To successfully interact with a narcissist, it's useful to clue in to their way of being in the world. To understand that, it’s valuable to understand how a person develops into a narcissist. Their development differs from that of an emotionally healthy person, and hence their way of being, as an adult, is different from an emotionally healthy adult.
Current research indicates the patterns of narcissism begin to develop in toddlerhood. Emotional health requires an attentive parent, who creates an emotionally and physically safe environment from which a toddler can explore the world. As the toddler's ability to roam expands, she keeps checking back with her touchstone adult. If that adult is attentive and reassuring, the child feels free to continue to explore and expand her range. If that adult is disconnected, inattentive or gives off signs of danger, the child stays close. It's a basic safety mechanism.
The child who feels safe to explore, over time and experience, grows to feel and be separate from the touchstone adult. This child creates a sense of herself as separate from her touchstone adult.
The child who consistently feels unsafe to explore continues to stay merged with, and continues to rely on, that touchstone adult for safety in the world. This is a repetitive basic pattern that develops into elements of adult narcissism. There are other times when this child might have the necessary experiences that allow for at least some sense of separate self to develop. But if that does not happen, this young child potentially grows into an adult who has a template of the world in which she is merged with other people, and in which she must do what she can to please or cajole them into doing her bidding to take care of her in the world.
Her template of the world becomes stalled in a framework in which she relies on others to take care of her needs (as long as she can maneuver them into it). She returns to the repetitive behavior which began in toddlerhood, when she was unaware and unable to verbalize emotions, when she thrived on praise for simply standing up.
Shame and how it's handled in the early years is another element in the creation of narcissism. Humiliation is an overwhelming emotion even for most adults, and toddlers are often corrected in big ways that make shame bloom. A toddler who is then treated with compassion, is given reassurance that she is okay and loved despite whatever brought the big correction, has the possibility of growing up with an intact separate sense of self. The conclusion this toddler can draw is that she did something wrong, but she is still lovable and will still be cared for and kept safe.
A toddler who is shamed and left alone to manage the humiliation is essentially overwhelmed emotionally. A toddler's coping skills are not up to the job. The conclusion this child draws is that there is something fundamentally wrong with her as a being, and that she is not going to be cared for or kept safe. Since the adult will not reach out to care for this child, the child knows her very life depends on keeping attention on the caregiver. Maintaining contact by trying to please, or by creating upsets, maintains the attention of the touchstone adult. This need for attention, through inviting positive attention or by provoking negative attention, is another basic pattern that develops into an element of adult narcissism.
Narcissists are like snowflakes – similar in structure but different in expression. Whether you identify a narcissist in your personal life or your work life, it helps to understand this framework underlying their ways of being in the world.