Narcissistic personalities tend to be formed by emotional injury as a result of overwhelming shame, loss or deprivation during childhood. The irony is that despite showing an outwardly strong personality, deep down these individuals suffer from profound alienation, emptiness and lack of meaning.
Narcissistic Abuse in the Family
The most common trait of a narcissistic parent is a lack of empathy for the feelings and thoughts of their child. The atmosphere from moment to moment in this kind of household hinges on the mood of the caregiver. A role reversal takes place whereby the child must meet the emotional demands of the adult rather than vice versa. These children are constantly having to suppress their own desires in order to please the parent. But trying to placate the narcissist is an impossible task and the child ends up being treated with contempt anyway. The result is that the child internalises a sense of shame in the belief that he/she has failed to live up to parental expectations. These children constantly tread on eggshells and have little choice but to surrender to the narcissist’s control or risk igniting their rage.
Never Good Enough: A Child’s Perspective
The experience of childhood trauma of this nature can have a major impact on the psyche of the adult children of narcissists. In later life, these individuals may feel deeply insecure and suffer from low self-esteem – this is unsurprising having been told constantly that they were not good enough. Such adults may also struggle with personal identity issues, not knowing who they are or what they want out of life. He/she may only feel self-worth in relation to the emotional needs of others; indeed, the need to please others may be taken to extreme lengths in adult relationships. Having experienced a constant barrage of criticism and judgement, it may be a struggle to form intimate relationships and to believe in one’s own intrinsic value.
Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental health condition in which people have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance. They need and seek too much attention and want people to admire them. People with this disorder may lack the ability to understand or care about the feelings of others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence, they are not sure of their self-worth and are easily upset by the slightest criticism.
A narcissistic personality disorder causes problems in many areas of life, such as relationships, work, school or financial matters. People with narcissistic personality disorder may be generally unhappy and disappointed when they’re not given the special favours or admiration that they believe they deserve. They may find their relationships troubled and unfulfilling, and other people may not enjoy being around them.
Treatment for narcissistic personality disorder centres around talk therapy, also called psychotherapy.
Narcissistic personality disorder affects more males than females, and it often begins in the teens or early adulthood. Some children may show traits of narcissism, but this is often typical for their age and doesn’t mean they’ll go on to develop narcissistic personality disorder.
Having narcissistic tendencies — like bragging or making yourself the centre of attention — are normal when they occur occasionally.
However, Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is different. Symptoms are more severe, occur across different situations and environments, and make relationships with others challenging, if not impossible.
What are the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder?
Use the acronym “SPECIAL ME” to remember the nine signs of NPD.
- Sense of self-importance
- Preoccupation with power, beauty, or success
- Can only be around people who are important or special
- Interpersonally exploitative for their own gain
- Lack empathy
- Must be admired
- Envious of others or believe that others are envious of them
How is NPD diagnosed?
Trained mental health professionals conduct a structured interview to learn more about an individual’s typical behaviour patterns. If someone consistently displays at least five of the SPECIAL ME traits, they meet the diagnostic criteria for the condition.
Is NPD genetic?
No, there is no gene for NPD, and people are not born with it. Like other mental health conditions, environment is a major factor. Children who are encouraged to believe they are extraordinary and always deserve the best — sometimes at the expense of others — could later develop NPD. In these children, traits like confidence are rewarded, while qualities like empathy are not.
Are narcissist’s bad people?
Narcissists are not bad people; it’s their behaviour that’s problematic. They have been conditioned to believe that they are special and deserve to be treated better than others and approach the world accordingly.
NB: Whilst living with someone with NPD can be extremely challenging, if we take the time to understand that the person may have come out of a family where in order to survive or to escape abuse of sorts, they learned an adaptation style to save themselves. We then can come from a place of empathy and encourage them to seek help.
Can I have a relationship with someone with NPD?
It depends. If your romantic partner, family member, or boss has NPD, they can make your life challenging. Because they put themselves first, you may feel belittled, and your mental health could suffer. Coping strategies include setting personal boundaries and gently walking away if they are breached. However, this is not always easy to do. Calling your partner a narcissist won’t help either. Instead, you should focus on your well-being and decide what you are willing to tolerate.
Can people recover from NPD?
Yes, but changing a learned behaviour takes time and effort. People with NPD do not generally seek help on their own, and if they do, it is often because of a co-existing problem, like anxiety. Because there is no proven medication or therapy to treat NPD, providers take an individualised approach. Getting to know the patient and establishing a trusting relationship are key components of treatment. If a person is willing to change and their therapist can help them bridge the gap between their current and desired behaviours, there is hope for recovery.
NB: If Narcissism is not addressed and treated there is a very real risk of generational trauma.
If you’ve grown up in a narcissism disease cluster with one or more NPD parents, stepparents, and/or other family members, sadly narcissism is probably your normal. The familiar is a powerful force for most of us (even and especially unconsciously), and you may find yourself drawn by and to further narcissists, as friends, bosses, and romantic partners. The narcissist’s projection, gaslighting, and belittlement are all too familiar to you, and you’ve been groomed to take abuse and blame yourself for it in the process. If you were scapegoated by a domineering narcissist father, for example, chances are you will wear a kick-me sign on your back in future relationships until you learn to find a healthier new normal.
The Good News: Regardless of what you grew up with, narcissism is not normal. Unlike the narcissist, most people develop relatively stable selfhood, learn empathy, and possess a reasonable moral compass that guides them in their relationships. Growing up under the shadow of NPD by no means dooms you to develop the disorder, nor does it mean you must repeat its patterns. Educating yourself about the diseased roots and destructive patterns of NPD and becoming self-aware in your relationships are powerful steps to break its grip over your life.
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