As you attempt to come to terms with a narcissist in your life, a burning question can be:  “How does a person get to be this way?”

Looking at their primary traits, you can see right away that the narcissistic pattern of life is destined to create strife, not coordination. 

The primary traits of narcissism include unhealthy tendencies like:

  • The yearning to be in control, to have the final word
  • Low levels of empathy, assuming others’ feelings are of little consequence
  • An attitude of entitlement
  • Manipulative and exploitive behaviors
  • The need to be seen as superior over others
  • Having very tight, irrational defenses
  • Being easily self-absorbed
  • Operating with one’s own alternate reality
  • Superficial relating patterns.

“Is it nature or nurture?”

Many ask, “Is this just the way they are, or is it learned?”  The answer is that narcissism is the result of both nature and nurture.  That is, certain tendencies are “hard-wired” into their nature, while other tendencies are the result of learned patterns (nurture). 

Knowledge is power, so the more you know about narcissism, the more poised you will be to respond to them with objectivity.  Narcissists like to blame others for their dysfunctional patterns, but that only reveals an unwillingness to take personal responsibility for their relationship malfunctions.  If they could be honest about the matters predisposing them to the narcissistic pattern, they could perhaps grow and mature.  But one of the defining features of narcissism is the unwillingness to introspect or to receive input, so emotional maturity tends to remain stunted.

You, on the other hand, can learn what goes into the making of narcissism so you can be armed with wisdom and insight.  Knowing what you face can prompt you to make wise responses to their dysfunctions. 

Seven identifying features that coincide with the making of the narcissistic pattern:

Not every narcissist has the same percentage (if you want to think in those terms) of each of these features, yet most have traces of each.  Let’s take a look at these 7 features, then we will summarize how your knowledge can make a difference in the ways you interact with a narcissist.

1. The genetic predisposition toward narcissism.

Decades of twin studies reveal that approximately 40-60% of a person’s temperament type is inborn.  Each individual begins life with strong inclinations toward given personality patterns.  For instance, some individuals are naturally gentle and emotionally sensitive, others may be blunt and forceful, others may be easily boisterous, while some may be pensive, and so forth.

Narcissists are powerfully defined by their controlling, entitled attitudes, coupled with low curiosity about the feelings and needs of others.  While they (like people of other distinct leanings) can learn different skills, that narcissistic bent is what they tend to fall back onto in challenging times.  It is their nature.

It is important to understand that this predisposition toward narcissism can “steer” individuals toward relational insensitivities that are completely unnatural in other individuals.  That can explain why empathetic and introspective individuals can feel so perplexed by the narcissist’s seeming unwillingness to do the same. 

2. Extremes in expectations.

During anyone’s formative years, expectations are part of relationships. Expectations are established by parents, extended family members, siblings, friends, educators, religious figures, television programs, advertisements, and so forth.  Developing individuals learn that success can be a direct byproduct of satisfying the standards set by the many people they encounter in life.  When presented in an uplifting manner, expectations can be an important ingredient in the formation of character and reliability.

Adult narcissists usually had a personal history featuring extremes in the ways expectations were learned.  On one hand, the expectations could have been conveyed strictly, indicating that acceptance is conditional upon meeting those expectations in an exacting manner.  In this incident, the budding narcissist would have learned that the one who makes the rules is the one with power.  So upon receiving strict expectations, that young person could have determined to be the one who sets the expectations for oneself and for others.  This could be revealed as criticism, bossiness, and intrusiveness.

On the other hand, expectations could have been quite lax in the history of the narcissist.  They may have learned that rules were made to be broken, or perhaps that they are unnecessary altogether.   They presume that they “succeed” when they do not have to come under the yoke of the one establishing the standards.  This would have become the beginning of an “anything goes” mindset, resulting in a non-conformist pattern of life.  With a history of lax expectations comes low levels of empathy since “me” is the only thing that matters.  They do not have an appreciation for communal values.

3. Over-emphasis on superficial means of acceptability.

It is quite common that adult narcissists are drawn toward themes emphasizing the good life, being better than most.  Invariably, in their past, these individuals were trained to think that they have “arrived” as they find ways to appear superior.  For instance, narcissists like to associate with “the beautiful people.”  Physical appearance can be overemphasized.  Likewise, they can be impressed by displays of wealth and social status.  They can be obsessed with a yearning for power, prestige, and influence.  Perhaps athleticism can become a means to prove themselves as a step above others, as can a competitive approach toward the arts or even academics.  Some find their superiority by learning to become sexually seductive, conquering others via sensuality.

When narcissists emphasize superficial themes like these, they usually have an accompanying lack of introspection about more meaningful, philosophic, or spiritual concepts.  For instance, rather than pondering deeply how dignity can be fostered, they prefer instead to focus on who looks the best or who appears to be the winner in a given pursuit. 

4. Inconsistency from caregivers.

Steadiness, calmness, and consistency are necessary ingredients when children and adolescents are being taught life skills.  With firm patience, developing individuals can learn to manage lifestyle responsibilities that will carry into their adult lives.  Budding narcissists, however, often have consistent inconsistency in the ways those skills are presented.  They are exposed to intermittent reinforcement, which means that their lessons are accompanied by uncertainty or mixed messages. 

For instance, a caregiver can seem kind and respectful when giving guidance, yet later can become abrupt or harsh.  Sometimes that caregiver can be emotionally and physically attentive, only to become unavailable or unhelpful at crucial moments.  Perhaps a caregiver can teach morality with strictness, yet that caregiver is later shown to be the opposite of such teaching.  The net result of consistent inconsistency is that lifestyle principles become confusing.  Upon receiving this form of influence, a budding narcissist can conclude that it is just best to go one’s own way with little or no regard for authority or accountability.   Trust is not well established.

5. Exposure to inappropriate patterns of anger.

As a child ages, conflict is inevitable.  In healthy environments, conflict can become a springboard for teaching how to blend differences.  Most adult narcissists, however, did not learn to approach conflict constructively because they learned instead that conflict becomes a hotbed for anger and disruption.

Narcissists are known for chronic mismanagement of anger, and this pattern can be traced to a deep history of exposure to ineffective emotions when tensions mounted.  For instance, when disagreements might arise within a family system, there would be harsh words.  Listening would be almost non-existent, but telling would be the norm.  Blame, accusation, shame, and guilt induction would be common.  Conflict was also accompanied by impatience and easy annoyance.  Sometimes, conflict would result in punishing silence, non-compliance, deliberate irresponsibility, or being dismissive in general. 

As anger rises, so does the tendency toward entitlement and control.  Likewise, the mismanagement of anger inhibits an understanding form of communication.  The many forms of mismanaged anger, then, become foundational to the narcissistic pattern.  

If, on the other hand, anger had been modeled with a blend of assertiveness, boundaries, and calm firmness, the result would be a less narcissistic reaction to conflict.  Adult narcissists have a minimal history of learning a constructive approach toward anger.

6. Emotional and personal issues were not openly explored.

Young developing children need much training regarding the meaning of their emotions and how to tend to the many personal dimensions of life.  For instance, social skills need to be openly discussed, and as mishaps occur, strategies need to be explored so those mishaps will not lead to dysfunctional responses.  Likewise, peer pressure is an ongoing topic requiring attention during adolescence and early adulthood, as are subjects like money management, team building, and developing empathy.

Young people also need to determine their core values and principles, and those matters need to be taught not as obligations, but as well conceived ideas.  Discussions are necessary with topics like work ethics, finding balance regarding entertainment pursuits, and learning how to find peace or contentment.  Also, developing individuals need guidance regarding the meaning of love, how to find self-esteem, and how to respond to others who seem confused.

Hardly any adult narcissist exhibits balance in such personal or emotional matters.  Perhaps in their early years they were told (which is not the same as being taught) what to think or how to act.  But they were hardly ever encouraged to mull over life skills in a manner that would result in personal ownership of a community-centric philosophy of life.  Narcissists, instead, tend to have a low tendency toward a well-conceived grasp of personal topics.  Rather, they tend to react in the moment to what they feel, leaving them highly vulnerable toward a me-first attitude.

7. Learned manipulation.

By definition, narcissists are manipulators.  They seek ways to find advantages over others, and they also seek ways to avoid accountability.  To them, life works best whenever they get what they want, meaning they view people as either a means to an end or as an obstacle to whatever they want.

Narcissists, beginning in their developmental years, can be quite vulnerable to models of behavior that encourage a scheming or a self-indulgent attitude.  Sometimes they notice how key adults have learned to master self-indulgent patterns, so they follow suit.  At other times, they are vulnerable to the modeling of siblings or peers who have learned how to “beat the system” and get what feeds their cravings in the moment.  Likewise, young narcissists learn how to feed self-absorbed pursuits via entertainment outlets like movies, video games, online videos, or extreme competitive activities.  They have learned through social modeling that life is a competition where the victor gets to do whatever he or she prefers, and that sensitivities toward cooperative themes lead to powerlessness.

How You Respond To The Entrenched Narcissist:

As you gain an understanding of the narcissistic pattern, you can first recognize that you too will have tendencies toward it.  Each person has selfish or controlling or insensitive tendencies.  That is to be expected.  Maturing individuals recognize this potential and make efforts to curb narcissistic patterns. 

A challenging task, as you engage with a narcissist, is to practice self-reflection regarding your own life’s trajectory.  Two mistakes are common as you identify another’s narcissism.  First, you can be susceptible to responding in kind.  Then, second, you might be tempted to convince that narcissist to quit being as they are.  In either case, you will find yourself in a reactionary pattern of life, with the narcissist being the one who leads the way.  Self-reflection takes a back seat to a codependent response.

The better alternative is to distinctly determine to become the embodiment of a more mature pattern of life.  Maturity, by definition, implies a willingness to practice self-care while at the same time being mindful of the needs of the people in front of you.  Just as the narcissist, you too may have had a less-than-ideal history of modeling regarding the life skills.  But unlike the narcissist, you can be the change.

By learning what makes a narcissist a narcissist, you can become very intentional to live within your own definition of a decent life, meaning you can maintain clean boundaries when a narcissist “invites” you into a less fulfilling style of relating.

Les Carter, Ph.D.