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What Causes Narcissism?

This is one of the most difficult questions to answer because narcissists can come from such broadly diverse backgrounds.  Is it caused by nature or nurture?  

In some cases there has to be a genetically linked tendency.  Think, for instance, how some individuals have a natural bent toward mathematics, music, literary skills, and so on.  We often say, “It’s just in them to be that way.” Likewise some people have a natural bent toward tenderness, friendliness, or sociability.  It’s just how they are.

It also could be presumed that some people are more inclined toward troublesome trends. They can lack interest in emotions. They can be more naturally bossy.   Or perhaps they are relationally elusive. Those qualities, too, can be “just how they are.” So some of the inclination toward narcissism could be “nature.”

That understood, there are some qualities that can have a learned or experiential base.  In other words, there can be a “nurture” component. Following are some common themes that tend to be part of the narcissist’s history, and may be trained in them:

An inability to trust:  A lack of emotional bonding, less than consistent attachments, questions about whether they will be believed.

Unresolved hurt, pain, or disappointment:  Inability to process life events that went wrong, experience of trauma, feeling inadequate or different as a result of unresolved problems, harboring shameful assumptions about oneself, being bullied, feeling perpetually left out.

An evaluative emphasis for acceptance.   Acceptance can be based on achievement.  Grades, public standing, skills, group association, and awards can be central to one’s self-esteem.  If a child is low in these matters, “What’s wrong with you?” If a child succeeds, “Now you have to live up to your status.”

Vulnerability means sure ridicule.  Fear of appearing weak.  Feeling awkward about private themes like sexuality, body image, handling moods, being socially awkward, or having talent deficiencies can result in mocking or ostracizing.

Themes regarding dominance and submission.  Exposure to a pecking order in general.  The loudest person wins. Weakness is not tolerated.  Mistakes lead to shame. The inability to fluidly articulate feelings or ideas is scoffed.

An overt emphasis on superiority.  Sometimes a child can be told how much better he/she truly is.  Others may know how privileged someone else is and will develop envy.

Developing individuals who have ongoing exposure to such themes usually develop defense reactions that cause them to hide behind a False Self.  Fearing being known as imperfect, they do not develop authenticity. They seek ways to find control, even if it is only temporary. They do not learn to connect emotionally due to fear.  Anger, emotional dependencies, neediness, and anxiety can emerge.