Are narcissists born or made?
Colloquially, narcissism often refers to the pursuit of personal gratification through the admiration of others, often for pretty superficial or vain reasons. Narcissism becomes a pathology when it disrupts relationships, work, financial affairs, or other parts of your life. Narcissistic Personality Disorder, then, is defined as “mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.”
Those with narcissistic personality disorder may exhibit all sorts of symptoms: an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a sense of entitlement, the need for constant and excessive admiration, superiority complexes, being preoccupied with fantasies about success and power, monopolizing conversations, belittling others, taking offense or angering quickly, and difficulty regulating emotions or dealing with stress.
Narcissistic personality disorder usually begins in adolescence or early adulthood, although it’s not extremely clear what causes some individuals to become narcissistic. Like many other personality disorder, though it is likely some combination of environment, genetics and neurobiology.
A 2018 paper “The Etiology of Narcissism” concludes, many studies have established that genetic factors contribute substantially to (1) the variations of various types of narcissism, (2) the stability of narcissism as well as its associations with other personalities, and (3) the distinctions between different types of narcissism. In the meantime, environments (mostly non-shared by family members) also play important roles in these situations.
From a more Freudian perspective, narcissism may be understood as a byproduct of family environments. The basic logic is, all children want their parents’ approval and so children adapt to their homes, and often the most productive and reasonable adaptation to some home situations is to become a Narcissist. As such, certain parenting styles that are overprotective or neglectful may have an impact, which may play out in the following ways:
- The Exhibitionist Narcissistic Parental Values: In this situation the child is raised in a family that is very competitive and only rewards high achievement. The family motto is: If you can’t be the best, why bother? Often for these types of narcissists, love is conditional. When you come in first in the race, win the science fair, or star in the school show, you are showered with praise and attention. When you do not, you are a disappointment. Everyone in the family is supposed to be special and prove it over and over again. No matter how much you achieve, the pressure is never off.
2. The Devaluing Narcissistic Parent: In this scenario there is a very domineering and devaluing parent who is always putting down the child. The parent is generally irritable, easily angered, and has unrealistically high expectations. If there are two or more children, the parent will praise one and devalue the others. Nobody in the family feels secure and everyone spends their time trying to pacify the explosive Narcissistic parent. Children will often respond by becoming defeated, rebelling, or becoming angry and destructive.
3. ”The Golden Child”: These parents are usually closet Narcissists who are uncomfortable in the spotlight. Instead, they brag about their extremely talented child. This type of excessive idealization of a child as flawless and special can lead to the child having a Narcissistic adaptation in later life.Everyone wants to be seen realistically and loved unconditionally. If children believe that their parents only value them because they are special, this can contribute to an underlying insecurity. No one wins all the time. No one is better than everyone else in every way.
4. The Exhibitionist’s Admirer: Some children grow up in a Narcissistic household where there is an Exhibitionist Narcissist parent who rewards them with praise and attention as long as they admire and stay subservient to the parent. These children are taught to uncritically worship the greatness of their Narcissistic parent without ever trying to equal or surpass that parent’s achievements. All their value in the family comes from acting as a support to the ego of the Exhibitionist parent. In this process, children may lose touch with their real selves and real likes and dislikes. Instead of exploring who they really are and where their true interests and talents lie, they can get off track entirely and spend their time only doing things that they are already good at and they think will get their parents’ approval.
A combination of three things are generally recognized as contributing to the child’s personality: the child’s inborn temperament, how they are parented, and the consequences of unintended and uncontrollable events that negatively affect the child. For parents who want to avoid exacerbating narcissistic tendencies in their children, supportive environments that encourage independence and maintain a healthy balance of attention may help. It may sound cheesy, but unconditional love just may be our most valuable bulwark against narcissism.