The Childhood Origins of Narcissism

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From Vital Mind Coaching: “Narcissism is fundamentally a pathology of the Self. The narcissistic individual experiences themselves . . . in a way that is highly polarized, between either grandiosity on one end of the spectrum, and on the other end a total worthlessness — greatness or defectiveness. So there’s this split in the narcissist[ic person], and we’ve talked about how various defenses, various ways of projecting, various ways of devaluing others around them helps keep the ‘narcissist’ afloat in their grandiose sense of Self. So narcissism fundamentally is a ‘pathology’ of the Self. And the reason why that’s important for understanding the childhood origins of narcissism is because the human sense of Self, our sense of Self, my sense of Self, develops through our earliest relationships with our primary caregivers in the first few years of life. That’s usually the mother, in most cultures, and secondarily the father; so the mother and father unit, in the first few years of life.

So if the sense of Self develops in our earliest relationships with our primary caregivers in our formative years; and if narcissism is a pathology of the Self; then it follows that something has gone wrong for the narcissist[ic person] in their earliest relationships, in their experience of what we would call attachment to their primary caregivers. And, of course, attachment is a huge topic in psychology — it covers so many aspects, it’s got importance for psychotherapy, importance for understanding trauma, even for understanding physical illness. And attachment is a hardwired biological drive to form a secure bond with our primary caregivers, usually with our parents, in the first couple of years of life . . .

Attachment is hardwired. And one of the reasons we know this is that, for example, babies are hardwired to respond to faces versus to other stimuli that don’t resemble faces; they naturally orient toward faces. We know that the brain is a social organ; unlike any other organ, the brain can’t just function by getting the right nutrients. So if a baby is born and it gets a meticulous diet of all the amino acids and the vitamins and the minerals, but doesn’t get any touch, doesn’t get any play, doesn’t get affection, doesn’t get the spontaneity of the parent interacting with it, that that child will have profound deficits in their brain development. So the brain as a social organ and brain development and Self-development interact.

So to understand where things go wrong in the typical scenario for the narcissist[ic person] in terms of their childhood, it’s important to first understand how ‘good enough’ or ‘normal’ parenting operates. So in non-narcissistic parenting, a sort of parenting that is protective against narcissism in the offspring, there is a sense of awe, a sense of wonder, a sense of unconditional positive regard toward the infant. So for a non-narcissistic parent, the attitude toward the infant is one of wonder, of awe, of ‘I really can’t wait to get to meet you, to know you, to see you grow, to see you fulfill your dreams and ambitions, and to support you unconditionally and to love you unconditionally,’ while at the same time obviously imposing appropriate boundaries and limitations, but never losing that unconditional positive regard. And this sort of attitude in parents pretty much guarantees protection against narcissism.

So for ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ to develop, usually there have been great violations to this optimal parenting mode that I’ve just described. There’s been a great deviation from that. And I’m now going to go into what that parenting style sort of looks like and how it operates.

So the narcissistic parent, or the ‘narcissist,’ invariably produces narcissistic children. Because the ‘narcissist’ relates to his or her child as an extension of themselves . . . What that means is that the child is not seen for who they are, but the child is seen for what they can do for the parent: how they can fulfill the parent’s dreams; how they can comfort the parent; how they can help the parent regulate their own emotions. So the child’s natural Self-expression is stifled, in exchange for what the parent demands or wants of the child. And there’s two main ways that this occurs. The first main way is that the child is put down; the child is repeatedly put down in their expression of themselves. So their feelings, their emotions, if they manifest a weakness, a vulnerability — that is crushed, that is humiliated, that is invalidated, or that is ignored. So the child does not actually get any accurate mirroring or echoing of their internal mental state. And they’re given the message that what you think, what you feel, your vulnerabilities, are unimportant to me, or they distress me, they make me feel anxious, they upset me, I do not want you to express these things. Because for the narcissistic parent, the child is a product for the parent’s consumption, and the parent is very easily taken off track by the child’s spontaneous expression.

So the first way that children are injured narcissistically, which predisposes them to develop a narcissistic personality structure or ‘disorder,’ is through their spontaneous Self-expression being humiliated, rejected,  ignored, or all of the above. The second way that produces a narcissistic injury in the child, that predisposes them to become narcissistic themselves, is that the child is idealized, the child is put up on a pedestal, the child is excessively praised, but for very specific attributes, for very specific things that the child can do which provides the parent with a sense of esteem, with a sense of gratification. So the child may be pushed for example to learn a musical instrument, or they’re praised for their athletic ability, or for their ability to be a star, or for their physical attractiveness. And the narcissistic parent selectively praises and values this aspect of the child, because the child is an extension of themselves, so this creates — this feeds into the narcissistic need for self-aggrandizement, for greatness . . . And those parts of the child that aren’t so great in the parents’ eyes — the vulnerability, the tears, the tantrums, the failures that children sometimes go through — are dealt with either very harshly, and the child is humiliated or put down, or the child is ignored. So in both of these combinations of parenting styles — either a humiliation, a rejection, or ignoring, or an excessive praise and admiration — the child learns that in order for me to get my parents’ affection, the affection of my primary caregiver, I need to be, in a sense, this false Self that my parents want me to be. So I have to manifest these qualities that make my parents feel good and make them give me praise and give me some sort of love.

So the child begins to disavow or disconnect themselves from those parts of themselves that the parent either ignores or humiliates — the vulnerability, the sadness, the more tender emotions — because these get in the way of the narcissistic parent, right; these do not provide the narcissistic parent with gratification. So the child learns — and they learn this very quickly, because children are hardwired, as I said, to attach to their primary caregivers — the child very quickly learns to disavow, to disconnect, to divorce themselves from those aspects of themselves which the parent has given the message, directly or indirectly, that ‘those parts of you are weak, those parts of you make me feel bad about me, those parts of you, I do not want you to express.’ And this creates the classic split within the ‘narcissist’ between grandiosity and worthlessness. So the grandiose aspects are the parts that are praised, that are given excessive attention and admiration, and the parts that are viewed as worthless are the parts of the Self that the parent could not or would not accurately mirror and reflect back to the child, because they create a discomfort in the parent.

So the child becomes attached to the false Self as a way to desperately cling on to some semblance of an attachment to the parent, because they become highly attuned to the parents’ moods, to the parents’ validation, to the parents’ acceptance of them. So they begin to amplify, magnify those aspects of themselves that can gain them esteem in the eyes of their parents, and disavow and divorce and cut themselves off from those parts of themselves that interfere with that attachment. And those parts of themselves that interfere are the parts that we need to grow into healthy human beings: those parts that express our vulnerability, those parts that express disappointment, those parts of us that help us regulate our emotions when we are upset are all very difficult for the narcissistic parent to tolerate, to soothe, and to mirror back to the child so the child can develop their own capacities to regulate their emotions and understand themselves.

So some of the ways that this can work here — you know, there’s various manifestations of narcissistic parenting styles, but the basic idea is that the child who is injured narcissistically is used in some way by the parent. And I’ve given one example already: can manifest as the child being used for a quality or a talent they have, which the parent uses to amplify their own ego. So the child has to disavow everything else about themselves, and focus on that talent that they have to gain esteem. The child may be narcissistically wounded because they were used by the parent because the child was particularly emotionally attuned or sensitive; so a role reversal occurs where a parent may for example overburden a young child with lots of explicit details about their marital problems; they may poison their minds against the other parent; and the child almost becomes like a counselor or a soother or a comforter to the parent, you know, this classic role reversal or parentification is another example of a narcissistic parenting style. And at times, you know, often, if the child does not comply with the narcissistic parent’s explicit and implicit demands that they make of the child, the parent, you know, may tantrum, may withdraw, may reject, may humiliate the child. So there are very strong incentives for a child in their formative years to become attuned to what the parent wants them to be, and to become that product for their parent’s consumption.

Now depending on how the narcissistic parenting style manifests, whether it’s more about devaluing and putting down the child or it’s more to do with putting them up on a pedestal, or in some occasions if both parents are narcissistic, one parent might do the inflating, the other parent may become envious of the child and do the deflating, it can become incredibly complex, and this can lead to various manifestations of narcissism into adulthood.

So I hope in this video . . . I’ve given you a sense of the sort of parenting style that lays the framework for the dysfunction within the ‘narcissistic personality.’ And one of the best ways to understand that is to really focus on and understand how ‘normal,’ what we call ‘good enough’ parenting works — which is a major protector against the development of ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ — where the parent has the capacity to hold the child, to comfort the child; the parent has the capacity to put their own needs to one side, and if there are needs that they need met, they get them met in an adult way, not through their children. Whereas for the narcissistic parent, the child is, in a way, used to meet the parent’s own needs; and this is the core childhood origin/genesis of the ‘narcissistic personality.’ Of course, once we understand this, we can perhaps begin to have some semblance of empathy for narcissistic individuals. Now that doesn’t mean that we’re not aware of the damage that they can inflict, but it does help humanize this ‘pathology,’ versus seeing it as some genetic or sort of alien condition that people somehow acquire; it is a disorder of the Self, it is a ‘pathology’ of the Self, and it has its roots in our earliest attachment experiences that have gone incredibly wrong.”

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