I’m often asked why people develop narcissism, and the causes of narcissism, that’s not an easy question to answer since there are so many possibilities. Let’s just say that young, budding narcissists concluded early in life that:

They can be controlled or become the one in control

They can receive shame or be the one who pronounces shame

They can be judged or they can be the one who judges

They can be inferior or try to be in the superior position.

In their formative years they concluded that few people, if any, understood them or could be trusted to advance their cause.  They wished to be known and affirmed, but in their minds, the prospects for that were low, so they developed a defensive posture toward people and groups. Not willing to become fully authentic, these narcissists-in-the-making learned to carefully craft a False Self.  And the grip of that False Self reached a crescendo as childhood faded and life became more complex.

By the time they aged into adulthood, they constructed a personal narrative anchored in the belief that no one is to be trusted.  Instead, they determined to always keep the upper hand as they engage with others. To them, others are not potential relationships as much as they are potential tools or people to be used to give them the necessary supply for confidence.  

As you understand more and more about narcissists and the causes of narcissism, you realize how they seek functional alliances, but they cannot open their hearts or minds for meaningful connections. This explains why they attach poorly, often finding themselves in strained relationships.  Life to them is an ongoing competition with whomever they encounter, and they have to, they must guard their fragile ego at any cost.  

In other words, narcissists are guided mightily by the trait of paranoia.  It is the fear-based foundation for their approach toward life.

To get an idea of what this paranoia looks like, look over the following 20 point checklist.  It will give you a broad perspective on the nature of the mindset that guides narcissists. As you go through this list, keep track of the number of items that apply to the one you have in mind.  In the end, you can have a clearer idea of the causes of narcissism in the person you are thinking of:

1.  Inability to become open and self-disclosing.

2.  Broad distrust of others, usually without solid evidence.

3.  Hypersensitivity to cues of rejection.

4.  Presumptions of persecution and being judged.

5.  Deeply offended when ignored.

6.  Disdain toward others’ gains.

7.  Exaggerated self-focus, especially within groups.

8.  Unnecessary negative interpretations of differences.

9.  “Needs” an enemy.  Thinks in “us versus them” terms.

10. Threatened when others are successfully attached to key people.

11.  Absolutely cannot admit mistakes, flaws.

12. Strong need to be in control.

13. Scorekeeping about being wronged.

14. Insatiable need for reassurance.

15. Being secretive.

16. Assuming negative motives when someone chooses to differ.

17. Absurdly defensive.

18. Chronic undertow of tension, agitated emotions.

19. Dread of feeling powerless or irrelevant.

20. Cannot, will not, be subordinated to anyone.

If a person shows at least ten of these tendencies, paranoia and accompanying narcissism are likely.  These people operate as if the world in front of them is not a safe place, meaning they have to be on guard perpetually.  They are unable to feel or express empathy since that would require them to let down their psychological guard.  Trust becomes elusive in primary relationships since they view the world though a negative, pessimistic mindset.

If a person shows fifteen or more of these tendencies, paranoia and accompanying narcissism define that person.  There is very little chance for these individuals to change or adjust in ways that would produce harmonious relationships.  Instead, these people see others as potential rivals, and they constantly feel the need to keep an edge of caution.  To them, letting down their emotional guard would be tantamount to asking for domination and ruin to come upon them.  They are virtually incapable of rewarding love, connection, or intimacy.

If you find yourself having to come to terms with these paranoid narcissists, you will inevitably experience persistent conflict, as the narcissist will be prone toward anger, accusations, enmity, and contempt.  Efforts to discuss needs, feelings, interpretations, and perceptions will be futile. These are not individuals who can manage the intricacies needed to sustain ongoing robust interpersonal exchanges.

That being the case, know what you are dealing with. Understanding the causes of narcissism and that such people are tormented souls who will bring you into their angst if you let them is important to surviving it. Make no attempt to “bring them into the light” or offer suggestions for reform.  It will backfire on you almost every time.  Instead, commit to boundaries and assertions of your choosing.  Trust yourself even as that person declares you to be untrustworthy.  And when possible, set a very separate course for your personal growth. 

Les Carter, Ph.D.

I’ve developed a brand new, exclusive course called Free to Be. The narcissist wants to control your free will and keep you on their fixed agenda. This course will teach you how you can live free without becoming caught up in the narcissist’s endless mind games.