What Makes A Narcissist? These Life Events Might Be Part Of It

mbg Contributor By Caroline Shannon-Karasik
mbg Contributor
Caroline Shannon-Karasik is a Pittsburgh-based writer, the author of The Gluten-Free Revolution, and a pilates instructor. She has a bachelor’s in journalism from Point Park University and received her health coach certification from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.

Ask a mental health expert, and they will tell you personality disorders—narcissism among them—can be difficult to diagnose. Sure, some people own their narcissism, making it easy to spot. But for the most part, a diagnosis requires a therapist to spend time observing behavior, attitudes, and reactions that may (or may not) point at the personality disorder known for its traits related to entitlement, a lack of empathy for other people, and an exaggerated need for admiration.

But a new study might have some insight on the disorder. Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study aimed to trace the trajectories of narcissism and Machiavellianism (another one of the three "Dark Triad" personality types, along with narcissism, describing a particularly scheming or duplicitous person lacking strong morals). Most notable among the findings? Changes in the personality disorders occurred in conjunction with a few major life events.

Researchers examined extensive data from 7,534 young adults that checked in with them every two years over an eight-year period and weighed the effects of 30 different life events—for example, a job change, major accident, breakup, or marriage—on personality characteristics. The researchers discovered that some life events tended to consistently affect a person's levels of narcissism or Machiavellianism:

  • Positively changing one's eating and sleeping habits tended to bump up narcissistic characteristics. (Uh-oh.)
  • Changing your university or apprenticeship under positive circumstances also increased narcissism.
  • Ending a romantic relationship and seeing that as a good thing increased narcissism, too.
  • Failing a big exam, oddly, also led to a bump in narcissism.
  • Starting a new job under positive circumstances tended to correlate with a decrease in Machiavellian characteristics. In fact, 91 percent of the participants had such an experience, and those few people who didn’t have it did not show any decrease in Machiavellianism over the eight-year period.

How much a person changed also varied based on how often a particular life event was experienced and just how strongly they felt about it: "The more often participants broke off a romantic relationship and the more these breakups were evaluated as positive, the more narcissistic admiration scores increased," the paper notes.

In addition, the study also showed that while Machiavellianism tended to decrease as people grew older, narcissism pretty much stayed at a constant.

"The lack of decrease in [narcissism] seems to contradict the assumption that narcissistic tendencies are 'immature' and should thus decrease during the transition to adulthood," the authors write. "Perhaps some narcissistic tendencies (e.g., narcissistic admiration) are less maladaptive than other tendencies (e.g., narcissistic rivalry) during early adulthood and thus only some narcissistic tendencies decrease during that time."

Now, this should not be interpreted as a green light to start going around pointing accusatory fingers at the next co-worker who tells you they're relieved about their recent breakup. The researchers noted more research is needed to confirm what as of right now is more of a chicken-egg finding: "We do not know whether life events caused changes in narcissistic admiration or Mach, changes in narcissistic admiration or Mach caused life events, or both were caused by a third variable not controlled for in the current study." (Emphasis added.)

These findings merely highlight how certain experiences can and do affect us—and how negative personalities are indeed developed over time. Even narcissists and manipulative jerks experience personal growth, whether in the direction of good or the direction of bad.

In line with these findings, some researchers—and narcissists themselves—assert that there is hope for mitigating these not-so-great characteristics. Daniel Dowling, a journalist and self-described former narcissist, told mbg that journaling, planning his day, ending casual relationships, and giving up his dependency on others helped him "unlearn narcissism."

"We are all good—even those of us who behave narcissistically, like I did," he wrote. "If you find yourself in a relationship with someone who behaves narcissistically, even if that person is you, it's best to go solo and to focus on thinking and behaving like the intelligent and inspiring person you were born to be."

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