Can a Narcissist Change?

Martin O'Toole
8 min readAug 24, 2019
Puppet master illustration by Rudall30, bought & paid for from iStock

Through the process of healing me, I realised I’d managed to amass a string of psychological issues the length of a particularly greedy Tape Worm. Seriously, it was a long list of malfunctions and has thus taken a great deal of time and effort to work through. Incidentally, if you find yourself reading more than one of my articles, you’ll see the word ‘work’ come up time and time again. That’s because there is no quick fix for this kind of self-care. Undoing years of psychological trauma, which most often occurs in our formative years, really does take a lot of hard work. But if I’m not interested in working hard to fix myself, then what else is there?

What is the Definition of a Narcissistic Person?

Let’s start with the basics. Aside from being a barmily difficult word to spell, the origin of Narcissism is in Greek mythology. Narcissus fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. His mother was warned one day by the seer Teiresias that her son would live a long life as long as ‘he never knows himself.’ Deep irony, given the nature of my drivers for writing about this.


1. a person who has an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves.
2. “narcissists who think the world revolves around them”.

It was Sigmund Freud who introduced ‘narcissism’ as some sort of neurosis in his essay ‘On Narcissism’ (published in 1914). And so the concept was born and has grown from there.

I’m not particularly interested in the dictionary definition here, more in the psychological territory and how this behaviour affects others. There are many ways in which people are touched by narcissism, including concepts such as ‘Gaslighting’, manipulation, and covert passive-aggressive narcissistic behaviour.

Most importantly, I’m here to ask openly: can a narcissist change?

Since Google keyword research tells me that 2019 saw a whopping 3,500% increase in searches for ‘How to torture a narcissist’, I’d best get cracking ASAP…

Narcissism affects people in so many ways, and I reckon I could tackle this area from a few angles. To do it justice, I might write more about it — ultimately covering the perspectives of the persecutor and of the victim, as well as the traits of covert narcissism.

First thing’s first, though: what qualifies me to write about this?

Well, the simple and sorry fact is that I used to be one.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Somewhere on my lengthy list of mental health issues was Narcissistic Personality Disorder (‘NPD’). Actually, given the nature of NPD and its constant need for attention, we should probably put it at the top of that list to keep it calm and avoid any unnecessary shit-fits.

First off the bat and dealing with the question of whether a narcissist can change… Given the fact that one of the issues surrounding being a narcissist is that you don’t know you’re a narcissist — yet I’m freely admitting that I was one — which means yes, friends, a narcissist can change. WARNING: if it’s your genuine desire to caretake a narcissist, I can tell you now to clear your calendar and stock up on blankets, plenty of water and canned goods. As I mentioned earlier, it requires a real desire from the persecutor’s perspective and a fuck-ton of hard work.

Genuine Reflection

My narcissism was one of the ugliest things I had to come to terms with in my self-imposed programme of personal development. It’s not a nice thing to be a narcissist. My narcissism was mainly (but not exclusively) directed towards the women in my life. Unhealthy persuasion, lying, self-aggrandising, and psychologically manipulating them into questioning their own sanity (‘Gaslighting’). Whilst never physically violent to a partner, one of my key traits was to surgically invalidate the feelings of my victims. As a professional communicator and as a Myers Briggs ENTP-A / ENTP-T ‘Debater’ personality type, I was naturally predisposed to being able to exhaust my victims with the power of words and debate. The timing was everything, of course. I have a fierce memory for the details of the conversation, and this added to an ingrained ability to raise my voice, shift linguistics up a gear, or use the theatre of violence towards an inanimate object, made me a very effective and terrifying creature to deal with. Then add six pints of lager, three gin & tonics, a dash of cocaine, and two or three fingers of scotch, and… Well, I think you know how that would usually end…

I would also cheat. I cheated on the majority of my partners and on both of my ex-wives. I even subconsciously lied so well that I convinced myself these things never happened. I write all of this openly and have apologised to most of those who would listen.

Years of therapy and self-reflection very clearly outlined my reasons for this behaviour — which was essentially me needing to feel validated, wanted, and ‘loved’. However, as an extraordinary self-sabotaging emotional retard, my broken mind rendered me incapable of reaching out to anyone to ask for care (help). My mental illness also perversely replaced sex with intimacy. So whilst my inner child actually just wanted a cuddle, Martin v1.0 — who was pre-programmed to live and act in a constant state of fight or flight — would never dare ask for help, as he always subconsciously expected none to appear. Furthermore, I trusted no one, and subconsciously (and consciously) expected to be let down or thrown aside by anyone, at any moment.

As such, in the absence of care or intimacy at times when I needed it, I would seek it in the arms of other women. Ironically, and more often than not, these were the most meaningless of encounters. Yet even in these situations, I would become highly manipulative — this time to the women with whom I was cheating and sleeping with. And if I knew I’d taken things too far with someone and an apology was needed to redress the balance and put me ‘back in the good books’..? Sure, I could do that. But my apologies were also carefully loaded with excuses for my behaviour, and strategically peppered with reasons why my victim really ought to consider how she had brought it all on herself in the first place. What a lovely guy…

[Side note: for my former (deserving) partners reading this — currently spitting out a mouthful of tea and shouting “I f***ing knew it!” — please consider this critical self-analysis as a gift; given humbly, freely and with an open heart.

I cannot, however, fall on my sword for 100% of my failed relationships. In fact, I was also a victim of many other narcissists; of Gaslighting; and of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of my partners.]

Obviously, I didn’t have a drink problem because I was a narcissist; I had a narcissist problem and a drink problem, because I was a broken human. Unsurprisingly this stemmed from a young age. Right the way back to the 1970s, growing up surrounded by the trauma created by an alcoholic mother, who — literally possessed by the demon of drink — would babble and witter to herself; berating and complaining to some silent passenger as she stumbled and wandered around the family home half-naked; shit-faced, distraught, disgusting and unapproachable. As a small child, I would often find her sleeping naked, sprawled on the bathroom floor. This made for a very energetically unhealthy home.

Subjected to and/or constantly witnessing verbal and physical acts of violence, I would observe the adults in my family (my ‘role models’) raising their voices and using vitriolic and unspeakably hurtful language. They threw constant conversational hand grenades at one another. My older brother had his own issues to contend with, as he was desperate for love and attention in his own way. Eventually, he resorted to self-harm and attempted suicide. Unknowingly, he aggressively shoved his own personalised wheelbarrow of physical and verbal violence from one disturbance to the next. My little brother and I were in the centre of this, with the most simple questions on our lips: “What’s wrong with mummy?” This was my childhood. That poor kid never had a chance.

“I didn’t have a drinking problem because I was a narcissist; I had a narcissist problem and a drinking problem because I was a broken human.”

Whilst this kind of upbringing is, of course, heinous child abuse, I am not alone. The whole planet is so sadly full of people with similar and far worse stories than mine. And since I’ve opened up so candidly about my issues in recent years, countless others have shared their stories with me (for which I feel honoured). It truly breaks my heart that we can inflict such deep-rooted and catastrophic damage on one another. The ripple effect of such abuse literally knows no end, and then people learn and re-share these traits — thus inflicting yet more pain and suffering on others. And so on and on it goes…

The Rub

The complexities of my narcissistic behaviour ran deep, and thus you should only view this article as an outlining introduction, shared as a means to candidly propose that a narcissist can change. [Enter cliches about old dogs and spotty leopards.]

A huge part of my healing and my rebirth (we can also use the word ‘growth’ if it makes you feel more comfortable) was the process of freely admitting fault; fully accepting responsibility for my actions; and asking for forgiveness — first from myself — and then from those affected by my actions (being considerate to whether that contact might in fact do more damage). It was only at this point that I could begin to exercise my behavioural change and begin the long road towards actively rebuilding trust.

The harmful aspects of my illness are behind me. Still, I can never forget that narcissism is inherently programmed into my firmware. And so, regardless of its current redundancy, the key for me is to remain mindful and, in the present, to constantly observe my thought patterns and thus better control and alter my behaviour.

We’ve become a society that relies too heavily on the illusion of individuality. In fact, the only thing that will repair the long list of mental sicknesses to which narcissism belongs is us all grasping the concept of unity consciousness. Consider the aforementioned ripple effect. Hurting you is hurting me; healing you is therefore healing me. And so the real head-fuck is: healing me is, in actual fact healing you.

Make sense? Baby steps, but steps in the right direction.

Martin O'Toole

How To Die Happy author, podcaster, and mental health advocate writing about healing and the Anatomy of Happy.

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