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.

Not every narcissist has NPD.

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As has been done with autism spectrum disorders, it’s becoming increasingly common to think of NPD as falling on a spectrum of narcissism, ranging from normal or healthy narcissism (which most of us have to some degree) all the way to psychopathy/sociopathy (variations of Antisocial Personality Disorder or ASPD) at the top. What we call malignant narcissism is actually NPD shading into ASPD.

Narcissism is a normal trait that helps us survive, but it becomes pathological when there is too much of it. On the narcissism spectrum, just below NPD and above healthy narcissism is a disorder called The Destructive Narcissistic Pattern, or DNP. It’s not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), but Dr. Nina Brown has written books about the disorder, which I haven’t read yet (I never even heard of DNP until a few days ago), but here is a description of DNP:

The destructive narcissistic pattern (DNP) is a term used to describe a constellation of characteristics generally associated with pathological narcissism, but which are fewer and less severe. Nonetheless, these characteristics negatively impact relationships. The destructive narcisist’s typical interaction produces negative reactions in others. For example, the individual devalues others, lacks empathy, has a sense of entitlement, and is emotionally shallow. He may function very well and be successful economically, but is unable to form and maintain stable relationships, as evidenced by numerous partners or marriages. The DNP, Brown asserts, is often unrecognized. Although others may find him frustrating and difficult, the individual with DNP can be charming when charm is perceived to be to his benefit.

Dr. Brown’s book “The Destructive Narcissistic Pattern” can be purchased on Amazon.

The blogger CZBZ has also written about DNP on her blog, “The Narcissistic Continuum” and has devised a detailed graph that shows the placement of disorders on the narcissistic spectrum: http://n-continuum.blogspot.com/2013/11/narcissism-key-from-healthy-to.html

DNP is probably much more common than full-blown NPD. These people can be very difficult to deal with but because their symptoms are less severe they would be more likely to respond to (and seek) therapy and may not be completely without empathy and have a stunted or limited conscience instead of an absent one.

The only problem I have with this continuum is that almost everyone would be on the narcissism spectrum, since most people (except for those whose self esteem has been all but obliterated) have some degree of healthy narcissism.