Narcissism takes its name from a beautiful boy in an ancient Greek myth, famously retold by the poet Ovid. The mythical Narcissus fell in love not with a real person, but with his reflection in the waters of a pond. He died of heartbreak because his beautiful self did not love him back, and was reborn as a fragrant white flower: the narcissus.
The myth fascinated writers, poets and artists throughout the ages as a symbol of unrequited love. In the nineteenth century, Sigmund Freud adapted the myth to fit a certain type of dynamic, just as he adapted the myth of Oedipus to fit a different sort of personality.
For Freud, as for later psychoanalysts like Heinz Kohut, narcissism was viewed in terms of the relationship with the therapist. Freud understood narcissism in terms of life energy. He believed that the narcissist’s energy is trapped within himself and thus he cannot form a real relationship with the psychoanalyst (i.e. a transference). Thus, Freud thought that narcissism was not treatable by traditional psychoanalysis.
Later therapists found that the narcissist’s feelings of grandiosity and superiority are actually defenses that protect a fragile and fragmented self. Underneath the defenses lies considerable pain, self-loathing and fragmentation of the self. Astutely, the poet Ovid portrays this fragmentation of the narcissist’s self by describing how Narcissus’ tears fall into the pond, blurring and shattering the reflected beautiful image.
The psychiatrist Heinz Kohut, writing in the 1970's in Chicago, was perhaps the most famous early researcher on narcissistic personality disorder. Kohut expanded Freud's view and argued that a narcissist has a different quality of relationship with the therapist than the everyday garden variety neurotic patient. A narcissist experiences the therapist as a piece of furniture or a pawn to be moved around at his or her convenience. He has no real connection with the therapist as a separate individual. The therapist, as well as others in the narcisist's world, Kohut exist as "self-objects" or "selfobjects."
The therapist exists only as a mirror of the narcissist's idealized self. Kohut called this the "mirror transference" to distinguish it from the type of transference relationship that Freud identified. Kohut believed that therapy with a narcissist was not impossible, but he thought it had to be interminable because of the narcissist’s insatiable need for self-mirroring and empathy.
How do people become narcissists? Kohut argued that the narcissistic personality is formed early in life when a child is deprived of sufficient attention and love from his mother. Whereas a merely neurotic person falls in love with his parent in early childhood, the narcissist does not experience enough loving parent in his world to fall in love with. In more contemporary language, we might call this insecure attachment. So he falls in love, so to speak, with himself--or rather, with an idealized image of himself. Kohut believed that this parent-absence was a deep source of pain for the child and, later on, for the adult with narcissistic personality disorder.
Since Kohut, many contemporary therapists believe that narcissism can be treated in psychotherapy--with enough time, patience, and unswerving empathy on the part of the therapist. At first, the therapist exists only as a mirror, echoing the narcissist’s good qualities. But eventually, the narcissist becomes secure enough to experience the therapist as a real person.
Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.
Marilyn Wedge is the author of A Disease called Childhood: Why ADHD became an American Epidemic
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