The causes of narcissistic personality disorder are as complex as the human psyche. Many children grow up in a cold, grandiose environment, incessantly pushed toward being more and achieving more by an overbearing parent. The parent themselves usually has narcissistic personality disorder, and is driven by an unrelenting thirst for more; more status, more money, more attention and more recognition, and forces their child to partake in this doctrine. Growing up in such a shameless environment suffocates the child’s authenticity and increases their chances of becoming narcissistic. But the question remains: Where did this thirst originate?
In relationships, a bond gradually forms through which the relationship evolves. Much like a highway between two cities, attachment permits the sharing of energy and allows the people involved to influence and nurture each other. As the connection deepens, the other person becomes indispensable, and the idea of separation becomes progressively more painful. An example is the post-breakup pain we experience for weeks or even months on end. It is the consequence of a rupture in attachment.
Before they can develop, a child must establish a safe base within the mother. They cling to her at all times, and cry and scream when left alone. These protest behaviours are caused by threats to the attachment, and are fuelled by the terror of abandonment. The tiniest disruption causes immense pain for the child. Like an emotional umbilical cord, the attachment between mother and child sustains the True Self. Ideally, the mother is attuned and loving enough for the child to trust that she will always be there. This culminates in a secure attachment style, wherein the child can connect and separate from loved ones with minimal fuss or anxiety. A secure attachment involves a continuous, attuned connection between mother and baby through the use of touch, proximity, eye contact, sound making, facial expressions and the mirroring of emotional states. The child’s alignment with their True Self relies entirely on this relationship, and any extended break in the connection can cripple their development.
A lot can go wrong during this fragile process. Mothers can be overwhelmed by their environment. Their ancestors may have lived during a time plagued by conflict or war, where survival and stability were a higher priority than emotional well-being and actualisation. Intergenerational trauma can plague a family, passed on through behavioural patterns, belief systems, addiction and even DNA. This leads to systemic dysfunction becoming like the air a family breathes. Those who grow up in such an environment often adapt by becoming callous, ruthless, manipulative, emotionally-dysregulated or emotionally-detached. As a result, they behave in destructive and unpredictable ways.
Mothers with this kind of personality are incapable of sustaining the steady openness and warmth the child needs. Instead, they push away the child who frustrates or triggers them. Other insecure mothers, on the other hand, might have a difficult time allowing their child to separate and individuate. Such a mother clings tight to the child and does everything in her power to manipulate them into staying by her side. She may become intrusive, controlling, attacking or judgemental, too caught up in her inner turmoil to relate lovingly to her child. Consequently, the child’s ability to safely connect and separate is compromised, resulting in an insecure attachment style.
Shame run rampant
One of the most painful yet insidious wounds the traumatised child carries is that of not being seen. A child craves the acknowledgement and validation of their guardian’s loving gaze. The parent needs to be present, calm and accommodating of the child’s chaotic emotions. Only through being seen does the child feel legitimised. Neglectful parents are often too dissociated, distracted, depressed or emotionally-unstable to see the child. As a result, the child will come into the world with a wounded sense of Self. When they express rage to protest this painful state of affairs, the child is counterattacked and forced to repress their anger. As a result, they project the energy of their anger back toward themselves as self-hatred. Rage accumulates, remaining dormant and unprocessed. Having no power to get their need to be seen met, the child concludes that they are simply not worth it, and they become tortured by an agonising sense of inferiority and worthlessness.
A caring, respectful guardian will do their best to shield their child from experiencing too much shame. In contrast, an abusive guardian will behave in ways which trigger it torrentially. Shame burns in every part of the child’s being, robs them of their willpower, and leaves them in a state of despair. By being able to set boundaries through anger and feel connected through love, the child can experience some sense of control and power. They can even experience a healthy amount of shame, especially when resistance comes with compromise. If instead the child is denied their right to be seen, they reach a point where they can no longer tolerate the pain.
The loss of control
To the child, the parent’s reasons for abuse and neglect mean nothing. A happy and loving parent is good, and an emotionally deadened or tyrannical parent is bad. The child has no hope of understanding or transcending the dysfunction of their situation. When a guardian neglects the vulnerable child, the child is exposed to a sense of impending terror from the spectre of abandonment. When a guardian attacks the child or grossly abuses their boundaries, the child experiences shock, eventually being flooded with toxic shame. Both forms of abuse threaten the child with annihilation; one is death by abandonment, the other is death by attack. In both situations, the child’s foundation collapses from the psychological earthquake, along with their sense of Self. Devastated and having lost all control, they clamber to regain it — whatever the cost.
Melanie Klein referred to the child’s terror response as the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ position, which is another term for the fight/flight state and its subsequent coping mechanism. The ‘paranoid’ part is the fight/flight state, which manifests as panic and dread. This fear has two sides; the fear of engulfment, and the fear of abandonment. The ‘schizoid’ component is a freeze response, where the child dissociates from reality, numbing their emotions and retreating into fantasy. This coping mechanism is the first line of defence the child has to regain a feeling of control. By escaping into their mind, the child can conjure an imaginary sense of connection and power. In abusive families, the child’s ability to resist is forbidden. Anger is met with greater anger, frustration with greater frustration. The shame and terror become too much. The child is forced to dissociate from their external experience and goes within to find reprieve.
Wrestling back control
It is the nature of trauma that even when the original situation is gone, the fear generated by the threat remains in the body. Unless this original wound is quickly depressurised and released, it remains in place, and the ego builds around it. The fight/flight alarm bell stays permanently activated, functioning outside of the child’s conscious awareness. Meanwhile, the child moves on to life’s challenges, even as paranoia infects their every experience. This leaves them far less likely to trust others, since they are always looking through the lens of trauma. Add to that a string of shame experiences, which bind together with the trauma, and you have the perfect cocktail for a dissociated personality.
With trauma and shame consuming the child, it takes little for them to realise that powerlessness leads to terror, and regaining power in any form alleviates it. As they grow, they scramble to develop ways to gain control over their environment. They get their chance during the narcissistic phase, where imagining oneself as superior crystallises in the ego and forms into a grandiose false self; a construct detached from reality.
As the child’s mind emerges, this new ‘self’ forms over the traumatised one, bringing with it the capacity for the child to influence their environment and manipulate their mood. The child finds that imagining this emerging self as powerful offsets feelings of shame and vulnerability. They split this imagined self in two, committing entirely to their ‘good child,’ and discarding the shame-based ‘bad child.’ They then reinforce the grandiose, ideal self by experimenting with controlling the people around them to prove their superiority. You can see this in the child who constantly asks for approval, who bullies other children, who compulsively creates fictional stories, deflects questions from adults to avoid accountability, or tries to gradually push the limits by misbehaving in covert ways. In each case, the child is acting out their imagined ‘all-powerful’ self.
In the face of overwhelming terror, there is usually a limited integration of the True Self into the ego, since experiencing it is too painful. By living through their false self instead, the child loses touch with their guilt, empathy and shame. Their world becomes an abstraction, a projection of their imagination. The worse the trauma, the more compelling and absolute this false self must be. The child might practice being aloof around family members, hoping to remain under the radar. They might also find that their innocence disarms the adults, and so might exaggerate it by being charming and obedient. They integrate these behaviours into their personality and use them as tools to distract both themselves and others from their traumatised, shame-based Self.
The price they pay for this solution, however, is immense. To find sanity, they sell their soul. They give up their need for security and actualisation, and instead direct all of their life energy into maintaining their grandiose false self. The True Self remains buried, and is replaced with a pale imitation; a set of behaviours which make up a personality, aimed at gaining cooperation through deception, manipulation and control. Instead of genuine connection, the child enters the world of power; a realm where they pull the strings. This pseudo-reality exists in its own bubble, requiring others to engage and feed it to keep it alive.
To connect authentically, a person must have object constancy. Put simply, object constancy is a stable, internalised image we hold of a person. We develop object constancy in a relationship when our loved one is consistently loving and accepting of us. Through repeated positive interactions, we eventually come to believe that we are worthy of love, and become confident that the relationship will remain into the future. When our loved one goes away for a period of time, we keep the internalised image of them inside our mind and heart, knowing that they will return.
Object constancy is strengthened above all during conflict. If we can have disagreements or arguments with our loved one without the threat of them cutting us off or walking away, we come to trust our bond with them even more. The relationship transcends differences. Whether they want to be in our life never comes into question, even if we are disagreeable or behaving badly. This is not to say, however, that object constancy equates to unconditional love. We do not get a free pass to mistreat others. A loved one can set boundaries with us, and they can get distressed when we hurt them. Disagreements and betrayals must be resolved, yet the integrity of the relationship is never threatened.
A lack of object constancy is an inability to maintain a positive, realistic picture of the other person. Without it, a person has no real estate inside another’s heart, and therefore can be dismissed before they can cause any harm. A lack of object constancy is also usually to blame for people who have a high turnover of friends or relationships. They are simply unable to maintain an attachment through the uncertainty that comes with loving.
Because the wounded child lacks object constancy, they create it artificially in their mind. They begin by withdrawing their energy from their primary loved ones and creating an idealised version in their imagination. This allows the child to regulate their fear of abandonment by imagining the people in their life to be perfect, loving and, above all, loyal. By relating to an image of flawlessness, the wounded child can avoid being hurt or abandoned. Their loved ones are, after all, perfect.
The traumatised child holds a rigid, binary view of relationships. When people are cooperative and non-threatening, the child sees them as good, and treats them as such. When the child feels hurt or offended by others, they re-cast them as all-bad. From there, they can easily distance themselves from that person, allowing the child to ‘avoid’ being abandoned or humiliated. In a perpetually-vigilant state, the wounded child is relating based on how a person makes them feel in the moment. Also, by dealing with others in such a way, the child can avoid the potential hurt which comes when people become ‘real.’
The unshakable false self
Although a child is magical in their thinking to begin with, they usually get a chance to test their fantasies against reality and tone down their delusions. For the traumatised child, reality is terrifying and painful. Grandiose fantasies are all they have to offset their trauma.
Eventually, a convincing, tightly-layered false self develops as the child moves into adulthood. With a dense, rigid ego, there is no space for the True Self to express itself, robbing the child of the experiences needed for growth and actualisation. Peeling off the layers of this false self subjects the child to a torrent of painful emotional flashbacks. Consequently, the child maintains a tense and armoured body, their breathing shallow and constricted, all to stop the repressed trauma from rising into consciousness. Meanwhile, the child clings to their paranoid delusions and grandiose images. This state may often be detached from reality, but it gives the child a sense of safety and sanity.
The more compelling someone’s false self is, the harder it becomes to challenge it. People cannot see that beneath the traumatised child’s facade they are forever vigilant, always on guard, unable to establish a foundation for mutually-beneficial, authentic relationships. What perpetuates this unshakable false self and keeps it functioning well into adulthood is that a) it exists beyond the child’s realm of awareness, and b) it maintains the sanity of the child, along with their psychological health. It is an integral part of them, and no matter how intelligent and resourceful they become, the core remains untouched. To challenge this false self is to provoke the child’s identity, which to them is what allowed them to survive the terror of childhood.
Not even the most loving intentions can convince the wounded child to let go of their defences. Their paranoia is deeply entrenched and out of reach. To go beyond the ego and expose their True Self, the wounded child will need to have some level of trust, which by now they have long abandoned. The purpose of childhood is to offer a child plenty of time to build a secure attachment and to learn how to manage their emotions in relationships. The wounded child gets minimal opportunity to achieve this. When they do grow old enough to escape their dysfunctional environment, the time for unconditional love and total dependence is over, and the chance to establish a mature emotional foundation is long lost.
When trust dies
A key ingredient for the True Self to thrive is intimacy via a secure attachment. To be intimate with someone is to be truly seen by them. Not only are they present with you, but open hearted. You feel safe expressing your thoughts, emotions and doubts to them. The intimate other looks upon you with love, and is delighted not only by who you are, but also by the fact that you simply are. This kind of emotional resonance breeds confidence and power in a child. The more intimacy you receive, the more your True Self feels safe to expand.
In short, intimacy is the absence of ego. Where the ego is a mind construct designed to filter a person’s experience and guard their emotions, intimacy is the relinquishing of this protective layer. Such an act of faith allows humans to connect authentically, which creates a sense of well-being, safety and compassion. To allow intimacy, a person needs to feel the trust that only a secure attachment can provide. The less resistance and the more respect they receive during intimacy, the more confidence they can have in others. Their self-esteem grows, and they feel secure enough to express their emotions and desires. In a state of genuine connection, a person is also more likely to adhere to moral standards, because intimacy by design means functioning within the realm of our emotions, which includes shame and empathy. To maintain the connection, we are challenged to consider the feelings of the other person. This mutual space is beneficial for all parties, and it is in the best interest of everybody to handle each other’s feelings with care.
Furthermore, it is the promise of intimacy which endears us to each other. Once our basic needs are met and we feel secure in our environment, we begin to crave deeper human connection. If the child has a dismissive or tyrannical parent, then this natural evolution is thwarted, as the path to intimacy is either blocked or compromised. To be seen, the wounded child must jump through the hoops of their guardian’s expectations. The parent might provide some mirroring and care, although the condition of that love is the child’s obedience. By being offered some path to love, the child remains endeared to their guardian and maintains the hope for true intimacy and unconditional love. Also, many children have older siblings who provide some mirroring and care.
In the worst cases, the child is perpetually abused or neglected without any offer of intimacy. They looked to their guardian to love them and were rejected, leaving them with a burning sense of inadequacy. Other times their behaviour brought on their guardian’s wrath, and the resulting trauma became too much. It is precisely during these times of shame and terror that the child will look to their inner ‘good child’ to provide them comfort and escape. This good child is their grandiose false self, which creates the illusion that not only are they ‘good,’ but better, stronger, smarter and more capable of being seen than anyone else. They conclude that nobody can be trusted to cater to their needs, deciding never again to lower their guard. They may in some cases remain outwardly loyal to their guardian, but internally they have long broken away. In the meantime, the child’s paranoia never wavers, and they must control their environment at all times. They remain hyper-vigilant, their bodies tense to block emotions, terrified of their trauma and toxic shame.
The child leaves their emotional world behind and connects with a construct of their imagination. In doing so, they effectively cease being human. That is, they refuse to be ‘ordinary,’ and no longer feel what an average person feels, hence allowing them to break free from the ‘bondage’ of humanity. Shame, morality, empathy and love cease playing a part in tempering their grandiosity. They give up the search for intimacy and stop trusting that it will come to them.
There is a price to pay for this Faustian bargain. While the traumatised child has gained a sense of power and pain relief, they have given up the sustenance of their True Self. Without the internal nurture of love, wisdom and humanity, the child becomes plagued by an eerie emptiness. To maintain their false self, they need to feed it externally. They observe their guardians and other adults, and take note of how those people obtain compliance. Grandiosity, aggression, trickery, charm and shamelessness become the child’s ways of relating. Using these tools, they test their environment, fishing for weak spots in others and opportunities to manipulate and control. To survive and thrive, they need a constant supply of attention and energy for their false self. There is no resting in being for the wounded child. Attention, control and mind games are all they have.
If the wounded child manages to gain a monopoly over power, they use fear and emotional manipulation to enforce it. Where power is lacking, they turn the forces of love and anger against others to obtain it, withholding attention to gain the upper hand and feigning love to draw back those who pull away. This is the traumatised child’s way of using attachment to their advantage. A power imbalance then emerges in the relationship, and they even go as far as threatening the attachment to enforce compliance, knowing how painful abandonment would be for the insecurely-attached person. In all cases, the wounded child’s aim is power and control. Above all, they want to avoid feeling helpless or vulnerable.
Beyond attachment, people also respond positively to the child’s shamelessness, impressed by their apparent confidence, ambition and self-control. Without the negative emotions of their True Self, the wounded child takes on a clean, godly appearance. They find they can make intense eye contact, their posture improves, and they intimidate more easily. They use all of their craft and cunning, seeking out ways to manipulate their environment for the purpose of obtaining power. They relish the resulting feeling of control, fantasising about how far they can take it. In time, narcissistic supply becomes their drug of choice, and the narcissist is born.
To learn more about the causes of narcissistic personality disorder and begin healing from narcissistic abuse, check out How To Kill A Narcissist.