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Can a Narcissist Change? And 7 Other Common Questions About Narcissists Answered

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Relationships with narcissists keep us in a state of confusion and doubt–even after they end.  Understanding their behavior can help release us from this confusion and help us to move on.

[Read: Survivors of Narcissistic Abuse Must Stop with the Questions]

Top 8 Questions About Narcissists and Narcissistic Abuse

1. Do narcissists know they are narcissists?

To answer this question, we have to consider what narcissism is.

Narcissism is a spectrum, with healthy levels of narcissism on one end and pathological levels of it on the other (more on this below).  Pathological narcissism can warrant a diagnosis by a professional of Narcissistic Personality Disorder or even an overlap with Antisocial Personality Disorder, in the case of a malignant narcissist.

In other words, even those with pathological levels of narcissism fall along a spectrum and there are different types of narcissists with varying mindsets and goals in relationships. Their needs may be somewhat different (although they may get those needs met in similar ways by viewing others as a means to that end).

For example, some may derive pleasure merely by causing chaos and seeing others in pain, and others are merely self-entitled and either feel justified in the harm they cause or fail to see their role in the chaos that has been created.

Most are not aware of what they are, because it would be incompatible with the disorder.  It’s what is known as “ego-syntonic,” meaning that the behaviors and attitudes it engenders in them are compatible with their own self-image, so they see nothing wrong with what they do– for any interpersonal problems they encounter, they place the blame on everyone else.

Further,  the nature of the disorder does not allow for any personal insight because they can never be wrong– to be wrong would be the antithesis of the disorder.

And yet, some are aware that some of their behavior is not acceptable and seek to hide it, but do not consider it “wrong.” They may believe that all people behave this way and harbor secrets and this is why they are often accusing others of doing the things that they do.  Often, though they do the things they do on instinct and do not have answers or think through what they are doing.

They act to get their needs met and do not ponder why. This is one reason why if you try to break down for them how their actions are mismatched or do not align with what they said, you anger them and they end the conversation.

They can never be wrong. They do not want to be confronted with the absurd reality they created by blundering around saying and doing things as if they are zig-zagging among parallel universes. They do not want us to bring this up instead of staying in our “lanes” or playing along.

Instead, they seek to draw us into their fantastical, bizarre and destructive way of viewing things, which serves only them, through emotionally abusive tactics such as gaslighting, blameshifting and stonewalling to condition and coerce us to go along with it.

And yet– there are narcissists who do have some self-awareness of being different. In order to preserve their self-esteem, instead of humbling them, this knowledge may cause them to perceive themselves as superior. They may view us as inferior and weak for our emotions and for being duped by what they do.

They may further use information about narcissism to hide their narcissism and become better at exploiting others. These are the narcissists at the far end of the spectrum– the malignant narcissists who have no desire to integrate themselves into the rest of society.

In summary, no– most are not aware of what they are because the very disorder hides itself from the narcissist. If they do choose to take on that identity, it usually remains ego-syntonic, in that is still does not cause them distress that they have it.

Instead, they may use it to cause more harm because the alternative is more unbearable, which would entail accepting responsibility for their actions, taking on crushing feelings of shame, and beginning the difficult work of dismantling the false self. Narcissism itself generally keeps them from holding up that mirror.

2. Can narcissists love? Did the narcissist really love me?

Narcissists have a very shallow idea of what love is. Their idea of loving us is loving how we make them feel or what we do for them. When those things are missing, even for a few moments or even only in their own perspectives, they can cease to love us.

One could argue that this isn’t love, and, in fact, it wouldn’t agree with the definition most of us have of what love entails. It’s conditional love. It can feel like love to narcissists on the lower end of pathlogical narcissism, however, and many will insist that they do actually love us.

It’s a childlike love, however, and what’s missing, are the foundations of realistic, mature love: self-sacrifice, support, honesty, faithfulness, and trust.

As soon as you disappoint them, they metaphorically– or even literally– “throw a tantrum” and engage in emotional warfare as if we are mortal enemies and they must destroy us or perish.

When they have positive, loving feelings toward us, however– when we are doing what they want us to do– they treat us like gods and goddesses.

What does this really mean?

When we fit into boxes they have created for us in the mental alternate realities they’ve created to protect their images of themselves, realities where they are entitled to do things no one in a committed relationship should be able to do, realities where they can do no wrong (and if they do we are not allowed to talk about it), realities where we are not allowed to engage in even normal human behavior without being subjected to the worst emotional (and sometimes physical) abuses another person can endure– only then are we “loved.”

They may love us as much as they are capable of loving us, but it’s not love.

It’s control.

3. Did the narcissist know he or she was hurting me?

The more important question may be, How could the narcissist not have known he or she was hurting me? 

Given that we should answer this question honestly and not let him or her off the hook, the next question we want to know the answer to becomes, Why didn’t it matter to the narcissist that he or she was hurting me? or How could they have hurt me the way they did?

Because we could never have done the things that were done to us, and, in addition, when we know we are hurting someone we care about, we take deliberate actions to try to stop doing it.

With some actions, we are left wondering, Why does it not matter when we try to explain to them that they are hurting us and to please stop doing it?  The more we try to explain, the more we are blamed for “attacking”– remember, narcissists can’t be wrong or confront what they’ve done. It’s a lost cause.

With other actions, we wonder, Did they not think of us at all? Why did it we not matter to them in these moments?  Narcissists are able to compartmentalize and rationalize their behavior. They are able to shut off their emotional empathy and ignore how their behavior affects others.

Did the narcissist know that he or she was hurting you?  Yes.  They did not care. Why did they not care?

We cannot fathom it, but if we just examine the combined whole of their behavior and not individual actions or what they say, the truth is in front of us.

The reason their behavior never adds up to us is that we never figured into the calculus they used to make their decisions. If you view it from the perspective of the narcissist’s action always must get the narcissist what he or she wants, suddenly everything falls into place.

They hurt us by acting in their own self-interest. The way they are capable of acting selfishly is if they don’t mind hurting us. The only type of person who doesn’t mind hurting someone they say they love is both someone who acts only upon their own self-interest and who only loves other people insofar as they are providing for their own self-interest.

4. Why did the narcissist act as if he or she loved me one minute then hated me the next?

This question is really just a combination of the previous two questions. We ask it because we are trying to understand how someone could have loved us and knowingly hurt us so much at the same time.  It does not compute in our worlds.

It requires the knowledge from above in understanding how they love– that they require others to maintain their views of themselves that they are, in fact, “loveable.”

And it requires the knowledge from above in understanding that if something we do causes them to feel as if they are not loveable– even if it’s something normal, such as not agreeing with their opinion– they are capable of doing quite a bit of damage to the person who caused them to feel that way.

It also requires knowledge of a couple of other concepts that explain how they are able to do this.

Narcissists lack something called “object constancy,” and cannot hold both positive feelings toward us and a negative attitude toward something we did at the same time.

If we wound their self-esteem or disappoint them, they will forget they loved us or we have ever done anything good for them.  At that moment, all they care about is that we are now an enemy because they feel attacked.

This is called “splitting.” They can only see people as all good or all bad. They also are low on emotional empathy so when they feel this way nothing is holding them back from being vicious and cruel toward us.

Yet, when their anger dissipates and they can see us in a positive light again, once the balance from their narcissistic injury has been restored, it can be to them as if none of it ever happened. To them, we were the ones who changed, but that universe where we were “bad” is no longer valid.

To us, however, we are living in one reality where they are playing two completely different personalities.

5. Am I a narcissist?

I’ve talked to many people who fear that either they may be the narcissist in the relationship, or that they may also be one. Sometimes, we start to read so much about narcissism, we begin applying the traits to ourselves.

As noted above, narcissists easily take offense at the actions of others and rarely take responsibility. They place blame on others for what happens in their lives and use tactics such as gaslighting to make people think something happened differently than it actually did and smear others to get a group to go along with their version of reality.

If you’ve become confused about what happened because you’ve been verbally abused– blamed for someone else’s cheating, abuse, yelling, leaving, legal or police involvement, lying, secretive behavior–been accused of these things when you did none of them, called names implying you did and had the tables turned on you for months or years, it’s no wonder you’ve become confused.

So let’s just stop right here for a moment.

What is a personality disorder?  A personality disorder is a way of viewing the world that is pervasive, has been present for many years– likely beginning in childhood– affects every area of life, and is often not recognized by the person who has it. It’s not situational.

Let’s examine the facts.

  • Narcissism is a spectrum. Everyone has some narcissistic “traits,” and some narcissism is healthy. Having narcissistic traits is not what causes harm, and, obviously, not everyone is disordered. There is a set of criteria involved for having a pathological level of narcissism that qualifies one as having a personality disorder.
  • As noted above, because of the nature of the disorder itself, most narcissists do not have the insight to wonder if they are narcissists.
  • Narcissists would likely not read about narcissistic abuse because they were traumatized by a partner and then worry about having the disorder that leads partners to abuse in the manner that led them to the literature in the first place.
  • Narcissists do not form the kind of emotional attachments that would cause psychological damage; they may feel offended or upset that they didn’t get what they want, but that’s not the same as emotional trauma. 

So are you a narcissist?  I can’t answer that. If you’re reading this and reading it because you have been in a toxic relationship in the manner I have described above, it’s highly unlikely.

6. How could the narcissist move on so quickly?

I’ve come to think of this as a philosophical question, as are so many of the questions related to narcissists, such as “What does it mean to break up with a narcissist?” and “Is there really such a thing as a ‘final discard?'”

My answer to this question about moving on is this:  they don’t.

They never actually move on from anyone.  They are forever stuck in the same place, just constantly shifting people in and out of favored spots around them to bolster their image of themselves, because they never change and grow.

In contrast, when we have experiences, even painful ones, we learn from them, we become better people (hopefully), and our lives become fuller.

We may make changes, big ones or small ones, that will move us closer to to who and where we want to be. With regard to relationships, that means trying not to repeat our own mistakes and trying to choose people with whom the same patterns from before will not be repeated. We may not always be successful, but at least we can reflect on what went wrong and recognize that there is a problem and hopefully keep trying to rectify it.

Narcissists just swing around from vine to vine looking to fill the emptiness inside of themselves because they are eternally bored and, for some, afraid of feeling worthless.

“Moving on” is not a “one and done.”  In the “real world,” when the next person comes along in short succession after a break-up, we call it a “transitional relationship” and if our friends become involved in such a relationship, we may make jokes about what they’re doing or caution them that it won’t last.

For some reason, we seem to forget that when we are talking about narcissists, they live in an alternate world where their definitions of things differ from ours. For example, when they use the words, “victim” and “love,” the ways in which they use them are not compatible with traditional definitions.

“Moving on” is just one more example. Hopping into bed with someone else the same day they break up with us or marrying someone else two weeks later is not “moving on.”

“Moving on” is a process that happens over time through healing from the loss of the relationship and reflecting on what went wrong. Narcissists never bonded so they don’t take adequate time to mourn and miss what was lost to ensure they are ready for a new relationship and they don’t think they did anything wrong so they don’t reflect.

I suggest we stop unproductive and inaccurate thinking about them “moving on” and call it what it is: a narcissist repeating a destructive cycle.

7. Can narcissists change?

Let’s go through what would have to happen in order for a narcissist to change.

  1. A narcissist would have to become aware that he or she was a narcissist. This would mean seeing through his or her own narcissistic defense mechanisms that keep the false self hidden.
  2. If the narcissist did accept that he or she is a narcissist, they would have to avoid filtering it through a narcissistic perspective as being a positive thing or as making them superior. They would have to view it as problematic.
  3. To view it as problematic, he or she would have to view the problems it causes as actually caused by the disorder and not by others outside him or herself.
  4. To view the problems it causes as caused by the disorder, the narcissist would need to dismantle the narcissistic defense mechanisms that keep him or her from understanding the nature of how their behavior is destructive.

It’s a self-perpetuating loop that keeps the narcissist from knowing the truth about himself or herself, us, or the world– and in which not only do they not know they have any changing to do, they don’t think they need to change.

And why should they want to? They get everything they need.

The reasons why a narcissist would change would only be if their needs changed. If they no longer had a need to protect their wounded selves, their feelings of worthlessness, their incessant desire to feel loveable at any cost.

Why would that suddenly happen?

They can’t just wake up one day and decide to change and be different. They would need a therapist to help them sort through their own defense mechanisms protecting them from a deep sense of inadequacy, such as the object constancy issue.

The entire foundation is rotten. They have to work on replacing unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones. They adapted these ways of interacting with people over many years and can’t dismantle it overnight.

This kind of real, lasting, sweeping change takes a very long time for even the most dedicated and motivated of people, and even then some of the behaviors are only manageable, not changeable.

Many of us are victims of narcissistic abuse, which means we are dealing with those on the end of the spectrum who are some of the most exploitative, deceptive and unempathetic of the group. They tend to see nothing wrong with their behavior. It benefits them and they get what they need.  They would see no reason to change.

8. Will the narcissist be happy with the next person?

I get a lot of E-mail about the sadness of seeing the narcissist with a new person.

In all of your stories in which you’ve shared details with me, I don’t think I have read even one in which the narcissist was alone. The narcissist is either already involved with someone else, always was, or started a relationship with someone else before the two of you disengaged.

I know that pain as well.

It’s important to take all of the information we know about narcissists, why they behave as they do, and the cyclical pattern of their relationships to understand what is likely to happen next.

Starting another relationship with someone else either while they are involved with us or very shortly thereafter is not exactly respectful to the new person, so I wouldn’t say they are off to a “happy” start or even that the narcissist is all that invested in that relationship.

What are they invested in? Narcissistic supply. Maybe some other things, such as a place to stay, a facade of normalcy, or something else the new person has.

It’s actually pretty dehumanizing.

So why do they look so happy? Some people have told me stories of how their partner intentionally sent them photos or posted themselves all over social media with the new person, possibly in an attempt to hurt them.

This did not happen in my case. My ex went to great lengths to try to keep me from knowing as much as possible the extent of what was happening with his new partner, trying to make himself appear to be a victim to keep both myself and the new person strung along, even until I went no-contact.

I saw evidence of his “picture-plastering” through other sources, showing me the opposite of what he had been telling me. Yet I also know now that he used pictures of me and gifts he bought me to make an ex-girlfriend jealous, so it wasn’t just that keeping new sources of supply away from exes in his personal style.

They know what they are doing.

Whether the narcissist in your life is (a) sending you pictures; (b) hiding pictures from you; (c) still contacting you with or without pictures; (d) trying to prove how happy they are by posting pictures, just remember that they are not thinking about the new person, they are thinking about you, and they want to do the following:

  1. Hurt you or keep you around for future supply, one of the two or even both, depending on how they want to triangulate you with the new source of supply at a given moment.
  2. Prove to themselves that they can replace you.
  3. Prove to themselves and other people that the problem in your relationship with them was not them.
  4. Make their new partner feel as if he or she is lucky to have them– the new partner is being love-bombed.  Remember that feeling?

You can see it from the other side now.  You’re through the looking glass.

Does this sound like a person who is happy or who is going to be happy with the new person to you?

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Kristen Milstead

Kristen Milstead is a narcissistic abuse survivor who has become a strong advocate for finding your unique voice and using it to help others find theirs.


  1. My ex was both a very sick, dangerous covert narc and a dangerous malignant narc The extremes he went to were beyond sick. He knew what he was doing was wrong, and spent 24/7 plotting his next horrible deed for him to derive pleasure from. I’m lucky to be alive, because I called him out on his crap over and over and when he couldn’t trick me into anything anymore( I was always one step ahead of him at the end) he tried to kill me. He only did three months in jail for assault and got out on probation. I moved two thousand miles away with my dog that he didn’t kill in front of me, and I’ve never looked back. It’s been four years and I’m still healing and always ask myself why did up put up with everything, but I’m learning that it was a trauma bond and I have to forgive myself.

  2. Your article came to me in Perfect timing. Divinity. It pluck me from a dark corner. Thank you.

  3. Unbelievably accurate, your perception is so valuable, thank you once again Kristen

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