Why Change Is So Difficult For Narcissistic People
Change is notoriously difficult for everybody, but it can be impossible for people who are pathologically narcissistic. There are generally four main reasons for that.
The first reason is the inability to see the problem. The behaviors and mindsets associated with pathological narcissism are largely defensive, even if they don't seem to be. They are the result of malfunctioning defense and coping mechanisms. These things can be created in different ways. For example, if a narcissistic person had a narcissistic parent and was subject to narcissistic abuse as a child, their brain may have created defense mechanisms to protect them against being unfairly blamed and made responsible for things they were not at fault for or not in control of.
This defense mechanism was very important and very necessary for the child, but over time, this can evolve into dysfunction for an adult. It can result in an inability to ever take responsibility for anything, because anything even remotely sounding like blame immediately triggers a defense reflex of denial, deflect, reject and avoid. It's fight or flight. They will either fight the threat or run from it using one - or more - of their standard coping mechanisms: gaslighting, blame-shifting, stonewalling, etc.
As part and parcel of this particular defense mechanism, they may also see themselves as the constant victim in relationships. Not only are they projecting their own uncomfortable or threatening feelings onto their environment and therefore perceiving other people as the source of these feelings because of it, but they are also making sure they are protected from being blamed. If you are the victim, you cannot be to blame for anything. You have not acted, you've been acted upon. If you are to blame, you are bad. If you are bad, you are flawed and if you are flawed, you are worthless. This therefore must be avoided at all costs, even if reality must be completely denied to do so.
This is the mindset of pathologically narcissistic people. They don't want to see it, and even if they could, their dysfunction is set up to help prevent them from seeing exactly the things that could help them to change.
The second reason is an inability to understand the problem. Part of the reason they can't see the problem is that they don't understand the problem. They don't think they are being unfair to others, for example, and even if they are, so what? Why is this a big deal? Everyone is unfair to them. They never get anything they want. They never get what they need. Their entire life is a struggle, so so what if they are being unfair and getting what they deserve for once? Everyone else gets everything they want all the time. Or, so what if they are being unfair? They are special and here are the 50 reasons they deserve more than their fair share even if it hurts others. You should be willing to sacrifice because that's what people do when they love someone. It doesn't matter that they never do it. This is not about that. This is about what they deserve, not someone else.
In the mind of the narcissistic person, there will always be a sincere justification for their behavior. They don't understand why it's wrong and don't care anyway. How can anything which will make them happy ever be wrong? Oh, it will hurt you in the process? Well, you are selfish, because you don't want them to be happy. This seems to be sincere on their part. They truly don't understand why you don't want them to be happy. They don't understand why you matter in this equation, and some of their most callous, self-centered beliefs can come out in these kinds of conversations.
This leads us to the third reason, which is a misunderstanding of basic concepts like respect. When you are trying to explain these things to pathologically narcissistic people, when you are trying to explain to them that other people actually matter, you will often be accused of trying to manipulate them. This is usually very confusing for most people, who don't understand how simply advocating for fairness, respect and consideration could possibly be considered manipulation.
For narcissists, there is no understanding of these concepts. To them, it simply looks like you are trying to guilt, manipulate or trick them into not getting what they want. Everything is perceived to that end. Showing consideration is asking permission. Asking for something is begging. Basic respect is kissing up. Taking accountability is being blamed. Partnership and teamwork requires hugely unfair sacrifices and self-abandonment. Compromise is selling out. Apologizing is submitting. Admitting you're wrong is giving in.
Complicating this farther is the fact that many of them see changing their behavior or mindset as changing who they are. It isn't, of course, but many seem to feel very strongly that being convinced into changing their behavior is the equivalent of being brainwashed into becoming a different person. Their sense of self is so fragmented and fragile that they can react extremely negatively to this. It feels threatening and scary, as if they are losing the little bit of identity they actually have just to let someone else win.
This is much too high of a price to pay, in the narcissist's estimation. They don't see it as agreeing to treat someone better, or taking accountability so they can grow. They see it as losing. Remember: entitlement is about fear. That's why it explodes into rage if they don't get what they want. Entitlement is always about the fear of not getting what you need. It isn't really about the thing the person wants. It's about what it means if you don't give it to them.
It's not just about the acquisition of the having. It's the validation of the getting. Every single thing - no matter how small or petty - is a life or death power struggle for narcissists in the never-ending battle to get their needs met and they absolutely must win. To lose is to fail to matter, and those who don't matter don't survive. To lose is to fail to get your needs met, and those who can't get their needs met don't survive. To lose is to fail to validate your power, and those with no power don't survive. With this mindset, it becomes all but impossible to do things differently, because to do so feels too costly and too demeaning.
The resentment and the anger created by feeling they've been manipulated or talked into losing is part of what creates the devaluation we are so familiar with. They may compromise (read: sell themselves out) in order to stay in a valuable situation, but they will eventually be extremely unhappy about having done it, regardless of how they present themselves in the moment. In the moment, they may be willing to say or do anything to get what they want, but that moment will end, the mask will drop back into place along with all of their "normal" beliefs and behaviors, and then you will be faced with the same selfish, oblivious person you've been facing this entire time.
Narcissists are in survival mode all the time, but there are differences in how this presents itself. For example, there's a difference between being in survival mode because you are starving and looking for food - which is their normal day-to-day mode - and being in survival mode because someone is coming at you with a weapon trying to kill you - which is how facing the loss of a valued situation feels, for instance. When that happens, they enter panic mode and will often agree to anything in order to re-secure the situation. Once that's done though, normal survival mode kicks back in and they go back to how they were. It's their normal. It's how this person has always been.
That leads us to the fourth reason change is so difficult for narcissists. There is no desire to fix the problem. Why should there be? There is no problem. You're the one with the problem. What they do works for them as far as they can see (even though reality usually shows us that it clearly doesn't), and so why should they change that? It's other people that are ruining everything. If that could just be changed, everything would be fine.
Narcissists are unable and unwilling to take responsibility for anything, as we've discussed already. Even those who admit they have a problem or psychological dysfunction generally still don't think this requires them to do anything or change anything. You are supposed to do something about it. You know they have a disorder or a problem or a challenge. You're supposed to address this problem, not them. You're supposed to change your behavior in deference to that. They don't need to do anything.
They don't believe there is a problem and if there is, they don't believe it's their job to fix it, and if it is, they don't how to do it or believe they can succeed at it, so what does it matter anyway? It's easier to rely on others to make life easier for them to live by forcing everyone around them to take responsibility for their needs, feelings, well-being and behavior. They only know how to walk around doing what they've always done, which is hang onto life by the skin of their teeth getting through one day at a time any way they can and at all costs. If it hurts other people, well... that's what you get for not following the script.
You're not the star of this picture and you don't matter. You should have done your job, which is fulfill the narcissist's needs. After all, why else do you exist? Why else do you have needs, if not to take up the narcissist's resources? Why else do you have feelings, if not to affect the narcissist? Why else do you have value, if not to enrich the narcissist? Why else do you make mistakes, if not to embarrass or upset the narcissist? Why else do you do anything, if it isn't to or for to because of the narcissist?
This is the way it is. You as a sovereign person with your own feelings, thoughts, needs, desires or anything else are not reality to this person. There is no understanding of other people as human beings. Because of that, there is no desire to change the way others are treated or viewed. The pathologically narcissistic person does what they believe they need to do and in their opinion, the ends justify the means. This is an immature, emotionally arrested person in survival mode who truly does not see the value in doing things differently. In fact, they see the opposite. Doing things differently is threatening, possibly harmful and dangerous. With this mindset, nothing is ever going to change. That's why it doesn't.