The origin of narcissism is a topic that has been long debated in the field of psychology. The mythological story is of Narcissus who fell in love with his own image to such a degree that he couldn’t stop gazing at it. He wasted away and died as a result. In our modern era, it is commonly believed that such pathological narcissism results from one of two sources: parental abuse or parental overvaluation. Does that mean there are other causes aside from trauma or is parental overvaluation a type of trauma in and of itself?
Three factors contribute to the development of narcissism. The first is parental abuse, the second is parental overvaluation, and the third is a genetic predisposition to certain narcissistic traits. It may actually be a combination of these factors that result in narcissistic personality disorder.
Narcissism is often a confounding disorder to understand, but it’s critical to have a good grasp on what causes this mental disorder to be able to deal with it in a loved one. Read on to learn about exactly what experts think can cause narcissism.
What Causes Narcissism?
Experts have debated the cause of narcissism for a long time. Three contributing factors have been offered to explain just how this mental disorder develops. Let’s take a look at each one.
Experts in the Department of Psychiatry, University of British Columbia conducted twin studies involving both monozygotic (identical) and dizygotic (non-identical) twins. They found that the heritability factor for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) was about 45%.
That means that 45% of the variability seen with narcissistic personality disorder can be explained by genetic factors. The remaining 55% would then depend on environmental factors.
That’s a moderate to high level of heritability meaning that genetic factors have a significant influence on the development of the trait. Still, there is a lot of room for environmental factors to influence the development of NPD.
It’s important to note that there is an interplay of heritability and environmental factors. That is to say that a person might have a genetic predisposition to developing narcissism, but because they are raised in the right environment, they never do.
Likewise, someone who doesn’t have a strong genetic predisposition to the trait could still become a narcissist in the presence of certain environmental factors. So what are those environmental factors?
The Psychoanalytic Factor
Experts in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sussex in England conducted a test in 2006 on the psychoanalytical aspect of this complicated personality disorder. They note that most of the literature from psychoanalytic and clinical writings focuses on some kind of parental deficiency that caused the personality disorder.
Psychoanalytic theories offering childhood trauma as an explanation for narcissism were first described by Freud. He argued that there was a distinction between individuals who direct their love outward versus those who direct it inward. Narcissists direct their love inward which Freud claimed was either due to parental overvaluation or rejection.
Later researchers focused on parental rejection and argued that narcissism develops as a kind of defense against abandonment and the rage that generates in a young child. Even without other types of abuse, parental coldness and a lack of empathy, they argued, could cause narcissism.
The researchers in this 2006 study found that both parental overvaluation and coldness, in combination, contributed to the development of narcissism. They describe narcissism as a combination of grandiosity and fragility that results in childhood qualities that persist into adulthood.
They found that while future narcissists did receive excessive praise from their caregivers, that praise was accompanied by messages of coldness and rejection as opposed to warmth and acceptance. This causes the child to essentially discount the praise as unreal, and that disrupts the development of a healthy sense of self.
This is the other factor that plays a role in the development of narcissism. As mentioned above, it may be the way that overvaluation is delivered more than what is said that causes the problem. Researchers from various institutions who are experts in the fields of child development, education, and psychology conducted a 2015 study on more than 500 children and their parents.
They found that children tended to internalize their parents inflated views of the child, but they also found that the child’s self-esteem was predicted by parental warmth. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder have an inflated view of themselves in combination with a fragile self-esteem. That suggests that they internalized those inflated views from their parents, but their parents likely lacked warmth which negatively affected their self-esteem.
Yet another study by psychologists at the University of Wollongong in Australia found that overprotective parents created a kind of learned helplessness along with a feeling of entitlement in their children. Some argue the sense of helplessness causes the child to develop a strong sense of shame and self-loathing. If true, that would also constitute a form of trauma.
What’s the Answer?
When you piece together the different hypotheses regarding the origins of narcissism, it becomes clear that the situation is complicated. Still, it does appear that several factors contribute to a child becoming a pathological narcissist.
Outright parental rejection and coldness can hamper the development of a healthy self-esteem, and without that, the child doesn’t have the necessary internal mechanisms to support their own ego. They become filled with shame and self-loathing, and after constructing a fragile false sense of self, they require external validation to function in society.
Parental overvaluation and overprotectiveness can have the same effect though it is achieved in a different way. The child internalizes that inflated view their parents have of them (and their parents are often narcissists too), but because the message is delivered without any parental warmth, their self-esteem suffers. They also become filled with a sense of shame and self-loathing, and they require external validation.
Finally, there is clear evidence that genetics also play a role in the development of narcissism. Some 45% of the variability seen in narcissism can be explained by genetic factors. That’s almost half. Thus, it appears the answer to the question of can something other than trauma cause narcissism is yes, though it also depends on how you define trauma.
It’s basically nature and nurture as opposed to one or the other. This is likely true of myriad personality and behavioral traits. It takes the presence of certain genes stimulated by specific environmental factors to produce a particular outcome.
While a number of factors contribute to the development of narcissism, it is certain that the narcissist has a damaged self-esteem that can be identified as a type of emotional trauma. That kind of trauma creates certain emotional triggers, and the narcissist is frequently reacting as a result of those triggers. If you see some narcissistic traits in a child, it can be helpful to work with them on healing their old wounds.
My 5 Step Roadmap to Heal Emotional Triggers can help with that. It can help you or your child identify, defuse, and heal emotional triggers caused by old wounds. Once those are healed, that goes a long way toward helping to reduce narcissistic tendencies or stop narcissistic abuse. If you would like a free copy of this handy guide, just click on this link. I’ll send it directly to your inbox.
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