Is Narcissism A Choice? Or, Are Narcissists Victims Themselves?

— by Dr. Sandip Roy.

Is narcissism a choice, perhaps unintentional? Is it that narcissists have been victimized into becoming what they are?

The question invites intrigue, especially when considering its clinical diagnosis: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

The word “narcissistic” often carries a sense of ambiguity. It can casually point to someone’s self-absorption or, at its most severe, mislabel a person as an NPD (which is wrong).

Of course, narcissism can span from simple high self-centeredness to complex and severely harmful behaviors like malignant narcissism.

But there are some misunderstood points about narcissists:

  1. They are merely vain or self-absorbed — not always so.
  2. They cannot form genuine attachments — not always so.
  3. They have no capacity for self-reflection or change — not always so.

We need to understand how well people with narcissism and NPD can sometimes adapt.

Is Narcissism Really A Choice

Survival-Based Choices To Automatic Narcissistic Habits

Experts think narcissism often arises from a distinct blend of childhood conditions. (Find out more on this: What do you think, is narcissism a defense mechanism?)

This normal child may have had caretakers, guardians, or parents with narcissistic traits. The child may have developed some coping strategies to safeguard their physical and mental security:

  • Begun showing excessive self-promotion or bragging, to gain the attention and approval often withheld by narcissistic parents.
  • Learned to suppress their own needs and emotions, having learned that expressing vulnerability or asking for help is often met with criticism or neglect.
  • Adopted an attitude of relentless perfectionism, striving to appear flawless to avoid criticism and to earn praise.
  • Started mirroring the narcissistic behaviors of their caregivers, showing a lack of empathy and using manipulation to achieve their goals.

As the brain matured, these behaviors and thought processes may have become deeply embedded in the brain’s network. What started as adaptive behavior eventually became a fixed part of the brain’s structure.

Once these habits are established, they operate below the threshold of consciousness and become as automatic as breathing.

The adult narcissist may no longer see these patterns as choices, but rather as a part of what makes them, them.

So, strategies for navigating a tough life during the pivotal years can later morph into narcissistic habits.

Like it was for you and me when we first learned to drive a car. Everything, from accelerating and braking to turning the steering wheel and gauging speed, was a conscious decision. With practice, these actions receded into the background of our awareness.

  • Now, if narcissistic behaviors are automatic, perhaps woven into their brain neurons, is there no scope for change?
  • Or, once we make the narcissist aware of their tendencies, can it become a springboard for a transforming leap?

Is Being Narcissistic A Deliberate Choice?

At first glance, it seems like narcissism isn’t a choice, but a burden piled on the narcissist. It started from an interplay between a stressful environment and survival decisions.

The behaviors associated with narcissism, particularly Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), are not choices in the conventional sense. Rather, they are automatic, learned behaviors.

The narcissist today was shaped by a mix of genetics, environment, and faulty parenting in their childhood. It may not seem like there was much to do to prevent it.

Yet, the truth is that the narcissist has the choice to change their ways.

They can choose to discontinue their complex pattern of people-harming behaviors, They don’t have to act on their ingrained impulses and unconscious habits.

So, where’s the problem?


How Can The Narcissist Choose Change?

The real choice for a self-aware narcissist is whether or not to move away from their ingrained behavior.

A narcissist may be right to think that their behavior patterns weren’t a choice they could afford not to have at the start. But to continue them would be an unhealthy decision.

To change, a narcissist requires two things:

  1. Self-awareness,
  2. Commitment to growth.

The first condition is fairly easy to meet these days.

The short video platforms allow us to see insights from real people in the real world, as well as simply-explained research findings. Today, we can see and hear many diagnosed NPD people talking about how they think in particular situations and analyze others.

Watching them, we can learn to identify narcissistic traits within ourselves. And how we might accept the problematic parts of our personality and go about changing these behaviors.

This change process might seem like learning to drive on a different side of the road after relocating from the US to the UK. It is a labor-intensive process that needs unlearning old habits and building new ones from the ground up.

Final Words

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) might best be understood as a set of habits that are encoded in the brain.

These habits are largely automatic. They mostly operate without much of a conscious choice, and show up in ways that define the condition.

Once a narcissist realizes they are narcissistic, they now have a choice: to keep acting out these people-harming patterns or to start a journey of self-transformation.

So, yes, an aware narcissist continuing to be a narcissist is a deliberate choice.

√ Also Read: Do Narcissists Know They Are Narcissists?

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