The concept of narcissism comes from an ancient Greek myth about Narcissus, a son of a God, who fell in love with his own reflection in the water. Compelled by his love for himself, he spent hours and hours staring at the reflection until he pined away turning into a flower. Although people don’t turn into flowers anymore, the kind of self-love that Narcissus experienced is still prevailing in our age.
Nowadays, the common understanding of narcissism ranges from “excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance” to “selfishness, involving a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, and a need for admiration.”
However, Sigmund Freud had much more to say about the issue, and that too in a very profound manner. In fact, Freud dedicated a whole paper, “On Narcissism: An Introduction (1914),” to this topic in which he explained the mechanics and dynamics of narcissism, its relation to libido and its role in the psychosexual development of an individual.
The Mechanics and Dynamics of Narcissism
According to Freud, the ego starts to develop in the infancy during the oral stage of the psychosexual development. During this time, the child is highly egocentric and believes that he is the center of the world probably because of the fact that almost all of his needs and desires are being fulfilled by his mother.
But as he grows up, things change. He starts to realize that things cannot always go the way he wants and that not everything is for him or about him. Therefore, his self-centeredness starts to decline.
From this general observation, Freud concluded that all of us have some level of narcissism that we are born with and it is vital for our normal development. However, once we are past our early childhood, our extreme self-love starts to deteriorate and our love for others takes hold.
In relation to libido, narcissism can be of two types. When the individual is in infancy or early childhood, the libidinal energy is directed inside towards the newly developed ego. Thus, this energy may be called ‘ego-libido.’
During this time, the ego-instincts (the need for self-preservation) and the sex-instincts (the need for preservation of the species) are inseparable. This type of self-love caused by the ego-libido in early life is referred to as Primary Narcissism and is necessary for our proper development.
However with the passage of time, the ego becomes packed with libidinal energy because it has been accommodating it for quite some time. Therefore, it starts to look for outside objects to direct its energy on. This is the time when the sex-instincts separate themselves from the ego-instincts. This might very well be the reason behind the fact that having sex and having a meal become two completely separate things once we outgrow primary narcissistic stage.
From now on, the libidinal energy will be directed towards outward objects as well and would be referred to as ‘object-libido.’ In other words, there would be ‘a balance between autoerotism and object-love’.
However if due to some reason, the object-love is unreciprocated and unreturned or a certain trauma stops the flow of libido to the outside object, all of the libidinal energy starts to flow back to the ego once again.
As a result, the individual is consumed in extreme neurotic self-love. Freud calls this Secondary Narcissism which may lead to Paraphrenia, a combination of megalomania and paranoid delusions. So the secondary narcissism can also be described as a pathological regression to primary narcissism triggered by a traumatic event that blocks the flow of libidinal energy towards the outside object.
In the end, Freud’s view of narcissism gives both its vitalities and detriments. He concluded that by giving love to others, people diminish the amount of energy available for themselves. And if they don’t receive love from the world in return, they start thinking that the world is not worthy of their love.
Consequently, they might indulge in self-absorption because they have failed to distinguish their self from external objects. They might start believing things about themselves that are not only untrue but delusional and before they know it, there sense of self is gone.
As Sigmund Freud himself said, “Whoever loves becomes humble. Those who love have, so to speak, pawned a part of their narcissism.”
Freud, S. (1957). On narcissism: An introduction. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works (pp. 67-102).
Grunberger, B. (1979). Narcissism: psychoanalytic essays. New York.
Freud, S. (2014). On narcissism: an introduction. Read Books Ltd.