When even the Kardashians start throwing around a psychological term, you can bet your bottom dollar that it has become mainstream. That’s right, Kourtney recently slammed her sister, Kim, calling her a word with which we’re all familiar by now — “narcissist.”
We won’t get into the specifics of the reality show drama, but it’s fair to say that the word has become a catch-all for any behavior we deem unlikeable. Frankly, it has almost lost all meaning. Your hairdresser calls to reschedule your appointment because she’s double-booked and you think she’s a narcissist. Your ex posts a smiley picture on Instagram with an all-too-chipper caption, and you’re certain he’s one. You get the idea.
However, hidden deep behind the casual contemporary use of the word is a serious personality disorder. According to the National Institute of Medicine, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) involves a “pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” People who develop this disorder often have trouble maintaining social relationships due to the harm that they cause.
What’s more, you don’t have to have NPD to showcase narcissistic traits. Humans are multifaceted. So, you may well display the odd behavior associated with this disorder without having it. In the following article, we have enlisted the help of two experts in the field to help us better understand what narcissism is and what core factors may cause it to develop.
Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder Genetic?
The short answer is that we simply don’t know. Researchers acknowledge that Narcissistic Personality Disorder is oftentimes heritable. That means that it is passed down from a parent to their child. However, whether this is a genetic trait that children inherit biologically or learned behavior that they gain through modeling (i.e. mirroring their caregivers’ behavior) is unclear.
As unsatisfying as it may be, there is simply a lack of research when it comes to the genetic makeup of people who develop NPD. We can say that it is likely that individuals with certain genes are more susceptible to the disorder, but it’s by no means a clear-cut issue.
In addition, even if genetics do play a central role here, there are external factors we should also consider. As we will cover in the next section, for instance, our childhood experiences are likely to contribute to the development of narcissistic traits and even NPD in some adults.
How Childhood Experiences May Build a Narcissist
“Lie down on the couch and let’s talk about your relationship with your mother.”
Yes, mental health issues harking back to your childhood is a cliché — but it’s a cliché for a reason. The very basis of developmental psychology is grounded in the concept that our earliest experiences go on to shape our adult selves. Everything from the way that we react to stress to how we act in social relationships may well be influenced by our childhood.
Before we go any further, we need to recognize one fundamental point — the narcissistic traits you see in someone may have developed for a good reason, at least initially. As children, we learn which behaviors get the results we want. So, should something work the first time, we will naturally repeat it until it stops working or we’re told otherwise.
Sarah Frankfurt, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Minneapolis, Minnesota puts it best when she explains that “Human beings adapt to their environment. If someone behaves in narcissistic ways, it is because it served them well at some point in their life.”
“Yes, it can be painful to be in a relationship with someone who displays narcissistic traits, but it is important to remember that this was adaptive to them at some point,” she continues. Narcissistic behaviors are often relics of the past that have somehow stuck around, and “what served us in our early environments may not fit our current environment.”
The experiences we have when we’re young may have led to some of us becoming narcissistic or having the disorder. Whether you believe yourself or a loved one may be a narcissist, gaining this understanding of how that came to be is a smart move. Frankfurt explains that this perspective gives us the “opportunity to change, grow and become healthier and more functional in the way we relate to ourselves, others and the world.”
Being forced to grow up too quickly
Functional family set-ups work as follows: The adults act as the caregivers supporting their children’s needs. The children are free to explore their environment, learn new things, and can rely on their parents.
Of course, not every family works this way. When parents position their child as the caregiver, rather than the receiver, it may skew the child’s sense of identity.
“When adults in a family are dysfunctional, some children can take on parental or helper roles earlier than developmentally appropriate,” says Frankfurt. “When children take on adult roles, they may feel that they are better than them or superior. This teaches a child: ‘I am the helper and others need me to survive. Other people can’t take care of themselves, so I need to do it for them. I can’t trust people to take care of themselves.’”
Growing up with too much responsibility at a young age can change the way a person eventually sees themselves and those around them. Colloquially speaking, they may become the center of their own universe. Since the child takes on a high position in the household, they could well carry that into other areas of their life as they become adults.
Excessive praise or, indeed, criticism
Naturally, there are other ways in which parents can effectively teach their children to be narcissists. The pendulum swings two ways in this scenario. Both too much praise and too much criticism can lead to a young person having an inflated sense of self. Given the right cocktail of feedback at a young age, the child can carry a gigantic ego into adulthood.
A prime example of this is when parents shower their children with endless rewards and gratuitous praise, regardless of the situation or what they do. It’s no huge leap to imagine the child in question could grow up to expect the same treatment from the rest of the world.
As Niloufar Esmaeilpour, MSc, RCC, SEP from Lotus Therapy & Counselling Centre, explains “When children are excessively praised without merit or face unrealistic expectations, they might develop a distorted self-image where they feel entitled to special treatment or believe they are superior to others.”
Of course, children are naturally self-centered in their earliest years, exuding “me me me” as though their lives depend on it. That’s because they think that it does. The only way they know how to get what they need — such as food, warmth, and comfort — is by screaming at the top of their lungs for it. Luckily, most of us grow out of this immature phase as we age.
However, as Frankfurt explains, some parents can actually “reinforce a child’s natural grandiosity and ego-centrism that all healthy children have as part of development.”
While it’s every parent’s job to give their child the tools to communicate their needs in a healthy way, there are some that downright fail. Not only do they not curb their egotism but instead reinforce it while the child’s personality is still developing.
Modeling narcissistic parents or caregivers
Children copy and learn behavior from the adults around them. The psychological term for this is “modeling” or “observational learning.” You may watch the way your mother interacts with the neighbors and subconsciously pick up her mannerisms. So, if you grew up with a narcissistic parent, you may later display the same traits you once abhorred in them.
“When adults in a young person’s life act in grandiose, self-important ways, it teaches the child that this is what an adult acts like,” says Frankfurt. “Families who act arrogantly, seeing themselves as better than others, [may teach] a child to hold themselves in a superior way.”
It doesn’t end there. Children may also learn toxic habits such as gaslighting and blame-shifting from their parents. “When an adult denies mistakes or wrong-doing, parents demonstrate a lack of accountability,” continues Frankfurt. “It also puts parents in the superior position and values their experience over the children or other person’s lived experience. It teaches a child ‘adults are never wrong, I don’t need to be sorry for anything.’”
Growing up in an individualistic society
We have no evidence that narcissism is on the rise in real-terms. Its popularity online doesn’t necessarily indicate a rise in the number of cases. However, if you’re wondering why the buzzword is trending on your social feeds, you may be staring one major cause right in the face. Social media and all that it exemplifies encourages us to become more selfish and ego-driven than ever before. Especially when we happen to be rewarded with “likes.”
Whether you’re exposed to these common societal features in childhood or even as an adult, it may cause you to act like a narcissist, or display traits associated with NPD. In short, the modern world — with its emphasis on personal identity and self-promotion via social media — may be the very factory churning out a generation of newfound narcissists.
“Society and culture can also play a role. Living in a culture that promotes individualism, competitiveness, and superficial success may foster narcissistic traits in its members,” says Esmaeilpour. “This is evident in certain societies where material success, appearance, and personal achievements are highly valued.” While our society’s obsession with individual identity is not the sole reason that narcissists exist, overlooking this shift would be a mistake.
Narcissism — not to mention NPD — is a highly complex issue. So, there’s not one reason that some people become narcissists while others do not. However, a variety of factors including genetics, psychological trauma, and our childhoods may influence its development. To help you better understand this subject, in this article we’ve shared some expert opinions on the broader reasons that some individuals may display narcissistic traits.
However, understanding what makes a narcissist does not mean that you have to accept their behavior. If anyone in your life is treating you in a way that is potentially harming your mental or physical well-being, you have every right to distance yourself from that person and protect yourself. Should you need extra support, do not hesitate to reach out to a therapist.