There’s a saying that some artists or masterful musicians and craftsmen are “born, not made.” In some ways, our DNA imprints much of our future personalities and talents into our human form, but some paths that are followed are created by us, not born into us.
Narcissism is one of those traits that appears to be programmed into a person’s behavioral repertoire after birth, not before. It’s one of those byproducts of consistent pre-verbal interactions that can shape our adult lives, according to current thought.
Craving connection and control—from the womb to the room and the cradle to the grave?
Narcissism is based on two beliefs attributed to infants—omnipotence and limitlessness. Before birth, we spend the better part of a year swimming solo in an environment designed to cater to our every need. This isolation tank provides everything a developing person needs and then we are pushed out of this safe space into a world quite different from what we had known before. Not only does the newly birthed baby’s equilibrium get shaken up like a snow globe, so, too, does that of his caregivers. At no other time in life can the strength or the shortcomings of a person have so much influence as when she takes on the role of primary caregiver to an infant solely dependent on her for his very existence.
How do you know if you are in a relationship with a narcissist?
The most common description of a narcissist addresses the self-centered, self-absorbed nature of a person and the obsessive concern about appearances and positive self-regard. We throw the word around about people who have never met a mirror they didn’t like or who brag or embellish their personal successes and belittle or show disinterest to the achievements of others. If you find yourself with someone who seems to be incapable of receiving enough praise or who subsumes you into her own identity, you may very well be hanging out with a narcissist.
The upside of being with a narcissist occurs when she has merged your two identities into one and she sees you as a powerful and pleasing extension of herself. In the early stages of a relationship, this merging of selves can be intoxicating and satisfying. It doesn’t last, though, once you begin to assert your independence and individual identity along with your likes, dislikes, preferences, and so on. Yet letting go is not as easy for a narcissist as one might like; when a person’s deepest fears are rooted in limits and powerlessness, letting go of a failing relationship brings a narcissist face-to-face with these most combustible and incendiary fears.
How do you know if you are a narcissist?
It’s a disheartening fact that many of us suffering from personality disorders do not even recognize that we have a problem—we always blame failed relationships on the other person. It’s the same for narcissists. Their cycle of failed relationships is used as proof of their superiority and the inferiority of their partners. The Mayo Clinic has noted that the only reason that narcissists show up in the therapist’s office looking for help is when their loneliness and separateness grow into depression significant enough to warrant seeking clinical assistance.
Sometimes, the most significant sign that you may be a narcissist arrives in the form of a string of accusations by romantic partners and others. Hearing the words, “You are such a narcissist!” typically leads us into an immediate denial and pose of indifference. This is totally natural—narcissists are masters at rejecting any form of criticism of themselves. “You always expect me to do what you want, but you never do what I’d like to do,” is another criticism that you may have heard from people in your life, if you have narcissistic tendencies. “I don’t want to wear that, I prefer this,” is something you may have heard as you’ve tried to assert your will that your partner reflect your merged identity and appear in the way that you find most pleasing. “Why can’t you be happy for me when my life is going right?” may be a complaint you’ve heard. Narcissists have such fragile egos that they feel threatened when others, even friends and partners, meet success.
When you find yourself tying up your own self-worth and self-esteem into the experiences and emotions of others, that’s a symptom that your ego system is out of balance. It’s seldom a narcissist’s own self-awareness registers that something is wrong, but if you keep hearing the same complaints or realizing the same unpleasant relationship patterns, perhaps a visit to a counselor might shed some light on the role that you are playing in relationships and bring some suggestions for building a relationship grounded in healthy emotional connection.
It's not easy being in a relationship in which narcissism is present; before you can find a cure, there has to be an acknowledgment of the problem.
Reliable caregivers make a difference—but often the barn door is already shut.
Infants are assumed to believe that they and their caregiver are a single entity; they don’t perceive separateness between themselves and their caregivers for some time. A baby cries and his needs are met. With time, babies learn that immediate response may not come, but that their caregivers will attend to them before long. This cycle creates a bond of trust and acknowledgment of the separateness between self and other. This is healthy and necessary for the development of a healthy ego and the ability to engage in mutually satisfactory adult relationships.
We learn that omnipotence is impossible and that we face personal limits in our reaches and our relationships. We are able to accept that we need others to meet our needs and that our behavior must conform to the circumstances in place in order to getting our needs met. It’s about the balance of separateness and togetherness and mutual support. It sounds simple, but narcissists have put up virtually impenetrable walls that protect them from learning these truths.
Admittedly, it can be overwhelming to even the most emotionally well-balanced person to suddenly be responsible for the survival of another. Some people, however, cannot rise to the challenge due to the limits of their own emotional development. Thus, when an infant is unable to develop trust and to accept that her caregiver will meet her needs, unpleasant consequences can result. Without learning about the limits of power and control within a healthy early relationship, the desire to control others and demand the dissolution of another’s personal boundaries circumscribes—and circumvents—their efforts at developing successful relationships in adulthood.
Research study: How are your adult sibling relationships working out?
Be a part of a new research study exploring adult sibling relationships. Some of us learn about friendships through our early relationships with siblings. If you are still working through sibling drama or enjoying sibling harmony, please share your stories here.
Boyd, H. (1968). Love versus omnipotence: The narcissistic dilemma. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, & Practice, 5, 272-277.