If you’re dealing with a narcissist, you definitely would like to know what causes those kinds of behavior. You’re likely striving to understand this person and how they came to be the way they are. You might reasonably presume that they suffered some kind of abuse in their life that led to the dysfunctional behaviors seen in narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). But how are narcissism and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related?
There is an association between narcissism and PTSD, but it is a complex correlation. There is a significant difference between trauma-associated narcissistic symptoms (TANS) and PTSD. In fact, it may be that narcissism plays a role in the development of PTSD rather than the other way around.
It’s important to understand each of these conditions and what causes them in order to help explain the relationship between PTSD and narcissism. There are some important distinctions you’ll want to know.
Normal Narcissism and Childhood Development
Narcissistic personality disorder is very different from the normal narcissism that you see in children. Children have a need for a certain amount of dependence and admiration from other people in their life as they are growing and developing their own sense of self.
When a child gets age-appropriate attention, they also learn to acknowledge that kind of nurturing with both gratitude and reciprocity. Children with a narcissistic pathology don’t properly develop a sense of self that will allow them to accept their dependence and reciprocate and express gratitude.
What Causes Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
The failure to develop a sense of self stems from a childhood environment where there were dramatic deviations from what we would consider ideal parenting. This typically takes one of two forms.
One type of childhood environment that can cause NPD is that of abuse or neglect. This can happen, for example, if a child has narcissistic parents who consistently devalue and criticize their child. They may also become physically abusive. They see their child as an extension of themselves rather than as an independent being, and as such, that child’s behavior reflects on their parenting abilities.
Because the child is not allowed to develop their own personality, they construct a false self to protect their true self from the constant devaluation that happens as a result of their parent’s unceasing criticism. They bury their true self, which they believe to be worthless and weak, deep inside where they think they can protect it.
The other kind of environment that can produce narcissism is that of parents who overly pamper their child. Much like the abusive parents, they too don’t see their child in a complete, integrated way; rather they perceive an idealized image, one that has a specific role to play in the family unit.
This child is not allowed to be independent or to make their own choices in life. Instead, the parents make all of the child’s decisions, and they even tell the child what they like and don’t like. This results in trauma, but the child (and the adult they become) has difficulty identifying the specific source of their wound.
Of course, in both of these cases, these children are traumatized, but there is a distinct difference in the way they are responding to that trauma from what is seen in PTSD. They are experiencing an incomplete development of their personality that results in narcissism. They may also experience PTSD as a result of outright abuse or neglect.
How is PTSD Distinct from Narcissism?
As NPD abuse survivor and awareness advocate Jacqueline Perez-Castillo rightly points out, “PTSD is not a disorder but a natural response to a disorder.” Like narcissists, people who experience PTSD often dissociate when they experience a flashback to a traumatic incident in their life.
When narcissists dissociate, however, it is usually in response to a threat posed to their false self. In contrast, the PTSD victim is dissociating in response to a trigger that causes them to relive a situation where their actual self — their life — was in danger.
Narcissists may have also experienced abusive situations where their life was in danger, and as a result, they might also have PTSD, but this is a separate issue from the development of their personality disorder.
Both the development of their personality disorder and their PTSD may have resulted from abusive parenting, but this is not a situation where one problem caused the other. Rather one problem — abusive parenting — caused both their narcissism and their PTSD. The situation becomes even more complex when you consider TANS.
How is TANS distinct from PTSD?
TANS stands for trauma-induced narcissistic symptoms, and the symptoms associated with this can closely resemble symptoms of PTSD. With TANS, however, the vulnerability that underlies the traumatic stress is the result of NPD. Again, this is a situation where the narcissist’s false self is threatened, and their response is one that is driven by an inner shame that produces an irrational rage.
With PTSD, the symptoms are driven by anxiety and are the result of re-experiencing that old traumatic event. Additionally, the individual with TANS blames other people for the problem while the person with PTSD blames themselves and feels guilty for not having prevented what happened to them.
One big difference in the presentation of symptoms is that individuals suffering from TANS typically don’t have nightmares associated with a specific traumatic event whereas those with PTSD do. People suffering from TANS also feel humiliation and embarrassment as opposed to the feelings of helplessness and intense fear that characterizes PTSD.
The distinction between the two problems is important since it makes a difference in how the individual is treated. Misdiagnosis of PTSD in someone who is really suffering from TANS will usually result in treatment failure.
Can Narcissistic Abuse Cause PTSD?
The answer to this question is an unequivocal yes, narcissistic abuse can cause PTSD. The constant devaluation and criticism common with narcissistic abuse can erode an individual’s confidence and cause them to question their own sanity. In addition, narcissists can also become physically abusive and even threaten the lives of their victims which can undoubtedly cause PTSD.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that narcissistic abuse from one or both parents can cause both narcissism and PTSD in their children. Both conditions can be a response to the abuse these types of parents heap on their children.
The relationship between narcissism and PTSD is complicated, to say the least. Both conditions can result from narcissistic abuse and co-occur in the same individual. But there is a distinct difference in how the narcissist responds to trauma in that they fear the loss of their false self as opposed to their true self.
The narcissist has buried their true self, and thus, experiences trauma differently from those who have not. Both the narcissist and the sufferer of PTSD dissociate, but for different reasons. All of this truly creates a complex picture that can be difficult to disentangle. It’s important to do so, however, if you’re hoping to help a narcissist recover.
This gives you more insight into how PTSD and narcissism are related, and now you should definitely check out this article which will teach you some great strategies for recovering from narcissistic abuse.
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