What makes a narcissist? Are narcissists born or do circumstances push them to become one? Well, research might have the answer to that million-dollar question?
I have read several articles lately in which the authors argue that narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is genetic and hence hereditary. In their opinion, the nurture component is almost irrelevant in the making of a narcissist. They put nearly all the blame on the nature component and substantiate it by referring to conclusions in several scientific studies. Let me try to explain why I disagree with them.
When it comes to the development of our personality, nature, and nurture play a decisive role. Scientists have still not come to a consensus as to which of the two is more important. Fate also has a part to play in it, because we don’t choose where, when and to whom we will be born, nor what our biological makeup will be like. Nature encompasses our genetic predispositions. Nurture encompasses our environment – the physical environment we live in and, more importantly, the people we live and interact with.
Related: The Anatomy of Narcissism
The pivotal role of the significant other in our lives cannot be overstated. The significant others is our parents, other adults in our lives who have an impact on our cognitive and emotional development, friends, and later on, our partners.
Another element that needs to be taken into consideration when trying to explain the development of narcissism is the composition of our personality. Our personality consists of two elements – character and temperament. It relates to our thinking, motivation, and behavior. Character is not given at birth but is shaped gradually throughout life. Our environment, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors shape our character.
Temperament is determined by biological factors and is thus relatively fixed. It is what we inherited, hence we call it our biological, genetic, and instinctive part of the personality. For example, temperament defines whether we will be more of an introvert or more of an extrovert. In the case of the latter, the development of narcissistic traits is more likely if our parents never frustrated our demands and failed to set boundaries. The most critical developmental period is around the age of three when everyone goes through the omnipotent phase.
When it comes to narcissists, nature does not hold much responsibility for how they turned out. Yes, nature gives them certain predispositions (temperament traits), but it is the nurture component that impacts to what extent those temperament traits will express themselves. What is more, nature will enhance their character traits in a healthier or in a more pathological direction.
Like all people, narcissists, too, were once small babies in need of love, care, affection, nurturing, protection, and mirroring from their parents. In the lives of narcissists, there was just never the right amount of any of it.
Let me now touch upon a few arguments that have been forwarded in different hypotheses about narcissism being genetic. In one study the authors looked at what they call “the narcissistic instincts.”
They also observed the body language of individuals and inquired about how they would define their personality. While I agree with the authors that, by definition, the instinct is not something shaped by the nurture component, I fail to comprehend how they defined and measured instinct as such, or how the body language can be used to label someone as a person with NPD. What is then the difference in body language exhibited by an NPD person and someone who is self-confident?
In another study the authors focused on grandiosity and entitlement, which are two of the most prominent narcissistic characteristics. Their reasoning is well elaborated. However, grandiosity and entitlement are not something we are born with, they are learned behavior.