Why Won't They Change? Insight and Personal Transformation

Uploaded 11/4/2022, approx. 12 minute read

A very important concept in psychology is insight, and this is how you spell it. I-N-S-I-G-H-T.

It's because the word insight comes from the word to see, from the root to see. Sight, in sight, sight inwards, looking inwards.

Insight can sometimes be obtained via introspection, looking into yourself, studying yourself, observing yourself, connecting the dots.

But introspection is a blunt tool. It's not very efficacious, and the reason is that you're full of biases, you're full of prejudices, resistances to the truth, and defense mechanisms which falsify reality in order to render it palatable.

So there are many obstacles to insight if you were to use only introspection. And that's why people go to therapists. I like that one. People go to therapists in order to secure insights.

The therapist's role is to make the patient see things differently, familiar things. The patient believes, has certain beliefs, certain values. The patient has narratives regarding her past, and it is the therapist's role to cast everything essentially in doubt, to rearrange the furniture, to present a new picture, to provoke thoughts.

And so once this is done, the patient is able to see herself, her life, her emotions, her cognitions, her traumas, people around her, people in her history, her relationships, her dog, and her cats in a new light. This new light is the light of transformation, enlightenment, transcendence, and it is accomplished very often with a good therapist.

And so today we are going to discuss what insight does to you and why some people, for example, narcissists and psychopaths, are not amenable to insights.

They are not impacted or affected by insights at all. They are impervious to insights. Never mind how many times you reveal to the narcissist the truth about himself and his misconduct and his mistakes and so on, he's never going to admit to it. Never mind how many times you confront the psychopath with a mirror. Never mind how many times you connect the dots synoptically, you create a synoptic map, and you show the narcissist and psychopaths that A leads to B and B inexorably leads to a very bad adverse C. Never mind how many times you do this, it's as if you have done nothing, as if you have said nothing, as if you are transparent and non-existent.

The inner emptiness, the void, the black hole inside the narcissist, the borderline, the psychopath, and other personality disorders. This absence inside is projected outside, invitiates, and allows you.

So there's no way you can transform the narcissist or the psychopath using insight.

Again, insight is a new way of looking at familiar things, a new way of finding patterns in your life, repetition compulsions, behaviors which are self-defeating and self-destructive, mistakes that you keep repeating, etc.

These are all insights. You can obtain insights in a variety of treatment modalities, cognitive behavior therapy, psychoanalysis, they are all founded essentially on insight.

My name is Sam Vaknin and I'm very insightful and I wrote a book about my insights. It's titled Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited. It's the first book ever to describe narcissistic abuse in the 1990s.

Consequently, I became a professor of psychology, which admittedly is not a very insightful thing to do, although professors of psychology do incite other people to all kinds of things.

Okay, enough with the banter and the nonsense, get to the point, teach us what is insight and why it fails with narcissists and psychopaths.

Yes, sir, will do.

Intelligence is always transformative. It can be very transformative, so it can be life-transforming, or it can transform a specific behavior. It can modify a certain trait. It can create inhibitions. It can modify behaviors, etc., but insight always creates what we call a dynamic.

The dynamic leads to change. We're all resistant to change. We all hate to change. We all love and cherish our comfort zones. They're called comfort zones because we feel comfortable inside these zones. We feel egosyntonic, insight, transformation, and challenge all these.

So, initially, there's always resistance to insight, always aggression directed, for example, at the therapist when the therapist offers insight.

Most insights are perceived as uncomfortable, upsetting, unsettling, wrong because they challenge long-held beliefs, biases, prejudices, and entrenched narratives in the lives of the patient.

As you see, even I am resistant to insight.


Your joy was premature. I am not dying.

So, insight requires the involvement of four factors.

Cognitions, emotions, motivations, and actions.

More coffee to the rescue.

I repeat, for an insight to work, for an insight to produce change and transformation, four elements must collaborate, must collude.

Your cognitions, your thoughts, your emotions, and these generate motivations, motivation to change, or motivation to become more enlightened, more self-aware, and then the motivation leads to action.

The more intelligent the person is, the smoother and the more integrated the person is, the more likely the person is to produce insight or accept insight when it's offered.

So, intelligence is positively correlated with insightfulness and with integration of the personality. That's why it's very difficult to convince stupid people of some things because of the Dunning-Kruger effect. They refuse to acknowledge that they're stupid and they resist any insight.

So, if this is so straightforward, if it's only a question of intelligence, why don't intelligent narcissists react to insight? Why do even intelligent narcissists reject insight, discard insight, object to insight, and aggressively fight against it?

The problem with narcissists is that they are cathected in their disorder. There's a very fancy sentence which demonstrates my irritation in psychology.

So, it's a self-aggrandizing gesture. Let me translate it to you.

What I'm simply trying to say is that the narcissist is in love with his narcissism. He's emotionally invested, cathected, in his disorder.

The narcissist believes that his disorder renders him special, superior, unique. The narcissist traces back all his accomplishments, however meager, to his disorder.

He says, if I were to lose my disorder, I would cease to be creative. I would no longer be creative. If I were to lose my disorder, I would not climb the corporate ladder had it not been for my disorder. I would not become the president of the United States, orange as I might have been.

And so, the narcissist believes firmly, convinced beyond any doubt and any argument that it is his idiosyncrasies, his eccentricities, his peculiarities that render him superior. The competitive advantage of the narcissist, the competitive edge of the narcissist is what other people call personality disorder.

Now, of course, narcissists today are equally female and male. About half of all people diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder are women. I'm using the male pronouns just for convenience sake.

Coming back to the topic, remember the original question when we were all much younger?

Why do narcissists reject insight even when they are intelligent?

It's because they don't see any reason to change. They are motivated to maintain their disorder. They act to preserve their self-imputed superiority by being obnoxious and abrasive and bully others and being aggressive.

In other words, the slot of motivation is not vacant.

You see, let me remind you, insight requires a transition from cognitions to emotions and from emotions to motivation and from motivation to actions. I give you an insight about yourself. It is communicated verbally. You absorb it cognitively, but then you react to it emotionally.

These emotions inside you motivate you to act in a certain way to somehow improve the trait of your discomfort engendered by the insight.

So this doesn't happen to the narcissist ever, like ever. Nevermind if he has 190 IQ. It never happens to him.


When the narcissist is offered an insight, even a self-generated insight, this insight does not produce emotions.

Remember that the narcissist has no access to his positive emotions.

So the insights which are essentially the insight is a string of words. It's a thought.

The insight is verbalized and externalized, and yet it produces no emotional resonance within the narcissist because the narcissist's emotions are sealed off. And because there are no emotions, there is no progression to motivation.

Even if the narcissist is able to conjure up negative emotions, for example, envy or anger, I offer the narcissist an insight in therapy. The narcissist becomes angry or envious of me. That's an emotion.

So there is an emotional resonance with negative emotions, but even then it does not lead to any change, transformation or motivation.

And the reason is the narcissist's sole motivation is his disorder, his grandiosity, the need to buttress his inflated self-perception. That's his only motivation.

So there's no vacancy when it comes to motivation and no ability to provoke motivation or to evoke motivation in the narcissist.

The narcissist is motivated to perpetuate his disorder. End of story, the cathexis, the emotional investment in the disorder precludes any other dynamic.

We could say that the narcissist has a low kinetic personality, low organization, but also low kinetics. His personality is not dynamic. It's very rigid to use the words of the diagnostic and statistical manual. Because it's rigid, there are no moving parts. It's not a mobile, like an art mobile. It's more like a sculpture.

Narcissists I mentioned are denied access to positive emotions and this impairs their reality testing.

There is no possibility to perceive reality accurately or even half accurately without deciphering and decoding the emotions of other people.

Emotions motivate people. So if you don't understand emotions, if you don't do emotions, you misunderstand people. You read social and sexual and behavioral cues wrongly. You misinterpret body language and facial micro expressions.

In this sense, the narcissist is autistic, similar to someone with autism spectrum disorder.

The narcissist's reality testing is so impaired that he is rendered incapable of deciphering and decoding environmental cues.

Consequently, he is disabled. He's disabled, but he is delusional. And because he is disabled, he is very low. He is very aversive. He is very much against exiting his comfort zone.

The narcissist feels safe only within his comfort zone. His comfort zone is protected by a firewall, by a fortress of delusionality, his grandiosity.

Narcissists are hurt averse. They're afraid of pain. They're terrified of venturing out or of changing because it's going to end up badly. They're going to get hurt. They don't want to get hurt because they're two years old.

Narcissists are also controlled freaks because they are terrified of the environment. As far as they are concerned, the world is hostile. You see how many obstacles there are, how many impediments to change.

That's why insight never works with narcissists, because the insight is assimilated cognitively, but that's where it remains.

The insight does not propagate emotionally. It does not yield behavioral changes via motivation.

The narcissist's grandiosity and perfectionism, performance anxiety and fear of failure obstruct any benefits which may be conferred by insight.

Even when self-awareness and introspection are intact, so you could have a narcissist who is fully self-aware, has written a book about narcissism, hint, hint. You could have a narcissism whose introspection is unusually incisive, insightful and precise.

Another hint. Yet, all this insight remains mere words, totally cognitive, no emotional resonance or reaction, no change in motivation and no change in behavior.

Of course, the same applies with double divorce to psychopaths.

Insights therefore are useful, ironically, mostly with healthy people.

When we come to mental illness, insight is pretty useless.

At the beginning of psychoanalysis, Freud and his predecessors had suggested that gaining insight via talk therapy could induce healing. But even they did not say that gaining insight necessarily results in motivation and behavioral change. They described the whole process as totally autonomic and automatic, not involving necessarily behavioral changes, choices and decisions. So the patient would come into the session, psychoanalytic, psychoanalytic session or whatever, Adlerian, Jungian, Freudian doesn't matter. He would come to the session and he would talk about his past traumas, his childhood, his parents, etc. And then at some point he would gain insight. This insight would be transformative in the sense that it would heal some wounds and would allay or mitigate or ameliorate the trauma.

But in very few cases, does it produce long term behavioral changes? And in even fewer cases, do we have any documentation of changing motivation?

Insights are extremely useful if you are sufficiently healthy to manage it, assimilate it, react to it emotionally without fear, and then change yourself, your behaviors and actions.

But then if you do all this, you're healthy. Maybe you don't need insight after all.

And that's the paradox at the core of psychotherapy. The healthier the patient, the more we can help the patient. But healthier, healthy patients don't need help.

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