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Why Don’t Significant Life Events Change Narcissists?

This article was prompted by one of my readers who noted that even after a brush with cancer, her narcissistic mother did not use that opportunity to change her life. This is a typical situation that clearly outlines the absolute and global effect of narcissistic personality disorder on the individual.

For many people, having a life threatening illness such as cancer changes that individual. Even for those who don’t survive, there is often a change in the way they look at life because they have to evaluate what is important and what is unimportant in the real scheme of things. Many undergo dietary and job changes, make changes in their relationships, shedding the destructive and reaching out to positive uplifting people in their life. Whether they survive or ultimately succumb to the illness, their lives are changed, and usually for the better.

For a person suffering from narcissism this is simply not possible. There will usually be two differing behaviors for the narcissist who discovers they have cancer or any other life-threatening illness. There will be an enormous amount of self-pity and an incredible amount of complaining (NPDs are not known for their stoicism). But there will also be an unusual form of self-importance evident. This is because the presence of the illness brings them extra attention, something which they thrive on.

For the narcissist, having a serious illness is a two edged sword. Most of us are horrified and afraid – they are too – but they are also able to sublimate part of that fear by having their innate sense of entitlement attended to – what with neighbors and doctors and family members flocking around them in order to help.

And if they get over the illness, they do not change. This is one of the hallmarks that illustrate the pervasive nature of narcissism and all the personality disorders. When a person has a personality disorder, it is truly that – a disorder of the personality. It is fixed by a certain age – around the mid 20s – and does not change after that. Therefore the relief that most of us would experience when given the all-clear by the doctors will stay with an ordinary person and likely the changes they made during the course of their illness will persist. There will be joy that life will go on, at least for a little while longer.

NPDs do not have the emotional intelligence to see that they have been spared and that they can change their lives and most importantly, value the people in their lives. This is simply not an available option to them. In fact, it is not unknown for some narcissists to be disappointed when the medical outcome is positive as they are no longer the centre of attention. As weird as this may sound, the spotlight is no longer on them to the same extent and they don’t react favorably to that.

The same holds for other tragedies in their lives – the death of a young infant, the death of a spouse, the death of an older offspring – nothing changes the personality for the NPD because it has been fixed long ago.


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