As a society, we’re becoming more aware of how narcissism, narcissistic personalities, and narcissistic abuse has a negative impact on our daily lives. Unfortunately, narcissists have an obscured awareness that enables them to quickly adapt to society’s acknowledgement of their existence by doubling down on their efforts to disguise their abusive nature. One of the most reliable methods for looking past their disguise is having a comprehensive grasp of how narcissists are made. 

Narcissists are made by an unhealthy or abusive childhood with primary caregivers who are consistently unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent. There are many credible theories to the specifics of these types of environments but they all concur with the collective belief of an unhealthy or abusive childhood being the cause of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

The importance of familiarizing yourself with each theory is immeasurable. When it comes to narcissism, narcissistic personalities, and narcissistic abuse, operating with even the slightest amount of misinformation can drag you into the narcissistic abuse cycle indefinitely. Building a strong foundation of knowledge about NPD will put you in a position from which you can avoid, escape, or heal from narcissistic abuse.

a victim of narcissistic abuse learning about narcissism with a qualified professional

The Different Theories Pertaining to the Origin of Narcissism

The value that comes from having a comprehensive grasp of how narcissists are made is crucial for one’s healing journey. It will help guide you through the hidden aspects of narcissistic abuse, put you in a position from which you can spot narcissistic behavior patterns before they even happen, and answer a very large portion of the questions you may have about narcissistic abuse.

It is important to remember that narcissism is on a continuum. A continuum is a sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, but the extremes are quite distinct. While there are four types of narcissistic personalities, grandiose, malignant, communal, and covert, there is a significant amount of overlap amongst the four. 

It’s really important that you’re aware of this fact because the four narcissistic personalities we listed above are often defined at their extremes. If you were to attempt to identify narcissistic behaviors in your own life without a comprehensive grasp of the overlaps that are commonly seen, your experiences might not be validated and you could find yourself stuck in a narcissistic relationship for the rest of your life!

Heinz Kohut’s & Otto Kernberg’s Theory

Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg are two of the most prestigious psychoanalysts that you’ll come across when educating yourself about narcissism, narcissistic personalities and narcissistic abuse. They both agree that the origin of narcissism can be found in primary caregiver-child relationships but each has a slightly different twist on it. 

Heinz Kohut Believes That Narcissists Are Created By Primary Caregivers Who Don’t Mirror Their Child

Heinz Kohut focuses on parental mirroring, a term used to describe the way that primary caregivers reflect or “mirror” the emotions, feelings, thoughts, and needs of their child. Those who grow up with primary caregivers who consistently mirror their emotions, feelings, thoughts, and needs are more likely to have a realistic sense of self and an emotional maturity that supports a healthy cognitive development.

Heinz Kohut’s theory about the origin of narcissism suggests that narcissism originates from upbringings where the primary caregivers are unable to mirror their child’s emotions. 

An upbringing in this type of environment will prohibit children from developing a realistic sense of self and they’ll have an emotional immaturity that leaves them incapable of managing their own emotions on their own. 

As a result, they’ll desperately search their external environment for the validation, admiration, and reassurance they can’t get from their primary caregivers. 

a young narcissistic child

Otto Kernberg Believes That Narcissists Are Made By Unemphatic Primary Caregivers

Otto Kernberg’s theory suggests that primary caregivers who are unemphatic with their children are to blame for narcissism.

These types of primary caregivers are obviously abusive but it is important for you to know that they are narcissistic as well. This does not mean they are narcissists, it only means that their behavior is narcissistic. 

Otto Kernberg points out that an upbringing with a narcissistic primary caregiver, someone who lacks empathy, fears intimacy, and is emotionally immature, is going to leave the child emotionally starved. He believes that this causes the child to focus on developing their external world instead of their internal world. 

Why?

We spoke about this in more depth in our article How Do Narcissists Treat Their Children but a very common narcissistic trait is superficiality. They’re incapable of maintaining healthy relationships, including the ones with their own children, because of how one-dimensional they are.

Children of primary caregivers who display this narcissistic trait learn very quickly that the only way they can receive any type of acknowledgement by their unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent primary caregiver is by being a sufficient source of narcissistic supply, the validation, admiration, and reassurance that narcissists extract from others. 

Children in these types of environments learn to build their identity and self-esteem off of their external achievements because of the unfillable emotional emptiness that they have within.

What do you mean? 

Their primary caregivers are unresponsive, unavailable, and inconsistent which means that they aren’t able to mirror the child’s emotions. This leaves the child so emotionally immature that they can’t regulate their emotions on their own. 

a child incapable of regulating their own emotions

Lost and confused, the child will begin to realize that the only acknowledgement they get from their primary caregivers originates from achievements in their external world.  

However, because their environment is so emotionally starved they still have a deeply rooted emptiness embedded within their psyche because no matter how much they excel in their external world, it is never enough to turn their primary caregivers into available, responsive, and consistent human beings.

Without intense professional guidance, these children continue to search their external world for the validation and admiration in adulthood that they were unable to get in their childhood.

What Should You Take Away From Heinz Kohut’s & Otto Kernberg’s Theories?

The upbringings that Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg depicted causes those affected to become really good at compartmentalizing themselves. 

According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, compartmentalization is a defense mechanism in which thoughts and feelings that seem to conflict or to be incompatible are isolated from each other in separate and apparently impermeable psychic compartments.

What does compartmentalization look like with narcissists in accordance with the theories you just learned about? 

Heinz and Otto both pointed out the severe levels of emotional immaturity that narcissists develop from their upbringing, specifically their inability to manage their own emotions. This emotional inadequacy of theirs causes them to depend on compartmentalization which manifests in the form of their falsified identity. 

They will create a falsified identity built around the external aspects of themselves that they developed from an unhealthy/abusive childhood and compartmentalize all of the other negative emotions they have from having unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent primary caregivers, deep within their psyche.

Heinz Kohut’s and Otto Kernberg’s theories are incredibly insightful. You see, one of the first things that victims and survivors learn when they begin studying the narcissistic abuse they’re experiencing are the characteristics and personality traits of a narcissist.

narcissistic traits

From here, victims and survivors are able to use the information they learned about narcissistic characteristics and personality traits to dismantle the manipulative structure that narcissistic behavior patterns create. 

Unfortunately, this dismantlement is not an easy process. There are a mountain of negative emotions one must overcome to dismantle the manipulative structure but the value of having this process reassured and validated by a comprehensive grasp of the WHY that Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg gave us is immeasurable. 

A woman learning about narcissism and realizing that her narcissistic husband isn't going to change anytime soon.

Alexander Lowen Believes That Narcissists Are Created By an Unhealthy or Abusive Childhood Comprised of Shame and Humiliation

Alexander Lowen’s, a psychiatrist who passed away in 2008, believed that narcissism originates from an unhealthy/abusive upbringing plagued with shame and humiliation that revolve around the child’s emotions. 

What does this mean? 

Primary caregivers who make their child feel weak, inadequate, ashamed, and/or humiliated for expressing their own emotions, like crying, are essentially teaching their children that their emotions are not okay. A sad, but accurate, example of this would be a child getting spanked for crying. 

This type of response to a child’s emotions is going to severely corrupt their perception and definition of a healthy relationship and cause them to develop a fundamental belief that power is good and emotions are bad. 

As the child gets older this belief can transform into an insecure need for power and control in their relationships and a deeply rooted hatred for parts of their identity that they’ve been led to believe make them weak. 

Unavailable, Unresponsive, and Inconsistent Parents Could Create a Narcissist

In the 1950’s a psychiatrist named John Bowlby and a psychologist named Mary Ainsworth introduced the Attachment Theory, a theory that focuses on the relationships we form with our primary caregivers as infants.  

Their definition of a healthy primary caregiver is someone who is available, responsive, and consistent. They also believe that children only need one healthy primary caregiver to have a healthy cognitive development. This primary caregiver is essential because they’re able to accurately mirror the child’s emotions which allows them to develop a realistic sense of self.

Where this theory gets very interesting can be found within the attachment styles outlined in the Attachment Theory: secure, anxious, and avoidant. The term “attachment style” is used to describe the way we respond to others both emotionally and physically. 

The Attachment Theory specifically focuses on the way infants responded when they were separated with their primary caregiver.

An infant who has a secure attachment style will be sad when physically or emotionally separated from their primary caregiver but quickly soothed upon their return. 

An infant with an anxious attachment style will be very upset when physically or emotionally separated from their primary caregiver but will be caught between an urge to be soothed and an urge to punish the primary caregiver for leaving. 

An infant with an avoidant attachment style isn’t visibly upset when physically or emotionally separated from their primary caregiver and actively tries to avoid them upon their return. 

Infants who grow up with available, responsive, and consistent primary caregivers are much more likely to develop a secure attachment style and infants who grow up with unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent primary caregivers are much more likely to develop anxious or avoidant attachment styles. 

Those of you who’ve suffered narcissistic abuse, particularly from a romantic partner, might have already spotted it but narcissists often have anxious attachment styles.

Cindy Hazan

In recent years Cindy Hazan, PhD, has suggested the attachment styles that the Attachment Theory lays out also apply in our adult relationships. Where this has been connected with narcissism is in her description of those with anxious attachment styles. 

She described them as people who are constantly worrying if people love them or not, and become very frustrated when their needs aren’t met. Narcissists have a crippling fear of abandonment and/or rejection that aligns with an anxiously attached person worrying about whether or not people love them, and narcissists explode with rage when their needs aren’t met.  

If this idea of narcissists having anxious attachment styles were true, then they would be very upset when their partner leaves, and unappeasable upon their return. Almost as if they are still angry at their unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent primary caregiver from their childhood, and are projecting their anger onto their partners in adulthood.

To put this theory to the test we conducted a study among 200 survivors of narcissistic abuse (romantic relationships only) where we defined the attachment styles as we did above and asked them if they recognize any of the attachment styles from their own experiences with a narcissist and this is what we found:

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All of the content that Unfilteredd creates is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care — please visit here for qualified organizations and here for qualified professionals that you can reach out to for help. This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

References

Kohut, H. (1971). The analysis of the self: A systematic approach to the psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personality disorders. University of Chicago Press. 

Kernberg, Otto F. Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. Rowman & Littlefield, 1985.

Lowen, Alexander. Narcissism: Denial of the true self. Simon and Schuster, 2004.

Hazan, Cindy, and Phillip Shaver. “Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process.” Interpersonal Development. Routledge, 2017. 283-296.

Hazan, Cindy, and Philip R. Shaver. “Deeper into attachment theory.Psychological Inquiry 5.1 (1994): 68-79.

Bretherton, Inge. “The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.” Developmental psychology 28.5 (1992): 759.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5)