Do you have a narcissist in your life who makes you feel unimportant, small, and insignificant? Are they constantly putting you down or belittling you? It’s no secret that narcissists can be incredibly mean — but why?
What causes them to act in this way?
While the answer isn’t always clear-cut, experts found various factors that may help explain the underlying reasons behind this narcissistic behavior and how knowing this can help us better protect ourselves from their negative impact on our lives.
Here are their insights:
Licensed Attorney | Narcissistic Abuse Coach | Author, “Wrecking Ball Relationships“
In order to explore why narcissists are so mean, one must first explore how they are created.
Are narcissists born or bred?
For many years, scientists have researched how a child’s environment affects their development into becoming an emotionally stable, kind, well-balanced person or if that child grows into someone less stable, kind, or well-balanced.
Their upbringing consists of emotionally unavailable parents
After researching narcissism, interviewing many survivors of narcissistic abuse, and putting together the pieces of their stories, I came up with what makes a narcissist.
Related: 10 Best Books on Recovering from Narcissistic Abuse
If there was a mathematical equation showing how a narcissist is created, I think it would look a lot like the formula below:
Emotionally unavailable parents
Emotional neglect of child
Narcissists possess all those characteristics and more because of their emotionally unavailable upbringing, and lack of emotional development and attachment.
This conclusion isn’t derived from scientific research — this is my subjective yet highly logical conclusion. I hope some psychological research team of scientists tests my analysis to prove the theory.
Suppose a child grows up and develops into an adult with one or both emotionally unavailable parents who don’t see the child, pay attention to them, support them, or affirm or lovingly cherish them. In that case, there’s a good possibility the child will develop into a narcissist.
Related: How to Raise Kids so They Do Not Become Narcissistic Adults
They are devoid of essential emotional attachment
Narcissists never develop a secure sense of self. They may look overindulged in material things, but they’re devoid of essential emotional attachment.
Interestingly, all narcissists are emotionally unavailable, but not all emotionally unavailable people are narcissists.
As adults, narcissists’ emotions are almost frozen to their childhood emotions. They have similar reactions to children, as adults go into tantrums, throwing emotional grenades, giving silent treatment, and punishing their offenders. They still seek revenge on offenders or those they deem as disloyal. This helps explain why their behavior toward their victims is mean and cruel.
Related: 60+ Signs You’re Dealing With a Narcissist (According to Experts)
They give you “the silent treatment”
One of their favorite tactics to punish their victims is the silent treatment.
The silent treatment is a form of emotional abuse used by narcissists to hurt, control, and punish their victims. I’ve always found it to be the cruelest form of abuse.
The silent treatment is a way of withdrawing and withholding love from another person. Imagine the damage this does to a family member. It wears people down, filling them with shame and guilt. It’s pure torture. Just the threat of it forces us to walk on eggshells around the narcissist.
Related: What Is the Difference Between Shame, Guilt, and Remorse?
It’s normal behavior of a narcissist who regularly gives silent treatment to expect support from their victims when they’re ready to connect again.
They become addicted to it as a solution to their own pain
Narcissists become addicted to inflicting this form of emotional abuse as a solution to their own pain.
Since narcissists can’t regulate their emotions, they also can’t normally process:
Their reactions to crisis or controversy are not normal, so their go-to reaction is to give the silent treatment. This is especially so if they’re without their narcissistic supply to comfort them.
This is about a pattern of behavior that’s disrespectful, demeaning, and detrimental to you over time. It feels like alternating water torture, drip, drip, drip, and head-on cruel and unusual punishment. Here comes the wrecking ball again.
Nicole Prause, PhD
Licensed Psychologist and Research Scientist | Founder, Liberos
Narcissism is defined, in part, by the presence of antagonism (e.g., noncompliance, callousness, deceitfulness), so the meanness is the point!
Grandiose narcissism: They have “every right” to engage in conflict by any means to silence criticism
Grandiose narcissism is characterized by a superior sense of the self, far exceeding mere self-confidence, that impairs the individual’s functioning.
Because their judgment of themself is inaccurate, people around them, intentionally or unintentionally, often challenge their self-concept. Since they are superior to those people, they have “every right” in their mind to engage in conflict by any means to silence that criticism.
This type of narcissism also is more likely to deceive people around the narcissist, such that social pile-ons led by this type of narcissist are more likely.
Vulnerable narcissism: They believe a person is specifically out to get them
People with more vulnerable narcissism are more likely to view others as secretly malevolent actors. Such a narcissist may believe a person is specifically out to get them and quietly hold more negative views about themself than they would admit to holding.
This need to feel special, particularly in this type of narcissism, leads them to report believing in more false conspiracies. Such false beliefs are extremely difficult to change, resulting in conflict with others.
Narcissism versus delusions: They may be confused by others’ unwillingness to accept their “fact”
Narcissism is different from delusions, although both may lead to meanness.
If a person believes that they do not need to shower because fairies protect their skin with a thin layer of magic sealant, that superiority has no basis in reality. The person may be confused by others’ unwillingness to accept this “fact” and become angry.
Experts are trained to evaluate the differences, and it may be helpful if someone you know may have a severe mental illness versus a high narcissistic trait.
Dr. Timothy Lyons, PsyD
Director of Clinical Services, TMS & Brain Health
They think they’re the center of the universe and everyone owes them
Narcissism as a construct lives on a continuum.
On one side of the continuum, narcissism is an adaptive mechanism. On the other end, the person who exhibits narcissism to an extreme may think they are the center of the universe and that the world and everyone in it owes them.
This behavior frequently results from maladaptive coping mechanisms
The reality is, as viewed in some psychological circles, the person who is narcissistic is intensely insecure, possessing a tendency towards unpleasant, unkind, or even mean behaviors.
These behaviors frequently result from maladaptive coping mechanisms in response to adverse life experiences. Such experiences often include instances of neglect, abuse, or traumatic events that have a detrimental impact on the individual’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
They resort to such behavior to avoid appearing vulnerable
This unpleasant behavior in a person who exhibits narcissistic tendencies can be understood as a defense mechanism, wherein they fear that their past may repeat itself and thus resort to controlling and manipulative behavior to avoid appearing vulnerable.
For example, an individual who has suffered abuse during childhood may become a mean and controlling adult in an effort to ensure that they never again experience feelings of helplessness.
Such behavior often causes suffering for those in close proximity to the narcissist. When left unhealed, the emotional wounds that give rise to narcissism can lead to feelings of hatred towards the world at large, manifesting as alienation, hostility, and negativity towards those around them.
Licensed Mental Health Therapist and Owner, Whitecap Counseling
They tend to respond aggressively when there’s information conflicting with their self-perception
Narcissistic refers to the obsession with the self. Someone who is narcissistic may exhibit one or more of these following traits listed below from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5th Edition.
However, it is important to note that in order to have a narcissistic personality disorder, an individual must have five or more of the traits listed below in addition to other criteria:
- Grandiose sense of self
- Preoccupation with fantasies of success
- Belief in being special
- Requires excessive admiration
- Sense of entitlement
- Exploits others
- Lack of empathy
- Envious of others or believes others are envious of them
- Behaves arrogantly
We see individuals that are highly narcissistic as being mean because they tend to respond aggressively when there is information that conflicts with their self-perception. Traits such as entitlement, exploiting others, lacking empathy, being envious, and behaving arrogantly can also be expressed through behavior we define as rude or mean.
They lack the self-awareness to understand how their behavior is impacting others
Due to their lack of empathy and entitlement, it is likely that someone who is narcissistic lacks the self-awareness to understand how their behavior is impacting others.
Someone who is narcissistic may also tend to personalize situations where they receive conflicting information that erodes their inflated and inaccurate self-perception.
The process of personalization can result in the perception of the narcissistic person, seeing themselves as the victim of a character attack. Then the person who is narcissistic might respond defensively to, in their opinion, defend their honor.
That is why it is highly improbable to constructively resolve conflict with someone who is narcissistic because if your perception of events doesn’t align with theirs or challenges their self-perception, you may become the target of their aggressive behavior.
Related: Who Do Narcissists Target and Why? (According to 10 Experts)
Megan Tangradi, MS, LPC, LCADC, CCS, CCTP
Clinical Director, Achieve Wellness & Recovery
They typically lack insight into their own behavior
Narcissists are often described as mean, selfish, and unempathetic because they have a deep-seated need for admiration and lack the capacity to empathize with others.
Narcissists are mostly preoccupied with their own success and feel entitled to be treated as superior even if they haven’t earned it. These traits often lead narcissists to exploit and manipulate others in pursuit of their own gratification while lacking any real compassion or regard for the feelings of others.
For example, they may make untrue or negative comments to hurt someone else’s reputation and will often take credit for the accomplishments of others.
Narcissists also typically lack insight into their own behavior and, therefore, do not understand why others might perceive them as mean. This means that even though they know their actions are wrongful, narcissists can still rationalize their behavior and deny that they are wrong.
Narcissists’ behavior is often a product of their disorder.
Help them get the treatment they need
It’s important to recognize the need for understanding rather than criticism when dealing with narcissistic individuals to help them get the treatment they need — which may involve psychotherapy and medication such as antidepressants.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are all narcissists mean?
While narcissists often engage in mean behavior, not all are necessarily mean. Some tend to behave in a covert manner, while others exhibit mean behavior only in certain situations or toward certain people. Also, not all mean behavior is necessarily due to narcissism—other underlying problems may exist.
How can I protect myself from a narcissist?
When dealing with a narcissist, it’s important to set boundaries and put your needs first. Here are some tips on how you can protect yourself:
• Recognize the signs of narcissism and realize that the narcissist’s behavior has nothing to do with your worth as a person.
• Be assertive and clear about your boundaries, and don’t allow the narcissist to manipulate or control you.
• Don’t engage in arguments, and don’t try to change the narcissist’s behavior because it probably won’t do any good.
• Surround yourself with supportive people who validate your feelings and help you stay grounded.
• If necessary, seek professional help from a therapist or support group.
Are there any techniques I can use to communicate with a narcissist?
It’s important to communicate clearly and confidently, always remaining respectful when trying to reach a peaceful resolution—for example, using “I” statements (rather than confusing “you” phrases) to ensure you get your point across without sounding overly accusatory.
It also helps to maintain eye contact throughout the conversation to avoid misunderstandings, which makes it much easier to come to an outcome that everyone is happy with!
Can mindfulness help with narcissistic tendencies?
While mindfulness isn’t a cure for narcissistic personality disorder, some research suggests that mindfulness practices may be helpful in managing symptoms and improving well-being.
Mindfulness may help narcissistic people become more aware of their thoughts and feelings, develop greater emotional regulation, and become more attuned to the needs and feelings of others.
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