Why Narcissists Never Grow Out of Being the “Center of the Universe”

Dr. Brittney Jones, Licensed Clinical Psychologist on Feb 21, 2023 in Mood and Feelings

Narcissistic traits start as early as infancy and last a lifetime.

Narcissism is a hot-button topic. As a psychologist, I frequently hear the term being thrown around.

For any of us, it’s easy to point at a self-absorbed or rude person and say: 

“They’re toxic.”

“They’re an asshole.”

“Stay far away from them.”

But honestly, we all have some version of narcissism within ourselves. After all, self-absorption is an evolutionary trait. Scientists believe that narcissism developed as a way for us to achieve status. Beneath the pop psychology of narcissism, there’s an explanation behind it all.

Before we get into the science, let’s first define narcissism.

Narcissism is the psychological energy that we invest in ourselves.

Like many other psychological traits, narcissistic traits are on a spectrum. This self-focused psychological energy can be positive and adaptive, like when we have self-respect or self-confidence.

"Healthy narcissism forms a constant, realistic self-interest, mature goals and principles, and an ability to form deep relationships. It is critical to cultivating an authentic sense of self and positive self-regard."

— Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

However, there comes a point when narcissism can go too far. The tipping point comes when a person overvalues themselves as a defense against being hurt. This defense fuels the toxicity of narcissism.

According to Anne Heathcote, narcissistic injuries may occur as early as months after being born. Many people labeled as narcissists have experienced profound loss, rejection, and abuse months after being brought into the world. They’ve learned to rely on positive responses and validation to heal their narcissistic wounds from a tender age.

Because of the early origins of narcissism, these traits become ingrained into their being — into their personality. Because narcissistic traits run deep, they’re difficult to change.

We’ve all been kids before, trying to navigate the world. It wasn’t easy.

When we were babies, we cried when we needed something. We cried when we needed food, sleep, a diaper change, or affection.

And when we cried, someone answered.

All children go through this phase — normal narcissism. This phase is the time when children believe they’re the center of the world. Children cry and scream in public places like no one else exists. To them, their needs take precedence.

If a parent was abrasive or rejecting, the child could interpret this as, “My parents didn’t want me in the first place” — a Don’t Exist Injunction. Rejection is a significant blow to their sense of self.

Fear of abandonment or neglect fuels narcissistic traits and narcissistic injuries.

Over time, children typically shed this grandiose view of themselves. The process of “growing up” is brutal as children experience minor narcissistic wounds over time.

They learn that they aren’t the center of the world — other people exist, and others’ needs matter, too.

However, in the case of a person with narcissistic traits, they don’t shed grandiosity. They remain the center of the world.

According to researchers, there are two types of narcissistic personality structures. These personality structures often develop because they were only validated when showing a grandiose, false self.

The exhibitionistic narcissist — the child never has minor narcissistic wounds and grows up believing that their “wish is their command.” They grow up believing they deserve clout and validation without effort. People “should” admire them.

The closet narcissist — the child believes that other people are the special ones. They may have a dependent style of interacting with people to bask in others’ uniqueness — a defense against abandonment or neglect.

“Children treated in either of these ways learn to deny their vulnerability and selfhood. Beneath the grandiose false self is a terrified child who is afraid of ceasing to exist if he or she is not special or unique.” — (Joines and Stewart, 2002)

People with narcissistic traits have so much shame.

Shame defends against shame, a narcissistic process that involves self-righteousness.

And in this process, there’s a fluctuation between minimizing and being grandiose — for example, minimizing others and using grandiosity to justify that they didn’t need relationships after all. Despite not “needing” relationships, they may still crave validation in the form of admiration. Admiration decreases the amount of shame they feel and fuels grandiosity.

This narcissistic process covers up how vulnerable and powerless they often feel. Sadly, with the constant reassurance narcissists crave, mixed with self-absorption, they end up pushing people away.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy — narcissists lose relationships because they fear abandonment.

As a psychotherapist, there are times when I’ve encountered people with narcissistic traits. Through the therapy process, a person with narcissism can increase empathy and become a more authentic version of themselves.

In therapy or on their own, some people engage in the process of reparenting.

“Reparenting is the act of giving yourself what you didn’t receive as a child” — Dr. Nicole, The Holistic Psychologist

In the case of narcissists, they may have missed out on healthy boundaries, unconditional love, vulnerability, awareness of emotions, and emotional intelligence. As an adult, parenting ourselves can heal the wounds created in childhood.

The reparenting process involves Four Pillars, according to Dr. Nicole LePera, Holistic Psychologist:

  1. Discipline — creating daily habits that facilitate mental and physical health
  2. Joy — exploring passions, interests, and learning about yourself and what fulfills you
  3. Emotion regulation — being aware of yourself and your emotions, using emotional intelligence to understand what leads to feeling a certain way, and what may need at the moment in response
  4. Self-care — creating tasks and habits that meet your needs, including physical, emotional, and relational
  5. I wrote this article to provide information to understand narcissism and look at it through the lens of curiosity instead of judgment.

The narcissistic process is complex — one that often needs a deeper dive to understand fully.

Dr. Brittney Jones is a Clinical Psychologist Website

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