CARL Jung said, “The healthy man does not torture others. Generally, it is the tortured who turn into torturers.”
The narcissistic person is a tortured soul. The narcissistic person’s sense of self, swings between two opposing poles — feelings of over-inflated importance on one end, and feelings of self-loathing and total worthlessness on the other.
How did this tortured soul arrive at this life position anyway?
A human being’s sense of self evolves and develops through our earliest relationships with our primary care givers. This, in most cultures, is usually the mother in a child’s formative years, and secondarily the father, or the mother-father dyad in most modern nuclear families. Therefore, if narcissism is a pathological condition of self, it follows naturally that something had gone utterly wrong in the person’s attachment experience with caregivers or parents in early childhood.
The Neuroscience of Attachment
Attachment is a brain-driven biological compulsion to form a secure bond with our primary caregivers. Attachment is so vital that its hardwired in the brain to guarantee that an infant gets its primary needs met for survival. Unlike any other organ, the human brain is also a social organ, which is shaped and pruned by interactions with other brains, primarily those of early caregivers (Cozolino, 2006).
Besides getting the right nutrients, the human brain craves stimulation and connection to be able to survive and thrive. There is nature; a human child is genetically programmed to crawl, walk, talk, and distinguish an “I” from “you” on a developmental timeline. And then there’s nurture; the stimulation and development of a child’s brain that is kindled by interactions with caregivers in a child’s primary social matrix.
Close supportive relationships foster positive emotions, trigger brain plasticity and stimulate learning.
On the other hand, profound deficits in brain development are found in children who grow in an environment devoid of spontaneous play opportunities, touch, warmth and affection.
For babies, it’s an evolutionary imperative to be self-serving, and narcissistic at birth. There is the entitlement and egocentrism of narcissism and the bottomless appetite for attention and rewards of narcissism that all manifest in a baby’s behaviour from birth. The difference is this — babies are not driven by greed and guile but by the primal motivation to live to the next day — a pretty good reason to behave selfishly to get their survival needs met.
Psychologists’ growing understanding of the roots of narcissism in childhood and why some individuals never grow out of it, is providing insights into how best to parent the healthily narcissistic baby in your life into adulthood.
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What does Healthy Parenting look like?
In good enough (non-narcissistic) parenting, the protection against narcissism in the offspring comes by way of a parent’s sense of awe and wonder, and an attitude of unconditional positive regard toward the infant. This messaging to the infant is delivered through the fundamental parental expression:
“I really can’t wait to know you, to meet you, to watch you grow, to see you fulfil your dreams and aspirations and to support and love you while at the same time establishing appropriate boundaries and limitations without losing that unconditional positive regard.”
For narcissism to take seed and reinforce itself in the child, there has to be significant violations to, and deviation from, this optimal parenting mode.
What does Narcissistic Parenting look like?
In this deeply flawed parenting mode, the child is viewed as an extension of the parent. What that means is that the child is never acknowledged for his unique self, but only seen for what he can do for the parent; how he can fulfil his parent’s dreams, how he can comfort the parent, how he can help the parents regulate their own emotions. So the child’s natural self expression is stifled in exchange for what the parent demands or wants of the child.
There are two main ways in which this occurs:
1. The Deflating Parenting Style
The first main way is when the child is persistently smothered in his expression of self. His feelings, sensitivities and vulnerabilities are systematically crushed through an ongoing process of humiliation. He is regularly ignored and invalidated to the point that he is deprived of any accurate mirroring or echoing of his internal emotional state. The messaging to the child is delivered through the key parental expression:
“What you think, what you feel, and all your vulnerabilities are unimportant to me. They distress me, they make me feel anxious, and they upset me, so quit behaving in that needy helpless manner, and do and be as I command.”
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This level of abusive behaviour, steeped in rejection and shame-making, conveys a Don’t Exist injunction to the child (Goulding and Goulding, 1976). It inflicts a wound so deep and discouraging to the emerging self in the child. It culminates in the forsaken child’s tragic and desperate tryst with his emotionally unavailable parent whereby he suppresses his own authentic feelings and needs in exchange for the cultivation of a false self that is designed to please the parent.
In order to earn parental acceptance, he has to pedal hard to be this wonderful, perfect and unique individual after his parents’ heart. He wears his false self like a safe cloak in his bid to desperately cling on to some semblance of attachment to his withholding parent.
Such children become highly attuned to their parents’ moods, and begin to amplify aspects of their selves that gain their parents’ esteem while rejecting the parts of themselves that interfere with that false attachment. However, these rejected parts which are intolerable to the parent — those parts that express our vulnerabilities, our disappointment and tears, those parts that help us regulate our emotions when we take a fall or experience profound loss — are the very parts we need to grow to be emotionally whole and healthy human beings.
2. The Inflating Parenting Style
The second parenting mode that predisposes a child to narcissism involves the parental overvaluation of the child by putting him on a pedestal, idealising him and showering him with excessive praise and accolades.
“Loving your child is healthy and good, but thinking your child is better than other children can lead to narcissism, and there is nothing healthy about narcissism,” said Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University (Brummelman et al, 2015).
When parents see their children as being more special, and more entitled than other children, the child internalises the view that they are superior individuals, deserving of special privileges, a view that is at the core of narcissism.
Overvaluation shapes not only how parents think about their child, but also how they treat and raise their child. Overvaluing parents want their child to stand out from the crowd and be able bask in the glory of their children’s achievements.
Helicopter parenting falls in these ranks.
In toddlerhood, a helicopter parent might constantly shadow the child, hovering over him and always directing his behaviour and allowing him zero alone time. In primary school, helicopter parenting can be revealed through a parent’s insistence on ensuring a child has a certain teacher or coach, selecting the child’s friends and activities, or providing disproportionate assistance for homework and school projects. These parents are driven by competition in many aspects of their child’s life — constantly pitching their children against their peers in the spheres of academia, sports, or the performing arts. They are a familiar presence at the grandstands, at baby shows and beauty pageants and the messaging to the child is delivered through the key parental expression:
“You’re better than they are.”
This sense of grandiose entitlement, however, is almost exclusively based on superficial, egotistical, and material trappings, attained at the expense of one’s humanity and connectedness.
The overvaluing parent selectively chooses attributes of the child — to groom, mould and shape them — and the process feeds into their own needs for self-aggrandizement or greatness. The parts of the child that aren’t so great in the parent’s eyes — the vulnerability, the tears, the tantrums, the failures that children sometimes go through, are dealt with either very harshly or ignored under the cloak of shame.
Therefore, in both of these combinations of parenting styles, the child learns that:
“In order for me to get my parents affection, I have to cultivate these parent-approved attributes to please and appease them. Only then will I get some sort of semblance of love and belonging.”
Depending on which of the two parenting styles dominates and taking into consideration that one parent may be doing the inflating and the other deflating, the child’s experience can becoming incredibly complex and this can lead to various manifestations of narcissism into adulthood.
Shyla Sreedharan is the founder and senior counselor at Therapy Rocks.