The Causes of Narcissism

What causes narcissism?

Narcissism is egocentric behavior that occurs as a result of low self-esteem, or feeling inferior in certain situations, caused by a gap between the ideal self (standards set by others, for example, parents) and the real self. This results in threatening situations (real or perceived), which lead to anxiety, which in turn lead to the development of defense mechanisms to defend the individual's ego. Defense against a real or perceived threat involves denial and distortion of facts, projection and splitting.

The hallmark of a narcissist is the development of a superiority complex as a response to feeling inferior. This involves exaggerating his own achievements and putting down anyone that he perceives as a threat. Jeremy Holmes described the narcissist's behaviour as:

"Sufficient unto himself, he becomes more and more self-absorbed - either hyper-vulnerable to every slight, or brutally bullying his way to the 'top' whose twin peaks are his own self-aggrandisement and the denigration of others."1

Narcissistic traits are quite common in adolescence but this does not necessarily mean that the child will go on to become a narcissist. Research has found the diagnosis of narcissism to be significantly more common among men.2 Faulty or inadequate parenting, for example a lack of limit setting, is believed to be a major cause, and both permissive and authoritarian styles of parenting have been found to promote narcissistic symptoms. The following parenting behaviors may result in a child becoming a narcissist in adulthood:

  • Permissive parents who give excessive praise to the child, thus fostering an unrealistic view of themselves3
  • Overindulgence and spoiling by parents4
  • Failing to impose adequate discipline5
  • Idealization of the child6

A child who is spoiled or idealized will grow into an adult who expects this pattern to continue. Idealization may require the child to suppress their own self-expression to meet the desires of the parent and to gain their love and approval.7 To develop a realistic image of the self the child must be provided with realistic information of discipline and reasonable limits must be set by the parents as to what the child can and cannot do. Narcissists generally feel unprepared for adulthood, having been fostered with an unrealistic view of life.8

Narcissists are concerned with their image rather than their selves. They often act to promote their image at the expense of their self.9 The self is a bipolar structure with the two extremes of an immature grandiosity at one end and a dependent over-idealization of other people at the opposite end.

Shame, self-esteem and self-worth

Healthy self-esteem is not formed if a child is not valued for his or her own self worth. Usually the child is only used for the benefit of the parent's self-esteem and to further the parent's needs. A narcissistic personality may be formed to make up for this lack of support and encouragement from parents.10

The natural narcissistic tendencies in children during adolescence can cause parents to behave either in an authoritarian way or in a permissive way towards their child. This narcissistic vulnerability in adolescence is prone to embarrassment and shame, self-consciousness and shyness, and questions of self-esteem and self-worth.11 Healthy development of the self requires parenting that is demanding enough to encourage growth and independence but not so demanding as to prevent growth through over-control. Both extremes, a lack of guidance (permissiveness) and authoritarianism, should be avoided to reduce the likelihood of the adolescent becoming a narcissist in adulthood.12

Many people, including many psychologists, believe that narcissism is a product of our times and our system of values.13 In the western world in particular, we are constantly bombarded by images of the ideal through the media, this may contribute to the rapid growth of narcissism in society. In extreme cases, narcissism may be linked to invocation whereby an individual's normal personality is replaced by another. This psychological state, where the narcissist becomes almost entirely divorced from reality, can be a means of communicating with or getting closer to a deity or spirit which some believe can result in demonic possession.

To understand more about what causes narcissism and egocentric behavior, read Narcissism: Behind the Mask.

1 Holmes, J. (2001), Ideas in psychoanalysis: Narcissism, Icon Books, UK, p.57.
2 Golomb, M., Fava, M., Abraham, M., Rosenbaum, J.F. (1995), Gender differences in personality disorders, The American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 152, No 4.
3, 4, 5, 12 Ramsey, A., Watson, P.J., Biderman, M.D., Reeves, A.L. (1996), Self-reported Narcissism and Perceived Parental Permissiveness and Authoritarianism, The Journal of Genetic Psychology, Vol 157, No 2.
6, 8 Imbesi, L. (1999), The Making of a Narcissist, Clinical Social Work Journal, Vol 27, pp.41-54.
7 Glickauf-Haughes, C. (1997), Etiology of the Masochistic and Narcissistic Personality, American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol 57, pp.141-148.
9 Lowen, A., M.D. (1983), Narcissism: Denial of the True Self, MacMillan Publishing Company, New York.
10 Kohut, H. (1971), The Analysis of the Self, International Unversities Press, Inc, New York.
11 Bleiber, E. (1994), Normal and Pathological Narcissism in Adolescence, American Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 48, pp. 30-45.
13 Davison, G.C. and Neale, J.M. (2001), Abnormal Psychology, Eighth Edition, Wiley, New York.