Sometimes people fall in love with and marry someone with a narcissistic personality, others find them in their family. Some don’t recognise it in their loved ones at all, others recognise it well down the road.
Depending on where on the spectrum of narcissism your loved one is, determines how difficult your relationship with them might be.
Some try to suggest that there is a ‘healthy narcissism’ but to call narcissism healthy is a contradiction of the definition of narcissism. Narcissism is defined as:
- excessive interest in and admiration for your own physical appearance and/or your own abilities whereby you ignore the needs of those around you.
Narcissism is a spectrum. Traits can vary in severity. At the extreme end of the spectrum is narcissistic personality disorder, a pathology outlined in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM V).
And it’s much more likely that your beloved has narcissistic traits than narcissistic personality disorder so in a few moments we’ll look at how this may change for the better as they age.
First, narcissism and aggression
Before we get to the study which gives hope to those in a relationship with a narcissist, whether a partner, adult child, parent or whomever, it’s important that we acknowledge this.
Narcissism as a whole is linked to aggression and so it is something that we as a society need to stop encouraging, particularly when someone displays relentless narcissism on social media; we need to stop ‘liking’ and praising it, and you’ll understand why when you see this. Check this out.
In a review of 437 studies that included a total of 123,043 participants, researchers uncovered a link between narcissism and aggression in both ‘normal’ and ‘pathological’ narcissism, in males and females, in all age groups, from both individualistic and collectivistic countries, in students and non-students .
Furthermore, they found narcissism was related to all forms of aggression: direct, indirect, displaced, physical, verbal, and bullying; and both reactive and proactive aggression.
So, incredibly robust findings. And a clear warning that we must not embolden narcissistic people.
Now, here’s the light on the horizon
Bringing this topic closer to home, let’s look at how people with narcissistic traits might become more healthy and secure and cooperative.
Using data from the Berkeley Longitudinal Study, researchers looked for changes in levels of narcissistic traits over approximately 23 years in people who answered relevant questionnaires at age 18 years (in 1992) and again later at 41 years old .
The researchers looked for increases or decreases in overall narcissism and in three facets of narcissism: leadership, vanity, entitlement.
Looking at the sample as a whole, they found that overall narcissism and the three facets (leadership, vanity, entitlement), decreased from age 18 to 41 (even though some participants did not change or changed very little, and a few increased in narcissism).
They also found ‘strong rank-order consistency’, i.e. that if person A was more narcissistic than person B at age 18, and person B was more narcissistic than person C at age 18, this was still the case at age 41, person A was still more narcissistic than person B and person B was still more narcissistic than person C at age 41.
Here are some notable patterns that they found.
+ People showed smaller decreases in the leadership facet when they were in supervisory positions.
+ People also showed smaller decreases in the vanity facet when they had experienced more unstable relationships.
+ And those who were physically healthier also showed smaller decreases in the vanity facet.
+ Looking at life outcomes, those who were higher in narcissism and leadership levels at a young age were more likely to be in supervisory roles in middle age.
+ And those higher in vanity in young adulthood were more likely to be divorced by middle age, tended to be married for fewer years, entered into relationships more frequently, and had fewer children.
+ Narcissism and the three facets of leadership, vanity and entitlement, bore no relevance on salary, job satisfaction, job prestige, financial problems, career or employer changes, or the vocations they took up at age 41.
+ Those high in vanity were more likely to have better self-rated health.
+ Entitlement was associated with lower life satisfaction. Furthermore, entitlement at age 18 was linked to fewer positive life events at age 41 and more negative life events.
+ Leadership at age 18 was positively associated with relationship satisfaction at age 41.
Here are a few key findings when looking at life events and experiences that may determine changes in one’s narcissism.
+ Those who ‘worked in realistic jobs’ decreased more strongly in overall narcissism whilst those who ‘worked in enterprising jobs’ showed smaller decreases in the facet of leadership.
+ People experiencing financial problems had smaller decreases in overall narcissism and the vanity facet.
+ Relationships had fewer effects, the most notable being that those who were in serious relationships and those who had children, were both associated with a larger decrease in vanity.
Another longitudinal study on narcissism decline
In another longitudinal (long-term) study, researchers analysed changes in narcissism across the lifespan from age 13 to age 77 (in participants born between 1923 and 1969), using different parameters and different data .
They referred to:
- defensive forms of narcissism as hypersensitivity;
- grandiose forms of narcissism as wilfulness; and
- leadership and authority aspects of narcissism as autonomy.
They found that ‘more maladaptive forms of narcissism (e.g., hypersensitivity, wilfulness) declined across life and autonomy increased across life.’
The researchers theorise that as people age, they become less self-focused and instead more prosocial, resulting in changes to their personality that allow them to adapt to getting on with others in the workplace and at home.
However, as this study looks at data from prior to the dawn of social media, it doesn’t account for the effects of social media activity on narcissism.
3 ways to improve the chances of narcissism decreasing
Using the aforementioned findings, here are three ways that could help reduce narcissism.
1. Protecting your relationship
Committing to a serious relationship as well as having children was found to create larger decreases in the vanity facet of narcissism.
Speculatively, adultery may tamper with a narcissist’s self-esteem in the long-run, despite their lack of empathy; breakups and divorce may lead to feelings of failure and of not feeling loved which may exacerbate how uneasy they feel within.
After all, given serious relationships reduce one’s vanity aspect of narcissism over time, that might be due to them becoming more prosocial but it might also, or instead, be because they feel loved and, therefore, have improved self-esteem.
But once they engage in an adulterous relationship, they sabotage that. Therefore, protecting one’s relationship from stress and from external forces trying to break the relationship, could help keep their self-esteem healthy, and their level of narcissism low.
To achieve this, it would be important to put relationship-safeguarding measures in place, online and offline.
For example, staying clear of ill-meaning social media followers and fans, and gaming ‘friends’. For many this can mean not connecting with people who post provocative images, subtly or not so subtly flirt with you, or try to outright befriend you with the intention of destroying your relationship or stealing you from your partner.
Both partners should have such measures in place by having relationship rules that protect the love you have.
Some will argue that one cannot be ‘just friends’ with the opposite sex. That’s for you and your partner to decide, but the more time goes on, and the more people seem to be losing their morals, the more this approach makes sense.
2. Career choices
Overall narcissism decreased more strongly in those in ‘realistic jobs’.
Maybe a ‘steady’ job/business and one where a narcissistic person is not in charge of staff and big budgets and entrepreneurial facets, is a healthier option for narcissists seeking to reduce their overall narcissism long-term.
In such circumstances, there is likely less need to over inflate one’s ego to manage the emotional and practical demands of the job, allowing the insecure person a place to feel more at ease in life.
3. Stop encouraging narcissism
Be kind and sensitive but also give praise where praise is due.
This is a concept that seems to have been lost and needs brining back. Whether online with strangers or in real life with your partner, family or friends, reward them for praiseworthy things, not for any old thing.
If you keep praising someone with narcissism, their narcissism will not abate.
And no matter how kind you think you’re being, if you keep affirming someone’s brilliance when it’s mediocrity, they will expect it of you and society, again and again, and when it isn’t given because it’s unwarranted and/or exhausting for others to maintain, it’s going to be a difficult pill for them to swallow.
This could then lead to an increase aggression as they become hurt, or enraged, by the lack of praise – remember that first study linking narcissism with aggression across the board.
A good question to ask oneself is, ‘Is what they are saying or doing here really worthy of (considerable) praise?’, and then decide if you want to ‘like’ or comment.
Don’t confuse boosting someone’s ego with boosting their self-esteem.
Reducing narcissism at home and in society
Narcissism is unhealthy and reflects low self-esteem, no matter how inflated one’s ego appears to be. Narcissists need to find a way to be happy and truly confident that isn’t at the expense of other people’s happiness and confidence.
Above are just two of the many studies that do provide hope that a person’s narcissism can decrease over time.
But choices are important. Relationship choices, career choices, lifestyle choices. If you or a loved one has narcissistic traits, make choices that can help reduce narcissism over time.
1. Kjærvik, S. L., & Bushman, B. J. (2021). The link between narcissism and aggression: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 147(5), 477–503. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000323
2. Wetzel, E., Grijalva, E., Robins, R. W., & Roberts, B. W. (2020). You’re still so vain: Changes in narcissism from young adulthood to middle age. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(2), 479–496. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000266
3. Chopik, W. J., & Grimm, K. J. (2019). Longitudinal changes and historic differences in narcissism from adolescence to older adulthood. Psychology and Aging, 34(8), 1109–1123. https://doi.org/10.1037/pag0000379
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