We have all heard about narcissism. The word has been tossed about in psychology circles for years and through a ripple effect it is now common to most people’s vocabulary. The word comes from the Greek myth about Narcissus, a young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and dived in after it, only to perish. The myth, like many Greek myths, is intended as a cautionary tale; in this case it is about the dangers of vanity.
Narcissistic people, like Narcissus, are in love with themselves—but ironically, they do not love themselves.
Down deep they unconsciously hate themselves, so they erect a bubble of pride. They are in love with themselves as a reaction formation to their self-hate. Inside their bubble, they are convinced they are superior and special and demand that everybody else treat them that way. They are self-centered—convinced that their view is the only view that matters. Anybody who disagrees with them is punished. The queen of Hearts in the children’s story, “Alice in Wonderland” keeps saying, “Off with their heads,” when someone doesn’t do what she wants. She is a prototypical narcissist.
Narcissism can be mild or extreme; in extreme cases narcissists become tyrannical. They admire themselves and demand approval, but they cannot love or accept love, because they don’t have the capacity for empathy. To love someone, you have to be able empathize with that person and accept him for who he is. Narcissists love people for who they want them to be. Or they hate people for not being who they want them to be. If people are who they want them to be, they are their best friend. If not, they become their worst enemy.
This is a brief description of narcissism. People have written volumes about it, but that is not the purpose of this article. This article is to suggest several scenarios of how people become narcissistic. In each scenario the key ingredient is that a narcissistic parent passes on the narcissism to their child or children in one way or another.
Scenario 1: The idealizing Parent. In one case with which I became acquainted a single mother idealized her son and at the same time over-protected him. From the time he was born he became her little prince. When she bathed him, which she did until he was about ten, it became a routine for her to fondle his penis while she washed it and stroked it a few times. “Are you my little man?” she would beam proudly. When she trained him to go to the potty, she insisted on wiping him herself. “I want to make sure you’re sparkling clean.” She continued to wipe him until he was eighteen and left home for college. She raised a man who had learned to idealize himself and regard himself as superior and special, and as someone who was entitled; it was as if he expected the whole world to wipe him.
He later married a woman who he expected to do everything for him, just as his mother had. When she didn’t do what he wanted, she was beaten. If he wanted her to say she loved him and she refused, he beat her. If she went out shopping when she wasn’t supposed to, he beat her. If she laughed, he beat her. If she cried, he beat her. He was the typical wife beater: entitled, vengeful, single-minded. She was his battered woman.
Scenario 2: The demonizing parent. From the time of his birth the son was despised by his father. The son cried a lot and the father decided he was a demon. The father, who had a one-track mind and would listen to nobody, saw it as his job to drive the demon out of his son by punishing the boy for crying, for laughing, even for being alive. He punished the son severely all the days of his childhood, making the boy feel that almost everything about him was bad. When the boy grew up, he erected a bubble of narcissism. He was out to prove his father wrong; he was in reality a superior, special being who in fact was divine—which was why he believed his father was jealous of him.
As an adult, it became the son’s mission to right the wrongs of the world. He had a chip on his shoulder and whenever he encountered anybody who didn’t mirror his idealistic self, he would punish that person severely (viewing him as a symbol of his father). Sometimes he would tell lies about the offender to his boss, causing him to be fired, or lying to his wife, causing the breakup of his marriage. He spent his life thinking of himself as a hero, never becoming aware of the anger and meanness inside him.
Scenario 3: The parent who couldn’t say no. This mother could not say no to her daughter. When her daughter reached the “terrible twos” the mother always gave in to her. If she didn’t want to eat, the mother allowed her not to eat. If she didn’t want to go to bed, the mother allowed her to not go to bed. If she didn’t want to go to the potty, the mother would smile and say, “OK, dear, you can go later.” If she had a temper tantrum, the mother would give in to her. The mother, who was a secret narcissist, wanted to make her daughter a narcissistic extension to achieve her frustrated ambitions.
By the time she became a teenager, the daughter had learned to dominate. If she didn’t get her way, she had a tantrum and most people would be intimidated by her. She did what she wanted when she wanted. She stayed out late, had sex with numerous older men, took drugs, and carried on in a defiant way. By this time the mother had become upset at her daughter’s shenanigans. The mother would cry and say, “I don’t know why you’re doing this to me.” The more the mother tried to make her daughter feel guilty the worse the daughter acted.
As an adult the daughter felt entitled to behave however she wanted. If someone disapproved of her, she would punish them. She became very popular and drew many followers, who looked up to her because of her “grit.” She was an attractive woman who seemed to know exactly what she wanted and how to get it, which made her appealing to young women, who lacked self-esteem. Thus she became a powerful woman, a leader of women, but like most narcissists she was incapable of love and was always quite defensive and even militant, lest somebody find out that inside of her was emptiness.
Carl Jung once said, “Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking.