Like most personality disorders, narcissism is something of an enigma. You might think the narcissist is just someone who is very selfish, but there is a distinct difference between narcissism and selfishness.
Are we genetically hard-wired in some cases for self-centered and self-aggrandizing behavior? Or, are we influenced by our environment and our upbringing? Can past trauma create present narcissistic behavior? Or, as might seem logical, is narcissism a combination of all of the above?
There are varying opinions as to what triggers narcissistic behavior, as well as to how broad the spectrum of narcissistic behavior might be. This post gives you some general information about how narcissism develops.
Many experts agree that narcissism is caused by a combination of factors, from genetic predispositions to environmental circumstances to childhood traumas. Depending on the case, one factor might have more weight than others.
If you’ve ever wondered what causes the formation of narcissism, then take a look at the following factors.
Is Biology Destiny? How Genetics Might Play a Role
In some relatively recent rethinking of narcissistic personality disorder, as with psychological disorders in general, many scientists are now suggesting that there may be some genetic roots to the cause of narcissism.
It is known that individuals with narcissistic personality disorder have less volume of brain tissue in the left anterior insula. This is the region of the brain responsible for empathy and emotional management.
This suggests that a narcissist’s very genetic make-up might be at least partially responsible for their lack of compassion, inability to feel guilt, and dysfunctional cognition. It also indicates that the potential link between narcissism and sociopathic behavior grows out of genetic deficiencies. It might be that some narcissists truly cannot help but act the way that they do.
In addition, other researchers have argued that narcissism is linked to physical attributes. This describes a concept known as “reactive inheritance,” which suggests that someone’s actual appearance shapes their personality and behavior. These studies note that most people who exhibit pathological narcissistic behavior are physically attractive and/or athletically talented.
Nature and Neurobiology: Linking Thinking and Doing
There are also clear links between brain development and the circumstances of childhood. That is, if a child is abused, neglected, malnourished, or otherwise mistreated in significant ways, this prevents the brain from developing fully and normally. While this isn’t innately genetic, it certainly points to a biological explanation of narcissistic behavior.
This argument suggests that narcissism arises from the interplay between genetic predisposition and environmental influences. If someone is born with a smaller anterior insula and is raised by a loving and caring family, then they may or may not develop narcissistic tendencies.
But if they are raised in a dysfunctional atmosphere, then the chances are much higher that they will begin to display narcissistic behaviors from a young age.
There is also the suggestion that narcissism may provide some evolutionary advantages. Because narcissists are skilled at coercion, they potentially have advantages in mating, at least in the short term.
Additionally, narcissists are dominant within any given social group, so they are better able to access and take advantage of whatever resources (food, water, shelter) the community possesses.
Family Bonds and Childhood Harm
The environment in which a child is raised, including the ways in which the parents interact with the child, clearly plays a significant part in the onset of narcissism. When interpersonal relationships are dysfunctional or abusive, children can develop coping mechanisms—whether those methods are psychologically helpful or harmful—in order to defend themselves.
If either or both of the parents display narcissistic behavior, then a child is much more likely, regardless of genetic considerations, to exhibit the same traits. If a child is exposed to harsh criticism for even the slightest of infractions, or lavished with excessive praise for even the smallest achievement, then these learned behaviors will become a part of their own family dynamic later in life. There is also some evidence that overindulging a child can cause narcissism.
Even if parents aren’t narcissists, per se, a child who suffers from neglect or verbal and physical abuse can develop narcissistic personality disorder as a way to cover their lack of self-esteem and confidence. Parents whose emotions and actions are unpredictable can also cause a child to hide behind the self-aggrandizing characteristics and psychological manipulations that are hallmarks of narcissism.
Certainly, parents are not the only influencing figures in a child’s life. A child who is surrounded by extended family and indulgent friends may present with narcissistic behavior later in life. If a child is constantly praised or admired without needing to do anything much, then they might develop an outsized ego and a sense that they can do no wrong.
Triggers and Transformations in Adults
Most diagnoses of narcissistic personality disorder don’t occur until someone has reached adulthood, 18 or older. This is because, in the first place, people are still forming their identity and personality throughout their youth and teen years (and, of course, often beyond that). It is also because many children exhibit narcissistic behavior, which is quite natural as your superego (compassion for others) develops after your ego is formed.
So, narcissism that may present itself in young children or even teenagers may simply be a part of the process of becoming a full-fledged adult. These characteristics may dissipate over time as the child becomes more socialized, as the teenager becomes more thoughtful in their actions.
If these tendencies don’t fade away, then you may be dealing with someone who technically has a disorder. In many cases, narcissistic behavior is triggered by events or circumstances, so that narcissistic personality disorder may be latent until significant life changes reveal it. For example, a serious relationship or marriage can trigger the behavior, or the birth of a child.
Narcissism can also develop over time, as previously suggested, and someone with genetic predispositions or environmentally relevant factors may slowly slide into narcissistic behavior. For example, someone with tendencies secures a powerful position at work which triggers a growing narcissistic response full of entitlement and exaggerated successes.
While narcissism can be the result of a difficult nurturing environment, there is also evidence to suggest that it might also claim some genetic and biological causes. Most likely, narcissism develops out of a complex set of interactions between genetics, biological development, childhood circumstances, and situational triggers. It’s not nature versus nurture; rather, it’s nature in tandem with nurture.
Now that you have a better idea about the factors that influence the development of narcissism, you might want to learn more about some of the types of people narcissists find attractive. Check out this article to learn more about that.
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