Is Narcissism a Choice?
Many times we are faced with the question, "Is narcissism a choice?" The simple answer is no, not really. People who are pathologically narcissistic don't really feel that they have a choice. This is what they know and it's all they know. It's kind of like if you'd been taught to walk on all fours your entire life and suddenly someone wanted you to walk upright. Not only would it be super difficult and feel completely unnatural, but never having learned how to do it, you may not even be capable of doing it because you have literally grown into the way you learned. You would have to relearn how to do everything from an upright position, and that's if you were even able to stand. However, before this could even be attempted, someone would have to convince you that the way you were getting along should change even though you believe it's not only correct, but that it works for you.
Whether they are capable of changing their thought processes and reactions or not, the way narcissistic people behave is a choice. This is an important distinction to make, because many people jump to the automatic assumption that if one is out of someone's control, both are. This is not the case. Most narcissists are capable of self-control even when they get angry or upset. Their self-control is just usually dependent on external factors.
For example, many narcissistic people may not be in a position to change or control the paranoia or self-hatred that causes them to feel inappropriate fear or anger, but they can control themselves from attacking others or being violent because of it. We know that because they will control themselves if they feel like they have to. So while the cause of their feelings may not be something they can control, their reactions to these feelings is something they can control. With the overwhelming majority of narcissistic people, we don't see this supposed out of control behavior until they are in a situation where they know they can get away with it. So how out of control can it really be then?
The question is, why are they making the choice to behave the way they are. The answer to that is that it works for them. Narcissism is a network of defense mechanism and the behaviors associated with it appear may offensive but in actuality, they are not. They are defensive. You might say, "How is it defensive when the victim didn't do anything to them?" Well, you say that. Because of their self-hatred and failure to be perfect, narcissistic people are very afraid - almost paranoid - that they will be exposed and rejected. They see signs of that rejection everywhere; they interpret - misinterpret - things in this light through this angry, frightened lens and assign motives to people that people don't actually have. Consequently, they believe they are being treated badly. If by some miracle the narcissist actually does concede that the victim has not done anything to them, the justification is usually that they will if they get the opportunity, so the narcissist is still just protecting themselves.
A big part of the pathologically narcissistic person's behavior is also projection and venting. They may not be under attack from you, but they are under attack internally. For the majority of narcissistic people, their self-talk is abusive, malicious and exceedingly negative. They are hearing that 24 hours a day and their only relief from it is to turn it against someone else. They don't feel that way about themselves, you feel that way about them. They are not worthless and awful, you are. They are not flawed, broken and crazy. You are. They are not vindictive and selfish, you are. This looks like an attack, but only because you can't see the thing they are defending against. However, there is no excuse for this behavior. Hurting others because they are hurting is not OK. It is the only way they know of to get relief though. It is the only way they can feel powerful or worth anything. It works for them.
Narcissistic people are basically locked in survival mode. They have been for years, usually since childhood. Everything they do is done to protect and defend their existence. All the abusive behavior, all of the manipulative things they do, all of the deception and fakery... these are survival mode defense mechanisms. Every day is an exercise in just surviving and getting their needs met. They don't seem able to move out of this defense, reactive way of being. Everything is just a reaction to a perceived overall attack on them by a cold, uncaring world that will give them nothing but abuse and misery. They are scraping by with what scraps they feel they can steal or squeeze out of people. Someone in this mode is not behaving rationally, which is another reason it is so hard to get through to them. They can't hear you over all the panic alarms going off all the time. Even those who seem stoic, cold and indifferent are generally experiencing this type of internal reality. They've just learned that not showing emotion is safer and easier.
This is another way their behavior works for them. It gets their needs met in the short term, and in a survival situation, the short term is all you're looking at. When you are in survival mode, you can't look at next week or next month or next year. You can't look at long-range goals or changing behaviors over time. You can only look at right now. You have to stay ahead of the pain and shame and danger and fear and need. You have to constantly watch for anything that might hurt or upset you. You have to defend against all potential threats and they are everywhere. You have to stay perfect and actively deny all evidence to the contrary, That's a 24 hour a day job and there is no time for anything else. Ever.
In the end, it's probably most accurate to say that narcissism is a choice someone doesn't know they are making. They don't realize there is another way to be and don't have time to learn anyway. Even if they did, why would they when it works for them? Why walk upright when the way they've learned works? It seems harder to us, but that's because we have experience they don't. Sadly, pathologically narcissistic people will often never see that there is a better, less painful way to do things. But whether or not they have a choice, you always do. You can choose to stop the insanity.