This paper discusses the Freudian definition of narcissism, and the idea that this is a normal behavior in childhood which the adult ego reverts back to following trauma. Viewed as an act of recovery by Freud, this regression, when used in conjunction with psychoanalytic priming, can help those affected to work through their mental disorders by allowing the patient to realize their condition.
Narcissism, as defined by Freud, is “the attitude of a person who treats his own body in the same way…a sexual object is ordinarily treated.” Narcissists typically lack empathy, generally showing concern for just themselves. However, this may be a part of “the regular course of human sexual development,” as Freud suggests that there is a period of narcissism that is normal in early childhood. This early child hood narcissism develops into the “real ego” and the “ego ideal,” which he regards as an attempt to maintain the “narcissistic perfection of one’s childhood.” When this perfection can no long be retained, one may unconsciously seek “to recover it in the new form of an ego ideal.” This new ego ideal is a delusion in a sense, and “the substitute for the lost narcissism of (one’s) childhood.” According to Freud, these delusions can be “part of an attempt at recovery” (Freud, 1914/1986). Along with self-introspection and psychoanalytic technique, they can help to assist in recovery by drawing the malignant behaviors to the surface; where, no longer part of the unconscious, they can be ‘worked on’ proactively instead of continually ignored, repressed or ruminated upon.
Donald Capps, in his work “John Nash’s Post-delusional Period: A Case of Transformed Narcissism,” suggests that delusion, narcissism, and other correlative disorders can be overcome by actualization or mentalizing, much like the case of the Nobel Prizewinning mathematical genius he has studied. Capps hypothesizes the root of Nash’s dysfunction as being from many possible traumas, including inconsistency in parenting, denial as a family habit, a childhood accident in which a friend was killed, awkwardness as a “bookish” young boy, and apathetic behavior towards school in his teenage years. Nash’s adult trauma’s are also detailed, which included ridicule from colleagues and failure to live up to his (and his mothers) expectations of brilliance. Capps believed that the delusional state that Nash went into, which included bouts of extreme paranoia, alcoholism, and a dangerous obsession with numerology, signified an unconscious attempt at recovery, much along the line of Freud’s belief. Although Nash was forced to leave his career for some time, he was able to overcome his delusions. Capps believes that “the process by which Nash was able to liberate himself from the control of his delusions was the transformation of his narcissistic self” (Capps, 2004). By using creativity, humor and wisdom on top of his ability to think abstractly about his condition, Nash was able to self-actualize his way to controlling his disorder.
Dr. Michael Ermann also believes that narcissism stems from an unsatisfied ego-state, based an ideal-self created by perceptions made in childhood. He finds that “archaic” feelings can be “activated,” and ultimately worked through, using psychoanalysis. Much like the case of John Nash, Ermann believes that patients can be primed to achieve ‘mentalization,’ or the ability to understand one’s own mental state. He suggests that this activity could prove therapeutic in allowing patients to move beyond the issues they face. During a specific analytic encounter with ‘Paul,’ who he describes as narcissistic, he attempts to awaken buried “feelings of not being wanted, not being welcome, not being loved, not being cared for, of being abandoned and being done harm.” Ermann describes Paul as outwardly “successful,” but also as someone dealing with “diverse identity problems…associated with depressive feelings.” Paul suffered from persistent dreams and waking ideation regarding the safety of his son in fanciful situations in which, contrary to his idealized protective role as a father, he was unable to save or rescue him. By priming him on these issues, Dr. Ermann was able to coax further information about Paul’s father’s infidelity, and abandonment of him as a child. Ermann also found that Paul cheated on his wife and had unresolved parental distrust, believing that his mother risked his life during her pregnancy “because of her hate for her husband.” Eventually, Paul learns that he was born seven weeks premature; that his mother didn’t risk his life out of spite. Paul was able to mentalize this and overcome his own infidelities and patterns of indignation. Ermann believes that by “going through the preverbal states of (Paul’s) earliest existence where he had the unconscious feeling of not being born into his own life,” Paul was able to find peace (Ermann, 2007).
A study by Hunyady, Joesephs and Jost also uses psychoanalytic priming techniques to understand narcissism in their patients. The three researchers share the Freudian belief “that reminders of…the child’s real or imagined perception of the parents’ sexual relationship—as well as the child’s knowledge of their parents’ own sexual infidelity—can activate unconscious conflict around sexual infidelity in adulthood.” In their study of 316 people, Hunyady et al. asked primed questions in an attempt to activate “the Oedipal situation.” They hoped to lead these people, who they described as having narcissistic traits, “to become more prohibitive towards sexual infidelity.” The researchers conducted their study in three parts, first with questionnaires to measure the degree of narcissism in each individual. The participants then “read a paragraph that contained the priming manipulation,” which asked them to “identify with the protagonist of the story by writing down what that person may have been feeling or thinking.” The participants were then asked about their attitudes towards relationships and infidelity, as well as other demographic information and further questions regarding behavioral history. The evidence the researchers gathered confirmed a correlation between narcissism, infidelity, and parental infidelity. Hunyady et al. felt that “narcissistic people defend against painful and angry feelings by disidentifying with the victim.” They did find a positive outcome in that when participants were “led to identify and empathize with the victim of betrayal, they became disapproving” of their patterns of behavior (Hunyady, Josephs & Jost, 2008).
The analysis of how primed, but self guided treatment for issues such as narcissism must be explored further. Successful examples of narcissistic regression, mentalization, and disorder transformation such as that of ‘Paul’ or John Nash’s should be analyzed for the benefit brought to both the patient and scientific community. The techniques used in the study by Hunyady et al. provide a reasonable ground in which to start from. Participants were asked to self-rate themselves on 29 different items, and then asked to respond to primed paragraphs, crafted to explore the depths of the respondents’ attitudes towards infidelity (Hunyady, Josephs & Jost, 2008). This type of questioning could be useful far beyond the just study of the correlation of narcissism to infidelity.
An appropriate size gender segregated sampling of more than 100 people would be ideal to test. The ideal age group would be individuals aged 28-45, because of the increased likelihood of post childhood traumas in which to study. Ethnicities, though not outwardly important, should be catalogued, in case surprising data is revealed upon that basis. The first part of the study should be a self-response questionnaire to gauge personality traits. The Millon Multi-Axis Personality Measure should be used in which respondents will be asked questions and instructed to offer their level of disagreement (1) or agreement (6) on a number scale. The participants will then be asked primed paragraph length sample stories with clear victims and villains; afterwards they shall discuss the characters they associated with positively and for what reasons. The primed questions should reveal the participants’ attitudes about the types of narratives presented (benevolence, infidelity, etc.). The final part of the study should include other data to assist in the analytic process, such as, but not limited to: history of sleep disturbances, indignation or spite, co-dependency, heightened self awareness, protective instincts, indecisiveness, fixation on past relationships, depression, body image, outlook on relationships, addiction, family history of mental disorders, sexual history, academic performance, recollection of childhood, living situation, socioeconomic circumstances; all based on short answer response or satisfaction indices. It is likely that a number of these factors correlate, as witnessed in the case of John Nash or ‘Paul.’ As an extension of this project, hormone levels can also be monitored to determine the physiological impact of age.
The development of a narcissistic personality may come as compensation for a shattered self image, but channeled positively, those afflicted can (and do) go on to live healthy lives. The psychological scar can be worked though with self reporting, testing, primed questioning, and psychoanalytic analysis. Whereby previously, “the frequent causation of paranoia by an injury to the ego, by frustration of satisfaction” could once lead to “the possible transformation of ideals in paraphrenic (schizophrenic) disorders,” (Freud, 1914/1986) many individuals may be able to come out of the psychoanalytic process with a healthy realization of self worth. Knowing and understanding oneself could possibly be the best treatment for those with these types of mental disorders.
Capps, D. (2004). John Nash’s Postdelusional Period: A Case of Transformed Narcissism. Pastoral Psychology, 52(4), 289-313. Retrieved from Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection database.
Ermann, M. (2007). “You touched my heart”: Modes of memory and psychoanalytic technique. International Forum of Psychoanalysis, 16(4), 222-227. Retrieved from Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection database.
Freud, S. (1914/1986). On narcissism: An introduction. In Morrison, A. P. (Ed.). Essential papers on
narcissism (pp. 17–43). New York: New York University Press.
Hunyady, O., Josephs, L., & Jost, J. (2008). Priming the Primal Scene: Betrayal Trauma, Narcissism, and Attitudes Toward Sexual Infidelity. Self & Identity, 7(3), 278-294. Retrieved from Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection database.