Many people may have heard about the ancient Greek story of Narcissus, a handsome, illustrious young man who fell hopelessly in love with his own reflection in a body of water.
Concept of narcissism
Like many of Sigmund Freud’s theories, the story of narcissism is based on Greek mythology.
The story of Narcissus
According to Freud, Narcissus, the son of a God, spent countless hours staring at his reflection until he died at the water’s edge before transitioning into a flower.
Freud’s concept has significant roots in narcissism, albeit a little controversial, where many argue that Narcissus was a victim of extreme self-love – like most narcissists.
The ego-centric kind of self-love that Narcissus experienced, which effectively resulted in his death, prevails today.
A confused sense of self
Our understanding of narcissism is based on several criteria and symptoms such as feelings of extreme self-importance, profound self-interest or admiration of oneself, a need for attention, a lack of empathy and a strong sense of entitlement.
If we examine the above symptoms, we might see parallels in Freud’s story – Narcissus, a victim of self-love, died because of an extreme admiration directed at himself.
Essentially, narcissism can be a destructive disorder where the narcissist projects many of their insecurities and shortcomings onto others. Then, when their supply runs out, the destruction may get directed at the self.
Narcissus’ story may get interpreted in the same way- in the end, the only people a narcissist hurts are themselves.
Freud on narcissistic personality disorder and its origins
Anyone who’s ever read or studied Freud’s early work may have heard of the psychosexual stages of development – a paradigm developed by Freud to understand human development and the origins of mental illness.
In examining narcissism and its origins, it’s pertinent to mention such stages as they relate to the ego’s birth (and death).
According to Freud, we all go through five stages of development from birth to death; they include:
- Oral stage – birth to one year
- Anal stage – one to three years
- Phallic stage – three to six years
- Latency stage – six years old to puberty
- The genital stage – puberty to death
Throughout the oral stage of development, the infant’s main interactions occur through the mouth, such as through feedings, like breastfeeding or bottle feeding.
During this stage, the infant gains much pleasure through oral stimulation due to the gratification experienced in eating, a primary source of basic survival.
According to Freud, the infant develops trust toward the caregiver responsible for providing them with nourishment and forms a close bond and a sense of comfort through the interaction.
Freud described the weaning stage as pivotal to the child’s development in that if weaning is going well and there is no conflict, the child will successfully move through to the next phase of growth.
However, if a conflict arises during the weaning stage, fixation may occur, and the person will likely develop issues with eating, drinking, nail-biting and smoking.
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Personality traits due to oral fixation include dependency problems or aggression.
During the anal stage, the focus shifts to controlling bowel and bladder movements during toilet training.
In this phase, the child learns to control their bodily needs, which may lead to a sense of independence and achievement.
The critical aspect of the anal stage is how the child’s caregivers approach toilet training.
For example, parents who are encouraging and offer praise to the child for using the potty or toilet at the appropriate time may encourage excellent outcomes and help children to feel productive, capable and confident.
However, if parental responses are inappropriate, they may produce adverse outcomes.
For instance, if parents are too lenient, Freud said that the child might develop an anal-expulsive personality where, as an adult, the person may be wasteful, untidy, and self-destructive.
On the other hand, if parents are too scolding or strict during toilet training, the child may develop an anal-retentive personality where the person is miserly, rigid, orderly and obsessive.
Throughout the phallic stage, the focus shifts to the genitals, where the child discovers the difference between males and females.
According to Freud, male children begin to feel a sense of rivalry toward their father and may compete for their mother’s affection.
Female children may develop the same fixation on their fathers.
Freud’s most controversial theory, The Oedipal Complex, describes this process where the boy wants to possess the mother and replace the father.
However, the boy experiences an (unconscious) fear of castration and is anxious that his father will punish him for having such feelings.
Successful completion of the phallic stage is when the child begins to identify with the same-sex parent, ultimately leading to the child developing a mature sexual identity.
An unresolved oedipal complex may lead to challenges in romantic relationships and issues with same-sex competitiveness.
Latency and genital stages involve sexual feelings being inactive and then activated again during the stage of puberty.
Suppose we continue to roll with Freud’s psychosexual theory. In that case, we may consider that getting fixated or ‘stuck’ at a specific developmental stage may result in a person developing personality disorder traits.
Freud described the libido as sexual energy, such energy is present during each phase of psychosexual development.
In association with libido, narcissism can get split into two types.
When a child is in infancy, the libido gets directed towards the developing ego, which Freud called ego-libido.
Here, the sex-instinct (referred to as preservation of the species) and the ego-instinct (the desire for self-preservation) are indistinguishable.
However, over time, the ego becomes overwhelmed with libidinal energy and begins to look externally for other objects to focus its energy on.
At this point, the ego and sex instincts begin to separate, and the energy is projected outwards toward external objects, known as object-libido.
Simply put, successful object-libido denotes a balance between autoeroticism and object-love.
However, should a conflict arise where the object-love does not get reciprocated or traumatic events block the flow of libidinal energy to the external object, Freud said the libidinal energy begins to flow back to the ego.
In the above scenario, the individual becomes consumed by excessive neurotic self-love, which Freud described as Secondary Narcissism.
Conditions resulting from Secondary Narcissism include paranoid delusions and megalomania and Paraphrenia.
Perhaps the best way to describe the origins of Secondary Narcissism is that it is a pathological regression to Primary Narcissism brought on by a traumatic experience that disrupts the flow of libidinal energy towards the external object (Freud and the Nature of Narcissism: Zauraiz Lone, September 2019).
Diverting away from Freud’s theory on narcissism is a concept developed by Kohut, who was well-known for his psychotherapeutic approach to narcissistic patients.
Kohut, the founder of the self-psychology school of psychoanalysis, believed that narcissistic patients’ pathology stems from early developmental roots in correlation to parental failures.
Kohut firmly believed that narcissistic patients could get successfully treated through a therapeutic approach called mirroring.
Inherently, mirroring involves reflecting the patient’s perceptions and emotional experiences in an accepting, validating and contained manner.
Kohut said that “good-enough parents” naturally mirror their children’s emotions and conceptual experiences. However, the studies showed that narcissistic patients did not receive mirroring from their caregivers.
To resolve narcissistic tendencies, Kohut said that therapists must provide a positive mirror to validate and strengthen the fractured self (Historical and Classical Roots of Narcissistic Personality: Psychology Today, Daniel J Winarick, PhD, November 2019).
To sum up Freud’s view on narcissism, he vehemently upheld the belief that those with narcissistic personality disorder had not adapted to their libido and sex drive, which should get focused outward to have healthy relationships.
Those with libidos turned inwards are primarily focused on the self and will likely experience difficulties in relationships and relating to the external world.
If you are concerned about your mental health or want further information on this article, contact a specialist at White River Manor who can help.
- Historical and Clinical Roots of Narcissistic Personality: Psychology Today; Daniel J Winarick, PhD, November 2019
- Freud and the Nature of Narcissism: Psych Central; Zauraiz Lone, September 2019
- Freud’s Psychosexual Stages of Development: VeryWell Mind; Kendra Cherry, November 2020
- What is The Oedipus Complex: VeryWell Mind; Kendra Cherry, May 2022