the role of childhood emotional neglect in development of Narcissism

Narcissism is a spectrum ranging from mild traits to full blown diagnostic disorder. Is there a potential cause? Can finding empathy help our own growth and healing?

Laurissa Hampton LPC

5/30/20232 min read

Narcissism-Narcissistic abuse-survivor
Narcissism-Narcissistic abuse-survivor

Narcissism, as a term, is thrown around regularly these days.. and many of us have witnessed at least one individual who's less than desirable personality traits have caused us suffering and earned the knee-jerk label "damn narcissist !". Truthfully- Narcissism exists on a spectrum that ranges from mild traits (most of us have the capacity to demonstrate traits now and then) to full blown diagnostic disorder. The disorder is characterized by excessive needs for admiration, belief of superiority over others, little to no ability to feel empathy for others and a desire to exploit others in order to have personal needs met and is estimated at about 2% of population. Although this is hard to gauge, because Narcissist often don't end up in therapy and as a result the diagnosis is under-reported.

One thing we do know, is that the traits and behaviors of a Narcissist make it nearly impossible to achieve authentic connection, love and bonding and will leave individuals in their world desperate to connect, feeling discarded, confused and empty in their wake. The pain caused by the behaviors of a narcissist can lead to deep feelings of anger and resentment for those in the narcissists life and as a result, are narcissists are very good at making enemies. These behaviors make it difficult to see the true pain and suffering that lies behind the narcissists alienating actions. As most of us know, empathy feels good! It connects us to ourselves and our world and adds to the richness of all that makes us human. So when we are faced with someone who challenges this capability by demonstrating unscrupulous hurtful behaviors, it can leave us questioning our very ability to be empathetic or feel connected and human !... So what gives?? If empathy is a natural and rewarding function of human nature, how does this type of personality, the one that deeply lacks in empathy and feeling, develop? And, will finding empathy for the struggle of the narcissist help our own humanity?

Some theorize that if a child is brought up by caregivers or parents who over-exaggerate a child's "surface qualities" (looks, smarts, athletic ability etc), that the child will grow up with a core belief that they are superior to others. This alone, however, is not the sole cause of this personality development. If you pair this excessive praise, with childhood emotional neglect (a parent or caregiver who does not properly connect with the child or engage with them beyond a surface level) the child is apt to experience a 'traumatic rupture' to their developing psyche thus receiving a conflicting and deeply life alienating message. "I am superior to others, but my innermost world, feelings and reality are not worth attention". In other words, "I must demonstrate my worth externally at all times, always come out "on top" because the truth is.. that I myself am not worthy of love or attention". This leaves little room for error or simple humanity.. and additionally tampers the ability to have a deep loving connection with others. A lonely existence, no? and a very fragile one.. thus why many individuals who suffer with these traits often find themselves experiencing periods of depression and rage..

In summary, what's at the center of all of this? This grandiosity, appearance and fixation on power? This need to prove and demonstrate ones worth at the cost of all others? Deep feelings of alienation, disconnect, emptiness and insignificance. Ouch!