Some critics consider April Wheeler, played by Kate Winslet, in the movie Revolutionary Road a classic example of a narcissist with grandiose delusions. In fact, her untiring love for herself, need for admiration, and lack of empathy – all of which drive her to suicide – do point to what psychiatrists call narcissistic personality disorder or NPD. April had an unhappy childhood. Is that the only cause or one of the many causes of narcissistic personality disorder?
What causes narcissistic personality disorder is a question that has baffled mental health experts for quite long. Hypotheses exist but nothing points conclusively to one definite cause. Some studies say it could be genetic, while others point to a strong environmental/parenting angle. In some individuals, it could well be a mix of both.
1. Faulty Parenting
Many psychologists, including Sigmund Freud, believe narcissism to stem from environmental influences, chiefly parental influence. Freud’s theory suggests that we are not born with ego; our sense of self develops somewhere during infancy and early childhood. This is called primary narcissism and is part of our healthy mental development as a baby.
As we grow, we invest our sexual energy on objects outside ourselves. But when our objects of love (parents) do not return love, we turn this love onto ourselves. This leads to the development of secondary narcissism or narcissism as a mental condition.1
Too Much Or Too Little Parental Control
Many mental health experts and researchers after Freud developed on this idea and came up with a strong parental angle in the development of narcissism. Karen Horney, for example, agreed with Freud on the development of secondary narcissism as a result of lack of love from caregivers. She suggested that narcissism is seen in overly authoritative or overly permissive parenting styles. This is because if parents do not love their children for their real selves, children create inflated images of themselves to draw admiration or attention.2
Lack Of Parental Empathy
Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut held that narcissistic psychopathology is a lack of parental empathy during childhood.3
Too Much Expectation
Kohut’s contemporary and researcher Otto F. Kernberg also endorsed this theory of parental neglect as the cause. He believed that in their childhood, narcissistic personalities were never valued for themselves; they were valued only when they met their parents’ expectations.
As a result, their self-images become wholly governed by expectations, making them incapable of being spontaneous. Because they validate their own existence by conforming to expectations, narcissists believe that others too should meet and conform to their expectations.4
In 2006, Leonard Groopman and Arnold Cooper listed all the possible causes of narcissistic personality disorder.5
- A hypersensitive temperament since birth
- Excessive admiration not balanced with realistic feedback
- Excessive praise for good deeds or excessive criticism for bad behaviors during childhood
- Overvaluation by parents or other family members
- Being praised for appearance or exceptional abilities
- Severe emotional abuse during childhood
- Unpredictable or unreliable care from parents
- Learning manipulative behaviors from parents or peers
- Being valued by parents as a means to regulate their own self-esteem
Personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder could also be genetically inherited. If you have a narcissistic parent, it is possible that you could turn out to be narcissistic, too. Studies on twins have shown that personalities are 40–60% hereditary, and genes have a dominant effect on narcissism in 64% cases.6
3. Brain Structure
Studies on serious personality disorders like borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder have shown a difference in the brain structure of the patients.7 Recent research has identified abnormal brain structures in people with NPD, too.8
This study on 176 healthy college students investigated whether the thickness and the volume of the cerebral cortex had anything to do with pathological narcissism.
It found that people with a trait of NPD had reduced cortical thickness and volume in the areas of the brain that control emotion regulation and social behavior. This is what accounts for NPD patients’ willingness to exploit others and lack of empathy. However, this change in brain structure is not uniform across all cases.
It is possible to treat narcissism with psychotherapy and medication, though the process is long. Better parenting is the only way to prevent narcissism and bring up emotionally healthy individuals.
|↑1||Freud on narcissism. University of Hawaii.|
|↑2||Narcissism. University of Michigan.|
|↑3||McLean, Jamie. “Psychotherapy with a narcissistic patient using Kohut’s self psychology model.” Psychiatry (Edgmont) 4, no. 10 (2007): 40.|
|↑4||Russell, Gillian A. “Narcissism and the narcissistic personality disorder: a comparison of the theories of Kernberg and Kohut.” British Journal of Medical Psychology 58, no. 2 (1985): 137-148.|
|↑5||Groopman, L. C., and Cooper, A. M. “Narcissistic personality disorder.” Armenian Medical Network (2006). Retrieved from Narcissistic Personality Disorders. Health.am. Armenian Medical Network.|
|↑6||Livesley, W. John, Kerry L. Jang, Douglas N. Jackson, and Phillip A. Vernon. “Genetic and environmental contributions to dimensions of personality disorder.” The American Journal of Psychiatry 150, no. 12 (1993): 1826.|
|↑7||Buchheim, A., G. Roth, G. Schiepek, O. Pogarell, and S. Karch. “Neurobiology of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and antisocial personality disorder (APD).” Schweiz. Arch. Neurol. Psychiatr 164 (2013): 115-122.|
|↑8||Mao, Yu, Na Sang, Yongchao Wang, Xin Hou, Hui Huang, Dongtao Wei, Jinfu Zhang, and Jiang Qiu. “Reduced frontal cortex thickness and cortical volume associated with pathological narcissism.” Neuroscience 328 (2016): 50-57.|