Parental Contributions to the Formation of a Narcissist

Dr. Melanie Cabrera Image


Scientific literature is sorely lacking in this population, so anyone who claims they know “all narcissists are created this way” are unfortunately lacking.  What we do know is that narcissists are not born, they are created.  What we also know is there MAY be a genetic component, such as if older generations also showed prominent symptoms associated with narcissistic personality disorder. This is where it gets tricky if you are not clinically trained at the doctoral level (and only because research methods are a significant part of our training), because correlation does NOT mean causation.  So, the present debate is absolutely one of nature versus nurture.

The present literature suggests that, in the formation of a “vulnerable” or covert narcissist, there are some common characteristics found amongst the parental figures.  We tend to see weakness of character, inability to set firm yet appropriate and consistent boundaries with the child, chronic coldness, passive aggressiveness, and selfishness.  For the formation of a narcissist more along the overt or grandiose end of the spectrum, we see a higher tendency of materialistically overindulgent parenting (out of the parent’s subconscious anxiety and fear) and tendency to exploit the child’s talents and likeable qualities for their own gain, yet an ambivalence towards the child’s actual needs. Thus, the child must continue to perform for tokens of parental approval and any opposition to the parental demands via exploitation of the child is met with a resounding message to the child that he or she is “bad” and “shameful”. 

In the formation of either subtype, the parents or caretakers ultimately failed to provide optimal experiences that would allow the child to experience the healthy frustration necessary to develop a realistic self-image –parents did not set appropriate boundaries or were far too enmeshed. In both scenarios, the parents are also guilty of invalidating the child. This type of upbringing is nothing short of emotional neglect and abuse. 

Shame and envy drive the narcissistic bus, lending to the narcissist’s need to objectify others and destroy intersubjectivity in relationships.

Emotional abuse, according to recent studies, may be more predictive of covert narcissism, whereas physical abuse has been linked to overt narcissism, although they are also subjected to invalidation and other forms of emotional abuse. There is a misconception that sexual abuse predicts narcissistic behaviors.  A recent study found that chronic, general invalidation alone was a predictor of Narcissistic Personality Disorder but only in the absence of childhood sexual abuse. Abuse specific invalidation lends more to the development of Borderline Personality Disorder, particularly following sexual abuse. Invalidation leads to the child consistently feeling they are always in the wrong, the parent is infallible, and ultimately, the child cannot win.  When the parent is also a narcissist or loads heavy on narcissistic traits, any opposition from the child is characterized by the parent as proof of the child’s moral ineptitude/failure.  Such opposition is met with withholding of parental love/affection, passive aggressive acts, and administration of contempt.  For example, one year my narcissist’s mother lambasted him and withdrew a birthday trip he had been looking forward to for months.  Why?  Because I refused to volunteer my time to speak at some event she was hosting as I had a prior engagement and he backed me up.  That was perhaps the first and last time he truly stood up for me and he paid the price for it by being shamed and punished like a child.    

Shame and envy drive the narcissistic bus, lending to the narcissist’s need to objectify others and destroy intersubjectivity in relationships.  The origin of the narcissist’s shame is connected to the created push/pull dependency by the parent.  As was the case with my narcissist, the pathological parent envies and resents the child’s right to healthy dependency and gradual independence and demands the child recognize the exclusive validity of the parent’s needs, wants, and wishes at the expense of the child’s own. 

The schema theory of personality tells us a child’s experience in early relationships is encoded into the personal representations of self and other.  This influences cognition, affect, and behavior.  It is no coincidence that narcissists use invalidation as a primary means to instill harm on others – they are doing to you the very thing that hurt their ego the most.  Make no mistake, however, they are choosing to do so.

It is time to get some help dealing with the narcissist in your life.