Narcissism from a childhood perspective
Updated: Aug 18
What is a narcissist?
A narcissist is a person who shows a persistent pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy.
Although he is usually unaware of it, a narcissist doesn’t like himself. A sequence of childhood experiences led him to develop a fragile ego and low self-esteem, but since acknowledging the truth would be too painful for them, they overcompensate this deep sense of inadequacy through external approval and admiration.
How is narcissism developed?
Narcissistic personality disorder begins to develop in childhood. The three main factors influencing its development are: 1. The relationship one experiences with their parents (especially during the first years of life), 2. The environment they are exposed to and 3. One’s inherited personality traits. In this article, I will focus on the first point.
There are three main scenarios which sees parents engaging in specific behaviours leading to the child’s development of narcissistic traits:
1. Over appraising the child
2. Neglecting the child
3. Over criticising the child
When a child is overpraised by their parents
It’s normal for a parent to praise their child and provide a healthy amount of love and support. However, some parents go too far by over appraising their child’s achievements and approving of the child’s negative behaviours, letting them get away with anything. A narcissist is often created by narcissistic parents who see their child as an extension of themselves. As such, they attempt to gain others approval and admiration through their child placing a huge amount of pressure on the child to be perfect, unique, unquestionable.
By doing so they essentially decide how their child should be, so he doesn’t get to explore and create his own identity. A child trusts their parents, and when they constantly praise him regardless of how he behaves, he grows up thinking he is, indeed, perfect. He isn’t taught the different between right and wrong, and between what’s allowed or not, which results in the development of a strong sense of entitlement. Eventually, he ends up believing he can behave as he pleases regardless of the nature and consequences of their actions (even when these are meant to hurt others).
The parents also fulfil all child demands (even the most absurd ones) without this one having to work for any of it. As a result of all this, the child develops the following beliefs:
1. I am perfect, special, grandiose.
2. I always know best
3. I am better than others and deserve special treatment.
4. I am entitled to get anything I want without having to work for it.
5. I can behave as I please and don’t have to without paying any consequences.
These beliefs become deeply ingrained within the child’s identity. Therefore, when confronted with other people - who unlike their parents - see and point out his flaws, he disregards them. In fact, a narcissist dismisses anyone who disagrees with them or doesn’t show them the respect they claim to deserve. His parents consistently told him he is and knows best; whoever disagrees with his opinion or doesn’t respond to his demands is seen as a worthless, unintelligent being, incapable of recognising the narcissist grandiosity, and therefore, deserve to be punished.
When a child is neglected or over-criticized by their parents
In order to lead a healthy, fulfilling life, we all need a certain level of self-esteem. As I mentioned in my previous article ‘What influences our relationships’ (click here to read it), our self-esteem begins to develop during our first years of life, and is highly influenced by our relationship with our parents.
When a child is neglected, or consistently criticised by his parents, he feels worthless and develops a low self-esteem along with a negative view of both themselves and other people. They think: “If my own parents didn’t love me and fulfil my needs, nobody will. So, why should I do that for others?’’
As the child didn’t experience a healthy form of love, they don’t know what it means to be loved nor to love. Although later on, they might realise not all people are ‘as bad’ as their parents, they don’t’ know what to do with it. For them love is equals pain, rejection, neglect, so how can they express love in a healthy way if that’s all they ever experienced?
The narcissist imaginary world
The emotional pain felt by the child is excruciating: how can they be so worthless that their own parents don’t want them or aren’t able to appreciate anything they do? The emotional pain felt by the child is excruciating, and in order to escape these unbearable feeling of shame and inadequacy, they create a fake reality and persona. In this imaginary reality they are grandiose, special, loved and adulated by everyone.
The gap between the actual reality and the imaginary one is enormous because the narcissist needs to overcompensate for that deeply seated sense of shame they felt around their parents. The stronger a narcissist sense of worthlessness, the bigger their need for love and admiration. Whereas this reality is threatened by individuals reluctant to show the respect and admiration demanded, the narcissist will punish them with all kinds of manipulative and destructive behaviours.
Do narcissists have no empathy?
Empathy is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the life of another person, essentially, it’s a person’s ability to emotionally or cognitively see things from another individual perspective. Narcissists are incapable of true empathy because they are too focused on their own views and feelings.
Their childhood traumas lead them to place their attention solely on themselves; their ego is so fragile they are not able to see past their own pain. As they didn’t feel understood nor seen for who they truly are narcissists place all their energy, thoughts, and emotions into achieving the recognition and understanding they didn’t get from their parents, leaving no space for the needs and feelings of other people.
A narcissist is not willing to consider a point of view that differs from their own, as to do so, he would need to doubt himself and stay open to the possibility of being wrong. For the grandiose narcissist, who is firmly convinced to always knows best, it’s literally impossible to do such a thing, while for the neglected and over criticised narcissists this would mean deconstructing their imaginary reality and face their sense of shame and inadequacy – also not an option!
Essentially, they don’t empathise with your feelings to protect their fragile ego, as to understand and feel another person’s emotions would mean being vulnerable. This vulnerability would threaten their need for admiration as they believe that if others see their weaknesses they will stop liking them, allowing the resurface of those feelings of shame and inadequacy experienced in their childhood.
So, what now?
As you can see for yourself, narcissists are selfish, manipulating individuals with no boundaries whatsoever; they are capable of anything to get what they want. Having a narcissist in your life can be very detrimental for your wellbeing, so it’s important to gain the knowledge to recognise one and the ability to deal with them.