Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Narcissism - the basics


In Ovid's tale, Narcissus is the handsome and proud son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. The nymph, Echo, falls in love with him but is rejected and withdraws into a lonely spot and fades away, leaving behind her voice. The goddess Nemesis hears her prayers for vengeance and makes Narcissus fall in love with his own reflection, which he cannot embrace. He sits by the pool, watching it until he dies and turns into the narcissus flower.

Primary narcissism
Primary narcissism is the initial focus on the self with which all infants start and happens from around six month up to around six years. It is a defense mechanism that is used to protect the child from psychic damage during the formation of the individual self.

Secondary narcissism
Secondary narcissism is the more 'normal' form, where older children and adults seek personal gratification over the achievement of social goals and conformance to social values.

A degree of narcissism is is common in many people. It becomes pathological when the narcissist lacks normal empathy and uses others ruthlessly to their own ends.

Cerebral narcissists derive their self-adoration from their intellectual abilities and achievements.

Somatic narcissists focus on the body, seeking beauty, physique and sexual conquests.

Narcissist characteristics
Narcissists interact socially with others, but do not form relational social bonds with others. In order avoid being 'owned' by others, the narcissist reduces them to non-human objects.

Narcissists often need to feel that they are the only good objects in the world and consequently harbor great envy, which appears as narcissistic rage that seeks to destroy the good objects of others. This leaves bad objects intact.

The fear of extinction is very significant for narcissists. They often age badly and the signs of aging infuriate them. They envy the young and will avoid or denigrate them. Faced with damning external evidence, they may retreat further inside.

Narcissists will deliberately harm themselves in order to frustrate others, failing exams, rejecting advice and taking drugs.

Inverted narcissism
Inverted narcissists projects their narcissism onto another narcissist, using projective identification to keep the narcissistic state both distant and close. They experience narcissism vicariously but are still narcissists.

Symptoms of narcissism include:

* Self-aggrandizement to the point of exaggeration, deception and outright lying.
* Seeking and requiring excessive attention, admiration and rewards from others.
* Fantasies of fame, power and success. Belief in their superiority over others.
* Exploitation of others without feelings of guilt.
* Envious of others. Belief that the perception is reciprocated.
* Given to frustration, anger and irrationality when they do not get what they want.

There are several schools of thought about what leads to narcissism. A common theme is that early transition into the 'real world' fails in some way, leading the person to remain, at least in part, in the early self-focused primary narcissistic stage.

Narcissism appears across families, perhaps through some genetic causes, but also in the way that a narcissistic parent is unable to bond with its children and thus causes it, too, to become a narcissist.

Narcissus and Oedipus
Narcissism is related to the Oedipus Complex in that Oedipus often follows narcissism and is a method by which narcissism is quelled.

Narcissism is about love of the self; Oedipus is about separating and externalizing love of another (the mother) from the self.


For Freud, narcissism is basically the investment of libidinal energy in the ego.

Secondary narcissism is regression to primary narcissism and is practiced because it provides gratification. Fantasy generally is nicer than reality.

People make anaclitic object choices in the hope that others will fulfil narcissistic needs in the manner of their parents (and especially the nurturing mother). Others who make narcissistic object choice invest their libidinal energy in aspects of themselves.

Freud described homosexuals and clinging parents as making narcissistic object choices. When a narcissist loves another, it is because they are like the self in some way.

For Lacan, narcissism starts in the mirror phase, where the misrecognized 'perfect' image is loved. Narcissism becomes problematic when this stage is not fully navigated and the image is not realized as such and seeking after this impossible perfection becomes an obsessive and unending goal.

Klein rejected Freud's idea of primal narcissism. In Object Relations Theory narcissism is a type of object choice in which the self plays a more important part than the real aspects of the object. In narcissists, the ego is split and never fully re-integrated.

For Winnicott, Narcissism is a form of false self. A goal of the good-enough mother is to enable the child to form an integrated and healthy false self through steady disillusionment and use of a transition object.

Heinz Kohut notes that the subject-love of narcissism coexists with object-love of others in most people, and identifies a whole class of self disorders that stem from a damaged development of this normal balance. In particular, these come from a lack of attention from parents or when the child is treated as an extension of a parent's ego.

Otto Kernberg views anaclitic and narcissistic object divisions as irrelevant and has a Self, which is devalued or fixated on aggression. Pathological object relations are detached from the real objects because they are uncomfortable. He sees pathological narcissism as being more than regression to an earlier stage but requiring active investment in a deformed self.

Lasch (1979) attributes increasing narcissism to permissive culture, where the strict super-ego is superseded by the mores of the ego. Capitalism encourages a focus on gratification and social approval and hence also encourages more open narcissism. Absent fathers are also seen as a cause, which links with Lacan's need for successful transitions and the role of the father in the symbolic register.

Narcissism may also contribute to the break-up of capitalist systems as a focus on the self ultimately leads to increased transaction cost and diseconomies of scale.

Interestingly, narcissism is a far more common condition addressed by psychoanalysts today. In Freudian times the more common condition was more in id-based sexually-based repression.

Managing narcissists
When you are confronted with a narcissist in a work situation or where you do not want to arouse them, be impressed with them and avoid arguments. Never become dependent on them as they will use and abuse you, then discard you.

To persuade a narcissist, use flattery and recognition. Ensure you have something unique that they want for as long as you need their attention and compliance.

To help a narcissist, show them their condition without accusation or blame. Do not expect to be able to cure them. Avoid arguments, especially where they can support their ego through anger that is directed at you.

See also

Freud, Defense Mechanisms

Freud, S. (1914). On narcissism: an introduction. Standard Edition, 14, pp. 67-10,

Lasch, C. (1979). The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. WW Norton: London