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Narcissism: Genetics or Abuse, Nature or Nurture?

Uploaded 7/30/2010, approx. 4 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin. I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

Is pathological narcissism the outcome of genetic inherited traits, or is it the set result of abusive and traumatizing upbringing and experiences in early childhood or early adolescence? Or maybe it is the confluence of both, nature and nurture.

Narcissism or pathological narcissism is not common, but it is a common occurrence that in the same family with the same set of parents in an identical emotional environment, some siblings, some offspring grow to be malignant narcissists, while the others are perfectly so-called normal.

Surely this disparity indicates a predisposition, a propensity of some people to developing pathological narcissism as part of their genetic heritage.

This debate between genetics or upbringing nature or nurture genes or abuse, I think relies on or springs off some obfuscating semantics.

When we are born, we are not much more than the sum of our genes and their manifestations. Our brain is a physical object. It is the residence of all mental health and all mental health disorders.

Mental illness cannot be explained without resorting to the body and especially to the brain. And our brain cannot be contemplated without considering our genes.

So it is a clear chain of being genes, brain, mental health and mental health disorders.

Any explanation of our mental life that leaves out our hereditary makeup and our neurophysiology is lacking by definition. Such lacking theories are nothing but literary narratives if they don't take into account genetic composition and the brain.


Psychoanalysts, for instance, are accused of being divorced from corporeal, physical, bodily reality and justly so. Our genetic baggage makes us resemble a personal computer. We are an all-purpose universal machine. You can run different softwares on the same person, so to speak.

Subject to the right programming, conditioning, socialization, education, upbringing and of course the wrong programming such as abuse, we can turn out to be anything and everything. A computer can imitate any other kind of discrete machine given the right software. It can play music. It can screen movies. It can calculate. It can print. It can paint.

As opposed to a television set, for instance, a computer is constructed and expected to do multiple chores, multiple tasks, while the television set is expected to do only one thing.

So unlike the television set and more like the computer, we have multiple purposes. We are a multiple-purpose machine. We do not have a unitary function such as the television set.

We humans are also subject to programming. We also run different types of software and this is what we call upbringing, education or socialization.

And when this goes wrong, we call it abuse and in extreme cases trauma.


Single genes rarely account for any behavior or trait.

Behaviors, traits and personalities are explained by clusters of genes, some of them enormous. An array of coordinated genes is required to explain even the minutest human phenomenon.

So when we hear about discoveries of a gambling gene or an aggression gene, these so-called discoveries are derided, they are mocked by more serious and less publicity-prone scholars and researchers.

Yet it would seem that even complex behaviors such as risk-taking, reckless driving, compulsive shopping, addictive behaviors, even these complexes have some genetic underpinning.

So what about the narcissistic personality disorder?

It would seem reasonable to assume though at this stage it's not fully proven that the narcissist is born with a tendency to develop a phonological narcissistic defenses.

These defenses which are maladaptive, they are sick and probably genetically prone or genetically determined are triggered by abuse or trauma during the formative years in infancy or during earlier lessons.

When I'm saying abuse, I'm referring to a spectrum of behaviors which objectifies the child, treats the child as an extension of the caregiver, the parent or as an instrument.

So daunting, smothering, spoiling, engulfing the child are as abusive as beating and starving the child.

Abuse can be disheveled by peers as well as adult role models such as teachers.

If you take all this into account, I think it's safe to attribute to the development of narcissistic personality disorder mostly to the environment, to nurture not to nature.

Narcissistic personality disorder is an extremely complex battery of phenomena, behavior patterns, cognitions, emotions, conditioning and so on.

Narcissistic personality disorder is a personality disorder and even the most ardent proponents of the school of genetics do not attribute the development of the whole personality to genes. It is extremely unlikely.

Narcissistic personality disorder is probably the interplay between a genetic template and the abuse and trauma heaped upon this inner computer.

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Can Narcissism be Cured?

Pathological narcissism is difficult to cure, and most narcissists resist psychotherapy. However, some progress has been made in effecting small changes in personality disorders through talk therapy and medication. The earlier the therapeutic intervention, the better the prognosis, and aging tends to moderate or even vanquish some antisocial behaviors associated with pathological narcissism. The existence of empathy is a serious predictor of future psychodynamics, and the prognosis for a classical narcissist with grandiosity, lack of empathy, and all is not good as far as long-term, lasting, and complete healing.


Narcissist: Is He or Isn't He?

Narcissism is a spectrum of behaviors, from healthy to pathological, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual specifies nine diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). A malignant narcissist is someone who has NPD and wreaks havoc on themselves and their surroundings. They feel grandiose and self-important, exaggerate accomplishments, and demand recognition as superior without commensurate achievements. They require excessive admiration, adulation, attention, and affirmation, and are interpersonally exploitative, devoid of empathy, and constantly envious of others.


Depressive Narcissist

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Narcissistic Personality Disorder Prevalence and Comorbidity

Pathological narcissism is a lifelong pattern of traits and behaviors that signify infatuation and obsession with oneself to the exclusion of all others. Healthy narcissism is adaptive, flexible, empathic, and causes elation and joy. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is diagnosed in between 2 and 16% of a population in clinical settings or between 0.5% and 1% of the general population. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is often diagnosed with other mental health disorders, and this is known as comorbidity.


Addict Narcissists: Substance Abuse and Reckless Behaviors

Pathological narcissism is an addiction to narcissistic supply, which is the narcissist's drug of choice. Other addictive and reckless behaviors such as war-camelism, alcoholism, drug abuse, pathological gambling, compulsory shopping, reckless driving, and even compulsive lying, piggyback on this primary dependence on narcissistic supply. The narcissist's addictive behaviors take his mind off his inherent limitations and bridge the gap between his unrealistic expectations of life and his inflated self-image. There is no point in treating the dependence and recklessness of the narcissist without first treating the underlying personality disorder.


Your Narcissist: Madman or Genius? (Based on News Intervention Interview)

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In a pain-and-death-oriented society, anxiety is the ruling emotion. Our economies are constructed around growth, and our relationships are dysfunctional. The only efficient coping strategy in such a world is narcissism, which is on the rise, especially among the young. Narcissism seems to be a positive adaptation, and some people use it to get to the White House. Victims of narcissistic abuse adopt psychopathic and narcissistic behaviors and traits as a defense, and we are moving into a psychopathic world. We have lost our dreams and don't have any believable stories left, leaving us as dead flesh.


Acquired Situational Narcissism

According to Professor Robert B. Millman, pathological malignant narcissism can be induced in adulthood by celebrity, wealth, and fame. He calls this acquired situational narcissism and believes that it can be provoked by certain situations. However, it is likely that acquired situational narcissism is merely an amplification and manifestation of earlier narcissistic conduct, traits, style, and tendencies. Narcissists tend to gravitate to specific professions and settings which guarantee them access to fame, celebrity, power, and wealth.


Narcissist's Addiction Atypical

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