Evelyn Ryan, Yourlifelifter
Here’s the simple answer:
Can narcissists have redeeming character traits? Intelligence? Of course they can. But they permanently lack the qualities we as humans need to build and sustain integrity of character and meaningful healthy relationships.
Therapy can help narcissists put on the brakes if they go to therapy and the therapists are skilled in their covert aggressive personalities and know how to deal with their perverted thinking including their manipulation, lack of compassion, aggression, combativeness and need to win. However, as summarized below, based on research and the collective opinions of the “real experts” on character disturbances who have studied and treated thousands of narcs and their victims, there is no cure.
How Do Our Characters Develop?
Our characters incrementally build through our life experiences, hard work, mistakes and successes and are chiseled permanently like sculpture into our being. Our characters that develop as we age, whether ones of integrity or disturbed manipulative ones, cannot be undone.
We all have to work to build self-worth, self-esteem, self-assuredness, and self-reliance, the qualities, skills and abilities that motivate and sustain us through life. However, this process goes haywire in narcissists (and some other disordered individuals) who lose these abilities as well as the ability to self-soothe. Instead, they learn to manipulate power or whatever they want or need to sustain themselves from others. They remain like small children, always dependent on others for survival. Their characters do not develop and predictably remain “childlike.” They forever remain human “parasites.”
Their thinking, as they grow into adults, distorts and they believe they are entitled (like any small child) to all the benefits of humanity and of life without working for them. They permanently view their adult hosts as a small child views its mother. A child cannot care for itself, right? And does not know it is dependent on its mother and does not care if the mother is generous or self-sacrificing or not. A small child does not even understand it is a separate being from its mother and has no empathy for its mother. It just gets and takes from its mother what it wants as well as needs and, as a child, is validly entitled to. And if it does not, well, it then rages, cries, and has tantrums.
Sound familiar? It should because arrested development causes the characters of narcissists to remain forever in a helpless child like state and not develop the elements needed as they age to adapt, improve, self-soothe, regulate their own emotions, love unconditionally and to work for what they need to sustain their own happiness. They permanently lose the ability to become a normal functioning human being similar to a feral child raised in the wild who loses many of the human cognitive and emotional abilities if not developed by a certain age.
Narcissists permanently lack the human capabilities to ensure our normal emotional development and that allow us to integrate and interact in emotionally healthy ways with other humans. They have lost those functions because their brains have lost the functions that allow them to do so. Their thinking and beliefs are skewed. They are sort of like mutants who look normal on the outside but in reality are not. I refer to them as “The Lacks” because they are permanently missing the key elements we need to function “normally.” They are forever stuck in a “less than as adult humans were designed” state. And, so, their characters and thinking become disturbed, disordered, broken. They are forever unable to act on their “free will.” They have learned instead to maladapt by filling these gaps with energy parasitically sourced from and manipulated from others.
Let’s explore these “gaps” further.
The Roles of Compassion and Empathy in Human Existence
Having compassion and learning to use it responsibly are critical to our individual and collective existence. It allows us to function in relationships with others and as a society. Compassion is critical to our emotional health and our character development and personal relationships.
We need compassion to care about and for ourselves and others and they for us. It enables us as we mature to learn emotional empathy, the ability to actually put ourselves in other’s shoes and feel what others are feeling. Empathy is a potential ability those with compassion can learn and matures as the brain develops and as our characters develop. That ability to “mirror” ourselves emotionally in others allows us to love and to be loved reciprocally. Compassion allows us to value ourselves and others and motivates us to care for ourselves and others and strive to end our own and other’s suffering and pain. Compassion allows us to tolerate and adapt to change and other’s differences and to coexist in peace and harmony. It prevents a total chaotic society.
The levels of compassion and empathy vary from person to person. Unfortunately, some of us can be born with too much (e.g. empaths) and some of us are not born with enough (e.g. narcissists and psychopaths).
What are a Narcissist’s Major “Character” Gaps?
Well, at the top of the list is the lack of compassion. They lack empathy and the ability to love. They have exaggerated fear of shame. These are the most significant gaps in their disturbed characters that prevent their self-worth and self-reliance from developing and that cause them to become emotional parasites and prey on others and not have effective healthy relationships with others of their own kind. So, doesn’t it make sense that empaths who have too much compassion would be targets of narcissists who lack compassion?
Preeminent neuroscientist, Dr. James Fallon reports in “Crime Talk” that narcissists and psychopaths are genetically predisposed to aggression, violence and lacking compassion and emotional empathy and for psychopaths, lacking conscience. They do, however, possess cognitive empathy, the ability to recognize emotions in others. The pleasure centers of their brains are also affected so narcissists and psychopaths do not get pleasure like normal folks would get such as from reading a book.
What I find most interesting is Dr. Fallon’s description of how their “evil genes” are “turned on” by abuse (including coddling) in childhood. Psychopaths and narcissists, however, use the functioning parts of their brains and those that support reasoning and planning to con you and manipulate you. Their brains, according to Dr. Fallon, create a work around in order for them to survive and abuse and con from you what they want and need and they do not care what impact that has on you.
“Why would I work for anything to achieve a goal that I do not know I am worthy of achieving and I am not confident I can achieve when I am entitled to do minimal work and use others’ successes to make me look good and provide an illusion that I am successful?”
As depraved as this sounds, this is a realistic example of the skewed thinking of what Dr. George K. Simon, a preeminent expert on manipulative aggressive personalities and author of the best sellers In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrom refers to as the “covert aggressive personalities” that include the pathological narcissists and psychopaths. Dr. Simon confirms that narcissistic personalities lack the capacity to love because they lack empathy and the warning signs of such empathy deficits are always in the attitudes they display toward accepting work and obligation. Narcissists simply detest putting out effort that might, even in part, benefit someone else.
Dr. Simon also verifies that narcissists can work very hard and can spend inordinate amounts of time and energy to get something they want. As most of us very well know, they can put in extraordinary efforts to groom and love bomb a potential mate or spouse. But putting the same amount of energy into finding or keeping a legitimate job or a personal relationship, taking care of a sick family member, demonstrating the loyalty and consistency necessary to be considered for advancement, or making the investment in personal self-development to merit consideration for more advanced positions are completely different matters and very unattractive enterprises to them. They want all the benefits of marriage, for example, without having to work for them or earn them!
Dr. Simon emphasizes that narcissists resist working to become better human beings more than any other kind of work. So even when it comes to respect and love and admiration, they want to come by them in the same manner as everything else – without having to earn them. And guess what folks? How do we build integrity of character? You got it …by working hard to set goals, make a plan to achieve them, being successful, and learning lessons through mistakes we make along the way. The normal human desire to work for those things to improve themselves are lacking in the disordered. And as a result, the characters of the narcissists do not mature or develop. They remain “deficient” humans with questionable to poor characters and even criminal ones who manipulate from the truly good people what they need to sustain themselves. So in essence, they are and remain human parasites, man and woman “babies” who are dependent on others for emotional sustenance.
Malignant Narcissism, Cures, and Change
Narcissists rarely, if ever, seek professional care or ever want to change because they like themselves just the way they are and loathe working on self-improvement. Very few psychology professionals are even trained or equipped to deal with them. So, if they choose to change (which the probability for is close to zero), very few professionals will be able to treat them competently anyway. And even if they are treated by a competent therapist who teaches them to become aware of their depravity and how to temper it, they will still lack compassion and empathy, and they will continue to fake the new “behaviors” to con you and others to serve none other than themselves. They will remain unable to love and sustain the behaviors that support reciprocal emotionally healthy relationships. They will still think like and be narcissists.
So, you cannot “love” a narcissist to change or teach them to be compassionate. Narcissists have a conscience and know exactly what they are doing. They simply do not care and no one can make them care. It would be like telling you to stop caring about others or to stop having compassion or to tell a leopard to change its spots. These are the skewed and permanent parts of a pathological narcissist’s thinking and emotional development that cause the irreparable damage to their “lacking” characters.
Can Narcissists Learn to Change Bad Behaviors?
Of course, they can. They are master manipulators and while they lack emotional empathy, they do not lack cognitive empathy. So they readily can identify emotions in others and learn and plan to manipulate them. They conned you into “liking” them or loving them and they learned to charm you. Didn’t they? They also turned on you on a dime when their pathological envy and sick needs to destroy you and manipulate from you what they believe in their evil minds they are entitled to take without any of the work kicked in. This is because the disorder, like Dr. Fallon reports above, does not impact parts of the brain where they plan and scheme and strategize.
Can Narcissists Be Cured?
Can you cure a vampire? A parasite?
Our characters, as discussed above, are permanently chiseled into our being. Disorders by definition are permanent character flaws. Disorders are not bad habits that we can break and replace with newer and healthier ones. Can the disordered “behaviors” be diagnosed and perhaps treated? Of course. But changing a behavior (which is close to impossible in narcissists who love themselves just the way they are) will not “cure” the “permanent” gaps in their characters or distorted thinking and the ability to change a behavior does not make a disordered person now “normal” or “healed.” And, in fact, for a narcissist, changing a harmful behavior by learning to “put on the brakes” masks the disorder and actually, in my opinion, makes them more dangerous since it adds to their portfolio of combat tactics and better enables them to change their outward demeanor like a chameleon changes its colors to match the “environment.” Most importantly, remember, they can never regain compassion and emotional empathy, the key emotion and character trait, respectively, that humans need to sustain not only themselves but also normal emotionally healthy relationships and that are needed to build integrity of character.
Accepting this along with learning how not to be vulnerable to them and in some cases, protecting your children are huge in healing for narcissistic abuse survivors. Dr. Fallon, who is a self-diagnosed narcissist himself, believes that if we as parents see the signs of pathological narcissism in our children early enough (assuming we are knowledgeable in the signs and are healed ourselves), we can try to get them competent care which may increase the likelihood that they do not turn out that bad, however there are no guarantees. In the best case, they will still be narcissists, however, they will fall at the lower end of the severity spectrum of harm they can inflict. Read more here on what parents can do.
However, there is one fundamental difference between narcissists and the people they target. The brains of the abused can rewire and heal the skewed beliefs that cause their susceptibility to power imbalanced relationships. The damage can be addressed and reversed. The brains of narcissists whose skewed thinking is caused by arrested development lose their ability to rewire and, therefore, narcissists, as Dr. Fallon confirms, cannot heal and cannot be cured. The damage is permanent.