Two Takes on Narcissism |

4 min read
Jills / Pixabay

Source: Jills / Pixabay

What do we mean by “narcissism” when we speak of mental health? This word has been put to so many uses it can be challenging to understand.

Here are two divergent ways of explaining it.

Initially, Freud understood psychic growth as a move from self-love to the love of another. Emotional maturity consisted of the transformation from what he called “primary narcissism” into “object love.”

Primary narcissism is the original investment of libido, the energy of life force, in the self. Under this concept of narcissism, there is an inverse correlation between “ego libido” and “object libido:” When one increases, the other decreases.

Narcissism was used to describe this early developmental stage and to explain later attitudes of vanity and self-admiration implicitly judged as immature.

In 1913, Freud used the word “narcissism” to describe another group of feelings: magical thinking and omnipotent thought. The term was also used in early psychoanalytic literature to denote a way of relating to the environment characterized by the inability to see others as distinct from the self.

At the end of his life, Freud amended his theory of the drive. In An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1940), he states that the aim of the life instinct (“eros”) is to bind together and unify. He describes a different kind of narcissism based on the consolidation of self, what he called “ego.”

As he put it, the “Drives become molded, channeled, focused and tamed, transformed and sublimated in and by the ego organization.”

Eros, our strivings toward sexuality and development, is seen as a synthesizing force distinct from psychic regressions dominated by “Thanatos,” the death instinct, which disintegrates and unbinds. Eros was described as an energy of self-preservation that brings harmony to internal aspects of the self.

In traditional psychoanalysis, an integration of this kind comes about through the resolution of unconscious conflicts by bringing into consciousness libidinal wishes often related to parents of the early caregiving environment.


What Freud portrayed as a binding of the instincts through eros anticipates what Heinz Kohut, thirty years later, described in terms of the unity of the self. Kohut transformed psychoanalysis through his development of self-psychology and his understanding of a healthy form of narcissism.

Kohut disagreed with the presumption that self-love is the less adaptive of the two forms of libido allocation. He refuted the idea that maturity involved replacing a person’s narcissistic investment of self with love of another (“object love”). He believed such value judgments about narcissism exerted a narrow-minded effect on understanding mental life.

While Freud’s approach to understanding psychology was developed for the most part with neurotics in mind, Kohut concentrated on conditions that had gone unaddressed: the mental sufferings of psychosis, narcissistic personalities, and borderline conditions (patients with impairments of self-regard and striking difficulties with mature love, for either self or other).

Kohut gave attention to deficits of the mind and developmental delays that resulted in fragile self-esteem. Failures in the early caregiving environment produce such conditions. His theory of narcissism was based on an understanding of how the self is vulnerable to injury through such failures.

How does one love oneself and feel whole without recognition, validation, and loving care in childhood? Such early relational ruptures interfere with the consolidation of self and healthy narcissism. In its place is often the experience of shame, a predominant emotion when working with narcissistic dynamics.

Shame, The Underbelly of Narcissism

Shame is the experience of a central defect of self that has been exposed, which coincides with a collapse in self-esteem. This corresponds to a loss of self.

Shame is an emotion closely connected to the wounds of narcissism and has been called the underbelly of narcissism. It is sometimes expressed as an intense desire for perfection, negating all shameful qualities in the self and the sense of inherent “badness” that goes with it.

Narcissism Essential Reads

Kohut proposes that narcissistic injury and the shame and rage that frequently follow underlie all human destructiveness (Search for the Self).

Similar to Freud’s late ideas about eros as a binding force, Kohut describes a healthy form of narcissism developed through a gradual consolidation of the self. This occurs through advances in the internal harmony and interconnectedness of a person.

This is a more comprehensive understanding of the role of narcissism in development and maturation.

For Kohut, the transformations of narcissism were a central goal of therapy. He believed that the contribution of narcissism to adaptation, achievement, and general health had been neglected.

A robust life relies on understanding these aspects of the healthy self and using them in therapy and our daily activities.

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