It’s Narcissist Friday!
Most professionals agree that narcissism begins quite early in life. The child may be ignored, abandoned, coddled, or abused—but he/she lacks the normal and appropriate nurture of parents. Other siblings in the same home may be treated differently or may learn to cope in different ways, but some will choose a narcissistic path. They learn to get the attention and support they need by manipulating parents and siblings and, later, friends. They might decide that being hurt and needy will work. They might learn that being loud and irritating will work. Or they might learn to be devious and scheming to get their needs met.
Now, I understand that parents of narcissists sometimes find this hard to accept. But the truth is that we all lack parenting skills, particularly those specifically needed by certain children. If we raise all our kids the same, we fail to meet special needs. If we try to deal with each one differently, we may be viewed as playing favorites. The problem is not always in the parenting. The problem is in how each child views their own upbringing. It may be a long time ago, but we all remember times in our childhood when we felt alone or afraid or unloved. We each had to learn how to deal with those feelings and those needs.
So, some children set out on a path that leads them into the darkness and loneliness of narcissism. Children try things. They learn what works and what does not. They are not good judges of why and how certain things work, of course. Nor are they aware of the long-term risks of certain behaviors. All they know is that certain things seem to work better than others. That begins a journey on a long path.
Years ago, there was a management teaching called “GMP” – the Greatest Management Principle. It was very simple. People will repeat the behavior that is reinforced. In other words, if a certain behavior is practiced regularly—positive or negative—something is reinforcing that behavior. Find the reinforcement and you may be able to change or encourage the behavior.
Narcissistic behavior is readily reinforced in a culture like ours, even in most homes. Busy parents give in to the loud or needy child. Disciplining a headstrong child is challenging, and a cooperative and quiet child is easy to leave alone. So, some learn to fight, while others learn to work the system. Once on the narcissist path, the child finds a great deal of reinforcement.
Of course, not all such behavior is reinforced. Sometimes there is discipline, but some children simply learn that occasional discipline is the price to pay for the behavior that, more often than not, will work. Children on a narcissistic path often face resistance. The loud child in the classroom may not be liked by the other kids and the teacher may have to devise some kind of punishment. But if that child believes the path is right for him/her, the loud behavior will continue (or it will be subdued until a better time).
This is what I mean when I say that narcissism is a choice. It is a path that is chosen, a way of looking at others and self. Eventually, the distance between the child and others will grow and more abusive or manipulative behaviors will assert. Narcissists learn to use others from the beginning of the path, but their methods are refined and intensified as the years go on. By the time the child is an adult, he/she is convinced that narcissistic behavior is not only working but is necessary and right. Arguments to the contrary fall on unbelieving ears.
So, why do some children in a family become narcissistic, while others do not? By my study, no one really knows. It might be easy to assign some genetic predisposition or some chemical or mental/emotional imbalance, but almost none of the professionals believe that to be the case—except, perhaps, with those narcissists who become malignant sociopaths. Instead, some simply choose a path. Along the way, the darkness grows, but the child doesn’t notice or care. As long as the chosen path seems to work, at least enough to provide reinforcement, the hardness of heart and the distance from others will grow.
Then can this path be changed? Can the person who chose narcissism be convinced to choose another way? Well, there are some who claim to be able to help narcissists change. I think the only change will be utilitarian, behavior change for the purpose of personal benefit, and I don’t think heart motivations change as easily. And there is nothing easy about changing narcissistic behavior.