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Narcissistic defences

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Narcissistic defenses are those processes whereby the idealized aspects of the self are preserved, and its limitations denied.[1] They tend to be rigid and totalistic.[2] They are often driven by feelings of shame and guilt, conscious or unconscious.[3]


Narcissistic defenses are among the earliest defense mechanisms to emerge, and include denial, distortion, and projection.[4] Splitting is another defense mechanism prevalent among individuals with narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder—seeing people and situations in black and white terms, either as all bad or all good.[5]

A narcissistic defense, with the disorder's typical over-valuation of the self, can appear at any stage of development.[6]

Defence sequences[edit]

The narcissist typically runs through a sequence of defenses to discharge painful feelings until he or she finds one that works:[7][8]

  1. unconscious repression
  2. conscious denial
  3. distortion (including exaggeration and minimization), rationalisation and lies
  4. psychological projection (blaming somebody else)
  5. enlisting the help of one or more of his or her codependent friends who will support his or her distorted view.


Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud did not focus specifically on narcissistic defenses,[9] but did note in On Narcissism how "even great criminals and humorists, as they are represented in literature, compel our interest by the narcissistic consistency with which they manage to keep away from their ego anything that would diminish it".[10] Freud saw narcissistic regression as a defensive answer to object loss—denying the loss of an important object by way of a substitutive identification with it.[11]

Freud also considered social narcissism as a defence mechanism, apparent when communal identifications produce irrational panics at perceived threats to 'Throne and Altar' or 'Free Markets',[12] or in English over-reaction to any questioning of the status and identity of William Shakespeare.[13]


Otto Fenichel considered that "identification, performed by means of introjection, is the most primitive form of relationship to objects" a primitive mechanism only used "if the ego's function of reality testing is severely damaged by a narcissistic regression."[14]

Fenichel also highlighted "eccentrics who have more or less succeeded in regaining the security of primary narcissism and who feel 'Nothing can happen to me'....[failing] to give up the archaic stages of repudiating displeasure and to turn toward reality".[15]


Jacques Lacan, following out Freud's view of the ego as the result of identifications,[16] came to consider the ego itself as a narcissistic defence, driven by what he called "the 'narcissistic passion' ...in the coming-into-being (devenir) of the subject".[17]


Melanie Klein, emphasised projective identification in narcissism, and the manic defence against becoming aware of the damage done to objects in this way.[18] For Kleinians, at the core of manic defences in narcissism stood what Hanna Segal called "a triad of feelings—control, triumph and contempt".[19]


Herbert Rosenfeld looked at the role of omnipotence, combined with projective identification, as a narcissistic means of defending against awareness of separation between ego and object.[20]

Object relations theory[edit]

In the wake of Klein, object relations theory, including particularly the American schools of Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut has explored narcissistic defences through analysis of such mechanisms as denial, projective identification, and extreme idealization.[21]

Kernberg emphasised the role of the splitting apart introjections, and identifications of opposing qualities, as a cause of ego weakness.[22] Kohut too stressed the fact in narcissism "vertical splits are between self-structures (among others)—'I am grand' and 'I am wretched'—with very little communication between them".[23]

Neville Symington however placed greater weight on the way "a person dominated by narcissistic currents...survives through being able to sense the emotional tone of the other...wearing the cloaks of others";[24] while for Spotnitz the key element is that the narcissist turns feelings in upon the self in narcissistic defense.[25]

Positive defenses[edit]

Kernberg emphasised the positive side to narcissistic defenses,[26] while Kohut also stressed the necessity in early life for narcissistic positions to succeed each other in orderly maturational sequences.[27]

Others like Symington would maintain that "it is a mistake to split narcissism into positive and negative...we do not get positive narcissism without self-hatred".[28]

Stigmatising attitude to psychiatric illness[edit]

Arikan found that a stigmatising attitude to psychiatric patients is associated with narcissistic defences.[29]

21st century[edit]

The twenty-first century has seen a distinction drawn between cerebral and somatic narcissists—the former building up their self-sense through intellectualism, the latter through an obsession with their bodies,[30] as with the woman who, in bad faith, invests her sense of freedom only in being an object of beauty for others.[31]

Literary parallels[edit]

  • Sir Philip Sidney is said to have seen poetry in itself as a narcissistic defense.[32]
  • Jean-Paul Sartre's aloof, detached protagonists have been seen as crude narcissists who preserve their sense of self only by petrifying it into solid form.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shaw J.A. (1999). Sexual Aggression, American Psychiatric Publishing, pp. 28–9.
  2. ^ Gerald Alper, Self Defence in a Narcissistic World (2003) p. 10
  3. ^ Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (1990) p. 132
  4. ^ Barry P.D., Farmer S. (2002). Mental Health and Mental Illness, p. 175.
  5. ^ Lubit R (2002). "The long-term organizational impact of destructively narcissistic managers". Academy of Management Executive. 16 (1): 127–38. doi:10.5465/ame.2002.6640218.
  6. ^ Wilber K., Engler J., Brown D. (1986). Transformations of Consciousness: Conventional and Contemplative Perspective of Development, Boston: New Science Library, New York City, NY, p. 150
  7. ^ Millon, Theodore; Carrie M. Millon; Seth Grossman; Sarah Meagher; Rowena Ramnath (2004). Personality Disorders in Modern Life. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 978-0-471-23734-1.
  8. ^ Thomas D Narcissism: Behind the Mask (2010)
  9. ^ Elsa Schmid-Kitsikis, "Narcissistic Defenses"
  10. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11), p. 83
  11. ^ Freud, Metapsychology, p. 258
  12. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (PFL 7) p. 352
  13. ^ James Shapiro, Contested Will (2010) p. 344
  14. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946), pp. 147–48
  15. ^ Fenichel, p. 510
  16. ^ Elisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan (Oxford 1997), p. 111
  17. ^ Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection (London 1997), pp. 21–22
  18. ^ James S. Grotstein, "Foreword", in Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 1993), p. xii
  19. ^ Hanna Segal, Introduction to the Work of Melanie Klein (London 1964), p. 70
  20. ^ Jean-Michel Quinodoz, The Taming of Solitude (2004), p. 168
  21. ^ Schmid-Kitsikis
  22. ^ Otto F. Kernberg, Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (London 1990) p. 29
  23. ^ Kohut, quoted in Josephine Klein, Our Need for Others (London 1994) p. 222
  24. ^ Symington, pp. 52, 88
  25. ^ James G. Fennessy, "The Narcissistic Defense"
  26. ^ Elsa Ronningstam, Disorders of Narcissism (1997) p. 128
  27. ^ Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self (Madison 1971) p. 215
  28. ^ Symington, pp. 58, 113
  29. ^ Arikan, K. (2005). "A stigmatizating attitude towards psychiatric illnesses is associated with narcissistic personality traits" (PDF). Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sci. 42 (4): 248–50. PMID 16618057.
  30. ^ Simon Crompton, All about Me (London 2007) pp. 28–29
  31. ^ Jack Reynolds, Understanding Existentialism (2006) p. 143
  32. ^ Jonathan Goldberg, Voice Terminal Echo (1986) p. 47
  33. ^ J. A. Kotarba/A. Fontana, The Existential Self in Society (1987) p. 85

Further reading[edit]

  • Adamson, J./Clark, H. A., Scenes of Shame (1999)
  • Federn Paul (1928). "Narcissism in the structure of the ego". International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 9: 401–19.
  • Green, André, Life narcissism, death narcissism (Andrew Weller, Trans.), London and New York: Free Association Books (1983).
  • Grunberger, Béla (1971), Narcissism: Psychoanalytic essays (Joyce S. Diamanti, Trans., foreword by Marion M. Oliner). New York: International Universities Press.
  • Tausk, Viktor (1933), "On the origin of the "influencing machine" in schizophrenia" In Robert Fliess (Ed.), The psycho-analytic reader. New York: International Universities Press. (Original work published 1919)

External links[edit]