Narcissism is a contentious topic which can be hard to grasp. A search on narcissistic personality disorder provides a wide set of symptoms, including:
- An excessive need for admiration,
- A sense of entitlement, and;
- A lack of empathy.
Yet before a person can be diagnosed, they need to see a professional and fulfil the DSM-5 criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. Anyone who has been in a relationship with a narcissist knows that is not going to happen, which means most true narcissists go undiagnosed.
Where does that leave us when trying to spot who has the disorder or not? In many cases, we make the diagnosis ourselves, based on our experience of the other person. Many of us deal with obnoxious people and conclude with relative confidence that they indeed ‘are a narcissist.’ This black and white way of thinking, however, can blind us to those people who lie in the middle — people with the capacity for narcissistic behaviour but who also show humility and morality. Such people can throw us off balance, making us wonder: “Are they or are they not narcissists? Do they have narcissistic personality disorder or not?”
To help us better understand narcissistic personality disorder, we need to put the label and the DSM-5 criteria aside for a minute and shift our paradigm. Firstly, we need to stop seeing narcissism as a black and white, either/or classification, by moving our focus to the continuum.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder on a Continuum
Some people are constantly arrogant and self-absorbed, and they only get worse with age. They are always in their heads, seemingly haunted by something which keeps them from relaxing enough to empathise, connect and be vulnerable. They have an incessant need to ridicule, dominate or manipulate others. If they are like this the majority of the time, then they probably have narcissistic personality disorder.
Narcissism can also be situational. A person can generally be feeling insecure, such as in front of peers or family members they want to impress. As a result, they get a spike of shame which compels them to put on a show of bravado. When it comes to covert narcissism, a person’s deepest fears in intimacy can cause them to lie and be manipulative to protect themselves from potential pain.
In other cases, a person acts arrogantly and in a self-absorbed way as a reaction to external circumstances. We all have an ego which is looking to meet our needs. Therefore, we are all capable of being selfish when the ego requires it. To progress through life, we sometimes have to look after number one. Prioritising our self-interest can also boost our self-esteem, and give the people in our life reprieve from having to look after us. In short, selfishness can be productive. Everyone has to take responsibility for themselves.
When we have our needs met, we feel more inclined to help others and cooperate. This is a natural human trait. When things are going well in our lives, we feel secure and have sense of belonging. We then become more open to others, and so our shame, humanity and moral compass function well. When others treat us well and with respect, our sense of Self can flourish.
A Temporary Lapse
On the other hand, misfortune can force us into a dark hole and bring our selfishness out. For example, immediately after a break-up or loss of a job, our sense of a positive identity takes a hit. Foundations in our life which used to cater to our needs have fallen apart. As a result, the Self is aggravated to the core, and the ego descends into chaos. This is a perfect moment to become ‘selfish,’ and look after our own needs above anyone else.
When wounded, the ego narrows down its reality and becomes more alert. Our thinking becomes black and white. We scapegoat others and pin our hopes on those who can help us. It is almost an infant-like state of mind. The ego does this to restore equilibrium and make us feel secure again. In times of threat, we need solutions, and being nice and considerate will not help us. This state of mind is transient for most people, depending on their life situation.
A true narcissist is not going through a difficult phase. Their difficult time came much earlier in life, at a time when they were meant to be nurtured and develop a sense of trust in others. Something happened which made them like this. Their issue is at the core level, and does not correct itself with a bit of self-care.
The Loss of Trust
When children are growing up, they are in a surrendered state. They have no personal power, meaning that they cannot cater for their own needs and find solutions to their problems. Instead, they hand over their power to their guardians. This requires an enormous level of trust.
Being in a state of perpetual powerlessness, the child not only looks up to their guardians, but also their siblings and extended family. When people of higher power come through for the child, the child’s trust in others is strengthened, and they establish a sense of community.
On the other hand, if the child’s guardians and the people in their circle abuse their position of power, the child loses trust in those above them. Abuse can come in many forms; neglect, dismissal, emotional manipulation, physical and sexual abuse, ridicule, and oppression. When the child is screamed at, laughed at, told what to do, controlled, objectified and has their boundaries repeatedly breached, they dissociate from their world. They turn inward, where their developing mind is threatened and terrified, arousing their ego in unhealthy ways. They decide that they cannot trust others to treat them fairly and meet their needs. Their faith goes instead to their thinking mind, which has the cunning to find solutions and manipulate its environment.
The Loss Of Self
To have a sense of well-being in their community, the child must engage their feelings. This includes empathy, guilt and shame. If the people around them play fair and respect the child’s boundaries and rights, the child can remain within the realm of human bonding. With a sense of well-being, the child tolerates their human limitations. Being ordinary and connected feels good because people in the child’s world are fair and supportive.
The abused child, on the other hand, reaches a point where playing fair is not getting them any closer to a sense of well-being. Quite the contrary. They disconnect swiftly from their emotions and identify solely with their thinking mind, i.e. their ego. Shame, empathy, guilt and all positive emotions are shut off in the process. A high price is paid, but at least balance is restored. The child can now pursue their needs without being held back by their emotions. Without their shame to remind them to play fair, they set off on a destructive path up the continuum. They become more focused on their needs, and less focused on the well-being of others. The earlier this happens in life, the more ingrained this pattern becomes, and the more likely it is that narcissistic personality disorder will develop.
What Causes Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
The causes of narcissistic personality disorder are as complex as the human psyche. Some possible factors are:
Lack of nurture
Love conquers all. When we connect to another person, our fate is theirs. We evolve together, fight together, struggle together, and grow together. We want the best for them. Our empathy for them is abundant.
But what if this experience was lacking in childhood? In many families, there is no awareness that such a state exists. Therefore, it becomes easier to treat someone as an object, rather than a person with feelings, fears, needs and dreams.
A callous and calculating environment
When nurture is missing, so is limbic resonance. There is no attunement, no dealing with emotions and instinct. People are pieces on a chessboard, and you are the chess master. Anyone who grows up in such an environment internalises this kind of narcissistic mentality.
The most common cause for callousness and a lack of nurture is trauma. Trauma can come from war, tribal conflict, economic collapse, a natural disaster and so on. Such situations shatter a person’s sense of Self. Reconnecting with the True Self and collecting the pieces becomes a treacherous pursuit. Many people do not even bother. They have more pressing needs, such as survival, or finding a safe place to live out their life.
Nonetheless, life continues. They have children. These vulnerable little sponges absorb the parent’s state, and the trauma passes on to the next generation. Physical, emotional and even sexual abuse are just the tip of the iceberg. Living in such an environment can be hellish. Narcissism is only a short step away.
Intergenerational trauma can pass on without a hand being raised or an emotional attack being made. This raises the prospect that narcissism can be genetic. A person can simply have a lowered capacity for shame because they do not have access to that part of themselves. This can be due to the original trauma their family experienced, or a conditioned evolution from numerous generations of callousness and control.
Finally, it is important to consider a person’s family environment. The parent often perceives the first child as more ‘special,’ and the child will absorb this status from their narcissistic parent. From there, the roles of the narcissistic family are dished out, impacting how narcissistic a person becomes. If you are encouraged to be entitled and special in your family, then you will become conditioned to remain that way throughout your life. If you are scapegoated and treated as less than, then your conditioning will be different to your sibling.
Regardless of the causes of narcissistic personality disorder, our responsibility remains the same; no matter who we deal with. We need to have zero tolerance for shamelessness.
The Shamelessness In Narcissistic Personality Disorder
The longer a child lives in a threatening and abusive environment, the deeper they go into their ego. They disconnect from their emotions, and move further up the continuum. From the fragility of their childhood, they internalise a paranoid state of mind, and develop a grandiose false self. They never forget the pain that came from being their genuine Self. They played fair, but the people above them did not. Within their ego, they develop a ‘superior’ self from which they primarily function. They present a false personality to the outside world, playing the required role to get their needs met. The absence of shame and emotion allows this false self to flourish. To be shameless is to be powerful. To embrace shame is to revert to a state where others can influence and hurt you. The choice becomes a simple one.
For us, when deciding if a person really does have narcissistic personality disorder, it helps to be aware of the factors which breed narcissistic behaviour. Above all, it helps to understand the states of mind which abusive upbringings produce. Furthermore, it helps to understand that during stressful times in people’s lives, they may feel a need to withdraw from empathic human connection and be heartless or abrasive. They may need to be selfish.
Regardless of the origin of selfish behaviour, our job is not to judge others. Rather, we need to focus our energy on continuously fortifying our boundaries. We should be wise in who we engage and how far we allow that engagement to go. Narcissistic personality disorder is a label which exists for a good reason. It is also just a small group of people who remain on the extreme side of the continuum for their entire lives. The rest of us, on the other hand, must admit and accept that we may shift up and down the continuum during different stages. And that’s not always a bad thing.
Behind the narcissistic personality disorder label is a hidden, destructive dynamic. To better understand and recover from narcissistic abuse, and begin healing from a narcissistic relationship, check out How To Kill A Narcissist.