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Narcissistic mortification is a term first used by Sigmund Freud in his last book, Moses and Monotheism,[1] with respect to early injuries to the ego/self. It has recently been defined as 'the primitive terror of self dissolution, triggered by the sudden exposure of one's sense of a defective self...death by embarrassment'.[2]

The concept has been widely employed in ego psychology; and also contributed to the roots of self psychology.

Early developments: Bergler, Anna Freud, and Eidelberg

Edmund Bergler developed the concept of narcissistic mortification in connection with what he termed 'the "mechanism of orality"' and the child's early fantasies of omnipotence: 'the inevitable assaults life makes on this illusion...automatically provokes fury, since it offends his sense of omnipotence'.[3] For Bergler, 'the narcissistic mortification suffered in this very early period continues to act as a stimulus throughout his life'.[4]

Anna Freud used the term in connection with her exploration of the defence mechanism of "altruistic surrender". In the case of a governess who 'lives wholly in the lives of other people....Anna traces the governess's problem back to her early family life and finds there "a narcissistic mortification", a disappointment with herself, which prevented her from living her own life'.[5]

First in collaboration, and then in an independent series of articles, Ludwig Eidelberg subsequently expanded on the concept in the fifties and sixties. Eidelberg defined narcissistic mortification as occurring when 'a sudden loss of control over external or internal reality...produces the painful emotional experience of terror'.[6]

He also stressed how for many patients simply 'to have a neurotic symptom was to be narcissistically mortified'.[7]

Kohut and self psychology

For Kohut, 'narcissistic injury - the root cause of what Kohut calls narcissistic personality disorder - is more or less synonymous with mortification or humiliation'.[8] Kohut considered that 'if the grandiosity of the narcissistic self has been insufficiently modified...then the adult ego will tend to vacillate between an irrational overestimation of the self and feelings of inferiority and will react with narcissistic mortification to the thwarting of its ambitions'.[9]

Object relations theory

Main article: Object relations theory

Unlike ego psychologists, object relations theorists have generally not used the language of narcissistic mortification to describe early infantile woundings, but a rather different [post-Kleinian] vocabulary. However, the twenty-first century has seen something of a rapprochement in this regard. On the one hand, object relations theorists have found analogies between the way 'Freud tended to emphasize a kind of ego sensitivity, narcissistic humiliation..."mortification"' and certain 'aspects of Bion's "nameless dread", Winnicott's "primitive agonies"...the original state of breakdown'.[10] On the other hand, ego psychologists have been increasingly prepared to see narcissistic mortification itself as occurring in a context of early relations to objects.

In the 21st century

The concept has recently been brought into renewed prominence by Mary Libbey, who believes 'the intolerable nature of mortification underlies narcissistic defences and narcissistic character structure'.[11]

With the 'analytic encounter...given an innovative form by Libbey in her "Narcissistic States..."', her argument stresses that 'change arises in a particular state of transition; not a state of absolute dependency, as in Winnicott, but in the confrontation with mortifying and paralyzing bursts of shame - an overwhelming experience of object loss'.[12]

See also


  1. Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism (Standard Ed., 23) p. 74 and p. 76
  2. On Narcissistic Mortification
  3. Edmund Bergler, "The Psychology of Gambling", Jon Halliday/Peter Fuller eds., The Psychology of Gambling (London 1974) p. 182-3
  4. Edmund Bergler, The Basic Neurosis (1975)
  5. Lisa Appignanesi/John Forrester, Freud's Women (2004) p. 294
  6. "An introduction to the study of the narcissistic mortification" Psychiatric Quarterly 31
  7. The Concept of Narcissistic Mortification
  8. Joseph Adamson/Hilary Anne Clark, Scenes of Shame (1999) p. 21
  9. Quoted in Steven J. Ellman, When Theories Touch (London 2009) p. 464
  10. Michael Eigen, The Sensitive Self (2004) p. 10, 20, and 25
  11. Libbey M On Narcissistic Mortification
  12. Andrew Druck, A Freudian Synthesis (London 2010) p. 254

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