Narcissistic Personality and Attachment:
There’s an ever-growing interest in narcissism among researchers, psychologists, and the general population alike. For this reason, the term “narcissist” is often used lightheartedly and without a full understanding of what a narcissistic personality actually is.
Narcissism is a personality trait that’s closely linked to how we relate to ourselves and other people. A highly narcissistic person believes they are superior to others and therefore entitled to special treatment. These people can be interpersonally exploitative, manipulative, and aggressive, with little regard for the needs and feelings of others.
Someone’s early experiences and relationships may influence how a narcissistic personality forms – but this connection is complicated. Therefore, this article will explore the relationship between attachment theory and narcissism.
To get a better understanding of how narcissism develops and specifically how it relates to attachment styles, this article discusses:
Narcissism refers to a personality trait that’s characterized by a strong sense of entitlement for admiration and attention. It lies on a continuum from healthy levels (such as having one or two traits) to pathological levels of narcissism, known as narcissistic personality disorder.
Someone can have one or more narcissistic traits without having a personality disorder. For example, they might be very attention-seeking and have bad listening skills. But that doesn’t necessarily make them narcissists.
However, if we move along to the more severe end of the spectrum, narcissism swiftly becomes destructive and pathological. It morphs into an obsession with promoting self-perceived superiority, hypervigilance to detecting challenges to authority, and aggressively examining potential competitors.
These traits would be considered a narcissistic personality style as the person’s behaviors and motivations are driven by narcissistic needs. Furthermore, on the extreme end of this spectrum is narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
The main difference between having a narcissistic personality and NPD is how it affects a person’s ability to live and function in society. NPD is a mental disorder that reduces a person’s ability to function in many areas of their life and affects only around 1% of the population. In a clinical (psychiatric outpatient) setting rates of NPD have been estimated to be around 2.3% and in prison and forensic settings, this rate increases to at least 15%.
That means that when most of us commonly refer to “narcissists,” we’re talking about people with a narcissistic personality style rather than NPD. Nevertheless, the behavior and attitudes of someone with a narcissistic personality style are often destructive and even traumatizing for the people around them.
Research has identified two types of narcissism: vulnerable and grandiose. Vulnerable narcissists come across as more insecure and restrained, while the grandiose type is extraverted, pompous, and attention-seeking. Although they express themselves differently, both types believe that they are special and superior, and are therefore entitled to act in an exploitative and manipulative way.
Grandiose narcissism is the more commonly known and talked about type of narcissism. As the name suggests, its main characteristic is grandiosity (or “pompous superiority and pretentiousness”). Other characteristics of grandiose narcissists include:
Narcissism is associated with a range of issues in relationships. Their love style is ‘Ludus’ which is characterized by game-playing, infidelity, deception, and an aversion to commitment and dependence. Other issues include:
Most people turn their love toward other people. Narcissists turn this love toward themselves. They’re not looking for true intimacy or connection but rather seek out relationships that elevate their status and power. For that reason, they look for partners who will adore and shower them with attention.
Vulnerable narcissists are also called covert narcissists because their grandiose and entitled self-image is rarely shown outwardly. They come across as shy, constrained, and can even appear to have empathy. However, deep down they have the same core beliefs around their entitlement as grandiose narcissists – although they tend to deny this.
While the grandiose narcissist will dismiss and ignore threats to their superiority and entitlement, the vulnerable narcissist will experience shame, depression, and brewing anger. The following are other characteristics of a vulnerable narcissist:
To understand narcissism, we have to understand how it develops and how early interactions and relationships can shape this personality style. According to research, there are several early conditions that contribute to the development of narcissism, including:
Caregivers might admire and spoil their child to the point where the child believes that they deserve this treatment unconditionally. As they grow up, they likely realize that their entitled expectations are not satisfied by other people, which they find extremely frustrating and even infuriating. Other people become either suppliers of excessive admiration and attention or rivals who will be met with hostility and/or rage.
Extremely strict parenting that lacks love and affection but is rife with emotional manipulation (e.g. guilt or gaslighting) has been linked to the development of narcissism.
Children who experience hostile and overly critical parents feel inadequate and unworthy and often compensate by exploiting others and aggressively seeking their admiration. This can also happen if caregivers switch between showering their child with love and admiration, and tearing them down with cruel and excessive criticism.
Being neglected or physically, emotionally, or psychologically abused makes a child feel worthless and unloved. It can be too difficult and painful to acknowledge these feelings. Consequently, the child might build a fantasy world in which they are loved and wanted by everyone, have power and status, and get whatever they want.
In other words, narcissism becomes a coping mechanism for being treated in a cold, hostile, and cruel way. Other people are seen as malevolent and untrustworthy and by rejecting their importance, the child protects themself from being hurt. So the entitled, grandiose, and aggressive behavior is a way to protect their fantasy world – their safe space.
Attachment theory describes our innate need to connect with other people and how our earliest experiences of relationships shape our future relationships and many other areas of our life. They are fundamental to the way we relate to ourselves and other people, as well as our health and well-being, preferences, and fears.
Considering how narcissism develops, it’s not surprising that there’s a general consensus that insecure attachment styles play a part in the development of narcissism. However, the relationship between narcissism and attachment styles is not that easy to untangle.
This difficulty is in part due to grandiose narcissists’ inflated self-image and unwillingness to admit to interpersonal difficulties. They have also been termed “oblivious narcissists” because of the lack of insight they seem to have into their own behavior and how it affects other people.
In studies, narcissists often report having attachment styles with a positive self-view, i.e. secure attachment. However, secure attachment is related to relationship satisfaction, which is low in narcissistic people. Thus, it’s more likely that narcissists are high in avoidant attachment, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
Vulnerable narcissists’ self-esteem is quite fragile and although they seek the approval of others, they experience strong anxiety as a result of relationships and, thus, tend to avoid them. This trait is aligned with the disorganized attachment style.
The anxious attachment style is characterized by clinginess, approval-seeking, and a strong fear of abandonment and rejection. Although vulnerable narcissists have anxiety around relationships and seek the approval and admiration of others, their behaviors and intentions do not align with an anxious attachment style, which we’ll explore in more detail below.
There’s a significant overlap between grandiose narcissism and avoidant attachment. However, people with avoidant attachment don’t necessarily believe they are superior and entitled to special treatment and unconditional admiration. Grandiose narcissism could be described as an extreme form of avoidant attachment in combination with entitled and grandiose views of the self.
The avoidant attachment style is associated with distrust of other people and a tendency to avoid close relationships and emotional intimacy. When someone with an avoidant attachment style feels things are getting serious, they close themselves off and/or leave the relationship.
These people appear to be confident and extraverted and might have many friends and sexual partners, but these relationships are generally shallow. Avoidant individuals have high self-esteem and put a lot of importance on their independence. They distrust others and dismiss the need to have deep connections and form close relationships.
Thus, the profile of an avoidant attachment style could possibly be aligned with a grandiose narcissistic personality, as they both:
Like narcissists, it’s possible that avoidant individuals seek close relationships as a way to satisfy their needs, rather than seeking closeness and intimacy. However, there’s no evidence to suggest that everyone who has an avoidant attachment style is narcissistic and there are some key differences between avoidant attachment and narcissism.
Grandiose narcissists show extreme levels of dismissiveness and see other people as inferior with little recognition of their autonomy and dignity. Instead, others are primarily seen as providers of attention, admiration, and gratification. People with an avoidant attachment style dismiss the importance of closeness and intimacy but they aren’t necessarily exploitative and manipulative.
Avoidant attachment develops as a result of an upbringing that was lacking in affection and love. Caregivers may have been emotionally unavailable, cold, and intolerant of their child’s displays of emotion. As a result, the child learns that others can’t be relied on and “switch off” their need for or expectation that others will provide emotional closeness and support.
This kind of upbringing can leave the child feeling worthless and unlovable. For some individuals with certain predispositions and traits, narcissism becomes a defense mechanism that protects them from feeling this way. They suppress feelings of inadequacy by (subconsciously) building a fortress around themselves, which they aggressively defend by means of arrogance, aggression, and hostility.
Another difference is that narcissism can also develop as a result of caregivers’ overindulgence and submissiveness. The child learns they are entitled to unconditional special treatment and come to expect this from other people. When they realize that people don’t satisfy their entitled needs, they dismiss their importance and only use them to satisfy their needs. This is in stark contrast to how avoidant attachment develops, as a child becomes used to their needs being rejected instead of overindulged.
The incoherent feelings and behaviors of vulnerable narcissists seem to be aligned with a disorganized attachment style. However, there are some important differences. So vulnerable narcissism might stem from a disorganized attachment style, but it’s been combined with a strong underlying belief of entitlement and superiority.
The disorganized attachment style is characterized by both avoidant and anxious attachment behaviors. A person with a disorganized attachment seeks emotionally close relationships but fears being hurt or let down. They have an overall negative view of themselves and other people, including feeling unworthy and having difficulty with trust.
This attachment style is called disorganized because its typical relationship patterns lack coherence: on one hand, individuals with this style have an extreme fear of rejection and thus avoid closeness and push others away. Yet, on the other hand, they strongly desire emotional closeness and intimacy.
This profile is somewhat similar to that of a vulnerable narcissist, as they both:
Disorganized attachment often develops as a result of childhood trauma – sometimes including abuse and neglect. The child experiences intense fear due to their caregivers’ behavior. They seek closeness but learn that their caregivers cannot be relied on. Thus, other people are seen as unreliable as well as a source of fear, rather than safety.
Vulnerable narcissism may develop in a similar way. Growing up, they may have experienced abuse, rejection, and cruel behavior from their caregivers. However, not every disorganized individual is narcissistic and there are important differences between the two.
Vulnerable narcissism may develop as a result of caregivers switching between abuse and conditional praise. The child may have been intermittently praised and spoiled by both or only one of their caregivers, which created the underlying belief of their entitlement and superiority.
People with a disorganized attachment style generally avoid relationships out of fear of being hurt. This is not the case for vulnerable narcissists; they avoid relationships because they anticipate that their entitled needs will not be satisfied. They believe they are superior and fantasize about being idolized and powerful, but fear that others will not see or treat them accordingly. These individuals experience shame for needing anything from other people at all and as a result, they avoid relationships.
Also, someone with a disorganized attachment desires emotional closeness and love. Vulnerable narcissists, like their grandiose peers, seek relationships to satisfy their narcissistic needs, rather than seeking close and intimate bonds with others.
Taken together, a disorganized attachment style isn’t sufficient to explain the development of narcissism. Other factors, such as predispositions, certain personality traits, and caregivers switching between abuse and special treatment are likely to play a role as well.
Narcissism can be difficult to treat. In part because a grandiose narcissist will deny having any weakness or difficulties and will not seek treatment voluntarily. Additionally, vulnerable narcissism is more difficult to detect because their sense of grandiosity is hidden. This increases the risk of misdiagnosis and thus receiving the wrong treatment.
Nevertheless, treatments for narcissism, especially narcissistic personality disorder, should have a strong focus on self-reflection and introspection. They should address attachment issues and build on a person’s capacity to understand and empathize with their own and other people’s feelings and mental states. Two therapeutic approaches have been found to be especially effective for treating personality disorders:
The therapist helps the patient to understand how their symptoms and difficulties have developed and how they manifest in the present. It includes techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy, attachment theory, and psychodynamic therapy.
This is a psychodynamic treatment rooted in attachment, cognitive, and neuropsychological principles that helps the patient to mentalize. “Mentalization” refers to the ability to make sense of one’s own and others’ mental states including feelings, thoughts, intentions, and behavior.
Researchers agree that “the association between a narcissistic personality and attachment are complex, if not confusing.” Someone with a narcissistic personality has a disturbance in the way they relate to themselves and others. Attachment theory describes a model of how a person relates to themselves and others. Therefore, it’s likely that narcissism develops as a result of insecure attachment.
However, narcissism doesn’t develop from a single factor (such as attachment) but rather from a combination of factors, including genetics, temperament, personality traits, and certain environments. It’s a complex condition that can have a detrimental impact on the person’s ability to function as well as the people around them. Not everyone with a narcissistic personality is the same, so why and how it’s developed is unique to the individual.
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