How Narcissism Works

The Treatment

Talk therapy is likely the best treatment option for narcissists -- if they ever even make it to the therapist's office.
Talk therapy is likely the best treatment option for narcissists -- if they ever even make it to the therapist's office.
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On the one hand, being a narcissist doesn't sound so bad. You think you're hot stuff, and thanks to that lack of empathy, you don't have to waste time worrying what other people think. But then there's that pesky low self-esteem lurking deep in your gut, and your consequently brittle pride [source: Myers and Zeigler-Hill]. There's also the problem of being a jerk. While many people are initially drawn to your self-assured charisma, your touchy ego and unflagging arrogance can lead to difficulties in forming long-lasting and meaningful relationships.

Currently, there's no drug for narcissism. The treatment is old-fashioned talk therapy. Of course, if you think you're all that and a bag of chips, you're not likely to make an appointment with a shrink. Why should you? You're fantastic! Except that those deep insecurities are making you anxious, even depressed. In fact, anxiety and depression are the symptoms that usually lead narcissists to the proverbial couch. There, hopefully a therapist can unpack the real source of the problem and start to suggest coping mechanisms.

However, few narcissists end up actually seeking help. Those who do often abandon treatment early on because they don't like what they're hearing from therapists. Even in the rare cases of successful treatment, narcissists almost never change in fundamental ways [source: Kreger]. After all, they evolved their habits of narcissistic behavior in order to feel better about themselves. And if a habit feels good, it'll die hard.

In 2014, researchers conducted a study that could indicate a method for treating narcissism. For the purposes of their study, the British scientists looked at subjects they considered to be "subclinical" narcissists. Whereas people with full-blown narcissistic personality disorder tend to be volatile, subclinical narcissists are often well-adjusted and successful in addition to being selfish cads.

The study went as follows: The researchers hooked the narcissists up to heart monitors and showed them sad documentaries about people going through hard times. Previous studies have shown that when people feel empathy, their heart rate increases. The narcissists' heart rates were steady. They didn't care. At first. Then the researchers showed the documentary again. But this time they asked the test subjects to try to imagine what it would be like to be the person having a hard time. Bingo — the heart rates went up, and the narcissists reported feeling empathy [source: Society for Personality and Social Psychology].

Hard to believe it could be that simple, but it would seem that narcissism — the subclinical kind, anyway — might be the result not of an inability to feel compassion, just a habit of not bothering to. All that's needed is a prompt. Maybe empathy is a muscle that can be exercised. Maybe even narcissists can develop nice, fat cerebral cortexes if they just do some mental pushups.