How A Narcissist Is Formed/Created/Made (Deep Dive)

This often becomes the million dollar question for anyone who’s ever had to deal with a narcissist up close for a long period of time. How did this person come to be the way they are? How is a narcissist made? Was it just a freak accident or something in their childhood that caused this?

As with most many things in psychology and especially personality disorders, there isn’t widespread agreement on the causes of full blown narcissism (also sometimes known as “narcissistic personality disorder” or NPD).

In fact, some people argue that there’s more unknown about the formation of narcissism than there is known. But that doesn’t really move things forward for someone wanting to know how such an awkward, irritating and often hurtful personality type came to be the way they are.

And while there isn’t 100% agreement, there is a model developed largely via the work of Sam Vaknin and Richard Grannon that I think act as a plenty good enough explanation for the formation of full blown narcissism, in a majority of cases.

Put differently, if you dig into a narcissist’s childhood and “join the dots” on certain things, this explanation should make sense on how a narcissist is formed in most cases.

Here’s a very quick overview of the dynamic that forms NPD:

  1. One parents berates, abuses and objectifies the child
  2. The other parents spoils the child to compensate.
  3. The contradictory messaging creates a traumatic split in the child’s psyche to the point where they seek to deny reality to survive.
  4. The “real self” splits off and goes into hiding and a grandiose, false self is created in it’s place.
  5. Over time, the real self dies and the false self becomes the only identity the narcissist has.
  6. This false self needs constant “narcissistic supply” to prop itself up.

But there’s more to it than that, so let’s break down the template process for the creation of narcissism into some clear distinct steps (the video below also covers this “twin pillar” model for the formation of NPD).


Step #1 – The Abuse/Objectification

For full blown narcissism to form, there must be some kind of abuse or objectification present. Any narcissist that tells you their childhood was “great” or “idyllic”, is probably lying. Something bad had to happen for their personality to split so badly that NPD formed.

Probably the most common dynamic is when the father is viciously abusive, and the mother tries to over-compensate to cancel it out. But it can be the other way around as well. Or both parents can be abusive and an institution can provide the counter-messaging/spoiling. Or one parent can cycle between both poles.

But somewhere in a narcissist’s childhood, there is always some kind of abuse or objectification.

Let’s cover the abuse side of it first. This can take a number of forms, including:

  • Being outright physically or verbally abused
  • Being ignored, rejected, neglected
  • Being constantly undermined and spoken over.
  • Having accomplishment downplayed.
  • Being mocked and shamed in front of others.
  • Having any displays of vulnerability condescendingly mocked or invalidated.
  • Having their growth and individuation stifled and smothered at every opportunity.
  • Having any attempts to develop confidence and assert oneself brutally quashed (a “you’re getting too big for your boots” type message).
  • The toxic parent projecting their own unwanted traits and psychological garbage onto the child, accusing them of being/doing what they are as a way of disowning parts of themselves they don’t like.
  • The general messaging that’s often conveyed is toxic, and can include “you’re bad”, “you’re worthless”, “you’re the worst of the worst”, “you’re nothing” etc.

And then various forms of Objectification are often in the mix as well, including:

  • Placing the child out on display for some kind of talent/looks/attribute they have, drawing “narcissistic supply” by proxy from the adulation of an audience (“my child’s amazing, therefore I’m amazing” type messaging).
  • Unfortunately, sexual as well as physical abuse is also sometimes present in the childhood of narcissists, which further objectifies the child.
  • Sometimes there can also be a sickly kind of psychologically incestuous dynamic, where the child becomes “mommy’s little boy” or “daddy’s little girl”, where the child becomes a kind of confidant or emotional support for the parent (a toxic inversion of the proper parent-child roles, sometimes called “parentification”).
  • Any other boundary violating, boundary disrespecting behavior as the child is developing can also have an objectifying and traumatizing effect.

The point here that the child’s individuation and boundaries are being disrespected, not supported and in some cases deliberately sabotaged. The child isn’t being loved or respected as a real person, but treated with contempt or as an object to be used for the parent’s gratification.

Step #2 – Over-Compensatory Spoiling

If it’s a two parent household, it’s natural for the non abusive parent to feel bad about what’s happening to the child. She might be a mother who realizes she married the wrong guy, but can’t get out of the situation.

Therefore, to ward off the feelings of guilt that she feels responsible for the child’s abuse, she over-compensates by sending him a message that’s the opposite to the abusive messaging of the father.

She seeks to coddle him, spoil him, tell him he’s perfect, never set proper boundaries with him or call him out for bad behavior. She’s trying to cancel out the toxic messaging of the father (it can work the other way around as well, with the mother being the toxic one, and the father spoiling).

Some of the messaging could be something like this:

  • “You’re an angel”
  • “You’re perfect, the best of the best”
  • “You can never do wrong”
  • “Even when you’re wrong, you’re actually right”
  • “I’ll give you whatever you want, whenever you want it”.

It goes without saying that this is not a healthy messaging either. Firstly, it’s not realistic. A child is not all good or all bad. They’re just a child. They do some good things, and some bad things. They can be complimented on good things, and called out for bad things, but with an underlying energy of “you’re still loved and OK as a person”. The messaging needs to be realistic.

Secondly, if a child is spoiled and not taught proper boundaries and does not learn that he can’t have whatever he wants or do whatever he wants, that’s a perfect breeding ground for entitlement (another key narcissistic trait).

It might be a well meaning attempt from the non abusive parent to cancel out the effects of the abuse, but it’s setting stage for splitting of the identity that leads to the formation of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which we cover next.

Step #3 – Splitting and Break From Reality

It goes without saying that having these two opposing messages isn’t healthy for the child, especially since neither of them are true. A child is just a child, a person is just a person. No one is perfect, and no one is entirely terrible and worthless either. We’re just people, and that’s what a healthy messaging would be for the child: “you’re not perfect, you’re not bad, you’re just a person and OK as you are, and I love you as you are”.

But the narcissist never received that healthy, in-the-middle, realistic message. They were pulled between these two extreme positions, and over time it starts to split the psyche of the child as it creates un unbearable dissonance inside them which they can’t resolve.

A 3 or 4 year old child is too young and unsophisticated to know how to intelligently resolve or fight back against this split messaging, so they eventually implement a couple of rudimentary defenses to try and cope as best they can.

Firstly, they need to find a way to block out the unbearable reality of being pulled apart between these two polar opposite, unhealthy messages they’re receiving.

Something of what might go in their internal thought process could be:

  • “If this is what reality is, I don’t want any part of it”
  • “I can’t do right for doing wrong”
  • “There is no way to win here”
  • “Reality isn’t welcome in my life/world anymore”

And a few defenses are adopted in response to the trauma of being pulled apart by the messaging:

Defense #1 – Deny reality – Because this reality they’re experiencing is too unbearable, they decide on some level to start blocking it out. This is why denial is such a deeply rooted defense mechanism with narcissists; they’ve been practicing since the age of 3 or 4 to block out a reality that was too painful to bear. The problem is, it doesn’t just become a temporary defense but calcifies and becomes a permanent trait or way of life for them, even into adulthood. Their default baseline is to deny or block out reality, because they feel it’s what they MUST do to survive the situation they’re in.

Defense #2 – Hide the real self away – Another response to repeated, prolonged abuse is to send the real, authentic, vulnerable self deep into hiding inside themselves. They instead present a false self to the world, with one motif being “attack this avatar instead of the ‘real’ me”. This false self is often performatory, in the sense that it seeks not love but admiration for external thigs they do, talents they possess or physical traits.

Defense #3 – Self Splits Off – Another reponse to this traumatic reality is to break or split the self off into “good” and “bad” parts. The good part is based on the “spoiling” messaging (“I’m perfect”), and the bad part is based on the “abusive” messaging (“I’m bad/worthless”). It’s not possible for a small child to hold both of these contradictory introjects together in their mind at the same time, so the mind splits off instead and stores these introjects/inner voices in separate compartments of the mind. Each one can be activated at any time by external events or interactions with others.

Step #4 – Authentic Self Atrophies & Dies

The real self “splitting off” and being buried deep inside a person is a normal response to deep trauma that lots of people go through, not just narcissists. But with these people, there isn’t any kind of recovery or “coming out” of the self. It just dies.

Over a period of many years of not being used, the real self atrophies and dies inside the narcissist, which is why once these people reach adulthood, they have no real concept of things like intimacy/vulnerability/authenticity. Their “real self” died so long ago inside them, that these concepts are kind of alien to them at this point.

Instead, you’re dealing with a kind of psychological robot who is only seeking to prop of this false, grandiose self with constant “supply“. They’re constantly trying to move away from the abusive pole in their identity (the “you’re worthless”, “you’re a fraud”, “you’re a loser”, “you’re useless” kind of messaging) to the grandiose pole (“you’re amazing”, “you’re perfect”, “you’re the best”, “you’re unique and special” kind of messaging).

To do this, they need constant “narcissistic supply“, some kind of reinforcement/adulation/worship that confirms to them that their grandiose, false version of themselves is true, and to ward off the toxic, abusive “introject” that tries to remind them that the “bad” side is true.

They’re constantly seeking to run away internally from the “bad” pole of their split identity, and running towards the “good” pole of their split identity. This is why these people are so fragile and controllable by external events; anything that reminds them of the “bad” pole and re-activates the “bad” introject can send them back into a downward spiral which they can’t bear to stay with.

Can This Process Be Reversed In Adulthood?

It’s understandable to feel sorry for the small child that went through this, even if it’s much harder to feel sorry for the fully grown adult that behaves in the ways many narcissists do, who does/says some of the appalling things they do.

But it’s natural for us to hope for the best and wonder whether this damage can ever be reversed. Can full blown NPD be treated or cured in adulthood? Unfortunately, the answer to date is no.

Once the real self has atrophied and died and a person has become a full blown narcissist, there is no way to fix or reverse the condition. Narcissists do not respond to therapy or any other treatment modality. Full blown narcissistic personality disorder is an incurable condition.

If you could catch the child as this process was happening and remove them from the abusve, polarizing, crazy-making environment and mixed messaging that was pulling their identity apart, you might have a chance.

But once you’re dealing with a full blown adult of 20, 30, 40 years or older, it’s far too late. Their real self has long since atrophied and died. Therefore, any interactions or engagements with others, even seemingly sincere ones, are not sincere. They’re simply seeking constant sources of “supply” to prop up their grandiose false self.

Yes, when they’re full and bloated with “supply”, narcissists can seem OK and even pleasant to be around. The can “sing when they’re winning” for sure.

But as soon as any interaction or life experience reminds them of the “bad” pole (or sometimes this introject might just fire up inside themselves randomly without any trigger), this is when you’ll see their unpleasant side as then seek to move away from and disown this toxic inner voice often by abusing or belittling others.

There is no “reaching” a narcissist once this false grandiose self has firmly calcified and effectively “become” their actual identity they present the the world, and their real self has long since died. Their narcissistic self is no longer just a protective self but actually is who they are now; there’s nothing else left.

That’s why you’re wasting your time trying to “reach” or reason or plead with a narcissist to change, as I’ve covered elsewhere on this blog. Hopefully this article has helped to lay out why it’s a waste of time trying to fix these people, and well meaning onlookers who would think of trying, can save their energy and move on more productive things.


Using my personal experience and research to educate others about narcissists and other pathological personality types

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