|Narcissus, Cave, 1890.|
What makes a narcissist?
The official answer is that nobody knows. Mayo Clinic’s web site says “It’s not known what causes narcissistic personality disorder.” WebMD says “The exact cause is not known, but there are several theories.”
WebMD cites two: narcissism is caused by “parents who put their children on a pedestal,” and “children who are ignored or abused.”
There is an obvious contradiction here: if we accept both theories, that would mean that opposite actions can produce the same result. Moreover, we have seen, and it has been generally confirmed by studies, that children who are ignored or abused tend to develop depression in later life. This is an opposite condition, involving low, not high, self-esteem. So we are also positing here that the same action can produce opposite results.
The obvious conclusion is that option two is false: narcissism is not caused by childhood neglect or abuse.
Our best source for understanding the psyche is literature and legend. So the best place to look for clarity is the original Greek story of Narcissus.
According to the story, Narcissus was an unusually handsome youth, who fell in love with his reflection in a pool—an image of complete self-absorption.
However, in the story, Narcissus’s narcissism was not cased by seeing his reflection in the pool, and it was not caused, directly, by his good looks. He was self-centred and callous before this. “Many a youth, and many a damsel sought to gain his love;” writes Ovid, “but such his mood and spirit and his pride, none gained his favour.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses 3. 339 – 509, trans. Brookes More). This cannot have been because of his own opinion of his looks; he had not yet seen his reflection. Had he, the effect of seeing it later could not have been so mesmerizing. Falling in love with his reflection was divine punishment for his lack of empathy in spurning the nymph Echo—not its cause.
He was basing his essential narcissism, then, on the adulation he was receiving from others. This would seem to confirm excessive praise in youth or childhood as the cause of narcissism.
This is again confirmed by the tale of Tantalus, another narcissistic figure, and an archetypal child abuser. He was, according to legend, first especially favoured by the gods; from this he developed insatiable expectations.
It is important to note that neither legend, Narcissus or Tantalus, attributes narcissism directly to upbringing or to the actions of others. In both cases, although such circumstances are a temptation, the narcissism is shown as a moral choice, and a moral fault, deserving of punishment, not something that has been done by others to the narcissist.
This being so, it is possible that an abusive or neglected childhood could lead at times to narcissism, and a pampered, spoiled childhood might not. This may be one reason the roots of narcissism are mysterious for psychiatry. It is predisposed to see things as diseases, not choices, and it rules out ethical considerations a priori.
Where does the idea that narcissism comes from childhood abuse or neglect come from?
Pretty plainly, it comes from the clinical testimony of narcissists.
Beginning with Alice Miller. We have seen that she was herself a narcissistic child abuser, and we have seen that she attributes narcissism—which she lumps in with depression—to parents who did not love unconditionally, but instead set standards for the child, in order to “earn” their love.
In a way, this rings true, and one can see how it works. A young child is raised being told they are absolutely wonderful. But sooner or later, in the natural course of things, the outside world will require them to prove themselves. They will, for example, be marked at school. Sooner or later, they will not get the top mark in some subject. Sooner or later, they will fail at something. Sooner rather than later, for the narcissist: being innately wonderful, they are less likely to have made that initial effort. Sooner or later, their parents will need to direct some of their attention elsewhere—to a new child, to their own needs, to making a living.
Because their expectations are infinite, the narcissist will find this traumatic. At this point, they have a choice. They can revise their distorted opinion of themselves, buckle down to improving, and grow up. Or they can decide they have been tricked or betrayed—by their parents, by the system, by any others who have done better than they. The latter is the easy, lazy option. A narcissist is born.
The same equation works of the narcissist is confronted by some moral choice: should he grab the candy from the store, say, or waive his desires until he has the pocket money to buy it. Any kid might give in to such a temptation; a spoiled kid more than another. Then conscience begins to trouble the narcissist. He can either admit to himself his fault, and amend, or he can deny, blame the Jews or the capitalist system or the Catholic Church and their nagging morality, and double down.
Then it is in the nature of a narcissist, once confirmed in their path, that they will never again accept personal responsibility. If they are being told they are mentally ill, or for that matter have done wrong, they will then as a matter of course blame their children. Hence the tendency to abuse them. But failing that, the next obvious line of defense is to blame their own parents. Confronted by an analyst, it is the natural line to take.
A friend of mine had a father who drank excessively. He was distant from his children, by their report; he ignored them. At one point, oppressed by his own unspecified problems, he had an analyst come in on house visits. After several sessions, the psychiatrist assembled the family in the living room and announced to the children, “the problem here is that none of you love your father enough.”
The analyst was being manipulated by a narcissist. Narcissists are good at that.