Narcissists Are Made, Not Born
And what I’ve learned about myself as the child of a narcissist
My parents are sliding faster down into death. The conversations we have now are punctuated by a series of medical reports chronicling the series of their many ailments, as might be expected from two people born at the bookends of the Great Depression. But one of the conditions that we never talk about was scrawled by my Dad’s doctor at the bottom of his medical report.
The diagnosis has prompted me to educate myself on narcissism, and examine myself and my own behavior from the perspective of a child of a narcissist.
Most of what I’ve read hasn’t been very helpful. But A.J. Kay’s chronicle of her experiences has been extraordinary.
She acknowledges that malignant narcissism is the result of early childhood experiences. Because every normal adult goes through a developmental stage as a toddler that looks like malignant narcissism. Sometimes, that stage might be called “The Terrible Twos,” and it is the only perspective the toddler brain is capable of maintaining: that they are the center of the Universe.
Toddlers who suffer either neglect or indulgence will leave this developmental stage without having completed it. They will mature into adults who still maintain a toddler’s self perception.
When a child is a toddler, say 2–4 years of age, they discover that there are other people in the world. They know they need these people (e.g., their parents), but they resent their own dependence. Some part of the toddler can’t help but believe that other people are put in this universe exclusively for them, to help meet the toddler’s needs. Although the toddler has developed a sense of self that is apart from others, they still think of themselves as the Center of the Universe. It’s not their fault. It’s the developmental stage they’re in.
At the toddler stage, children need boundaries.
They need to explore and fail and come to understand their own limits and what they can expect from their parents. They need to learn to respect the needs and expectations of others — especially their parents and other children. The toddler will seek to discover these boundaries and expectations by throwing tantrums, making unreasonable requests, experimenting with manipulations, and conjuring up emotions. That’s why this stage of development is called The Terrible Two’s.
If children are indulged at the toddler stage, they will fail to obtain the leadership and discover the boundaries they need, and they may emerge as deep narcissists. They may come to expect that the world really does organize around them, and that they are entitled to their indulgences, because that’s what they’ve been taught by the experiences of their over indulgent parents. Nevertheless, their bodies will know that something is off in their most important relationships. So they will unconsciously continue to seek out what their personal development really needs — the boundaries their parents never provided.
The principal difficulty with narcissistic adults is that a toddler having a tantrum is a much less dangerous prospect than a full grown adult having a tantrum. The adult is scary. And the narcissistic patterns of behavior are now carved deep into the adult personality, meaning that establishing a healthy boundary requires much more than an occasional spanking or time out.
The narcissist thrives on attention.
They don’t just crave it.
They NEED it.
A loss of attention, particularly from the people on whom they project the role of surrogate parent, will catalyze an existential crisis. They believe that they will die without it. (All people need attention. The deep narcissist has a need that goes deeper). So part of their outrageous behavior comes from trying to meet the need for this attention, and part comes from experimental testing — even wishing — for the boundaries that would constitute parental leadership.
This makes it very difficult for the narcissist to move on from a failing relationship. They may pursue the relationship hardest when attention is withdrawn, because they feel the existential crisis of losing attention from the surrogate parent. In these moments, they will say or do anything to secure the attention they need. However, their expression of need is not love. It is an attempt to reorganize a relationship around their need for attention. At best, it is a negotiation, but ultimately, it will become just another exploitation.
The usual advice in a relationship with a narcissist is to go No Contact (if not to run away!) However, there may be several reasons to maintain a relationship with a narcissist:
- You have children together, which means negotiating visitations, custody, and co-parenting issues.
- You have a real parental or pseudo-parental responsibility to the narcissist (such as a step parent/child relationship, or a therapist/client relationship).
- You have a pattern of creating relationships with narcissists, because of your own childhood experiences with a narcissistic parent. That is, to go “no contact” with one narcissist will only postpone your trauma until you recreate a new relationship with a new narcissist.
With the exception of a therapist, who has the professional responsibility and training to understand that the narcissist craves attention and has a real, unmet need for boundaries, those of us in relationships with narcissists could probably use some guidance. The most important thing to understand, if you have children with a narcissist, or you have a pattern of creating pair-bonded relationships with narcissistic partners, is that there are reasons that you choose to pair-bond with narcissists.
Children of Narcissists Might Seek Relationships With Narcissists
When I, as the child of a narcissist, grew into an adult and sought my own romantic relationships, I projected my own imago onto my potential partners, in an attempt to relive the trauma of my childhood (growing up as the instrument of my narcissistic parent’s ego) from a position of control in my pair-bonded relationship with a narcissist. It may seem counter-productive, but in several respects I didn’t really have as much of a choice as I’d like to believe. We are all driven by our traumas, and our need to release the negative emotions from the memory of our traumas by replaying them to more satisfactory outcomes.
If you are the child of a narcissist like me, then you are the ideal partner for the narcissist in some respects, as you have already been programmed by your narcissistic parent to meet the attention-seeking cravings of your narcissistic partner. However, it is important to remember that the narcissist seeks attention with the same zeal that an addict seeks dopamine — but the narcissist really needs boundaries to finish the job of development they never completed as a toddler.
The child of a narcissist has their own unmet parental needs. Whereas the narcissist was formed by either a lack of boundaries, either through neglect or indulgence by one or more parents, the child of a narcissist has a way of internalizing their own abuse by their narcissistic parent. The child of the narcissist does not lack for boundaries — they got plenty of those. The child of a narcissist lacks for the selfless love that all children require from parents. The child of a narcissist will be seeking from their narcissistic partner the apology that they will never get from their narcissistic parent. They will enter adulthood with a craving for a sense of belonging, for a team, or for a partnership in which each partner has the best interests of their other at heart. The child of a narcissist may believe that, if only they were a better person, then the narcissist would finally see their true worth as a human being, and love them as they deserve to be loved by acting with their best interests in mind.
When the child of a narcissist seeks to get their unmet need for self-sacrificing love in a relationship with a narcissist (who has their own unmet need for boundaries), the relationship will enter a spiraling feedback loop of frustration.
The narcissist will no doubt criticize their partner for failing to anticipate or provide for some real or imagined interest harbored by the narcissist. The partner, trained by their narcissistic parent, will listen, empathize, and seek to improve their performance of provisioning, thinking that the narcissist might finally recognize the partner’s heroic efforts, offer an apology (come to their senses) and provide selfless love. But the narcissist, despite the glee and sense of security they feel in discovering how to control and manipulate their partner, will ultimately be disappointed by the fact that they failed to secure the boundary that is their unmet developmental need. The narcissist will soon do something all the more outrageous, in search of more attention and secretly hoping that they will finally provoke their partner to establish the boundary that the narcissist must have, if ever they are to complete the unfinished developmental stage of the spoiled pre-schooler.
However, the partner of the narcissist cannot resolve the trauma of their unmet childhood needs by enforcing boundaries on their narcissistic partner. So they double down on behaving as an even better, more generous, more understanding, more patient, more hardworking partner, in the hope that the narcissist will see these virtues, come to their senses, apologize and choose selfless love.
As the cycle repeats, the narcissist will blame the partner for “driving” them or “making” them behave in increasingly outrageous ways. Of course, these accusations are false. But they do reveal a truth, which is that the narcissist is exhibiting such increasingly obnoxious and self-centered behaviors because they can’t believe they’ve been allowed to get away with it. Eventually, they will do something SO ridiculous that it can’t be ignored any longer. At that point, the partner may finally say, “Enough is enough,” and walk away from the relationship.
Ironically, that’s also the point at which the narcissist will finally begin to think that their partner might love them. That’s the point at which they may idealize their partner, claim contrition, offer the apology that their partner so desperately needs, and say “I need you. I can’t live without you.” At this moment, the narcissist is replaying the existential crisis of the toddler, who was so dependent on parents they resented.
In a way, their claims are true. At least for the moment.
However, the partner of the narcissist is left with a serious problem. If they continue to provide boundaries for the narcissist, they will have to continue to weather abuse and tantrums. That might be tolerable for therapists, but it is very difficult for spouses or ex-spouses. And they will have to continue to set boundaries and demonstrate patience, despite the fact that their own needs remain unmet. Because the narcissist may never be capable of selfless love. At best, they will be years away, and that’s a long time to wait to have your own relationship needs met.
Of the two in this tragic pair-bonding, the narcissist and their partner (likely the child of a narcissist), only the partner can break the spiral. The narcissist is incapable, because they are stuck in the role of the toddler. The partner can help the narcissist by acting as the parent to the toddler, but eventually the partner will have to confront their own unmet needs and find a relationship with someone who will love them as their narcissistic parent never could.
Rather than go “no contact” with the narcissist in your life, as your friends, family, or therapist is no doubt advising you to do, their may be good reasons why you will maintain some contact, such as to co-parent children. In that case, it will be essential that you learn to set boundaries for your narcissist. You will be faced with the challenge of being the parent to their toddler. It will require you to put them on time out (e.g., block their phone number, or delay responses to their emails by at least 24hrs). It will require you to practice the kinds of phrases that you only hear parents use with children, such as “I’m very disappointed in you.” And it will require you to form new relationships with people capable of meeting your need for selfless love.
The difficulty for many people who enter adulthood as the children of narcissists, they will intuitively reject those partners that treat them well, because their imago projection is seeking a narcissist that allows them to replay their childhood trauma from a position of control. The fortunate thing for those who have divorced a narcissist with whom they must continue some kind of contact is that they no longer need to seek a new narcissist. They’re still bonded to their old one! That might free them to offer their generosity, empathy, and willingness to work hard to a partner that is more likely to reciprocate. If their confidence is not irreparably damaged, they might be a good match for a pair-bonded relationship with another former partner of a narcissist — i.e., another adult child of a narcissist. In this case, the new pair-bonding might be able to feed off of the willingness of both partner’s to advance the interests of the other, creating a different kind of upwards spiral, rather than down.
The challenge will be whether the new partners have the confidence to share and compare their experiences in their old relationships with a narcissist without shame. The embarrassment of having been taken advantage of for so long can become a source of shame — especially when well-meaning friends and family are saying, “I told you so!” For the new partnership to last, those recovering from relationships with narcissists must be willing to forgive their former partners, understand the role they played in the downward spiral of the old relationships, and release one another from moral judgement.
My own pattern of relationships has been formed by my imago projection of my parents onto my partner. Often, it’s the opposite- sex partner that is the basis for the imago in a heterosexual, but it’s true that my Father’s narcissism impacted me, too.
Everyone exhibits narcissistic characteristics, but not everyone is diagnosed as a narcissist. My point is not to make a diagnosis, but to recognize how my expectations for my romantic partners were shaped by what I learned from my parents was “normal.”
In fact, my expectations were distorted, and I’m just beginning to figure out why and how.
It’s become fashionable for women to make accusations of narcissism against their male partners, just like it’s become fashionable men to accuse their female partners of being “bat shit crazy” (a euphemism for borderline personality disorder). These accusations are often defense mechanisms designed to protect the accusers’ ego from any sense of wrongdoing or moral culpability. They will be counter-productive, most of the time.
There is such a thing as healthy narcissism, in which our own self-interest serves as our point of departure (if not our final destination). So how do you know if you’re in a relationship with a deep narcissist? Or worse yet, how would you know if you are a narcissist?
One way is an official diagnosis from a medical professional, but those are rare.
Another (ironically) is that the narcissist will often be the person who makes the first accusations of narcissism towards their partners. One of the ways that a narcissist will gaslight their partners is to make false accusations of gaslighting and narcissism.
While everyone has moments or examples in their history of behavior that was selfish or inconsiderate, in my experience these are not examples of deep narcissism. The behaviors that should concern you are exhibited over longer time periods, construct a pattern of exploitation, are lacking in remorse, will be evidenced by a victim mentality and accusations against others to escape blame, and sometimes they will be SO outrageous that your friends and family members will be shocked in ways that you can’t fully appreciate. These are not ambiguous misunderstandings. They are willful, deliberate, and extraordinary actions that only make sense if you see them as toddler-like tantrums, albeit with adult-like vengeance. When the emotional explosion you’re witnessing from an adult is more like that of a 3 year old acting out against the gross injustice of bedtime, then you might have a narcissist on your hands.
If that’s the case, your choices will be limited to going no contact or attempting to “parent” your narcissistic partner. The latter might be dangerous, as is revealed in the fight scene from This Boy’s Life.
My Father was never violent, ever. I don’t mean to suggest that narcissism is synonymous with physical abuse, because it’s not.
What I realize about myself is that in my adulthood, I’ve sought out partners with whom I could always try to be a better person in the hope of pleasing them so well that they would come to see what a “good boy” I was, and how deserving of their love.