I bet just about everyone knows a narcissist. It is believed that somewhere between 0.5% and 5% of people are narcissists. Unfortunately, very few are ever diagnosed. Narcissists don’t get diagnosed because they believe everyone else is the problem, certainly not them. But, regardless of diagnosis or lack of, emotionally healthy people can pick up on the red flags of narcissism, and find ways to avoid being the victim of the narcissist.
Often, the first thing people ask when they think someone is a narcissist is how do narcissists become narcissists. There is no official answer to this question. But experts believe it is a combination of three things: genetics, a toxic childhood development, or neurobiology (the link between brain function, behavior, and thinking). While there is a genetic component that contributes to narcissism, being a young child in a toxic environment seems to be a major factor in the development of a narcissist.
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How do Narcissists Become Narcissists?
The first overarching question of how narcissists become narcissists is nature vs. nurture. Are narcissists born or made? The answer is yes! Narcissists are both born and made. But is it born and made on an equal basis? Actually not so much.
Children of narcissists can inherit narcissistic traits in their genetics. This comes across in mannerisms, personality, and other subtle ways. But being raised by a narcissist seems to be a much larger factor in developing narcissism. And this happens in two different ways. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.
How Narcissists Become Narcissists Through Parents Making Them Golden Children
Children can become narcissists over time if their parents treat them as though they are perfect and never do anything wrong. It can be even worse when parents put them on a pedestal as though they are the best in the world at everything they do.
When young children are raised this way, they truly believe they are the greatest. Why wouldn’t they believe their parents? Their parents are their heroes because they are literally the first support and love they ever receive. Children need to trust their parents because when they are very young their very lives depend on it. And when their parents’ treatment is all they know, they won’t be able to discern healthy from abusive behavior.
So how is being treated like the greatest of all time abuse? It is abuse because it gives children a false sense of security. As they grow up, they will realize it isn’t true. And when the world counters what their own parents have told them their whole lives, who are they supposed to believe and trust? Their world is turned upside down.
While many golden children do not become narcissists, a good number do. And for those who do, they will do anything to keep up the appearance that they are exactly what their parents made them out to be. They will fight to the death to keep people from finding out they are far from perfect.
How Narcissists Become Narcissists Through Severe Abuse and Neglect
The more commonly believed way that narcissists become narcissists is through severe abuse and/or neglect when they are children. This is true of the vast majority of narcissists that I have known.
I can give you some pretty vivid examples of this type of narcissist because I was married to one whose experience in childhood neglect and abuse made him a covert narcissist that ranked pretty high on the narcissism spectrum.
My ex had no memory of any of his life before the age of 11. I always thought that was odd. Until I spent time around his family. Both of his older sisters were overt narcissists who did not hide their disdain for me (they have never been diagnosed as narcissists to my knowledge, one was diagnosed with bipolar years ago).
His mother didn’t appear to be a narcissist, but was certainly neglectful and abusive to a degree. She used to brag about how she could leave my ex in his playpen for the whole day and he would never even fuss. She said she did that for the first few years because he was such an easy baby. I can’t tell you how devastated I was when she would say this.
My mother-in-law also physically abused children. While there were rarely any stories of childhood (none of them really talked about their childhood), there was a time that my son was pushed off a slide by his cousin. My mother-in-law was there, as were my husband, me, my husband’s oldest sister, and her husband. When my son came in screaming (he was about 4 years old), we were trying to comfort him. I was in front of him and he opened up his mouth. There was blood everywhere. He was in so much pain.
My mother-in-law kept telling him to stop screaming. But he couldn’t. So she walked up to him and slapped him. Hard. Across the face with his already injured tongue. I instantly picked him up and walked to the car. My husband followed and we drove home. I was in the back beside him, trying to comfort him. By the time we got home, my son had stopped crying and fallen asleep. When I was finally able to see his tongue, I realized he had bitten almost all the way through it. He lost his taste in that part of his tongue, the right hand front eighth of it.
Later, when I confronted her about it, her answer was that she didn’t know what else to do because she wanted him to stop crying. I responded that hitting an injured child will never make them stop crying.
His father was a demanding, patriarchal authoritarian who would explode if anyone dared to cross him, laid down the law with no exceptions, drank heavily through most of his earlier years, didn’t emotionally bond with his children, and sexually abused three out of the four of them. He also was never diagnosed a narcissist.
There were indications that my ex had little to no empathy even as a child. My mother-in-law was convinced that he had killed one of their neighbor’s rabbits when he was a teenager. Of course, he denies it to this day (at least while we were still talking). But she said she knew he did it, no matter how much he denied it. I know he abused our cats when I wasn’t around to do anything about it.
And of course, after years of narcissistic abuse toward our whole family and others who were close to us, he actually was diagnosed with narcissism over time. The head of the counseling agency we were attending at the time said he believed my ex was a full blown narcissist as he continued to spiral out of control in spite of the counseling.
What Kind of Parent Causes Narcissism?
I’m sure you have heard the phrase, “Hurt people hurt people,” before. It is a great and meaningful quote. It has been ascribed to several people, but nobody actually knows who said it. Regardless, it is the perfect description of what kind of parent causes narcissism.
I heard bits and pieces from both of my ex’s parents regarding their childhood. They were both severely neglected. And severely abused. My mother-in-law had eleven siblings. And they all were dirt poor, fended for themselves, and lived with abusive parents. My father-in-law had a brother and sister that we knew of, but nobody knew if there were more. He didn’t talk about it. But we did know that his brother was killed by a train when he was 18 years old. Nobody even knew if his brother was older or younger than him. There was so little talked about regarding my ex’s parents growing up.
Parents of narcissists were likely treated nearly the same way they treated their children. And because they are hiding their own shame, they focus even more on their children, for either good or bad. They also have no healthy examples to help them pull themselves up to a healthier home.
At What Age Does Narcissistic Personality Disorder Develop?
While the favoritism, neglect and/or abuse are inflicted on children from birth, it actually takes many years to make a narcissist.
Diagnosable narcissism does not emerge until a child is in his late teens or early twenties. And for some people, it emerges even later in life. Some people think the reason for this is because they are covert narcissists who were adept at keeping their abuse hidden. But they get “found out” when they grow more arrogant and don’t work so hard to hide their narcissism.
It is at this age that experts can begin to differentiate narcissistic behaviors from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Children and teenagers are known to exhibit narcissistic behaviors. They are still learning their place in the world. And most are learning that the world does not revolve around them.
Is Narcissism a Learned Behavior?
Yes, narcissism is a learned behavior. While there is some genetic component to narcissistic personality disorder, environment as the child is growing and learning has an even more significant effect on the child.
As children grow up, they learn better and more efficient ways to hide the shame they were saddled with as small children. And they learn how to shift all of their insecurities, anger, and shame onto those around them so they can avoid it.
As they begin to do these things, they learn what works best for them to develop their new mask (or personhood). And as they experience small victories in these areas, they study and craft new and better ways to protect themselves at the expense of everyone else.
Narcissism is usually a lifetime of study, practice, and mastery. It just isn’t mastery in any field we would want to become an expert in.
What Happens to the Brain of a Narcissist?
Scientists and doctors have made amazing progress in understanding human brain structure and activity. When I was a child, I remember sitting in my fourth grade science class. My teacher was talking about what a mystery the brain was at the time. And now, there are charts mapping the parts of the brain, names for all those parts, and studies on what each of those parts do. Absolutely amazing!
So, with all this new brain knowledge in the past few decades, we now can see differences between the brains of narcissists versus non-narcissists. Let’s take a look at the brain structure of a narcissist.
First, the prefrontal cortex is significantly different in a narcissist. People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are known to have a lower gray matter volume in areas that regulate empathy. The medial prefrontal cortex is shown to have elevated amounts of self absorption.
According to LiveScience, “the left anterior insula region of the brain, [near the prefrontal cortex] which is thought to be involved with cognitive functioning and the regulation of emotion, has also been tied to the generation of compassion and empathy.”
The insula is the part of the brain that is responsible for self awareness and a large range of events, such as emotion, love, craving, addiction, and pain. See the picture below to see where it is located within the brain. According to the website, Neuroscientifically Challenged, the insula “is at least partly responsible all of these seemingly disparate things because it facilitates our concept of self-awareness.”
In the case of a narcissist, they would process this self-awareness differently than a normal person due to the way their trauma distorts their sense of reality. While they may initially see things as they present accurately, their narcissistic shame will cause them to deny and refabricate what they learn with a narrative they can live with more easily.
While we see physical proof as to the fact that Narcissistic Personality Disorder is actually a mental illness and not necessarily just a chosen behavior. Does that mean that narcissists, especially ones that rank higher on the narcissism spectrum, are excused for their behavior? Absolutely not! But it does show how living a poor quality of life can affect your ability to function normally over time.
Does a Narcissist Realize They are a Narcissist?
Based on how a narcissist becomes a narcissist, while they may intentionally do things while in survival mode as a child, and there is evidence that the brain is negatively affected by ongoing narcissistic behavior, a narcissist has to realize that they are a narcissist. Here are the reasons I believe this:
- Narcissists are very careful about how they represent themselves in front of certain people. They are very good at making people believe one thing and then doing the opposite behind closed doors.
- Narcissists will remember every detail of something that benefits them, but claim to remember nothing about something that they are proven to have lied about. The proof usually comes in abundance when all contact is relegated to text, email, or written contact (or in front of witnesses who can confirm what was really said or done).
- You can actually watch a narcissist change roles as needed to in order to manipulate their circumstances. From facial expressions to body language, it is literally the same as an actor getting into character.
While it is extremely sad that how narcissists became narcissists isn’t their fault, it doesn’t mean they can abuse those around them carte blanche without any accountability. They choose to continue in the behavior once their narcissism has been evaluated and people have attempted to work with them. And unfortunately, that doesn’t really allow a true relationship going forward.
I would like to share a really good video from Dr. Ross Rosenberg that reiterates how a narcissist becomes a narcissist. He emphasizes the childhood trauma that is responsible for the future nearly insurmountable destruction that child will face. It is super short but full of good information. You can check it out here:
Do my experiences resonate with your own? I would love to hear what your experience has looked like. Feel free to share below or contact me here if you do not feel comfortable posting a comment publicly.
Live Science. June 24, 2013. Narcissists’ Lack of Empathy Detected in Brain Scans. https://www.livescience.com/37684-narcissistic-personality-disorder-brain-structure.html
Neuroscientifically Challenged. Know Your Brain: Insula. https://neuroscientificallychallenged.com/posts/what-is-insula
BioMed Central. May 20, 2012. Correlating anterior insula gray matter volume changes in young people with clinical and neurocognitive outcomes: an MRI study. https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-244X-12-45