Do you have someone in your life who suffers from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)?
Are you wondering what causes this harmful condition?
Would you like to understand more about how NPD develops?
If you believe that you or your partner may be struggling with narcissistic personality disorder, understanding where this condition comes from and how it develops can give you important insight and relief.
Discovering the causes of narcissistic personality disorder is an important step in coming to terms with what it takes to build a warm, secure intimate relationship — both for the person with NPD and their partner!
In this post, we’re going back to the roots of narcissism to understand how this problem develops and what people with NPD need to come to terms with in order to heal and engage in warm, secure relationships.
This post will help you answer the question:
Are people with narcissistic personality disorder just born that way or did something happen to them early in life that can account for their cold, destructive behavior?
Let’s get started.
- How NPD Impacts Relationships
- How Early Child Development Can Lead to NPD
- Babies Need a Parent to Help Them Navigate the World
- Healthy Narcissism is Part of Normal Child Development
- The Child Must “Borrow” their Parents’ Self-Esteem
How NPD Impacts Relationships
As a couple’s therapist for over a decade, I’ve seen the damaging effects that narcissistic personality disorder can have on intimate relationships. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, there’s a fundamental distortion common to all personality disorders: A distortion in the sense of who the person is and how they see other people.
In the case of NPD, that distortion serves an important purpose: to cover up deep feelings of humiliation, shame, and emotional anguish that are simply too painful for the individual to bear.
In fact, if a person with NPD were to let themselves feel those feelings, it would probably feel like they were completely falling apart. But where does this pain come from to begin with? There’s so much information out there about narcissistic personality disorder but one of the things that I find isn’t talked about enough is how this disorder gets started in the first place. That’s exactly what I’m going to talk about today.
How Early Child Development Can Lead to NPD
Understanding what constitutes normal child development can help highlight what happens when child development gets off-track and how this can lead to narcissistic personality disorder.
Babies Need a Parent to Help Them Navigate the World
Between 9 or 15 months, babies start to crawl, walk, and explore the world. They gradually move away from their parents and start to develop their own unique abilities. During this period of development, they have what the psychoanalysts call a “love affair with the world:” the world is their oyster!
To infants, everything is just so new and they’re filled with awe and excitement.
Babies are infatuated at that age with everything they can discover in their environment. They’re deeply absorbed in their own functioning: In their bodies, in walking, in peeing and pooping and talking as well as all of the objects that they find around them.
They’re focused on developmentally-appropriate tasks, like walking across the room to get their favorite toy.
At that young age, babies are unfazed: When they fall down or get bumps and bruises, they just pick themselves back up and go right on with what they were doing. But the truth of the matter is that if there weren’t a parent there to make sure that that they didn’t get overwhelmed or weren’t in danger or didn’t encounter too many obstacles, they wouldn’t get further than a few inches before they’d collapse in a heap.
The environment is simply far too dangerous and stimulating for a child to navigate by themselves.
Healthy Narcissism is Part of Normal Child Development
This early period of child development requires that parents act as a kind of mediator between the baby and the world. Someone has to be watching over the child and making sure that what they’re encountering as they begin to explore isn’t too much for them.
Infants need a parent’s support to plow ahead.
They also need to know that the parents are going to be there for them so they can return to them if the baby runs into problems or gets tired or overwhelmed.
The infant needs the parent’s support in order to feel like they’re mastering the world. The child needs to feel good about themselves and their capacities; To have successes as they master walking and talking and going after things that they want in the environment.
They need to feel that they’re great and that the world is theirs for the taking. That’s normal and healthy. We call this a time of healthy narcissism and this sense of personal greatness is appropriate for that early developmental period.
The Child Must “Borrow” their Parents’ Self-Esteem
Of course, the truth is that during that time, the child is actually very vulnerable and needs to, in a sense, borrow the feeling of strength and capacity from their parent in order to deal with the world.
Even though the child feels that they are the ones encountering the world, none of this would be possible if they weren’t borrowing that sense of power from their parent.
The child has to get the impression that they’ve got it together and they can handle things even when they don’t have the skills or the ability to manage their emotions or even use the toilet, for that matter. Their parent needs to give them lots of support, make them feel wonderful about themselves as they take their first steps or they say their first words or explore their environment.
It’s only with this kind of encouragement — a caregiver reflecting back to them how great they are — that an infant can develop the courage and the self-esteem to tackle challenges on their own.
With narcissistic personality disorder, the parent does not perform this vital regulating function for the child. They do not make the world digestible for the child, nor do they make the child feel that they are a wonderful person.
Let’s take a closer look at how what leads to this lack of support from the parent.
This kind of reflection provided by the parent is called mirroring because the parent is mirroring back to the child their capacity and their value.
The parent convey their excitement and energetic investment in the child’s pursuits and attempts to master reality.
You’ve undoubtedly seen a mother celebrating along with their child, cheering them on when they take their first steps. That’s an example of mirroring.
But mirroring from a parent isn’t just about celebrating your child’s successes. It also includes being there to support and soothe your child when they don’t succeed.
Maybe the child was struggling to walk up the stairs and they just couldn’t make it because they weren’t coordinated enough yet. In this case, the child is probably disappointed and might break down and start crying. The parent needs to be there to hold the child, to reassure them that it’s okay, that they’re always loved no matter what they do.
Here’s the place where things can get off track and lead to narcissistic personality disorder.
What happens if you have a parent who never praises and appreciates the child for who they are, who never celebrates their successes, who doesn’t even watch what they’re doing, and is only concerned about the child messing up?
Or what happens if you have a parent who thinks their child is God’s gift to humanity?
Rather than celebrating and cheering them, they make the child feel like they’re better than everyone else!
The first of these two examples represents an absence of mirroring and the second one you could say is an example of over-the-top mirroring.
Both of these scenarios, when repeated enough times in the life of the child, can lead to NPD.
In both cases, the child doesn’t get the appropriate mirroring and reflection they need in order to develop a healthy, balanced sense of self. Recall that a personality disorder involves a distortion in one’s senes of self: The experience of being a person is in some way distorted due to a lack of accurate reflection from a parent during early childhood when the sense of self was forming.
Scenario #1: The Absence of Mirroring
So let’s look at that first problem, the lack of mirroring.
There’s no one there to praise and appreciate the child and there’s no one there to comfort them when they get hurt. They are left completely and utterly alone. Those children learn at that age that they have to navigate the world alone.
As a result, the child has to muster up a false, grandiose sense of self in order to make it in a world which they are ill-equipped to deal with. In the absence of an adult caregiver who can help them master reality, they are left with no alternative.
Because the child does not receive sufficient praise and appreciation from their parent, they don’t learn that they have intrinsic value as a human being. They have to compensate for this lack of value by developing a false sense of self which is grandiose. They can appear overly-accommodating on the outside, but inside they view themselves as superior to others.
This is a defense they have to develop in order to protect themselves from the pain of not feeling valuable due to the lack of mirroring they received when they were young.
Scenario #2: Over-the-Top Mirroring
In the second situation, the child does not learn that there are any limitations on their behavior. Their parents do not allow the child to ever feel hurt or frustrated, and they are made to feel that they are superior to others.
In this situation, the child’s grandiose self is actively cultivated by the parents.
These children grow up to believe that others are worthless unless they are useful to in fulfilling their own selfish desires. They become domineering as individuals. When they don’t get their way, they can become extremely hostile.
Children who grow up being made to feel that they can do no wrong expect others to do what they want and to support them at all costs. Underneath this strident exterior, children raised with over-the-top mirroring are just as vulnerable as children who were raised with an absence of mirroring. They have the same vulnerabilities and suffer from a deep sense of insecurity about their relationships and their sense of self.
I hope this post has given you some insight into how narcissistic personality disorder develops. Hopefully, this insight will give you a greater degree of compassion for those who suffer from NPD.
Now, let’s hear from you:
When you think of the person in your life whom you think might suffer from NPD, could this childhood description account for some of the problematic behaviors that you see with this person today?
Leave me your comments below. I look forward to reading them!
Thank you, Gabrielle for providing this information, especially with regard to the impact of the absence and the over-the top mirroring on narcissistic behaviour.
Over the last 18 months I have been reading a lot of research, listened to blogs and webinars, and watched many YouTube videos on relationships, especially narcissism.
I have only very recently come across your posts and information, which I find immensely helpful. I do like your straight forward approach yet without any indication of what I believe is a problem in our society: a judgmental, blaming and shaming culture.
I believe to have been in a recent relatively short relationship (after remaining ‘single’ by choice) where I experienced a lot of the behavioural signs of narcissism in my partner, which I would attribute to over-the top mirroring in childhood – based on very brief disclosures by my partner.
On my part the learnings of not necessarily total absence of mirroring in very early childhood (I believe), but being told as I grew up that I was only who I am/have become because of the ‘man’ in my life, had impacted my early sense of insecurity and lack of self-worth.
I always say that no matter what kind of relationship – it takes two to tango…
I only started my journey of higher education as a behavioral scientist at the age of 39, with two small children and going through divorce, now over 25 years ago.
My recent relationship experience has motivated me to revisit my previous life lessons and insights. And your information and your approach I find truly refreshing and most valuable.
Thank you, Gabrielle!
So how do I save my child now? Father never looked at her, sad. She is exhibits most if not all of the s/s of NPD.
How to help would depend on the age of the child. The good news is that children will always focus on connecting with the caregivers in their lives who are available and sensitive to them. So if your child received affection and warmth from yourself, it will have a positive impact on their development, despite having one parent who was emotionally absent.