Can Narcissists Help The Way They Act?
Can They Control It?
We hear this question a lot, and the answer is not really black and white. Narcissists do choose to intentionally to hurt others when they themselves feel hurt. You can't really look at their behavior and come to any other conclusion, regardless of which disorder they have. It's obviously intentional at least some of the time. However, the disorder is still at least partially to blame. The narcissist probably wouldn't act that way in the first place if not for the disorder, because the motivations and emotions that drive these behaviors would not be present. There would be no reason to hurt others - intentionally or otherwise - because they would not irrationally feel hurt or threatened in the first place. They would not be so envious, jealous, paranoid or afraid.
So do they choose to be hurtful and hateful? Yes and no. Yes, they are choosing to act the way they do, but it is driven by the emotional dysfunction and dysregulation of the disorder. This clouds their judgment and makes it very difficult to see that their behavior is wrong, or that it's an overreaction. Their emotional immaturity causes them to have poor impulse control and makes their inability to manage their emotions even worse.
Does it Matter?
That being said, let's be very clear here: it doesn't really matter either way. Whether someone can control themselves or not does not change the effect of the abuse on the victim. The narcissist does have specific issues that make emotional and behavioral regulation difficult, but it is not impossible. If it were, there would be no narcissists who can control themselves ever and there are some who do. Most narcissists (including Borderlines and Histrionics) act the way they do because they've given themselves permission (or have been given permission) to act that way for whatever reason. They gave themselves permission a long time ago, to the point that it now feels like just a reaction to them, but it IS a choice. Usually they feel justified because they are hurt or scared and they feel that trumps everything else, including respect and other people's feelings. We can see the proof of this in situations where the narcissist does not act out in front of others, or when there is a policeman around, etc. They generally are capable of controlling themselves when they feel it is necessary. (Key: when they feel it is necessary). Of course, this is just a general thing and if the person's narcissism is complicated by other things, it may be easier or more difficult for them to regulate their own emotions. Everybody is different. Narcissism is a problem that revolves around emotional dysregulation or problems with affect, though, so in general you will see difficulties in this area.
People sometimes take offense when I say that Borderline Personalities or Histrionics are narcissists. I'm sorry if this upsets people, but it is the truth. Cluster B personality disorders fall under "pathological" or "clinical narcissism" on the narcissistic spectrum. That includes Borderline Personality Disorder. Most people who have dealt with someone at any length who has HPD, BPD, NPD or APD agree with this categorization. These disorders usually occur in clusters as well; it would be pretty rare for someone to only have symptoms of one. In other words, a person usually has more than one cluster B disorder at the same time, so someone who has BPD will often have HPD and NPD as well, or someone may have a "mixed" diagnosis where they show symptoms of all of them. The word "narcissist" carries many unfortunate connotations, but it really only refers to a pattern of behaviors related to a disorder. It is not an indictment of someone's character. Only someone's behavior is. If someone does not like the opinion others have of them, they need to work on improving their behavior - and that goes for everybody. We are as good or as bad as we want to be.
In the end, it doesn't matter whether the narcissist - or anyone - can control themselves if their actions are abusive. We have a tendency to think that if someone believes they cannot help the way they are acting or if the behavior is the result of hurt or fear, the behavior should be excused or even accepted. This is just not true. Abuse is never OK, regardless of why it happens. It doesn't matter if the person was sad, or scared, or upset, or mad, or afraid, or anything else. It's not an excuse, whether they think it is or not. It doesn't matter whether they "meant" to abuse you, or whether they felt it was wrong or not. You do not have to put up with abuse just because someone else gave themselves permission to treat you badly, or because their disorder renders them unable to behave any other way. Their disorder is not your problem or responsibility. It's theirs. You cannot control what the narcissist does or does not do. You can only control yourself and your own actions. You have to decide if you think the relationship is worth the abuse, because you have the power to walk away. To be perfectly honest, no relationship is worth the abuse and emotional torture that many narcissists deal out - especially since you generally get nothing else, but it is ultimately up to you. How much value do you place on yourself?