see which parts they want to incorporate into their identity. So there is some element of choosing narcissistic traits.
- Solution: Any person who has been married for a while will testify to either their changing personality or that of their spouse. Life’s circumstances have a way of continuing to mold and shape a person for better or worse. Narcissistic traits can grow strong or diminish as a person ages. It is up to them to make a choice towards or against their own natural tendencies.
- Example: The sense of entitlement is strong with narcissists. However, this is the one area that narcissists frequently complain about in others. By exposing and comparing one sense of entitlement with another, many narcissists naturally turn away from this trait.
- Support: In order for narcissism to flourish, a narcissist needs four magic ingredients: attention, affirmation, adoration, and affection. Unfortunately, negative attention is just as effective as positive. The only way to starve the ego of the narcissist is to ignore them, embarrass them, or expose their insecurity. Doing so incites a strong angry reaction from the narcissist that is intimidating and often threatening.
- Solution: The goal here is to teach those around the narcissist to discourage the narcissistic traits without angering the narcissist. Then when traits contrary to narcissism are done, the four magic ingredients are given. This is simple behavior modification.
- Example: When a narcissist fails to express empathy for someone else, their insensitive comment should be ignored by immediately changing the subject. Addressing it negatively reinforces the narcissism. When they do express empathy, a simple remark such as “thank you for kind words” can provide the affirmation of the narcissist’s needs.
Once Stacey was able to get her son into therapy, some of his strong narcissistic traits diminished. He is now remarried with kids and has held a job down for the last 5 years. There are hope and help.