Changing Narcissistic Behavior Patterns Learned in Childhood
If You Want to Be Loved, Then Give of Yourself
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
We learn ways of thinking and acting and subsequently ways of dealing with our emotions first from our parents and then from our peers. These values, expectations and what we believe stay with us until we examine them to see if they truly serve us. We have a certain temperament that we are born with that also helps define who we become. We have our unique life experiences, both happy and traumatic, that add to the mix of our personality traits. This article focuses on the beliefs and the defenses which are the learned emotional reactions that we picked up from our environment that contribute to developing selfish habits.
Psychologist Bruce Ecker said, “Emotional learnings occur without awareness: we don’t realize we’re forming emotional learnings as we’re forming them; we don’t recognize that we’re responding according to emotional learnings when we’re responding from them… They’re very tenacious. They last a lifetime unless very particular processes occur that can change them.”
Denial and Defenses are the Cornerstones of Narcissistic Traits
Denial and defenses are blind spots in a person’s conscious mind that keep them from knowing how they hurt others. People with severe narcissistic traits have limited emotional intelligence and numerous psychological defenses. They do not change because they don’t believe that they have a problem and their manipulative ways work for them. They don’t see their own issues that are apparent to others. The defenses occur to keep a person from feeling bad so he or she can’t know his or her own defects.
Self-absorbed people usually are not interested in reading self-help books or learning about their feelings. They avoid seeking professional help and hold the myth of, “I can change all by myself. I can change if I want to,” while it is apparent to others that they cannot. They are unable to see the depth of their pathology as to know their shortcomings would send them into great shame which would trigger depression.
Is There Hope for Others?
Some people with milder versions of narcissistic behavior may change when they stand to lose something or someone they love. Some have to undergo a humbling experience or a great emotional loss before they start to admit their defensiveness and inability to take responsibility for their actions. As they grow older, some start to notice their insensitivity when dealing with those around them. Some start to feel healthy guilt about their past actions. Guilt, while painful if handled correctly, can be a break-through emotion that sets the person on the path to a happier life.
One research study showed that the milder narcissistic defense may soften across life if the person achieves a stable home and work environment or if he has a big setback where the rug is pulled out from under him, creating a crack in his defenses. However for some, their symptoms can become worse if they are forced to their knees after failure, rejection or disillusioning experiences without having emotional support. Some men become less narcissistic across their life when their testosterone levels go down and the need to engage in macho, posturing behavior decreases.
Some selfish people come to couples therapy after years of being abusive to complain about their spouse or to ask that their spouse be closer to them. What they don’t realize is that when a partner experiences great pain and basic trust was broken, it’s unlikely that it can be regained. Expecting a partner to forgive abuse when true remorse and changes in cruel behavior haven’t been made is unrealistic narcissistic thinking.
Unfortunately for some, their change is only superficial with the person talking a good game of change but down deep they still harbor the beliefs of entitlement and the right to manipulate others for their own good. Deep-level change means truly getting and having remorse for hurting others and making amends. Superficial change is simply refraining from certain behavior to gain favors from others which can be only a new form of manipulation.
What’s Love Got to Do With It? Everything!
Why change if selfishness works for you? People can leave you, for one thing. I’ve had several men crying on my therapy couch because their wife has left them and none of them had a clue why. I could tell within ten minutes of meeting the man why she left just by observing his self-centeredness and blaming others attitude.
What’s love got to do with it and why change? People are educating themselves about narcissism and psychopathology and are no longer willing to put up with egotistical partners. They are burning out and splitting from demanding partners. Men are leaving angry, selfish wives wanting some peace and quiet. They may put it off for years living quiet lives of misery. They agonize leaving the children with a spiteful mother but after years of conflict or suffering quietly, some men choose to divorce.
More women are leaving long-term marriages than any time in history. Women are figuring out about being expected to give relentlessly to a man who doesn’t give back. They finally catch on that it’s not about being loved; it’s entitlement. Women are burning out in their relationships and are deciding to leave after years of asking the man to look at his irresponsibility and lack of caring. They are tired of being discounted, not listened to and not having their needs met.
In addition, grown children of narcissistic parents are educating themselves and emotionally divorcing their parents. Families of selfish children are catching on that they are no longer under obligation to keep supporting their grown child whose occupation is getting others to pay for him or her. We had one in our family who went from one relative to another for handouts until the word got out and all doors became closed.
Most codependent people who leave unhealthy relationships find happier lives if they choose someone who has healthy relationship skills. Some giving people who move on from selfish partners choose someone who can give back to them in return. Two giving people who love each other have the best chance for a happy relationship. It is easier to love someone who can love in return.
“I want to love you without clutching,
Appreciate you without judging,
Join you without demanding,
Leave you without guilt,
Criticize you without blaming,
And help you without insulting.
If I can have the same from you,
Then we can truly meet each other.”
The Balancing of Personal Needs in Relationships
Carl Jung said that whatever you had learned in the first half of your life, learn the opposite in the second half to become a well-rounded individual. If you are a workaholic, start building in leisure time to kick back. If you’ve been too lazy so that you never amounted to much, start putting some responsibilities on yourself. Complement what you’ve already learned; do more of the opposite. So if you have been too much for yourself, it is time to be there for others instead of yourself.
There is a balance between the two ends of the caring continuum. You can care too much or care too little about meeting the needs of your partner. So with giving too much (codependency) or taking too much (selfishness), there is a middle ground of balance as the early Taoists taught. This is the” just right” zone-some wants and needs get met for you and some get met for me. This is equality. This is fairness.
When you face up to what isn’t working well for you and others, you open yourself up for growth and new possibilities. The information on how to have a happy relationship is out there. Like no other time in history, we have information about how to live in loving relationships. Read my articles listed under the Relationships category of this website.
Becoming more mature means looking hard at behaviors that cause you and others problems and determining how you can move more into the “just right” area of balance. Figure out what you have too much or too little of that upsets your life and then go for the opposite. Psychologist Terrence Real describes a correctional procedure for gaining personal balance:
“If you are in a shame state, bring yourself up. If you’re being grandiose, bring yourself down. If you are boundaryless, pause and reset your boundary. If you are walled off, take a deep breath and get back into engagement.”
The Road to Good Self-esteem Must Lies through Feelings
The journey to finding one’s authentic self will progress through being vulnerable to distressing emotional states and learning to accept them and work with them. With hard work, people with narcissistic defenses can learn to stop being defensive when told no or called on some unrealistic expectation. With much study and stepping back instead of lashing out, they can learn appropriate anger expression. They can learn to be less self-centered and more empathetic with others.
Education, psychotherapy and much self-searching are needed to resolve these ego defenses that interfere with the ability to be happy. It takes courage to learn to become more real with their feelings and to allow the vulnerable feelings. More courage is required to learn to deal with the feelings of shame and depression. As these new skills are learned, they achieve more satisfying and balanced relationships with others.
It is gratifying to do a personal makeover of your personality. It starts as an inside job with your conscience pricking you that something is not quite right. It may begin with depression or anxiety and even guilt that a major overhaul is needed. It’s tough at first when the rush of stuffed down negative emotions start to come through. Yet, keeping with it and going though the hard part is worth it as you continue down the road to positive change.
You change your identity and what makes you feel good. You no longer feel good about getting others to give you what you want. You feel good about giving of yourself. Feeling good about yourself by thinking good and doing good others becomes a huge factor in increased self-esteem.
How many people does it take to change a narcissist? One-he or she has to want to change him or herself.
“We are meant to be in loving relationships
But we have little glitches inside that keep it from happening.
We have to work out the glitches.
Sometimes they are called negative feelings.
Sometimes those are called defenses.
They’re signals that something unresolved within keeps us from intimacy.
To have a glitch-free life, keep working your program.”