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Narcissism and Attachment

Narcissism on its own is a "complex phenomenon," as noted in a 2015 research article (Cascio, Konrath & Falk, 2015). When you take a moment to ask yourself what you know about the term itself, there may be various things that pop up in your mind, including: someone who only cares about their own needs, someone that is very defensive or aggressive, someone manipulative or controlling, or someone who is abusive or demanding. In any case, each of these may appear in someone who exhibits narcissistic traits. I want to take a closer look at how attachment plays a key role in the development of narcissistic traits like these, and let's see if any of these ideas or your understandings change.

What we have found in attachment-related research is the dramatic shifts that occur when there is less of an emotional attunement between caregiver and child during the developmental period of a child's life. This working model of attachment is internalized at an early age; a child starts to recognize early on whether or not their caregiver(s) are present emotionally and reliable to meet their attachment needs. These internal working models are difficult to change, because they stand outside of the conscious mind, where we are easily aware of our own emotional needs and able to interact with empathy and understanding. Less security, preoccupation, and fear surrounding attachment with others and self is present in individuals that experience more distress in this child-parent dynamic at this integral point in a child's life. In that case, what research has helped us understand is how narcissistic traits often correlate to avoidant attachment style, where an individual learned to rely solely on themselves to manage and care for themselves at this point in their developmental life stage (Altınok & Kılıç, 2020).

In one particular study, looking at shame as a mediator for narcissistic traits in adulthood, researchers found that by looking at periods of later adolescence and emerging adulthood, individuals with narcissistic traits (Schie, et al., 2021) -

  1. Had greater experiences of shame when dealing with vulnerable narcissism (characterized by neuroticism, more introversion, anxiety, and internalized shame).

  2. Overall, experiences with vulnerable narcissism correlated with less secure, more preoccupied and more fearful self-reported attachment styles.

Intriguingly, while there is a sense of emotional avoidance of self and others, those that may experience narcissistic traits may have a large circle of friends or close people in their life, but they remain anxious, preoccupied, and dismissive of of these other figures in their life.

In many ways, the young individual that goes through the distressful experiences of emotional disconnect from their caregivers, desire the need for social connection; but, in an antagonistic manner, they present with aggression and stress in these situations (Cascio, Konrath & Falk, 2021). This is why I have found it so fascinating that, in research involving fMRI studies of individuals with narcissistic traits, the area of our brain involved with social pain lights up with hypersensitivity to rejection and social exclusion )anterior insula, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and subgenual anterior cingulate cortex) (Cascio, Konrath & Falk, 2021). (See image below)

Understanding that social context in adulthood, and looking at experiences of distress in early childhood, allows us to comprehend a deeper sense of shame and expectation for social exclusion in traits such as those introduced in the beginning of this blogpost (someone who only cares about their own needs, someone that is very defensive or aggressive, someone manipulative or controlling, or someone who is abusive or demanding).

So, while there is an outside perspective of narcissistic traits in individuals that exhibit these maladaptive patterns of behavior, we also get to provide a deeper understanding of the distress and shame that has led to a abnormalities in the same part of the brain that correlates with empathy and compassion for others.

Given the complex phenomenon of narcissism, what are your final thoughts about some of the research presented to you here?

We are ongoing learners, trying our hardest every day to understanding and apply the findings of attachment theory to the work we do with clients. Our hope is that continuing to share with you some of the intriguing findings of traits we present, in correlation to our attachment experiences, will allow you to also learn some of the fascinating tools we have available to help individuals, couples, or families to develop a deeper understanding of empathy and its role in cultivating secure attachment in these relationships.


Cascio, C. N., Konrath, S. H., & Falk, E. B. (2015). Narcissists' social pain seen only in the brain. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 10(3), 335–341.

Altınok, A., & Kılıç, N. (2020). Exploring the associations between narcissism, intentions towards infidelity, and relationship satisfaction: Attachment styles as a moderator. PloS one, 15(11), e0242277.

Schie, C.C., Jarman, H.L., Reis, S. et al. Narcissistic traits in young people and how experiencing shame relates to current attachment challenges. BMC Psychiatry 21, 246 (2021).

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