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We’ve heard a lot about the abuse and destruction that pathological narcissists are capable of, but what it is less-often discussed is how narcissists are created in the first place. This is something people ask all the time, so let’s get right into it.
The article « Are Psychopaths Actually Narcissists? » goes into a lot of detail about the narcissistic wound and how important that is to the creation of the pathological narcissist, so we will just summarize that briefly here. The narcissistic wound is basically the trauma or series of traumas that happened to the person which made them into a narcissist. It is the defining psychological injury which occurred during the narcissist’s development. This is usually at a very, very young age. For the narcissist, the trauma or traumas occurred after the emotions developed but before regulation of these emotions or empathy was learned. This would be around the time they were a toddler. The closer down the scale the narcissist is to a psychopath, the earlier in development we can assume the trauma happened or began.
Things like empathy and self-control do have to be learned. They are not innate. If a person is never taught these skills, they will never have them. Therefore, we could say that many narcissists suffer from « too much » emotion, rather than not enough – even though they may seem to have none. The emotions they do possess are out of control and unregulated because they are unable to control the emotions in a normal way, much the same way a very young child is unable. The narcissist’s emotions are all self-focused however – again like a very young child – and if they have any empathy at all, it is generally dysfunctional. The few emotions they do have are simply too important; they are the focus of the narcissist’s entire being. To the narcissist, feelings are facts. Feelings are everything. It is for this reason that they are unable to empathize with other people when their own emotions are involved in the situation. Other people just don’t matter as much as how they feel.
The How: Neglect & Abandonment
So what could have caused the narcissistic wound? It could be many things but often, it is abuse of some kind. There may be sexual or physical abuse in the narcissist’s past. One of the key elements we often see with narcissists is neglect – either emotional or physical. We find that the narcissist’s parents were often unavailable, either emotionally or physically. One of the parents may also be a narcissist of some kind; this is not uncommon and would certainly fall into the category of an emotionally unavailable parent. Because the child’s needs are ignored by the parents, the child begins to hyperfocus on their own needs in self-defense.
All children are narcissistic in nature, but with the narcissist, at the time during development when the child’s parents should be guiding the child’s attention outside of themselves to learn empathy and concern for the world around them, the soon-to-be-narcissist only becomes more focused inside, on themselves. There often is no guide for the narcissist. They are ignored and left alone to teach themselves. They have only themselves to rely on and this becomes a pathological situation where, though they grow older and gain adult intelligence and experience, the emotions and ego never mature beyond this point.
The problem becomes compounded as they grow older and continue to reach out to the parent for guidance, love, validation or approval only to be ignored and rejected. They are often only noticed when they act out, or when they achieve something extra-special. This is especially true in situations where there is a narcissistic parent and the child is used by the parent to make the parent look good, or where the child is only treated nicely in front of others. This creates a reward cycle where the child continues these behaviors to get attention the only way they’ve been taught they can.
The result of all these things is that they create a person who believes nobody loves them, that nobody can be trusted because everybody is fake. Their brain screams these things at them 24 hours a day, even as adults. Narcissists have a brutal superego that spits abuse at them nonstop. Nobody loves you, nobody likes you, you’re stupid, you’re fat, you’re ugly, you’re worthless, you’re garbage… on and on and on. This happens because if a child’s parents reject them, the child begins to believe something must be very wrong with them. Children are narcissistic, remember. If something happens in their lives, they believe it is because of them. If you notice, this is the same way adult narcissists behave. Many narcissists were also actually told these things by their parents, and it just plays over and over in their mind 24 hours a day. In the article « Why Narcissists Abuse, » this was covered at length. They have been neglected and rejected by their parents and it creates a situation where they believe they are worthless and defective. That in turn creates a person who believes that everyone in the world is just out for themselves and therefore no one will look out for them if they don’t. It creates a person who believes that you only give in order to get something in return. In fact, many narcissists will straight tell you that if you ask them. They insist that everyone acts like that, that everyone uses people and only gives when they want something in return. This is of course a justification for their own behavior, but in a very real way, they believe that. It’s what they’ve been taught: other people only matter what they can do something for you – and you only matter when you can do something for them.
Do you think narcissists are to blame for their behavior?
The How: Indulgence & Entitlement
Neglect alone can be enough to create a narcissist but we also usually find another key element in the development of a narcissist, and that is indulgence. You might think that neglecting a child and spoiling a child cannot occur together, but they certainlycan.
Example I: Little Jane’s parents are never home. They work all the time. Jane cries and begs for her parents’ time but they are too tired and too frazzled to give her. When they are not at work, they are sleeping or trying to relax because they are so exhausted, they don’t want to be bothered. When Jane complains that she never sees them or feels like they don’t care about her, she is told she is wrong or that her parents’ jobs are very important. This both invalidates her feelings and tells her that she is less important than the other things her parents are doing. Jane plays by herself all the time and waits for her parents to come spend time with her. She is a very sad, lonely little girl.
Jane’s parents feel guilty that they are always pushing her aside for work or because they are so tired. Instead of actually spending time with her, which would take real effort, they try to make up for it by always giving Jane whatever she wants whenever they are with her, regardless of how she behaves. They are too tired to deal with tantrums and they feel guilty, so they give in. This does not stop Jane from feeling abandoned (a KEY feature in narcissism, especially Borderline Personality Disorder) and it does not teach her to turn her focus outward instead of inward, but it DOES teach her that she can have whatever she wants. She begins to equate being given things with love and so it creates a situation where whenever someone tells her she cannot have something, this feels to her as if they are telling her they don’t love her. This hurts her very badly. It also angers her furiously because she has been taught that she deserves whatever she wants just because she wants it. She explodes and rages in grief and anger every time she is told « no. » She is never encouraged or helped to mature and learn to take care of herself. Jane’s parents have created a narcissist with their neglect and indulgence.
Example II: Little Johnny’s mother is a narcissist. He is ignored almost all of the time because his mother is too caught up in her own problems, and his father locks himself in a bedroom whenever he is at home because he cannot deal with Johnny’s mother’s behavior. Johnny does not understand why his mother is angry all the time, but he learns to avoid her and take care of himself. She seems to be angry at him, and he receives a lot of verbal and emotional abuse from her and from his father. When he comes to them with problems, he is ignored, dismissed or even laughed at. The only time they is nice to him or notice him is when other people are around. His mother is given to fits of hysteria; she cries a lot and is often overtly suicidal. When Johnny talks about these things later, he is told he is imagining things or that he is lying or crazy.
Johnny’s mother’s constant denial and his father’s endorsement of it, along with his support of everything the mother does – even when it is blatantly wrong – invalidate Johnny’s feelings to the point that he learns not trust his own feelings or perception. Johnny’s parents never tell him they love him or validate him emotionally in any way, but they do give him whatever he wants. The father does it because he feels guilty and the mother does it because she wants other people to see the things her son has. In her mind, this is proof she is a good mother. As with Jane, Johnny begins to equate being given things with love. It also teaches him that he deserves whatever he wants. He has never been able to mature out of a toddler’s way of looking at things. His parents have simply reinforced it, rather than enabling him to grow out of it. He is never encouraged or helped to mature and learn to take care of himself. Johnny’s parents have created a narcissist with their neglect, abuse and indulgence.
Neither Johnny or Jane have a guide through their development. They are on their own, wandering and trying to figure things out for themselves. Because of this, they are never taught the things people need to know to mature and as a consequence, they don’t mature. They are simply stuck, with no way to bridge the gap between their age and their emotional development. As they get older, this gap becomes more and more noticeable, and more and more of a problem. They don’t realize they are the problem because they have always been that way. It is difficult to notice a problem when something has always been the same. The disorder was « created » by their brain to protect them from the trauma of abuse and neglect, but what protects the child impedes the adult. Behavior that is acceptable in children is notacceptable in adults, but narcissists have not matured enough to be able to change it. And by the time they are adults, they don’t see any reason to. The disordered thinking is so entrenched in their mind that they believe they are right, even when they know they are wrong. You can show a narcissist all the logical, tangible evidence in the world and if it contradicts how they feel, it won’t matter. They either can’t or won’t recognize the problems in their own behavior. If they ever do see these problems, there is always a reason why it is someone else’s fault.
This « helplessness » is also very childish. Children are not the masters of their own destiny and adult narcissists do not seem to feel they are, either. They seem to view themselves as helpless children in a world of domineering, oppressive adults – or, conversely, as needing to become the most domineering, most oppressive person around in order to protect themselves, like a schoolyard bully. Even the manipulations they employ against people and the lies they tell are often very childish; they are the types of things children would do to each other, or use on a parent to try to get their way. Narcissists can easily be thought of as 2 year olds in adult bodies, because that is what you are dealing with: a person with adult intelligence and experience who has the emotional capability and control of a toddler. There is a huge disconnect here in their minds and this creates some very specific problems in their thinking and with their reasoning. These things are very hard to overcome. If the person is also unwilling to try or unable to even see it, overcoming them then becomes impossible.
The Conclusion: A Recipe For Disaster
So, there you have it. The recipe to create a narcissist is neglect and indulgence. If you alternately ignore, invalidate and spoil a child, you will likely create a dysfunctional, empty, angry person who is not only unable to see or care about anything except for their own feelings, but who also believes they are entitled to absolutely anything they want and is unable to deal with the frustration that results from not getting it. Narcissists are lost, sad, crippled, empty children walking around the world with nowhere to be and no one to care about. Prisons and psych wards are full of them. It’s a terrible, crushing disorder that completely ruins lives.
The best way to combat this disorder is to be a good mother or a good father. Spend time with your kids. Listen to them. Validate them. Don’t try to talk them out of their feelings. The world is in the midst of an epidemic of narcissism right now. We have to try to reverse it before it’s too late.