Becoming a better person is hard work, and it’s especially hard when problems are always someone else’s fault.
As most of us go through life, we mature and develop ourselves, learning from our experiences and growing in character. But growing in character is hard work. Some of life’s lessons are tough to learn. And becoming a more mature, socially conscientious individual is often the work of a lifetime.
It also takes the right kind of motivation to succeed at this daunting yet most worthwhile task. That’s because early on we also develop personalities — our unique and habitual ways of perceiving and doing things. Even if we’re a fairly well adjusted personality we can find the task of growing in character challenging because of how hard it is to modify longstanding habits, and even when you’re optimally motivated, you always faces the prospect of setbacks. Old habits are hard to break permanently. Becoming a better person is an arduous process.
Folks with certain personality and character disturbances have a particularly hard row to hoe when it comes to growing in character. That’s because the styles of coping they’ve developed are not only inherently satisfying to them but also appear to work for them in many ways. Over time, these styles become deeply ingrained. And folks who possess these ingrained, comfortable ways of coping are not likely to have much motivation to change unless things in their life start going horribly awry and they experience significant coping failure. (Adherents to 12-step programs refer to this phenomenon as “hitting bottom.”) However, once it becomes clear to a person that they simply can’t continue going about business as usual, they can begin looking for ways to re-shape their lives. This often involves calling into question the ways in which they have historically looked at things and dealt with things. It involves an honest self-reckoning and a necessary questioning of one’s core beliefs and attitudes and especially of one’s patterns of behavior. In that process, and with a willingness to at least consider some different ways of seeing and doing things, change and growth occurs. The first step in the process, however, is admitting the error of one’s ways — humbly acknowledging that some things about oneself really need to change.
Narcissistic individuals have a particularly hard time growing in character because they are loathe to admit shortcomings and error. Professionals used to think — and many professionals aligned with traditional perspectives unfortunately still do — that this was because their self-image was so fragile that they would be necessarily overwhelmed with anxiety and emotional pain if they did so. The thinking goes that their unconscious “defense mechanisms” of denial and projection kept them from seeing themselves at fault and prompted them to ascribe the cause of their problems to external factors. But this point of view assumes the person has an evolved conscience and is dealing with painful guilt and shame over their failures. But what we’re learning about narcissism challenges these notions. Most narcissists are lacking in good conscience development, so they’re not dealing with much guilt or shame to defend against. And while there are indeed a few narcissists whose self-image is somewhat tenuous, most narcissists simply don’t want to challenge their grandiose self-image. To admit error is to admit weakness, and more importantly, it is to see oneself as having a status among peers of equality if not inferiority, a status they’re simply not willing to accept, believing themselves to be “special” or superior. As I say in my instructional workshops, for the character impaired — especially the narcissist — it’s always about “position,” or social status. Besides, it’s so much easier just to blame everyone and everything else when things go wrong. To blame oneself, and one’s ways of seeing and doing things necessarily raises the issue of change, and change requires work — more specifically, it requires the very kind of labor that folks with attitudes of entitlement and “special” status abhor. These behaviors are a fairly “automatic” bad habit, but they’re not necessarily unconscious defenses.
I’ve known many individuals who stuck with their narcissistic relationship partners for years, believing that time and life experiences would eventually cause the partner to begin the self-questioning and reflection process that would lead to change and growth. And when, despite all sorts of negative consequences, the narcissistic individual still didn’t change, they also succumbed to the erroneous belief that the narcissist must simply lack insight. So they wasted time and energy (sometimes with the help of a misguided mental health professional) trying to get them to “see” the error of their ways. In the end, while they had grown considerably themselves, they ended up feeling only frustrated and defeated by their narcissistic partner’s failure to grow. And that’s when they finally threw in the towel. What they never considered, however, was simply holding the narcissist accountable and setting strict expectations for change. When the narcissist started finger pointing, they never considered saying something like: “You can finger point all you like but the fact is you have a problem and you need to change. If you accept that, get busy working on your issues, and seek some help, maybe we have a chance. If not, we have no future.” In short, instead of working so hard and futiley to make the narcissist “see,” they didn’t put the burden for change where it rightly belonged: squarely on the disturbed character. They didn’t confront directly the narcissist’s habit of evading responsibility by blaming everyone and everything else.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years in dealing with hundreds of narcissistic individuals is how important it is to reinforce even the smallest efforts on their part to do the distasteful work of self-examination and correction. It takes a lot for narcissists to stop pointing the finger outward and to take a serious look at themselves. So when they’re willing to make even minor efforts to accept responsibility, I afford them recognition. After all, it’s recognition they crave in the first place. And it’s particularly therapeutic to afford it for the right reasons. Effective therapy with a narcissist is often a matter of affording recognition for the one thing that’s potentially the most constructive when it comes to character growth: stopping the blaming of everyone and everything else and being willing instead to take a serious look at one’s own ways of thinking and behaving.
For more on some of the topics above, see my previous articles and my books:
- “Becoming a Better Person: Covert Self-Monitoring and Self-Reinforcement”
- “Two Types of Narcissism and How to Tell the Difference”
- “When W-O-R-K is a Four-Letter Word”
- In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]
- Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]
- How Did We End Up Here? [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by