The Causes Of Narcissism… we think

The core conflict is insecurity.  Anything that makes a child feel inescapably insecure increases the potential for narcissistic behaviors.

Hard vs. Soft - A Bit of Context

Hard science means that we can test something in a controlled environment repeatedly and always get the same outcome. Concepts can be encapsulated in a mathematical equation.   For example, Force = Mass x Acceleration. This is true always and forever.

Soft science examines the intangibles of human and animal behaviors, interactions, thoughts, and feelings. We can set up experiments, but controlling the variables is almost impossible and therefore, we don’t always get the same outcome each time. Soft science concepts cannot be reduced to a mathematical equation.  We cannot say that A + B will always equal C.

Psychology is a soft science.  This is important to remember when you read about the origins of narcissism. We cannot say that Biological Vulnerability + Early Invalidating Environment = Narcissism. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. So, we could have BV + EIE  = Anxiety or BV + EIE = Attachment Issues. There are too many intangible variables to prove what precisely creates narcissism.  That being said, we have some common variables consistently showing up.

In General

Narcissists learn early on that it’s not ok to be their authentic self.  Who they really are was rejected. So, they learned what they had to do to be accepted. They learned to go along with someone else’s agenda for them even when it violated the core of who they are. This means they suppressed a lot of their real thoughts and feelings, at least to the outside world.  Inside there’s anger, agitation, entitlement, and an endless well of hurt.  To feel some agency, they learned that if they can write the agenda, they would fare better.

The core conflict is insecurity.  Anything that makes a child feel inescapably insecure increases the potential for narcissistic behaviors.

Nature vs. Nurture

We know that nothing is purely nature or nurture.  Both play a role.  I’ve heard it estimated that the environment plays a 90% role with genetics coming in at 10%. Then I heard the environment is estimated to be responsible for 40% of the likelihood of developing narcissism.  I don’t know what’s true, but I tend to agree more with the 90% estimate. 

 Biological Vulnerability – likely 10%

  • Temperament –  This is the biological part of your personality. It’s likely inherited. Evidence for this is that some infants are easier to soothe than others.  Growing up, difficult temperaments may have difficulty interacting with the world. This tendency to be more agitated, intense, inflexible, demanding, resistant to change or sensitive makes them more challenging for the parent and therefore more likely to have the parent pull away. Teachers and adults may not like them.  It is an invalidating experience of the world for the child. 

Environmental Causes – likely 90%

  • Lack of Emotional Mirroring – The parents that are guilty of not giving emotional mirroring come across as self-absorbed, distant, uncaring, dismissive, regretful that they ever had kids, abusive, dehumanizing, judgemental, and have no empathy.

Starting in infancy and throughout childhood, when a child looks to their mother, they want to know they will be loved forever and ever and nothing they can do will change that.  They want to see their parents’ eyes to light up when they walk into the room. This sense of unconditional love and acceptance gives the child permission to develop their sense of self.  It is in this safety they begin to define who they are as a little individual; where they stop and the world begins. They learn to self-soothe, understand and regulate their emotions, and develop empathy. When their emotional experience is summarily rejected, punished or ignored, the child becomes confused and rejected. However, the child definitely perceives that their emotions are not ok. But the emotions still exist, so this leaves the child in quite a predicament. The result is they develop a core sense of shame which their personality is built around. Out of a sense of survival, they have virtually no relationship with their emotions and therefore no ability to self-regulate. So they look to the outside world for regulation.  In a very literal way, the outside world becomes the substitute parent figure to give empathy, adoration, and validation. And we all resent who/what we are reliant on.

  • Simultaneous Over and Under Indulging – When the kid is the best at whatever the parent values, the parent will overindulge. However, when the child has emotional needs, the parent is absent. The child may be spoiled with getting things and experiences, but their emotional world is very impoverished.  It is the psychological equivalent of being overfed and undernourished. 

  • Conditional Love – The parent is present when the child is doing what the parent needs but absent when the child needs the parent. The love is about what you do, not who you are.  If the parent doesn’t show up at all, then you’re not worthy of anything. Validation-seeking is a by-product of conditional love.  

  •  Bubble Wrapping and Helicopter Parenting – Shielding kids from disappointment can lead to narcissistic traits.  We are learning to tolerate disappointment in childhood.  Parents remove opportunities for potential disappointment because they can’t stand the disappointment their child is going through. Narcissists don’t do disappointment. They never learned to tolerate it. 

  • Valued for External Qualities – For this one, society needs to accept some responsibility. Our achievement-oriented culture teaches us that we need to win, no matter what it takes. It values some external achievements over internal qualities such as kindness, empathy, and compassion. Parents who have agendas for the child to be the pathway for their gratification.  You are the things you achieve.

  • Modeling Narcissistic traits are learned by watching others (usually primary caretakers, such as parents) with narcissism.  The child does what they see.  The behaviors become normalized.  Parents with narcissism normalize arrogance, bravado, poor boundaries and inject their emotions, needs, and expectations into their child.  An example of this emotional injection can look like this: The child tells the caregiver they are disappointed and sad, the caregiver will respond with, “Oh, now you made me disappointed and sad too.” It is in that moment that the child learns their emotions are a problem.  The child just became responsible for their caregiver’s emotions and they don’t want that responsibility.  As a result, they start negating or avoiding sharing emotions.  They may not understand where their emotions end and other people’s emotions begin.  This manifests in adulthood as not having any understanding of their inner world, not understanding their impact on others, can’t distinguish between themselves and others

Empathy Does Not Mean Unconditional Tolerance

When we understand how a narcissist’s behaviors came to be, our empathy towards them increases. I hope this is true for this series of articles.  HOWEVER, do not allow your empathy justify staying in an abusive relationship. Emotional, verbal and physical abuse is abuse.  Period. Under no circumstances should you ever tolerate it, even if you know why the perpetrator acts this way.  Your job as the partner, friend, or acquaintance of a narcissist is to come to terms with the fact that while you may understand where the behaviors come from, you are powerless to change the narcissist. You cannot love the narcissism out of someone. You cannot undo a narcissist’s childhood experience.  Narcissism has deep, complex roots and it is the narcissist who must realize something is not working for them and seek change.  That is the work best left to a therapist.

Other Recent Posts