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Circling the Storm Drain – The Origins of a Narcissist (by Dr Sarah Sarkis)

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Circling the Storm Drain - The Origins of a Narcissist

Maybe it’s the current political season, maybe it’s our obsession with the #selfie generation, but as a psychologist I am aware of how much narcissism and self-involvement is on display these days. I have long held a particular curiosity about this personality structure and the people who manifest the pathological expression of it.

There are people who manage to parlay these traits, these profound developmental fractures, as a drive to achieve greatness and impact the world on a global scale. But the vast majority of people who mature into what we call a narcissist are unable to offset their personality vulnerabilities with this type of sublimated behavior. For most, they remain mired in the developmental fractures that ultimately end up emotionally crippling the person, unable to achieve authentic intimacy. Narcissists, when we explore the developmental origins of this personality structure are actually quite sad and fragile, despite an outward appearance of bravado and self-assurance.

Exactly what is narcissism?

Narcissism is characterized by the presence of these personality traits:

  • Grandiosity.
  • Fantasies of power, beauty, greed, etc.
  • Hunger for excess admiration.
  • Interpersonally exploitative.
  • Impoverished capacity for empathy.
  • Envy of others.
  • Arrogance.
  • Belief that they are special and that only people of a certain status can understand them.
  • Entitlement

Only the people who embody the majority of the traits would be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). For reasons we don’t fully understand, men are (statistically speaking) more vulnerable to developing these traits.

While this list of descriptive behaviors is helpful in identifying people we may know who exhibit these traits, it does not help us better understand the emotional and psychological workings of the narcissistic person. This list does nothing to advance our understanding of the developmental fractures that leave one vulnerable to manifesting this type of pathology in adulthood.  

A common misunderstanding about narcissism.

The most common misunderstanding is assuming that a narcissist has confidence and is “full of himself.” A narcissist is not full of himself. He is not confident. He appears that way. But that is merely a presentation. A façade. Narcissists mimic what they perceive as confidence, but at their core, they are fragile, neglected and often abused souls. It’s not confidence or self-assurance that drives their interpersonal recklessness. It comes from a place of deficit, loss, rage, emotional hunger, and shame.

Where does it start?

I encourage people to examine narcissism as an attachment disorder. The presence of these traits reflects ruptures in early attachment modeling where the infant was forced to orbit around an unreliable, abusive or absent primary attachment figure (mother). For an infant, this failure in attachment has catastrophic developmental consequences. It is physically and emotionally overwhelming for the infant. It creates an emotional tsunami of fear, trauma, and terror, although the infant is too young to even possess the words to describe their experience.

In the truest meaning of the word, the infant absorbs his environment holistically, like a sponge absorbs liquid. Once this pattern gets fixed, the child struggles to achieve authentic connection with others, experiences gross deficits in empathy, and the consolidation of an authentic sense of self is chronically impaired. The defense mechanism employed in order to avoid emotional annihilation is to appear confident, boastful, and arrogant. They mimic what they perceived as confidence, but they do not possess the foundational support structures to be authentically confident.

Developmentally, there is an important stage of growth where normal/healthy narcissism rules our developmental needs. This is why children are often so draining and they demand so much of our emotional energy. The long arch of this stage of development begins at birth and crystalizes around age 7, depending on the emotional nuances of the child. This is why 7-9 year olds will begin to exhibit a much greater sense of empathy and consideration of others needs. These developmental achievements are a direct reflection of the child emerging from what we refer to as the “normal narcissistic” stage of childhood.

During the normal narcissistic stage of development, a critical emotional foundation is forged, atop which all future attachments will form. For the narcissist there were ruptures in that foundation and fault lines begin to form, weakening the core sense of self. Failure(s) in attachment disrupt important developmental stages (such as mirroring, object constancy, object permanence and ultimately the consolidation of empathy).

Life with a Narcissist 

Because of the failures in empathy, the narcissist always reflects an impoverished sense of remorse. This is why a narcissist will often act in ways that show a disregard for how they impact others. If pressed later to address the interpersonal injury, he will lash out, make excuses, and/or blame you. Again, we can understand the relative period of time when a particular developmental injury occurred by looking at a person’s current emotional landscape. Given that we know children achieve an ability to experience empathy between the age of 6-9, we can assume the critical injuries for a narcissist happened up to and around that inflection point in their developmental arch.

Like geological fault lines, these internal fractures often go unnoticed for decades. In this regard, I encourage people to view narcissism as a developmental disorder, not totally evident to outsiders until the person is well into his 20’s or 30’s. It is only through the passage of time and the emotional demands of maturation that the narcissist begins to display interpersonal ruptures that are widespread and devastating for the person(s) caught in the storm drain.

‘The pain of orbiting around a narcissist is most acute for those who love him and are emotionally invested in him, most notably the spouse/partner/etc. and the children.’

The narcissist’s affection is always hollow and self-serving. His emotional scaffolding can only bear the weight of one person’s needs. Partnership, in the true sense of the word, eludes him. You are a pawn in his life. He will move you around catering to his needs and desires. If you dare to act out of your own emotional resonance, you will be discarded. Often without warning. And you may wonder if the narcissist feels bad or regrets his treatment of you. He does not. He doesn’t have that capacity. He will think only of how you have impacted him. The focus will always be on how you serve or fail his needs. This type of behavior is painful and baffling to anyone who does not suffer from the same emotional deficits.

You will hunger for reciprocity. You may think it will come one day if you wait long enough. It will not. There is no someday down the road. People who tend to stay with a narcissist will inevitably begin to display pathological accommodating. This is done as a way of making the narcissist appear healthier and socially acceptable. This inevitably results in the Narcissist blaming others for his own shortcomings. Chronic blame and externalization of reasonability is the glue that binds you to the narcissist. The narcissist will shrug off responsibility and with a great sense of entitlement and disregard. He will then boast of his accomplishments, leaving others to clean up whatever mess has been made in the wake of his behavior.

The child of a narcissist often develops a keen attunement to the needs of others. This is most often expressed through hyper-vigilance to the environment and a pattern of people pleasing that reflects a hunger to be seen and validated by the narcissist. They are oriented towards meeting the needs of the parent versus the parent meeting their needs. This interpersonal dynamic, once crystalized, creates obvious long-term liabilities as the child advances towards adolescence and beyond and begins to experiment with emotional and sexual intimacy. This interpersonal archetype of attachment is doomed unless it is closely examined for its one-sided and exploitative nature. It is also how we pass on to our children patterns of relating to others, which will define and shape how they experience the elusive concept of “chemistry”, that intoxicating feeling of being drawn to people for reasons we can not readily explain. Chemistry is often described in romantic and flowery language, such as, “it was fate” or “we were soul mates.” But it is more often the emergence of unconscious patterns of attachment influencing the subtext of our minds.

Can they change?

People who are married to or work for pathological narcissists always ask me if the person can change and I always remark with the same observation when asked-

The reality is, for reasons related to the core deficits that feed narcissism, change is difficult and often unlikely. To change, the narcissist would have to begin a long and cumbersome process of healing from the developmental wounds that serve to reinforce the traits of grandiosity, entitlement, lack of empathy, and arrogance. For most, this task proves far too arduous.


 About the Author: Dr Sarah Sarkis

Dr Sarah SarkisSarah is a licensed psychologist living in Honolulu, Hawaii. Originally hailing from Boston Mass, she has a private practice where she works with adults in long-term insight oriented therapy. She works from an existential psychology vantage point where she encourages her patients to “stay present even in the storm.”  She believes herself to be an explorer of the psyche and she will encourage you to be curious about the journey rather than the destination.  She emphasizes collaboration, partnership, and personal empowerment.

She approaches psychological wellness from a holistic and integrative perspective. Her therapeutic style is based on an integrative approach to wellness, where she blends her strong psychodynamic and insight oriented training with more traditionally behavioral and/or mind/body techniques to help clients foster insight, change and growth. She has studied extensively the use of mindfulness, functional medicine, hormones, and how food, medicine and mood are interconnected.  Her influences include Dr.’s Hyman, Benson, Kabat-Zinn and Gordon, as well as Tara Brach, Brene’ Brown, Irvin Yalom and Bruce Springsteen to name only a few.

Please visit her website at DrSarahSarkis.com and check out her blog, The Padded Room

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22 Comments

Barbara

This is very insightful. I am dealing with a half-sister who was diagnosed with BiPolar Disorder I when she was in her 20’s. Her swings between extreme mania and bipolar depression have ruled her life. And she refuses to take meds or get treatment anymore. And has self-destructed. However I believe our father was a narcissist, and based on Dr. Sarkis’ description of a narcissist’s developmental challenges, it describes what happened to my sister to a “t”. A mother who was abusive, neglectful and punishing and an alcoholic narcissistic father who abandoned her at 7 yrs of age. It would appear that irrespective of my sister’s bipolar diagnosis, she may indeed also possess NPD, even when she is not manic. She has abandoned her husband and 2 children, blames everyone else for her problems, won’t get help but wants her extended family to support her. She’s now homeless and destitute. I’ve had to distance myself after endless rescues, support, etc because the toxicity of involvement with her, despite loving her, was overwhelming my own well-being. I cannot save her and yet the tragedy of her life and the subsequent consequences are heartbreaking.

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Ravi

i was emotionally attached with a lady at workplace. Caring for her and supportive. She later indulged in back biting and when exposed, she exposed me as a person who was making undue advances towards her. As I can recollect our days together, I feel exploited and used. She now hangs around with another male colleague deliberately to rub salt in my wounds. Can we call her a narcassist

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Liz

So what does one do when ones son (now 18) displays many of these traits. I wouldn’t describe myself as a mother who was “unreliable, abusive or detached”. He experienced bullying as a child but otherwise, a pretty normal, secure family life with parents in an intact marriage and a nice younger brother (who he just never showed much interest in).

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Barbara

Liz, you might want to consult with a professional therapist in your area who has experience with individuals who have personality disorders. You could have your son assessed if he is willing….or not. But at least you can obtain some guidance for yourself on what you can do if your son’s behaviors are disrupting your life and that of other family members. As I understand it, counseling doesn’t help with NPD. I’ve sought counseling to deal with how my sister has affected my life, including coping strategies, and ways to set effective boundaries.

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Margaret

Family Connections is a great program for families of people with personality disorders. It’s run by the National Education Association for Borderline Personality Disorder NEABPD.

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Lisa

Wow, I think you have perfectly described my parents’ relationship and then me as the child of a narcissist and his wife. Thank-you for such a great article that helps me understand why they do what they do and why I have struggled. I appreciate the way that you describe how a narcissist treats others..what a shame that I can’t send this to them to make them see- they would only receive it and become defensive- because they wouldn’t understand it was about them!

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Ravi Khangai

that is right Lisa, I also wished to send this to my friend, but she may just ignore it as probably the narcassit lack a capacity of objective introspection.

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Christy

Why bother? Move on! There is someone out there for you who has the ability to return your affection and love in a normal, healthy way. Stop letting this woman take up prime real estate space in your mind. You are awesome and deserve better!!

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Lydia

I have a narcissist mother and have read countless descriptions for which she fits the bill to a tee and am trying to find help in dealing with her. I have seen a therapist as well. Most say I have to have no contact but she has no friends, they’ve all had enough, one sister lives far away and so deals with her minimally, so it remains to my sister and I to deal with her. We keep it to a minimal because she is very abusive. However, last night she went again where she shouldn’t have and I want to cut all contact with her. That would leave my sister alone with her taking the brunt if my mom’s nastiness. I don’t want my mom to attack my sister because of me and I don’t want all the responsibility to be hers. What do I do?

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Hey Sigmund

Lydia the reason your therapists suggest to have no contact with your mother is because it is not possible to change her (unless the change is something she wants). Having said that, I know how difficult it is to let go of people you care about. Caring about her doesn’t mean you have to keep lining up to have her do things that cause you to feel bad. Her actions are her decision – you don’t need to take responsibility for them. Here is an article that will hopefully help you to find clarity around this http://www.heysigmund.com/toxic-people-when-someone-you-love-toxic/

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Barbara

http://www.heysigmund.com/toxic-people-when-someone-you-love-toxic/ Thank you for this article. Just reading it helped me with my guilt about letting go of feeling responsible for my sister, and basically letting go of the relationship in its current form. I know my sister is suffering but I’m not the cause and I’m not the cure because she won’t get help for her bi-polar disorder. I helped her (enabled her) for over 4 years with financial and emotional support, and she wouldn’t help herself. She wants the family to financially support her but let her live on her own terms, without any conditions, including getting treatment. That’s not unlike financially supporting a drug addict with no conditions while they continue to use and destroy themselves.

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cristy

As I read the article I, like many probably thought of the narcissist as a person until the last paragraph, “The reality is, for reasons related to the core deficits that feed narcissism, change is difficult and often unlikely. To change, the narcissist would have to begin a long and cumbersome process of healing from the developmental wounds that serve to reinforce the traits of grandiosity, entitlement, lack of empathy, and arrogance. For most, this task proves far too arduous. It gave a different explanation of a bigger cultural issue we are dealing with in our country around white privilege (traits of grandiosity, entitlement, lack of empathy, and arrogance.) I have just sat in amazement of the lack of willingness to acknowledge how devastating this has become to our country…but now I see that we am dealing with a narcissist culture.

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Christy

I don’t think we have a narcissistic cultural problem. I remember adults saying the same thing about kids being selfish and the country going to hell because of our attitude when I was a kid (in the 80s)! Or maybe I missed the studies (Hey Sigmund, know of any?) suggesting otherwise. Like maybe an increase in NPD is in fact pervasive and on the rise. Wouldn’t that mean mothers neglecting their children is also on the rise? Who knows, but I don’t buy it.

I choose to remember personality disorders are just that; cogs in the developmental wheel of a healthy personality formation. Always had ’em, always will. But I also choose to believe most people are good. I for one, do not hold contempt or fear for this generation of selfie-ers. I am actually excited to see how they will turn out. Most of my clients are a great bunch of kids looking forward to their futures and care about others, our environment and changing for the better.

Although…. the selfie thing IS a big eye roll, granted.

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Lianne

My son turns 10 in November and some of these traits remind me of him. Now. I know he is still very young but he really doesn’t seem to care when he hurts his older brother, a cousin, friend or me (most often with words altho he will slap or kick at his brother). His perspective on who is right/wrong seems really….off to me. He can easily justify his behaviour and retorts with such arrogance. It really scares me bc I have read a little about narcissists and when I came across this, I just had to ask. Anything I can do NOW bc I don’t want to be asking these questions 5, 10 years from now. Many thanks.

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Hey Sigmund

Lianne it’s not unusual for kids to be self-centred and means. He is still learning how the world works but what’s great is that you have identified where you need to guide him. It sounds like what your son needs is more empathy for the people around him. This is something you can build in him. As his mother, you are in the perfect position to do this.

It’s about guiding him to see things from the other person’s point of view as much as you can. Don’t worry if he doesn’t get it straight away. It takes time to build these skills in kids – some adults don’t even have them. Whenever you see him being caring, jump on that and let him know that you’ve noticed and that you love when he does things like that.

When you see him acting in a way that is uncaring and lacks empathy, ask him:

>> How he would feel if someone treated him the same way as he has treated someone else; or
>> What he thinks the other person might be feeling.

Remember, this will take time. If he has hurt someone, ask him how he can put it right. If he can’t think of how, suggest sorry and whatever he needs to do to remedy – a letter, saying something nice, loaning his brother one of his special things for the night if he has hurt him. The consequences for physical violence should be more – loss of privileges for example. Here is an article that will help with some strategies:

Kind Kids are Cool Kids – Making Sure Your Child Isn’t the Bully http://www.heysigmund.com/kind-kids-are-cool-kids-making-sure-your-child-isnt-the-bully/.

Hope that helps.

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Tracey

I also suggest making sure that you acknowledge his feelings first no matter how badly he has acted. Kids can’t feel empathy for others if they don’t understand their own feelings and if they don’t feel like they are understood/validated. Its simply a case of stepping in his shoes first, to figure out what is going on from his perspective. Many perfectly normal people act out very badly when they aren’t feeling connected/understood/loved etc (think about what happens after relationship breakups!). You can say something along the lines of “It must be really frustrating for you when …. and maybe it makes you feel angry” or whatever fits the situation. Make it known that its ok that he has those feelings, and give it a chance to sink in and for him to reply before you move on to talking about how his actions affect others and that no matter what his feelings are, bad behavior isn’t acceptable. Ensure there are consequences as well. If he is displaying narcissistic beginnings, then he has an emotional hole that needs filling first before he can become empathetic. Kids can get that from lots of different life experiences so don’t feel bad about your parenting.

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Maria

Wow, as I read this article I felt validated yet faced with a big challenge with my current life. I believe my father is classic narcissist and makes so much sense to me to look at it as a developmental problem. It appears that my husband seems to exhibit many of the traits listed, not surprising as until we heal we tend to marry some part of a parent (ugh). I am the child of a narcissist to a t as described in this article. As I continue to look deeper and heal I’m seeing that chemistry others felt with me eluded me but looking back there was something. Now I’m starting to feel what I think is chemistry and it’s amazing but not sure it is and after reading article not sure what author is saying about the child of narcissist and chemistry. There seems to be more and if I were in Hawaii I would love to look her up. I now have a 22month old with my husband and want to do whatever I can to help her develop into the truest sense of herself wo the BS that shaped myself and her husband. Any suggestions on what I can do to help “shield” from the affects of narcissism? My husband her Dada is really very attentive to her mostly but I see pieces I guess that remind me of my experience, where he doesn’t respond to her right away or seems more important for him to talk about what he wants before responding to her and gets bothered when I don’t listen to him like I used to b/c I am giving her the attention I think she needs/deserves.

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KMB

While helpful to a degree, I don’t think the article is up to date on the current research regarding Narcissism. My daughter has just completed an extended essay on Narcissism as part of her Higher level psychology course whilst completing her International Bacclaureate. When writing this, she had to review all the current studies and literature. Current literature doesn’t concur re: the “causes” of Narcissism written in this article. Plenty of Narcissists do not have abusive or neglectful parents. The literature now suggests there are both biological and environmental influences over someone developing the disorder. The assertion that Narcissists are “fragile” beneath their grandiosity has also been challenged- many are not. There was a study done using an Implicit Bias Test that found that Narcissists seemed to have genuinely high self esteem, rather than the purported “low self esteem” and “fragility”. The model underpinning this article is the “Psycho- Analytic Theories of Narcissistic Aetiology”. More recent research has looked the “Social Learning Theory” which suggests that over valuation of children by parents/authority figures contributes significantly to the development of the disorder. There is also a 71% genetic familial transmission of the disorder according to one study. Studies have also looked at temperaments (inheritable components of personality) and the role they play. Current literature suggests there are two types of Narcissists- Overt and Covert. Overt Narcissists present with the “grandiosity” characteristics whilst the covert narcissists (“vulnerable” narcissists) are martyrs and play the “victim” role. The Overt Narcissists are more aggressive, Coverts are self victimising- “woe is me”. Looking at the broader (and more current) definitions of narcissism may resolve some of the confusion expressed by the commenters above.

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Rachael

Just wanted to say great article, I love that it maintains a sense of objectivity, makes it easier for the reader to understand different types of people and behaviour on a more ‘scientific’ level. Just wanted to add, I would say for most of my life I’ve displayed a range of these symptoms. Needing the adoration of others on a large scale, feeling ‘special’, lack of emotional intimacy etc. when these things where prevalent I also felt a deep emptiness and a complete lack of self worth. After a series of life changing events over the past 4 years I was kind of cracked open to the point I had no choice but to heal. Now I would say I’m a normal (ish) happy (mostly) and empathetic person. I’ve noticed a pattern with people who share similarities such as having really strong emotions (both positive and negative) and sensitivities. I think for a lot of us it becomes a little too much (regardless and irregardless of our circumstances as kids) and we get deeply hurt due to our sensitivities then quite literally, build this persona to protect ones self. For me, it can at times be discouraging to see similar people fall into the trap of narcissism/neuroticism, but if it’s something we can overcome by healing our hurt, that’s an amazing feat in itself. I think the other reason why people offset accountability for their actions by blaming others might be because the guilt we would otherwise feel from hurting others can be so overwhelming and paralysing. Thanks for the article!

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Aileen

I am recently divorced. My ex-husband fits this description. He was emotionally, verbally, and ultimately physically abusive. I have a great support system of family and friends and he lives two states away. However, we have a 1-year-old who lives with me full time, but sees his father every other weekend. I worry for my son. Many people have told me that he won’t be like his father because he is with me most of the time, but that doesn’t lessen my worries. Of course, I am probably worrying about things that may never come to pass, but things like addiction, parental alienation, and abuse all come to mind when I think of what my ex-husband is capable of doing to our son.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

I completely understand your worry on this, but you and your family will have so much influence on your son. People are right – he is with you and will absorb your values. He will also have the influence of your family and friends who will also be important. Your relationship and your connection to him will be so powerful in influencing him and nurturing in him the values that are important to you.

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Mechele

Low consciousness level seems to have a strong correlation to narcissism. . If you read Dr. David Hawkins book “Power vs. Force” he lays out the various consciousness levels and ways for ascertaining, using kinesiology, what those levels are. People are born at a certain consciousness level, and it tends to remain there for life, but it can change for those doing spiritual or healing work on themselves. On his scale of 1 – 1000, 200 is the beginning of integrity and basic courage and truth. People below this level of 200 cannot see the difference between truth and falsehood. As an example, a person who is at 120 on the scale is at the level of fear. Emotions at that level are predominately negative, and while it can be covered by superficial charm, nothing but trouble comes from that person. The world view rarely changes and is basically unfixable. The nonintegrous ego sees itself as the ultimate, basically as God, and will not really submit to anyone or anything else. That is the real source of the trouble, and there doesn’t seem to be much you can do or say that breaks through to such a person. The personality acts out from that worldview, and once you learn more about it, you can see it from a more dispassionate viewpoint. It also helps in letting go of thinking the narcissistic personality is going to act any differently, because it cannot. Chances are good that if your narcissistic, low consciousness parent hurts and confuses you enough to be reading all this information, it is because you are an integrous person and you can’t tolerate the lie that their life is.

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