Are Attachment Issues at the Root of Narcissistic Personality?

Young person's hand holding a daffodil over still waterPeople with narcissistic personalities may often have disturbances in both their self-regard and in their connections with others. Some believe that the narcissistic personality is created in early life as a result of maladaptive attachment.

One school of thought is that narcissism is a result of arrested development, in which the person remains fixated at an infantile or very young age and only manifests in terms of their wants and needs. For example, an infant does not think about what their mother wants or needs; they are only concerned for the self. Similarly to infants, narcissists tend not to be concerned with the other person’s feelings, only their own.

It has been theorized that those who are “pathologically narcissistic” (a normal level of narcissism is essential for healthy self-esteem) are not fully “fixated” in a phase of early childhood development–the “me” phase, or narcissistic phase of development–but have instead developed pathologically. This affects their inner working models for self-love and object-love (the love of others).

People with narcissistic personalities often do not present seriously disturbed behavior and may function quite well socially and vocationally.

Narcissism in the Context of Object Relations

Objects are attachment figures. In object relations theory, the object is the person one attaches to in early development, usually the mother or primary caregiver. As a person progresses in age, new objects come along and become attachment objects as well.

Object relationships are the relationships people form with significant others. The first significant other is often the mother. As a person is developing, they are learning mental representations of the following:

  • The object as perceived by the self
  • The self in relation to the object
  • The relationship between the self and the other

These concepts set the stage for all of one’s future relationships, both with the self and others.

The Development of Narcissistic Defense Mechanisms

Narcissists tend to have one or both parents who are chronically cold and covertly aggressive. While they may appear superficially well-organized, they may have an underlying degree of callousness, indifference, and nonverbalized aggression when parenting (Kernberg, 1992).

Part of development involves differentiation of the self from the other, where normal reality testing should occur. When early attachment objects are inconsistent, abusive, or neglectful, the developing individual needs a psychological mechanism which allows them to escape the conflict between the need for the external object and the dread of it (Kernberg, 1992). Coping or defense mechanisms may then ensue.

People who have developed narcissistic personalities often do so because they have not been able to internalize a “good” object; rather, they have internalized a frightening one, one which they are unable to draw comfort from. Because of this, instead of attaching to others in a healthy manner, they utilize defensive coping mechanisms for relating. One of these is idealization:

These individuals identify themselves with their own ideal self-images in order to deny normal dependency on external objects and on the internalized representations of the external objects. It is as if they were saying, ‘I do not need to fear that I will be rejected for not living up to the ideal of myself which alone makes it possible for me to be loved by the ideal person I imagine would love me. That ideal person and my ideal image of that person and my real self are all one, and better than the ideal person whom I wanted to love me, so that I do not need anybody else anymore.’ —Otto F. Kernberg, MD, FAPA

In other words, the normal tension between actual self (developing child with unmet needs) and the actual parent (emotionally unavailable parent) on the one hand, and ideal self and ideal object on the other, is eliminated by the creation of a fantasy self-concept and fantasy other-concept within. Concurrently, the images of the “unacceptable” true self are repressed and then projected onto others.

Note: This is why people in relationships with narcissists are often devalued and discarded–they are receiving the narcissist’s projection of their true beliefs about self as well as the disappointment and anger of not really being an ideal or fantasy partner/child/object.

How Narcissists Relate to Self and Others

People with narcissistic personalities may find it difficult to internally grasp the basic concepts of healthy connection. They may not have experienced it in order to internalize it appropriately. Healthy relating and attunement might not have been sufficiently “mirrored” onto the developing child. Thus, the child has an attachment deficit.

Narcissists may be especially deficient in feeling deep emotions, such as longing and sadness, and in relationships with others, they may experience feelings of indifference. The deep emotions narcissists feel are most often those that relate to personal ego-injuries. In these cases, narcissists will feel the emotions of rage, envy, and resentment.

The types of primitive coping or defense mechanisms for relating to others include splitting (all bad/all good), denial, projection, grandiosity, and idealization.

In addition to this, those with narcissistic personalities will adapt themselves to the moral demands of their environment as a “payment” or “price to pay” in order to gain narcissistic supply, such as praise and admiration. Don’t be fooled. Narcissists only do that which brings them a payoff for self. They are not conforming to society’s norms for any other purpose. In fact, because of this narcissistic point of view, they may also believe others think the same way; hence, they project this viewpoint onto others, which is why they tend not to trust other people.

Narcissists are known to lack caring about the feelings of other people. They may see others as mere objects, put in place to meet their own needs. However, this can cause a problem for narcissists, because in order for them to benefit from the praise and admiration of others, those others must, on some level, have value.

In essence, a narcissist may see others in a sort of shadowy form, an idealized representation of the narcissist’s internal, idealized self. This creates a duality and dilemma for the narcissist, but it explains a lot about the targets of narcissistic abuse. They may have been both idealized and devalued when in a relationship with a narcissist, both projections of the narcissist’s self-loathing and of their self-aggrandizement.

References:

  1. Kernberg, O. (1992). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc.
  2. Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

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  • Mella

    January 4th, 2020 at 5:45 AM

    I am 72, been in and out of therapy since I was 15, never diagnosed with NPD but I was diagnosed with PDNOS and DDNOS about 10 years ago by a trauma specialist therapist who ended the therapy after 6 years saying that she did not have the emotional resources to continue. When I asked her early in the therapy for a description of what she felt was wrong – or some question like that – she said that I was “narcissistically wounded and fragmented”.

    I have done a lot of my own research, and rumination, over all these years. I didn’t know what was wrong but definitely felt something was. I read about shame and narcissism in the 1990s and recognized myself in some of that. I mentioned an article I read in the early 2000s to a therapist I was seeing at the time and she said “why do you read that stuff!” I guess I came off as someone who just had low self-esteem and the cure for that was not to think like that? Nobody was recognizing that there was something really wrong inside, and what that might be. At least the last therapist seemed to know something more about that than any of the therapists I had seen before, or the IOP programs I had been in.

    I think I know myself pretty well at this point. I recognize some things about myself in what you have written and even though I don’t fit the criteria for NPD in the DSM I would like to offer this perspective from the inside of somebody with wounded narcissism.

    First, I think I found a “way out” using Kohut’s theory. His ideas felt more like me, to me, than object relations although there are some useful ideas there about attachment. In particular, I don’t feel that I “internalize” a good object. Kohut’s selfobjects seem more like what is happening, to me. And in that theory, the capacity to have a good object is inborn, as a self-object. If that makes any sense, but it’s the best I can do to explain how things feel to me. I can recognize when I am in a grandiose state – wanting others to admire me – and when I am in an idealizing one. I can “relate” to others in both ways. That is, I can feel how they are my “self-objects”, even though I now know or can suspect that they are more than that. At least sometimes. What was missing was the twinship function and ability to relate to others as twin/others. That got damaged in childhood, I’m guessing. And if/when I can activate, and bolster that, then that takes me out of my archaic/fantasy state.

    I had been trying support groups for more than 15 years when the last therapist terminated me. And though her rejection was traumatic, and re-traumatic, I have not gone back to another therapist. Instead, I have found good support from some online sites and from an informal support group that I am in, people who met each other in another kind of meeting online. I have consciously tried to do what I could to see, and relate, to those others as “twins”.

    I’d also like to mention that the last therapist’s rejection mimicked situations and activated responses and feelings that were way down there and like frozen. Eventually I felt what must have been the original, unbearable wounding – and had nothing to help but, fortunately, my support groups. No way was I going to try any more therapists. Even though I was an emotional wreck at that point.

    So, I’m not classic NPD, and this may not work for everybody with narcissism. But I think hearing from people with narcissism about our narcissism would help therapists, and hopefully some researchers, get a better scientific grasp about what is going on. Which may lead to other ways to help with it.

    Also, clearly I have good cognitive function and could have used that if I had found or could have made a therapeutic alliance or collaboration in a problem-solving, scientific way. I tried, but most therapists don’t work like that. Some of that may be temperament, I tend to be analytical and scientific. So that may be a matter of “fit” but I could never understand what that meant, maybe because I didn’t have that twin function working very well.

  • Kathleen

    January 9th, 2020 at 1:57 AM

    Thank you for writing this. This is the first self-evaluation of a person with NPD or something close to it that I have read in many years of educating myself about NPD. By definition, the narcissist in my life has never and will never explain himself to me, I was discarded, case closed. So to hear this is really quite amazing. Your recognition of your inner life is very astute and that you have wanted to do it and have done it is amazing and, I would think for you, an inner satisfaction at many levels. We all need to know our inner selves, I believe. We need to check in often. We all struggle in different ways . You have done this while experiencing the most profound loss early on when attachment and trust were to be formed, but didn’t. I would guess what you have learned through curiousity and necessity has buoyed you up and made life and relationships better. I hope that is so and send my thoughts and wishes for peace and self-acceptance through the years.

  • Danielle

    January 22nd, 2020 at 8:16 AM

    Hi

  • peter knudsen

    January 27th, 2020 at 8:51 AM

    narcissisme is not a choice but a mental Health disorder , they are pure evil people ,

  • jane c.

    April 27th, 2020 at 9:15 AM

    if they were pure evil then we would not consider NPD a personality disorder, just degrees of evil

  • Dana

    December 19th, 2020 at 5:41 AM

    They do appear evil but they are just wounded souls like other types of insecure attachment styles.

  • Tom

    February 9th, 2021 at 11:19 PM

    peter you come across like you could be the only one on this forum that is pure evil, I say come across as i don’t like to label people I haven’t even met, just like you have judged millions as pure evil that you haven’t event met. Ignorance is not necessarily a bad or foolish thing but yours is both.

  • Mella

    February 15th, 2021 at 12:37 PM

    What is evil? Seriously. I studied that a lot, too, maybe 15 years ago, because I felt there was something in me that was evil. Many/most of us have internal reactions/instincts to things that are evil, but what is that about? Evil is threatening, for one thing. To what and in what way is it threatening? Does everybody have the same kinds of of reactions to the same kinds of things? I know my own reaction of “That is evil!” But what is it that I’m reacting to, and why, I’m not so sure about.
    I think it’s something worth of study, especially given that so many people have a kneejerk reaction these days that “Narcissists are evil!” It’s a view that, IMO, many popular articles about narcissism these days promote or encourage.

  • Tom

    February 16th, 2021 at 3:36 PM

    Very good reply

  • Michael

    February 24th, 2021 at 7:10 PM

    I’m also a narcissist, and have done horrible things to my wife. I’m seeking a therapist, specifically trained in NPD, and finding one in my area seems impossible. You mentioned on line groups. Where are they?

  • Mella

    February 25th, 2021 at 3:40 PM

    I am not strictly speaking, I think, a “narcissist”. I was in therapy for over 50 years off and off, never diagnosed with NPD, even though I said to one therapist about 20 years ago that I thought there was something in me like that. She replied “Why do you read that stuff!” I was getting nowhere with her and eventually left.

    I think, if there is/was a part of me like that, it was pretty much buried or dissociated. I did not knowingly do terrible things to other people. I had inklings or glimpses sometimes, and tried to keep that part of me and the associated impulses “shut off” – except that I tried to allow it “on” in therapy – and then then last therapist apparently couldn’t tolerate it. She terminated after 6 years saying that she didn’t have the “emotional resources” to continue. But she didn’t describe how I had affected her – why she didn’t have the emotional resources. Maybe she felt I had done something terrible to her? But I didn’t know what – still don’t.

    I have no faith in therapists for this condition – or maybe it was just my condition, whatever it was. Perhaps it was what James Masterson called “closet narcissism” – slammed shut in a closet and mostly locked by unconscious defenses that I didn’t know and that therapists couldn’t recognize or couldn’t help with or something.

    I appreciate the author of this blog trying to get some impartial information out here, and not just more of the “Narcissists are horrible — here’s how” stuff we’ve seen so much of in recent years. But there’s a lot of that out there to try to overcome.

    Perhaps people with an overt narcissistic condition that they are more aware of may have more luck with therapists than I did.

  • Ville

    March 11th, 2021 at 8:16 AM

    And the internal object (self-image) is an imitation of the abusive/neglectful parent.

  • Diane

    March 24th, 2021 at 11:27 PM

    Could that be why the male narcissist that I know is a closet cross dresser and idealizes women. Did his mom have some kind of negative effect on him as a child.? And he is now imitating her?

  • Helen

    April 20th, 2021 at 1:37 PM

    Having read your comments I am amazed. I believe my daughter is suffering from Narcissism. I don’t understand her and in your comments mentioned neglective parenting. I find that confusing as parents I believe we had a happy home, 2 much wanted and loved children our children had their needs met within reason and we lived in a great neighbourhood and all was fine. Our daughter could be difficult as little girls can be sometimes and we didn’t worry about it too much. It was just a phase. It wasn’t until she approached those teenage years that secrecy crept in. She would tell little white lies about unimportant things at first I would just make a comment of “really” but let it go. As time passed the secrecy became more and I wasn’t sure what was true and what was not!. At 16 we went as a family to a therapist for counselling as our younger child was having problems with his sister and they were not getting along. That was going along for months and we decided we were wasting our time and it was just teenagers behaving like teenagers. Our daughter has done well with her career through her adult life found dating and romance challenging couldn’t find a partner that was quite as bright as herself and settled for someone that in our opinion was needy. She produced twin boys and from that time the marriage was in trouble. As a parent she struggled and as grandparents we were willing to help with all that we could with 2 babies and a husband who walked out. Our daughter went back to work and we raised the boys for 8 years. She gave us all the freedom we needed to be able to raise them as she was raised. Our daughter paid little attention to them rarely saw them and did not involve herself in their lives. Did not watch their sport or attend their school. We were devastated at her continual lack of interest in her children and we demanded that she attend with us some family counselling. She refused and we continued on until one day after coming back from an overseas holiday she came to our home to collect the children told us our job was done packed some of their clothes and left. We were shocked at her behaviour and thought this won’t last. Now we are banned from seeing the children. On a few occasions we have been allowed to spend a day with them but it is not a regular thing. Her relationship with the childrens’ father is a dangerous one for him and he has just suffered a heart attack. Our daughter has no kind words for us, no thanks at all and the boys are confused and unhappy. Is my story does it sound like a Narcissist? Or is it some other kind of mental illness?

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