Insights into Narcissistic Behavior as an Evolutionary Survival Mechanism

Photo by Aditya Romansa on Unsplash

A young child is born. Nature has seen fit to equip this child with an incredibly adaptive & effective system for recalling every experience they have ever had, summarizing all of this information, and delivering it to their consciousness in microseconds: this system is called emotion. However, like every system in the human body, it is prone to dysfunction & failure when subjected to more negative input than it can withstand.

From an early age, the child endures neglect, abuse, & random, unpredictable behavior from its caregivers: moments of tenderness & kind words interspersed with violence, vicious insults, & withdrawal of affection, with no obvious correlation between the child’s actions and the resultant treatment. The child’s emotional system is unable to integrate with the rational conscious mind; the developing intellect cannot make sense of the conflicting input. At times, the child feels affection, comfort, & love with one caregiver or the other; but other times, the child feels hatred, abandonment, & pain from that same caregiver. Yet evolution has programmed one thing into the child: being abandoned by their caregivers means death. Regardless of how poorly one or both caregivers treat the child, the child feels an imperative need to maintain a positive relationship with them; this need will diminish as the child matures, but so deeply is it written into the core that it will never truly fade completely.

If one or more of the caregivers are primarily physically available, but emotionally distant or neglectful, with only occasional episodes of emotional and/or physical abuse, the child may be more likely to develop people-pleasing behaviors, anxious attachment strategies, & hypersensitivity to the emotions of others, seeking ways of soothing his or her fears of abandonment (and thus death) by attempting to influence the emotional state of the caregiver(s). If the caregivers are physically absent and/or chronically abusive (physically, emotionally, and possibly sexually), the child may attempt to placate their caregivers at first, but when this proves ineffective, they may switch to avoidant behaviors, essentially giving up on influencing the situation and seeking only to avoid the risk of rejection & abandonment by not becoming overly attached in the first place.

However, by avoiding meaningful attachments to caregivers, the empathetic system of the brain — the mirror neurons, the right supramarginal gyrus, the anterior insula, the anterior midcingulate cortex, the somatosensory cortex, & the right amygdala — fails to develop. These systems are not only involved in empathizing with others — they also help us to empathize with our future self. If we cannot picture how we will feel in the future, we tend to appear impulsive & unreliable to others, making decisions that will ultimately lead to negative outcomes for us simply because we cannot fully grasp the pain our future self might experience as a result of our actions, nor can we put ourselves in the shoes of the people who suffer as a result of our choices and fully experience their discomfort as if it were happening to us (this resistance to empathetic identification also applies to the past self, leading to minimalization or denial of the impact past traumas & experiences).

The brain changes constantly throughout life, but never more rapidly than it does during infancy & childhood. While it is possible to remodel learned behaviors & reactions, it only becomes progressively more difficult as they are reinforced over time: the more a person learns to rely upon certain coping mechanisms, the more resistant they become to changing them. Furthermore, the brain on its most simplistic level is hardwired to seek out pleasurable & positive experiences, and avoid painful & uncomfortable ones. Developing empathy through shame is thus practically impossible — you’re trying to convince someone who does not fully feel the experiences of others or their future self, who is conditioned to avoid discomfort, to change their behavior by imagining themselves in an emotionally-painful state: of course they are going to minimize even the small amount of discomfort they are able to empathetically experience, and with such insignificant motivation, they have no real impetus for change.

The systems of the brain responsible for cognitive empathy (recognizing emotion) are different than the systems involved in true empathy (not just identifying how a person is feeling, but actually feeling what they are feeling). Ask a narcissist to identify how a person is feeling, and they will have no difficulty doing so; their cognitive empathy skills are well-developed from years spent determining how to influence the people around them in order to get what they want. But ask them to experience the same emotions as that person — to feel happiness watching another person receive a promotion, or sadness watching a person as they lose their job — and they may exhibit signs of confusion, apathy, or frustration… or, they may simply pretend to feel the same way. Short of hooking them up to an EEG and measuring their brain activity, there is no measurable way to determine if they are actually sharing the experience or merely pretending to, and there is no tangible intrinsic motivation for them to do what is hard versus what comes easily: the pleasure they are able to empathetically experience, just like the discomfort they are able to feel, is greatly reduced.

Intrinsic motivation could be increased by asking an individual to attempt to experience positive feelings by watching someone close to them enjoy a positive experience. With avoidant attachment styles, however, a person is unlikely to develop strong social bonds, because intimacy triggers strong fears of rejection and leads to them pulling away. Thus, even the people closest to them are kept at arm’s length. When no one is truly “close” to us, and we are continually safeguarding ourselves from the prospect of losing them, we cannot increase our motivation for developing our empathetic abilities and thus our ability to recognize our spiritual, energetic connection to everyone & everything in existence… thus guaranteeing chronic feelings of emptiness, loneliness, & dissatisfaction, no matter what we do.

However, narcissistic behavior continues to serve the demands of evolution — keeping an individual alive & functioning long enough to reproduce, even after they have experienced severe, prolonged emotional and/or physical trauma. From the cold, calculating perspective of genetic survival, it is an effective tool. If it will ever be possible to rehabilitate pathological narcissism, it will require an honest, unemotional appraisal of how it develops, why it persists, and what practical methods might help restore the neurophysiological foundations of empathy in narcissistically-disordered individuals.

Thank you for reading.

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