Can an adult turn into a narcissist?

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I believe the answer to this is yes. While most cases of NPD are formed during childhood as a reaction to abuse or neglect, there are situations where a person who is not a narcissist can later become one, even as an adult. It can happen because of narcissism being, essentially, a choice. Even a small child makes a choice to become a narcissist, even if they’re not really conscious of that “decision.” In an adult, it may be more conscious, but once made, the personality can change dramatically.

An adult who becomes a narcissist is probably more easily healed, because the disorder is less deeply ingrained in the personality, but I think there are certain situations where if someone makes a choice to walk in darkness, something evil grabs hold of the soul and there is no turning back to a normal way of relating to others. Here are four scenarios in which I think a person can acquire NPD.

1. Abandonment or abuse starting during adolescence.

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Teenagers are narcissistic by nature and vulnerable to peer pressure, so they often act out in risky ways and experiment with the illicit and unhealthy. This is normal to some degree. But for a few, if familial abuse or abandonment begins during the teen years, the narcissistic behaviors of adolescence may become a lifestyle and coping tactic that the person will not let go of as they enter adulthood. I believe my ex is an example of a psychopathic malignant narcissist who did not become one until the age of 13, when he found his father dead in the bathroom in the middle of the night and his mother refused to do anything and left it to him to take care of his father’s body. Although his mother had always been a malignant narcissist, my ex was a good kid until that point; after that he changed.

In most cases though, I think narcissism starting during adolescence is likely to be fairly mild. I have been in communication with a young man who believes he is a narcissist. He explained to me that he was raised by loving parents but his mother became severely depressed when he was in his early teens, and began to ignore him due to her depression. He didn’t understand it was her depression causing her sudden coldness; he thought she she didn’t love him anymore. He explained that’s when his narcissistic behavior patterns began. In such cases, I think the narcissism that develops is actually a condition called DNP (destructive narcissistic pattern disorder) which lies below NPD on the narcissistic continuum, and is a more easily treatable form of narcissism where the person does retain some ability to feel empathy, love, and remorse.

2. Choosing evil.

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M. Scott Peck talks about a man who almost became evil in his book “People of the Lie.” A family man who loved his wife and children suffered from severe panic attacks, especially when driving over a certain bridge. Although he didn’t believe in the devil, he made a “deal” with Satan that if he could pass over the bridge without suffering a panic attack, that Satan could do what he wanted to with his favorite son. He didn’t think it really counted since he didn’t believe in the Devil (and nothing happened to his son), but he realized later that if he hadn’t repented, his own soul would have been seared. I think when a person knowingly chooses evil over good, the soul can be damaged or destroyed. It’s even possible that making such a choice allows an entryway for an evil entity that works to destroy all goodness in that person. The change can be dramatic and happen almost overnight.

3. Severe reaction to trauma.

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Related to the above, I think sometimes a person can engage in evil through no choice of their own. Victims of Stockholm Syndrome, who identify with their abusers and cannot escape, will sometimes be forced to commit evil acts or help their abuser carry them out, such as Patty Hearst back in the early 1970s. It sometimes happens in war, too. A normal person forced to kill innocent civilians will often develop PTSD, but for some soldiers, in order to protect themselves from their unbearable guilt, they learn to shut off all their emotions and any feelings of empathy or remorse, and come to regard other people as less than human. Unfortunately, a few veterans have their hearts hardened during war, and become cold-blooded narcissists.

4. Overnight success.

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Celebrities and other people who achieve overnight success or fame have to be careful not to let their success go to their heads. Many celebrities are narcissistic, which begs the question: were they narcissistic in the first place and that led to them becoming rich and famous, or did becoming rich and famous turned them into narcissists? I think both come into play, depending on the individual. Certainly narcissistic personality types are the most drawn to fame and fortune, but I’ve heard of cases where a highly successful person was kind to others until fame and success went to their heads. I think though, since evil wasn’t chosen by the person under these circumstances, that a celebrity who didn’t already have NPD can discard their acquired narcissism if their arrogance and sense of entitlement is pointed out to them, or they realize they have hurt someone. So a celebrity’s narcissism may not be true NPD, but a condition called “situational acquired narcissism” which may be temporary.

2 thoughts on “Can an adult turn into a narcissist?

  1. I think narcissism is a very difficult subject, because we are all inherently narcissistic. We learn empathy, we learn how to care about others (and not just see them as vehicles for meeting our needs). To not be narcissistic you need to be able to accept that life isn’t all about you.

    And that’s difficult to do, because we can “feel” our own needs and wants, while we can only observe the needs and wants of others.

    Because of this I think we all fall somewhere on the continuum of narcissistic behavior though some show more elements of it than others. At what point on that continuum is someone exhibiting NPD? I don’t know the answer to that.

    Can we “become” narcissistic? Definitely. Depending on what is happening on our lives, we have times that we slide on that continuum one way or the other.

    One thing I find interesting is that the primal “lizard brain” is one that is concerned with self preservation. Under times of threat or duress we all retreat into that mode, so people who have been kind and caring for a long time suddenly appear very self absorbed. They only care about themselves.

    You hear about people having snaps, or midlife crisis. Often that is accompanied by very selfish behavior – and a great increase in narcissistic tendencies. Sometimes it last months, or years. And some never come out of it.

    Interesting topic.

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    • I agree with all this and I’ve actually written articles about this subject (“healthy” narcissism and the narcissitic spectrum). I agree too that without any narcissism at all, we would be spineless. Someone without ANY narcissism is a person who probably cannot survive. Self-preservation taken to extremes though is toxic, just like metals in your body like magnesium and iron are good in VERY tiny doses, but become fatal at high or even moderate doses. I can’t find the links to all my articles right now, but there’s a great blog called the Narcissistic Continuum that discusses NPD as a spectum disorder, much like autism. She is also a fantastic writer and it may be my favorite blog right now.
      http://n-continuum.blogspot.com/

      The continuum basically looks like this (I made this little graphic).

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