Why is a narcissist a narcissist?

Is it genetic, environmental or parenting that causes someone to grow up with narcissistic traits and possible narcissistic personality disorder


In this article, I aim to explain the causes of it, how to manage them if you choose to or have to engage in a relationship with one and whether narcissists can change.

Just to make it clear, not everyone that has narcissistic tendencies is a narcissist. We all have some traits of narcissism and it is on a spectrum. 

I remember when I was first chosen to compete for Great Britain as a sprinter, I would turn up at training in my GB kit, thinking I was indeed the 'dogs cahoonas', parading myself around, wanting everyone to see me and hopefully comment on my amazing achievement. Did they make me a narcissist, as I did have an over-inflated sense of self based on my achievements? 

As someone who craved attention, validation and love, was this my way of seeking it out in order to feel better and is this in fact what narcissism is based in? 

I don’t believe that I was being narcissistic, just reaching out to be seen. But I would say it was an overindulgence and a narcissistic type trait.

Unlike a narcissist, I wasn’t setting out to make anyone feel bad, feel less than me or cause them any damage. If my view of myself were to be challenged, I would just sink back into my insecurity and not lash out with resentment and aggression (be it overt or covert) to redress the balance.

And it would quickly be replaced with a sense of ‘ordinary’ or ‘less than’ when I was competing against Olympians and world champions. 

The psychology of narcissism

The environment that you grow up in will determine whether you have narcissistic tendencies or not. 

If you were placed on a pedestal as a child or you were overly controlled, will determine if you develop a grandiose or vulnerable type personality. 

We can’t determine if a child is narcissistic or not, as nearly every child will be selfish and self-focused, trying to get their needs and wants met at all times. It is part of human development. 

It can be seen that in cultures that promote and value individuality and self-promotion, rather than a sense of community, there is a larger number of narcissists, although self-promotion isn’t something that we shouldn’t do, we just need to look at it as a way of boosting self-esteem, not a narcissistic self.

The study that determined this was carried out on participants who grew up in West and East Germany, one an individualistic culture, the West, and one more collectivist, the East, those in West Germany had higher rates of narcissism and lower self-esteem. 

Negative or adverse childhood experiences, such as abandonment, abuse, neglect, rejection, lack of affection, bullying and criticism by parents can contribute to a narcissistic adult. And on the opposite side, too much praise, no consequences for bad behaviour, being overly protected and a lack of boundaries can lead to a child thinking that they have complete control over their environment. They are the centre of the world and are not made to consider others.

In general, we can see these parenting factors contribute to higher levels of narcissistic adults.

On the whole, the evidence points to narcissists being made and not born. 

It is ok to tell a child how amazing they are, as we want them to grow up believing in themselves, with self-confidence and self-worth, but going too far can have extreme consequences and is detrimental to balanced development, such as leading to a superiority complex. Laying the ground rules for a perfect narcissist. 

Does a narcissistic parent create a narcissistic child? 

Yes and no. A narcissistic parent sees their children as a possession and treats them accordingly. This lack of empathy can indeed influence a child to show no empathy too, but can also make the child hypervigilant to the feelings of others and they turn out as an empath (which has its own measure of issues at times). 

Whatever way they are treated, they ultimately grow up with immense insecurities and will do anything to avoid these being triggered. 

The evidence on genes playing a part isn’t particularly clear and if there is a connection, then at this time, no one has discovered which genes are responsible. 

One study on twins did conclude that grandiosity and entitlement could be hereditary but existed independently from each other.

How do you deal with a narcissist? 

Firstly, should you tell someone they are a narcissist if you believe they are one?

I guess this depends on the relationship you have with them and whether you want them to own this and change their ways. 

Remember that a narcissist could also turn even nastier to empower themselves if they believe you have figured them out. But, calling them out, them knowing that you know, could also lead them to search out new ‘supply’ and leave you to it. 

If you have to continue the relationship with them in some way, shape or form, it may just be best that you know and let them believe they still have the control, but changing how you allow them to affect you and how you are towards them.

One way of doing this is to grey rock them. 

What is grey rocking? 

This is a technique that helps stop a narcissist from continuing to attempt to draw you into their spiral of games.

It is about you stopping playing the role they need you to play in order to get their needs met. 

You need to make it like they are getting ‘blood from a stone’ to coin the famous phrase, you are the stone and the blood is their supply.

How to grey rock

  • Keep dialogue to an absolute minimum and as uninteresting and depersonalised as possible. 
  • Give short answers and ask closed questions (if you have to ask them anything, otherwise, don’t even ask them anything). Stick to the facts on any subject.
  • Move away from them physically at work if possible.
  • Don’t interact when dropping your kids off or having them picked up and never ask for favours. Only discuss the kids with them.
  • Never bring up the past in conversations.
  • You don’t want to be seen, you want to be as dull as a grey rock to them, so if appropriate, look at plain as possible when you see them.
  • Avoid them at family meetings as much as you can and again keep conversation to a minimum and bland or even boring.

It is important to put yourself in a headspace where they can’t disturb your thoughts and feelings. 

I mentioned that we synchronise with each other and this is generally a good thing. When it is being used against you then you can combat this. It is up to you to change the relationship dynamics with a narcissist and try to re-balance the relationship. 

Firstly, be aware of how you may be in a co-dependent relationship (I have a couple of episodes of the podcast to listen to around this, including an interview with someone who was in this type of relationship). 

Work on your own self-worth, so you can’t be easily influenced. Set your own uncrossable boundaries, and be assertive and confident in your space.

Don’t react to put-downs or big-ups, as both will feed their manipulation tactics on you. Never think they will treat your vulnerabilities with care or respect.

No matter how much you like to care for people and make them feel ok, remember they will just keep taking from you and make your life difficult, no matter how much you are giving to them.

Keep and discover new interests that are just for you or don’t involve them. Be conscious and aware of how they try and get into your mind and of how you are feeling, so you recognise when you are being triggered by them.

Never try and argue, explain or justify yourself or justify their behaviour either. Manage your expectations or as I say, expect the expected. You know what is coming, so be ready for it. 

Look at your past. You may have a predisposition to attracting or being attracted to a narcissistic type personality based on your own upbringing and experiences without even realising it. Something about them draws you towards them, and then they draw you in. 

Learn how to self-regulate your emotions and self-soothe. Be self-compassionate. Remember that they will only change something if they see it as a problem and want to change it. 

Can they change? 

Well, if they have narcissistic tendencies or traits, then studies suggest that these are likely to lessen naturally as they get older. 

Different narcissistic traits will require different types of changing. 

Would you believe that a grandiose narcissist will benefit from spending time in nature, as it helps for them to be awed by something other than themselves.

Whereas a vulnerable narcissist could benefit from meditation. 

Coaching, counselling and CBT are all talking therapy approaches that can help them to explore their deeper issues and then change their thoughts and behaviours. 

My previous point about being empathic and being drawn into their games is valid, but if you can show some compassion for a narcissist without being drawn in, then it has been shown to have some beneficial effects on them. That is why a talking therapy of some kind can be useful.

Showing compassion can help them to show some vulnerabilities and address the issues that cause them to be narcissistic in the first place. It can induce self-compassion and in turn create compassion for others. 

Ultimately however, a narcissist is a narcissist and is very unlikely to engage in change regardless of how you are with them if they don’t want to or can go elsewhere to meet their supply. 

Hopefully, these articles on the subject will enlighten you in your relationships with them and how you can assist others in relationships with them. The more we are equipped to manage our relationships with narcissists, the less we will be drawn into their mind games and who knows what will happen to them all if their supply finally runs out. 

Be good to yourself


The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire, EN8 9SH
Written by John Kenny
Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire, EN8 9SH

John's approach is a fusion of Counselling, Coaching, Psychology & NLP and will help you to understand yourself, others and what you need to do in order to attract what you want in your life, something healthy and fulfilling, so it can be the best it can be.

John is also an Author, Speaker, Podcast Host and Documentary Maker.

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