Childhood abuse increases risk of vulnerable narcissism by damaging the self and amplifying shame

New preliminary research published in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association suggests that maltreatment during childhood can lead to narcissistic vulnerability in adulthood by increasing a person’s sense of shame and constricting their sense of self.

Previous research has found that narcissists can be divided into a “vulnerable” subtype and a “grandiose” subtype.

Grandiose narcissists tend to be aggressive, domineering and immodest. They view themselves as superior to others and have an over-inflated self-esteem. Vulnerable narcissists — the lesser known subtype — tend to be defensive, insecure and inhibited. They are bitter that others do not treat them with the respect and admiration they think they deserve. Vulnerable narcissism is “marked by self-consciousness, shame, and helplessness,” the researchers said.

The present study was based on a psychoanalytic theory, known as self psychology, developed by Heinz Kohut.

“In Kohut’s formulation, caregivers are experienced as ‘selfobjects,’ or emerging parts of one’s sense of self,” the researchers explained. “When needs are unmet, the infant is left with impaired abilities to regulate self-esteem and may defensively avoid and disavow them. The end result of disavowed needs may therefore be the phenomenon now known as narcissistic vulnerability.”

The study of 129 undergraduate students found emotional, physical neglect and abuse, and sexual abuse in childhood was associated with vulnerable narcissism.

The researchers found two factors underlied the link between childhood maltreatment and narcissistic vulnerability: proneness to shame and the avoidance of selfobject needs.

The avoidance of selfobject needs refers to the disavowal of the need to maintain self-cohesion by incorporating others (the selfobject) into the sense of oneself. Those who score high on measures of “avoidance of selfobject needs” are more likely to say that they don’t need positive feedback from others because they already know they are successful. They are also more likely to find it difficult to accept guidance, even from someone they respect. And they are less likely to feel successful because they are part of a successful group.

“[O]ur data provide preliminary support for the roles of shame-proneness and selfobject need avoidance as individual and joint mechanisms through which exposure to [childhood maltreatment]leads to narcissistic vulnerability,” the researchers concluded.