There are several factors that contribute to the formation of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), also known as pathological narcissism, in the child. There are genetic factors that contribute to the formation of this personality disorder, but there are also environmental factors, too. These include overvaluation and spoiling, but perhaps the most widely acknowledged cause of narcissism is that of childhood trauma.
The kind of childhood trauma that causes NPD is anything that disrupts the normal psychosocial developmental progress of the child. Of prime importance is the caregiver’s lack of empathy during critical developmental stages. This results in an adult who vacillates between grandiosity and shame.
There are many types of trauma in which a caregiver lacks empathy for the child, and it is this lack of empathy that causes serious problems like narcissism. While narcissism is a multifactoral, complex disorder, it is helpful to understand the type of trauma that can cause such a serious problem. Let’s explore just how certain traumatic experiences can result in narcissism.
How Does Trauma Cause Narcissism?
There are a couple of ways that narcissism can develop, as the following video demonstrates. Basically, in some way, a child is traumatized, and that, in combination with a genetic predisposition results in narcissism.
But how exactly does that trauma occur?
In the 1950s, a German psychologist named Erik Erikson developed what he saw as the eight stages of human psychosocial development. He argued that a person’s ego develops throughout their life over the course of those eight stages.
Failures in any stage of psychosocial development could seriously impact an individual’s personality. Narcissism is caused by the failure to develop a strong sense of self. It’s helpful to understand Erikson’s stages of development, as explained by child development specialists at St. Lucie Medical Center, in order to better understand how traumatic childhood events could disrupt that development and result in narcissistic personality disorder.
Stage 1: Infancy and Trust versus Mistrust
It is during the infancy stage, which lasts until approximately 18 months of age, that a child learns either basic trust or mistrust as a worldview. Of course, an infant is completely dependent on their caregiver at this stage of development.
If your baby fusses and you attend to them in a timely fashion, they begin to trust that their needs will be met. They develop a basic trust that the world is a safe place where their needs are likely to be met.
If, on the other hand, you neglect or, worse yet, abuse your baby, they develop mistrust. They come to view the world as essentially an unsafe place where it’s possible their needs may not be met. This general sense of mistrust stays with the individual over the course of their life.
They experience problems establishing trust as an adult, and they may often feel a sense of hopelessness if they are confronted with life’s challenging situations. This can clearly affect their adult relationships as they have difficulty forming attachments to other people.
Stage 2: Toddlerhood and Autonomy versus Shame
Toddlerhood begins at 18 months of age and lasts until approximately two or three years of age. It is during this time that a child starts to learn to do things for themselves. They are physically developing their abilities to walk and talk, and they start to learn that other people exist and have needs.
When parents encourage their children to try things even when they fail during this stage, they help the child build a foundation of autonomy and self-belief. The child learns to be confident that even if they initially fail, they can ultimately succeed by trying again.
If, on the other hand, a child is either not allowed to do things for themselves or if they are discouraged from doing so or ridiculed when they do, they become discouraged, ashamed, and doubtful of their own abilities. As an adult, they may refuse to even try because they don’t believe they can do it.
This is a critical stage in the development of narcissism, and it is one in which spoiling a child can result in that internal shame, as explained in this video.
While parents may have the best of intentions for their child, when they spoil them and don’t let them do things for themselves, they are damaging the development of an autonomous sense of self.
The same thing can happen with abusive parents. They may let their child try things but then discourage them or even ridicule them when they fail. The child learns they can’t do it, and they develop shame as a result. With narcissism, that shame feeds into a strong sense of self-loathing.
Stage 3: Preschool and Initiative versus Guilt
This stage of physical development is marked by rapid changes in a child’s life. They enter preschool and are now regularly interacting with other children.
Play is a central feature at this time as it provides the child with an opportunity to develop interpersonal skills through initiating activities. They plan playtime activities, invent games, and initiate interactions with others. It’s also a time of development that is known for the many questions a child will ask in their quest for knowledge.
If they are allowed and encouraged to do this, they will develop a sense of initiative which will help them feel secure in their own leadership and decision-making abilities. If they are not allowed to engage in these initiative activities, either because they are criticized when they do or controlled by their caregiver, they develop a sense of guilt.
Parents who punish or restrict their child’s initiative because they feel their child’s questions are trivial, a nuisance, or embarrassing risk their child taking on a sense of guilt because they see themselves as a nuisance. Instead of developing purpose in their life as well as a conscience and an understanding of how to exercise self-control, such a child feels guilty for even existing. They stop interacting with others, and their creativity is inhibited.
Stage 4: Early School Years and Industry versus Inferiority
This stage begins at age six and lasts until age 11. This is when a child becomes aware of their individuality. They will often engage in various activities, such as school and sports, in search of praise and support from the people around them.
During this time, the child is learning to read and write, do math, and engage in other activities. Their teacher becomes more important in their life, as does their peer group. They want to demonstrate their competence in various areas that they have learned their society values.
It’s at this time that they begin to take pride in their accomplishments. When the people in their life – like parents, teachers, and peers – give them support and positive reinforcement for their accomplishments, they feel competent or industrious. They also feel productive and valuable.
If, on the other hand, they either don’t receive positive reinforcement or are actively discouraged from participating, they may feel like they are incompetent and inferior. Basically, either the child learns they can achieve their goals, or they feel inferior and doubt their abilities which undermines a sense that they can reach their potential.
As with many of these stages, balance is key. Some failures help a child develop modesty, but what determines their sense of industry versus inferiority is how caregivers and other important people respond to such failures, as well as the child’s desire to try new things.
Parents who encourage their child to try something new and who encourage them to try again even if they fail are helping that child develop a sense of competence. That’s how the child learns to have a sense of industry as opposed to inferiority.
Stage 5: Adolescence and Identity versus Role Confusion
This developmental stage begins at approximately 12 years of age and lasts until 18. It is during this time that an individual is developing their sense of self. They are figuring out who they are and what is important to them.
Physically, a child is transitioning to adulthood, and it’s during this critical stage that they are also becoming more independent and starting to think about their future. They are considering what they might like to do for a career, developing intimate relationships, and generally trying to determine where they fit in insofar as their role in the world.
As the child makes this critical transition, they re-examine their identity to try and figure out who they are. Notably, Erikson felt that there were two identities developing at this time: the sexual and the occupational. If this development goes well, the individual experiences a reintegrated sense of self in which they understand what they want to do or be and their appropriate sex role.
Moreover, success at this stage produces the virtue of fidelity, which is defined as the ability to make commitments and accept other people, even if they have ideological differences. Failure during this stage leads to role confusion, which means the individual isn’t sure of their place in society, and they aren’t sure who they are.
This creates an identity crisis, which can then lead to rebellion, which often takes the form of a negative identity accompanied by feelings of unhappiness. Failure can be caused by unrealistic expectations, ridicule, and bullying that creates undue pressure on the developing adolescent.
Stage 6: Young adulthood and Intimacy versus Isolation
This stage begins at age 19 and lasts until age 40. This is when individuals establish and build upon relationships. The key to success in this stage involves the ability to experience intimacy with other people, while failure leads to isolation.
Individuals who are able to share themselves intimately with other people are better able to establish long-term commitments and experience a sense of safety and care in their relationships. When an individual is unable to experience intimacy, they experience isolation and loneliness, which can result in depression. Success leads to the virtue of love, while failure leads to loneliness.
Individuals who learn that intimacy exposes vulnerabilities or who carry the weight of internal shame and self-loathing become fearful of such close relationships. Likewise, those individuals who have difficulty forming attachments to other people are unable to experience intimacy as a result.
Stage 7: Middle Adulthood and Generativity or Stagnation
This stage begins at age 40 and lasts until age 65. It is focused on generativity, which is a sense of care and responsibility, versus stagnation, which produces a sense of bitterness and unhappiness that leads to restlessness and isolation.
In short, generativity refers to leaving your mark on the world through creativity or nurturing that you believe will outlast you. This might be accomplished through mentoring others or creating positive changes that leave a legacy. In other words, you’re giving back to society through your productivity, your children, or your involvement in the broader community.
People who experience generativity feel as though they are part of something bigger than themselves. They feel useful and accomplished. If you don’t develop a sense of generativity, however, you feel disconnected from your community, stagnant, and unproductive.
People traumatized at a young age often can’t form the kinds of connections that lead to generativity during this stage. Moreover, they are filled with a sense of shame that prevents them from feeling accomplished.
Stage 8: Late Adulthood and Ego Integrity versus Despair
This stage begins at age 65 and lasts until death. During this stage, people are contemplating their accomplishments or lack thereof. They are reflecting on their life’s achievements.
Those who feel they have led a successful life and achieved most of what they wanted to do will develop ego integrity. Those who regret not achieving their goals, conversely, will be filled with bitterness and despair.
At this age, productivity slows, and the individual enters into a more reflective time. If they feel dissatisfied with how their life turned out, they can develop despair, a sense of hopelessness, and severe depression.
Success at this stage brings wisdom, which enables you to look back on your life with a sense of completeness that leads to a pleasant closure. You can more readily accept death without fear in that case. Those who do not experience ego integrity are typically filled with regrets.
With a better understanding of these life stages, we can now examine where trauma disrupts development and causes pathological narcissism.
What Trauma Disrupts the Developmental Stages to Produce Narcissism?
According to the Austrian-born American psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, pathological narcissism results from a parental lack of empathy during critical stages of development that causes a child to be unable to regulate their own self-esteem.
That produces an adult who vacillates between irrational grandiose ideas of superiority and equally irrational feelings of inferiority. Because of this vacillation, the adult narcissist comes to rely on other people to regulate their self-esteem, thereby providing them with a sense of value.
Kohut argued that infants have two basic psychological constructs: a grandiose-exhibitionistic self which, under normal circumstances, develops into self-assertive ambitions, and the idealized parental image that would normally develop into internalized values and ideals. The failure of either construct to develop into its healthy mature state results in psychopathology.
If the grandiose-exhibitionistic self doesn’t evolve into self-assertive ambitions, the individual remains fixated on grandiosity, whereas a failure of the parental image to develop into internalized values and ideals causes the individual to fixate on archaic idealizations.
The ideal development of these stages progresses through the formation of self objects. A self object consists of the developing child plus those people in the life of the child who help them to maintain self structure and generate a sense of cohesion and steadiness psychologically.
As an infant, the child doesn’t recognize that their caretakers are separate individuals from the child. In other words, the child thinks of them as extensions of their own unformed identity. They think that way because they must rely on them to provide the child with all of their needs.
As they learn to do things for themselves, those concepts evolve into their developed states, and the child realizes their independent nature and is able to maintain their own self-esteem based on their internalized values.
What Exactly Produces Narcissism in Kohut’s Model?
When self object needs are not met in an empathetic manner, it results in the developmental arrest of those psychological constructs mentioned previously. That can cause pathological narcissism.
Kohut cites three reasons for a lack of parental empathy:
- A poor fit between the needs of the child and the needs of the parents
- The parent’s inability to react to and nurture the child
- The child has unusually great self object needs
The earlier in the life of the child that these failures occur, the more severe the developmental arrest and the more severe the pathological narcissism will be in the adult.
In this description of pathological narcissism, Kohut is also describing certain narcissistic tendencies as inherent in all humans. It’s understandable given that infants only have a limited number of ways to express themselves, and they initially require all of their needs to be met by external caretakers. What’s more narcissistic than that?
In Kohut’s model, we grow out of our narcissism as long as we are provided with empathetic feedback during critical developmental stages. That early type of narcissism is a normal part of development. It only becomes pathological if we fail to grow out of it.
Growing out of it means being able to try, fail, and try again with empathetic caregivers who provide us with nurturing encouragement. When they don’t do that, a child develops a fear of encountering and/or repeating past failures. That results in the development of a false image of superiority.
Where Do Kohut’s and Erikson’s Model Intersect?
Kohut’s and Erikson’s models show us where the failures described by Kohut can interfere with the critical developmental stages identified by Erikson to produce pathological narcissism. The variability in expressions of NPD is created by the developmental stage at which the self object failures occurred.
Many narcissists inherently mistrust the world and believe that their needs will not be met. Moreover, they have problems forming attachments with other people. For those individuals, the lack of parental empathy occurred early in life, during the infancy stage.
Narcissists also carry the weight of internal shame and self-loathing, which would indicate the parental lack of empathy, in the form of abuse or neglect, occurred during toddlerhood. Still, others may have developed narcissism later in life, during the adolescence stage, when they experienced role confusion. It’s even possible to develop narcissism in the later stages of life.
In reality, it’s possible for pathological narcissism to develop during several developmental stages. What’s more, the form the trauma takes is not as big of a factor as the psychosocial developmental stage at which it occurs in the life of an individual. Whether a caregiver is physically, sexually, or emotionally abusive, it’s the fact that they are traumatizing their child with a lack of empathy that causes the developmental arrest.
Two things are happening concurrently: the grandiose-exhibitionistic and idealized parental images are not evolving into their healthy adult states, and that is happening during a critical stage of psychosocial development that results in a developmental arrest and subsequent narcissistic pathology. In short, it’s the perfect storm.
As narcissism develops, the individual learns to manipulate the people in their life so that they can support their self-esteem. They don’t have an identity structure that can self-soothe or maintain a sense of self-worth without constant input from external sources. To manipulate the people around them, they use projection, triangulation, gaslighting, lying, and other forms of emotional abuse. They use their victims’ own emotional triggers against them in a desperate attempt to feel good about themselves.
While understandable, given the reality of how trauma creates narcissism, it’s a nightmare scenario for the victims of narcissism. That’s part of why I’ve developed my 5-Step Roadmap to Heal Emotional Triggers. This handy guide will help victims identify and defuse their own emotional triggers and even heal the wounds that created them. It’s free, and if you click here, I’ll send it directly to your inbox. Your empathy for the narcissist should not be rewarded with abuse, and this can help you prevent their manipulation and control.
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