Where Does Narcissism Come From? Part II

From what I experienced with my ex-husband, narcissism, and by that I mean the extreme narcissism that produces narcissistic personality disorder, is a result of a combination of personality and environmental factors.

Harry, my ex-narcissist, seems to me to have been born with a personality – in other words, the basic personality that was the result of his genetic inheritance – that left him unable to cope with much in the way of emotional upheaval. As a child, he was was probably much more emotional and sensitive than most people.

That was in the 1940s. And being an “emotional” boy would not have been an accepted trait during that time. He likely would have been castigated for any displays of emotion. “Boys don’t cry.” “Act like a man.” “Toughen up.” And so on.

Then, from what I’ve been able to piece together, the perfect confluence of long-term emotional upheaval began: his mother developed a drinking problem and was sent away by Harry’s father to get treatment. She was gone for a long period of time, possibly more than a year. Then, Harry’s father, distant to begin with, exposed Harry to a sort of uninvolved neglect. It could also be that at about this time, Harry became nascently aware that he’s gay – he was around ten.

As a result of these nurturing deficiencies, Harry became locked into childhood behaviour. He developed a love/hate relationship with women. He was in awe of his distant father. As he became older, he enacted repeatedly the wounding that he suffered from his parents, spreading it to others like a plague, hoping, on a subconscious level, to eliminate it from his life, or worse yet, dropping it on others so that they could feel the same way that he does. After all, it isn’t “fair” for others to feel better than he does.

Because he was a child when this occurred, with a child’s sense of understanding and logic, the narcissistic wounding was perceived through a child’s eyes. A childlike reaction resulted: in particular, narcissists react to criticism in very childlike ways. They are hypersensitive to any kind of perceived negativity that might be directed at them. One cliche certainly applies to narcissists and criticism: they can dish it out but they can’t take it. Eventually, the original wounding is forgotten and buried, and the narcissist can no longer make any kind of connection between event and  behaviour, if a connection had ever consciously been made in the first place.

Although Harry is a grown man physically, he relates to the world through the brain of a sensitive child who was damaged beyond repair. He has developed coping mechanisms and armour to protect himself from further injury. He has objectified others so that they can’t hurt him; since others are to be viewed with mistrust and suspicion, they become tools. Despite this, he is aware that others function better than he does, so he frequently copies them, masquerading what he interprets as “normal” behaviour. The fact that others seem to function better than him also causes frustration and rage. He thinks, “I’m doing what they’re doing. I’m saying what they’re saying. And I still can’t get it right.” He has completely lost himself in a confused morass of borrowed behaviours, opinions and habits, looking for the right fit, as if buying a new suit.

The sensitive child still lives within him, so there is a further impetus to over-react to criticism, or, he might perceive as criticism an action or comment that is completely innocuous. His bewilderment has continued to grow as he sees others handling criticism in a much healthier way, even as he sees them as objects of suspicion.

He doesn’t understand others or himself. He doesn’t understand life. He just emulates it. And he’s built such a ferocious, defensive fortress for himself, and has such mistrust of others, that he’s never going to admit that anything is wrong, let alone allow someone to help him.

He has wound up with no self of his own. He doesn’t know what he thinks or believes about anything. He might say that he believes or thinks this or that, but it’s only temporary. He will change his mind ten seconds later.

He is constantly on the hunt for some sort of satisfaction, idealizing, devaluing and discarding as he goes. He tries to soothe himself with the acquisition of things and money and people.

He doesn’t know love. He doesn’t know comfort. He doesn’t know empathy. He’s completely empty except for that infected, weeping wound and the fear and anger that it generates.

And the worst part is that he has come to the conclusion that everyone else operates in the same way. We’re all like him – without scruples, without principles, without truth.

There are times when I feel very sorry for Harry. He didn’t have the best childhood. He grew up during a time when it was expected that men be “tough.” A younger brother died in a tragic accident. He went on to face other life difficulties.

But then I stop to remember that there are many, many people who have it much, much worse than Harry, but who treat others with genuine courtesy and respect.

Is Harry, and are narcissists in general, more to be pitied than blamed? In many ways, they don’t know what they’re doing. Or should they be held to account, even if they don’t fully understand what that means? What do you think?

In my next installment on narcissism, I plan to look at the emerging theory that narcissism is the result of abnormal brain structure.

14 thoughts on “Where Does Narcissism Come From? Part II”

  1. It sounds very much like many mental illnesses…empty except for the weeping wound. ..the life that he possibly experienced would be cause to have issues of some sort. He knew he was gay at 10, yet married? Was he trying to prove to himself that he wasn’t? It’s a tough situation when childhood problems bring problems in adult life, it is sad. Only through treatment will they be able to have a constructive and ‘normal’ life. Interesting post lovely. xx

    1. I think that he was trying to prove that he wasn’t gay, yes. It was such a stigma then, and of course, narcissists are all about acting as if they are perfect. Unfortunately, narcissists are very difficult to treat. It is extremely rare for them to admit that they need help.

      Thanks. 💜

  2. Such a hard question to answer. I feel sorry for them, but at the same time I can’t help but think we shouldn’t because it all seems so calculated in their actions. Perhaps pitied but in a different sense of how we normally think of pity. Good post!

    1. Thank you! 🙂 I feel very conflicted about this – they are often very calculated and manipulative in their actions, but they also often seem to be unable to prevent themselves. More and more I’m starting to think that this condition should be more properly referred to as a mental illness.

  3. Ah, a much more sympathetic post compared with my snarky one about Facebook boasters! It is a genuinely fascinating subject and something which baffles me, especially as the info in your post perfectly describes my parents. Hmmm, very thought-provoking.

    1. Thanks. 🙂

      I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about narcissism of the NPD variety and am beginning to realize that my mom was also probably a narcissist, which is part of the reason why I wound up married to one.

      Narcissism is a fascinating subject but also repellent at the same time. At one point I wondered if I am a narcissist, too!

      Thanks for coming by. 🙂

  4. Thanks for sharing such a personal account of the factors that occur in the life of someone with narcissism.

    My ex also had an alcoholic dad and his mother left as the abuse was so bad and as the youngest he was left at 4 then put in a home, being told he was going to a farm.

    Knowing all of this and being in recovery from addiction myself, I was drawn to him like a moth to the flame. I felt so sorry for him, but the first few months of the relationship consisted in him talking endlessly about a succession of ex’s who did him wrong. The callous treatment of one made me wary.

    It is a trap we can fall into, feeling sympathy and empathy for them. Though my ex showed some awareness he had absolutely no interest in working through the pain of the past, only dumping it and them telling me I needed therapy, which I did, to deal with why I was attracted to this kind of relationship.

    I know other sites on recovery from this kind of relationship show the link between narcissists and empaths. We feel their pain, but its a mirror too of our own on some level, cause as you know we often had a parent who was either unavailable emotionally or narcissistic.

    Recovery leads us on this kind of search and on the way we find answers. The most help I really got was from sites like yours and Ursula’s and from listening to other people’s experiences.

    Like you I really understand the twin pull between feeling empathy for narcissists and thinking such empathy is a complete waste of time.

    The question is, does the person show any interest in seeing their part in the dynamic or do they just want to blame us. In the case of my ex it was the latter.

    I believe some people with the disorder do go into recovery or therapy, but they have to be willing to be honest and look within themselves and one of the key aspects of those with full blown NPD is that they can’t and wont.

    In this case all the empathy in the world wont help and we are better placed putting our energies into healthy relationships. At least that is my feeling (though its hard to break the pattern of over empathising for empaths.) Maybe the reason we came to be involved with one in the first place.

    1. Thanks so much for your wonderful commentary. 🙂

      I very much suspect that my mother was a narcissist and so yes, I was exposed at a young age. I understand how we become conditioned.

      My ex-narcissist also told me that I needed therapy for my “issues.” It was interesting how he commented that I was “getting better” as I began to discuss how crappy I felt when I was around him with my counsellor – I initially went for marriage counselling (he dropped out after three sessions) as I couldn’t understand how we could be in such trouble less than a year after our wedding.

      From my experience, they just want to blame everyone around them. Both my mother and ex-husband were textbook examples of that. Nothing was EVER their fault. If only I would do EXACTLY as they told me, all would be fine.

      I agree that narcissists just won’t do the self-examination they need to do in order for therapy to have any effect. In rare cases they can recognize what their issues are, but it’s as if they like themselves like that, even when they continue to hate themselves.

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