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Personality: Self concept · Personality testing · Theories · Mind-body problem

"Narcissistic defences have been defined as those processes whereby the idealized aspects of the self are preserved and the limitations of the self and [of] others denied".[1]

'The "narcissistic defense" can theoretically occur at any stage of self-development...and involves an over-valuation of the self-structure'.[2] Originally however such 'narcissistic defense mechanisms develop as the earliest defense mechanisms': they include 'denial, distortion, and delusional projection'.[3]

Splitting is a defense mechanism that dominates the function of all narcissists. They see people and situations in black and white terms, either all bad or all good with no shades of grey. Projection is often used in conjunction with splitting.[4]


'Precise indications of specifically narcissistic defenses are not to be found in the works of Freud'.[5] One of Freud's essays, On Narcissism, stressed 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';[6] but did not specify the mechanisms that enabled them to do so.

Another of Freud's essays, "Mourning and Melancholia" looked at narcissistic regression as an answer to object loss: 'the narcissistic identification with the object then becomes a substitute for the erotic cathexis, the result of which is that in spite of the conflict with the loved person the love-relation need not be given up'.[7]


By the time of Otto Fenichel's great summary of the first psychoanalytic half-century, it was clear that of projection that 'this primitive mechanism of defence can be used extensively only if the ego's function of reality testing is severely damaged by a narcissistic regression'.[8] Similarly, introjection, and 'identification, performed by means of introjection, is the most primitive form of relationship to objects',[9] also reappearing in regression.

Fenichel also looked at 'eccentrics who have more or less succeeded in regaining the security of primary narcissism and who feel "Nothing can happen to me"...their childhood spared them the everyday conflicts with reality that force other children to give up the archaic stages of repudiating displeasure and to turn toward reality'.[10]


Jacques Lacan, following that line of Freud's thought which would 'see the ego as the product of...its genesis in identifications',[11] considered the ego itself as a narcissistic defence: driven by 'the "narcissistic passion"...the ego neglects, scotomizes, misconstrues in the sensations that make it react to reality'.[12]


Melanie Klein, emphasising projective identification in narcissism, considered that 'the infant is and becomes what he believes he does and has done to his objects - and how he defends against this awareness (manic defences) '.[13] For Kleinians, there were at the core of 'the manic defences...a triad of feelings - control, triumph and contempt'.[14]


Subsequently, exploring what he called "narcissistic omnipotent object relations", 'Herbert Rosenfeld examines the role of omnipotence, introjective and projective identification, and envy as defences against acknowledging separation between the ego and the object...narcissistic'.[15]

Object relations theory

In the wake of Klein, object relations theory, including particularly 'representatives of the American schools (Otto Kernberg, Heinz Kohut)...has allowed a better delineation of narcissistic defensive processes, based on an analysis of the mechanisms of denial, separation, projective identification, and pathological idealization'[16]

Kernberg especially emphasised the part of ' Splitting...the active process of keeping apart introjections and identifications of opposite quality...a fundamental cause of ego weakness'.[17] Kohut too stressed the fact in narcissism 'vertical splits are between self-structures (among others) - "I am grand" and "I an wretched" - with very little communication between them'.[18]

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';[19] while for Spotnitz the key element is that the narcissist 'turns these feelings inward and begins to attack the self. This is called the narcissistic defense '[20]

Positive defenses

Kernberg 'would also interpret and clarify the positive aspects of the narcissistic defenses'.[21] Kohut too stressed that in 'archaic narcissism...these positions constitute necessary and healthy maturational steps'.[22]

Others however would maintain that 'it is a mistake to split narcissism into positive and negative'.[23]

21st century

The twenty-first century has seen a distinction drawn between 'cerebral narcissists - people who build up their sense of magnificence out of an innate feeling of intellectual superiority' - and 'somatic narcissists - narcissists who are obsessed with the body'.[24]

Defence sequences

The narcissist typically runs through a sequence of defenses to discharge painful feelings until he or she finds one that works:[25][26]

  1. unconscious repression
  2. conscious denial
  3. distortion (including exaggeration and minimization) and lies
  4. 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.

A narcissistic set

To these might be added 'idealization of the love object, paranoid projection, [&] counter investment in the external world'.[16]

Literary parallels

  • Sir Philip Sidney is said to have seen 'Poetry as narcissistic defense'[27] in itself.
  • 'Sartre's "heroes"...detached, coldly aloof,' have been viewed as each representing a figure becoming 'a primitive narcissist who "saves" his self by petrifying it'.[28]

See also


  1. Jon A. Shaw, Sexual Aggression (1999) p. 28-9
  2. Ken Wilbur et al, Transformations of Consciousness (1986) p. 150
  3. P. D. Barry/S. Farmer, Mental Health and Mental Illness (2002) p. 175
  4. Lubit, R. (2002). The long-term organizational impact of destructively narcissistic managers. Academy of Management Executive, 16(1), 127-138.
  5. Elsa Schmid-Kitsikis, "Narcissistic Defenses"
  6. Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11) p. 83
  7. Freud, Metapsychology p. 258
  8. Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 147
  9. Fenichel, p. 148
  10. Fenichel, p. 510
  11. Elisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan (Oxford 1997) p. 111
  12. Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection (London 1997) p. 21-2
  13. James S. Grotstein, "Foreword", Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 1993) p. xii
  14. Hanna Segal, Introduction to the Work of Melanie Klein (London 1964) p. 70
  15. Jean-Michel Quinodoz, The Taming of Solitude (2004) p. 168
  16. 16.0 16.1 Schmid-Kitsikis
  17. Otto F. Kernberg, Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (London 1990) p. 29
  18. Kohut, quoted in Josephine Klein, Our Need for Others (London 1994) p. 222
  19. Symington, p. 52 and p. 88
  20. James G. Fennessy, "The Narcissistic Defense"
  21. Elsa Ronningstam, Disorders of Narcissism (1997) p. 128
  22. Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self (Madison 1971) p. 215
  23. Symington, p. 113
  24. Simon Crompton, All about Me (London 2007) p. 28-9
  25. Millon, Theodore; Carrie M. Millon, Seth Grossman, Sarah Meagher, Rowena Ramnath (2004). Personality Disorders in Modern Life, John Wiley and Sons.
  26. Thomas D Narcissism: Behind the Mask (2010)
  27. Jonathan Goldberg, Voice Terminal Echo (1986) p. 47
  28. J. A. Kotarba/A. Fontana, The Existential Self in Society (1987) p. 85

Further reading

  • Adamson, J./Clark, H. A., Scenes of Shame (1999)
  • Federn, Paul, "Narcissism in the structure of the ego" International Journal of Psychoanalysis (1928) 9, 401-419.
  • 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)

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