What Causes Some People to be Narcissistic?

It can seem as though the number of people who are narcissistic are growing, but what causes this?

It is seen as one of the ‘dark traits’ amongst psychologists alongside sadism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy and different people with narcissistic traits present themselves differently. There are 9 recognised traits which are –

  • Grandiose sense of importance where they exaggerate their talents and/or achievements. This conceals an underlying sense of impotence, shame and inadequacy
  • A pre-occupation with feelings of perceived success such as status, money, possessions or beauty
  • A heightened sense of entitlement where they believe they deserve special privileges or treatment
  • Exploitation of others to meet their own needs
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Lacks empathy where they are unable to identify with how others may be feeling
  • Is envious of others or believes others are envious of them
  • Displays regular arrogant behaviours
  • Believes they are special or unique so they do not have to conform to expected norms

These traits show themselves differently in different people as we are all our own unique beings. It is now generally accepted that there are at least two subtypes which are grandiose or overt narcissism and vulnerable or covert narcissism (Cain 2008; Pincus 2014). People with the former subtype may appear arrogant, pretentious, dominant, self-assured, exhibitionist or aggressive, whereas people with the latter may present as overly sensitive, insecure, defensive and anxious about an underlying sense of shame and inadequacy. Individuals with grandiose or vulnerable narcissism share a preoccupation with satisfying their own needs at the expense of or the consideration of others (Ronningstam, 2014). For example, a person who may be overtly narcissistic is likely to feel little stress about the emotional damage they cause to others, such as by trampling on them to fulfil their goals. The vulnerable narcissist may feel cornered if their insecurities are triggered and then behave very aggressively or defensively without a thought for others. But Why? How does narcissism develop in some people but not others?

As with many personality disorders, narcissism is thought to come from a range of genetic and environmental factors and research suggests the following factors are prevalent in the development of narcissistic traits.

  • Dysfunctional parenting is cited as one of the leading causes and this includes: –
  • Insensitive parenting – unmet needs often creates confusion and instability
  • Over-praising and excessive pampering – when parents focus intensely on a particular talent or the physical appearance of their child (this is often as a as a result of their own self-esteem issues)
  • Unpredictable care – this can lead for a child being unable to trust others.
  • Negligent care – this leads to a child’s needs not being met making it difficult for them to trust others
  • Excessive criticism – can create feelings of inadequacy which are then concealed with narcissistic behaviours
  • Abuse – can create a range of issues from feeling inferior to very vulnerable, low and anxious
  • Trauma – can create anxiety and low mood
  • Extremely high expectations – this often creates a sense of not being good enough

Studies suggest that parental indulgence is associated with both grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism. Parents being cold or controlling are more likely influence the development of vulnerable narcissism. The effects of dysfunctional parenting creates insecurities and inadequacies which are dealt with by developing narcissistic traits as a defence mechanism. Often, this means the individual does not take responsibility or own their perceived issues, possibly because they may find them unbearable. Covert narcissists unfortunately tend to reinforce their issues with their defensive behaviours.

  • Cultural influences are also said to promote a more narcissistic society, in which individualism, professional success, fame and material wealth are celebrated (foster, 2003). Increasingly societal pressures from school grades to status and financial wealth are seen as measures of success rather than developing wellbeing, family values and community responsibility. The increase of competing against each other can encourage those susceptable to being narcissistic to feel entitled to their dysfunctions at the expense of others.
  • Genetics ― There are theories that some people may have inherited characteristics although very few studies have looked at a genetic basis for NPD.
  • Neurobiology — This is linked to the connection between the brain and behaviour and thinking. This can be where repeated thought and behaviour patterns become habitual and to the point where there’s a desensitisation to feeling anything is wrong. For example, this can be not being able to consider others, feeling I should be achieving more than others or not showing thought or concern for the affect of our behaviours on others. This can be very distressing for narcissists as they become confused when things go wrong when they are simply following their perceived norms.

Behavioural responses to childhood development factors.

Difficulties in our younger years can affect people in many ways and some will adopt unhealthy patterns or develop narcissistic traits, often as a way of coping with their traumas or difficulties. For example, the child that feels unappreciated or not good enough may act out in school with grandiose ideas and gain attention for this behaviour which further encourages it. The child may also feel hard done by and will internalise their feelings. Their ability to empathise does not develop as they feel they have it worse than others and ultimately feel sorry for themselves. These feelings can manifest in aggressive defensive behaviours or in feeling it’s ok to trample over others in order to achieve their desired outcomes.

People with narcissistic traits have often created maladaptive ways to deal with their unmet needs or traumas which in the long run, makes their lives a great deal worse. This is often dealt with by repeating the same patterns creating further distress. Having compassion helps so much although often, the behaviours become unbearable and all we can do is find ways to protect ourselves. It’s ironic that narcissism can easily be blamed on factors outside of the individuals control such as dysfunctional parenting or cultural factors rendering them as a victim of circumstances. It is this child-like helpless state that they find so difficult to get out of that holds them in their repeated patterns rather than being able find a way to develop into a more responsible adult state.

For further and more indepth analysis you may want to read Current understanding of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder

As always, feel free to ask a question or make a comment


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