What is Narcissism?

Samantha Agnew

Narcissism – The Theory

Narcissism from a Freudian perspective is seen to fall in to two categories, which are Normal Narcissism and Abnormal Narcissism.

‘Normal narcissism occurs when the child is forming the ego in infancy and is a normal stage of development. The narcissistic libido is transferred on to objects, or people. There is some self love in all normal adult love.This is the creation of the Ego Ideal which takes the place of the self, being the ideal which is the lost normal narcissism in childhood.

In abnormal Narcissism the libido is withdrawn from the world and directed back on the self, forming an erotic attachment to the ego. This regression to infantile narcissism can create narcissistic psychotic states in the psyche such as paranoid delusions of being watched, hearing voices, extreme depression, hypochondria, schizophrenia, megalomania. Narcissism seems to deny the existence of non sexual instincts. Even the ego instinct can be included in the libido instincts.’

It seems then that the libido is the most important and overarching part of the psyche. This concerned Freud, as if there are no non sexual instincts then where does the repression of sexual impulses in therapy come from, in order to create neurotic conflict?

Freud described this need to repress as the Reality principle – the ongoing focus of the preconscious to work, and create delayed gratification. He described the pleasure principle, in contrast, as the drive towards instant gratification: sweets, treats, and play. It can then be surmounted that ‘all behaviour is in the service of tension reduction’ for the individual, as it tries to indulge both of these principles (Zarate,1979)

It may be argued that Narcissism is very much an underpinning part of human experience, that all of our lesser or greater narcissistic traits are there to simply reduce tension for the individual. There are hordes of information around narcissism online, usually: what to do when you meet one, how to heal from one and some covering what to do if you think you are one.

Might we compare this to a modern day witch hunt? One in which we all want to save ourselves from the awful narcissist, against all odds. What appears to be overlooked however, are the narcissistic tendencies that appear within each of us.

Abusers and Abused

There is great danger to the survivor of abuse from a malignant narcissist as exemplified here by Arabi:

‘There is often a clear power imbalance between victim and abuser. The abuser is the one who erodes the victim’s identity, beliefs, goals, and dreams, while the survivor becomes increasingly diminished and demeaned.’ (Arabi,2017)

Arabi describes the dynamic between the abused and the abuser and how unbalanced it is. The narcissist is gaining resources whilst the survivor is losing resources dramatically. This can then lead towards feeling fragmented, and vulnerable it is then when it may be hardest to shift the dynamic.

“Psychological abusers are attracted to what is going on within the person’s life that is shiny, glamorous, or exciting, or successful, or dynamic, or vibrant,”

Dodgson explains that whilst the victims of psychological abuse can appear weak it usually begins as quite the opposite. The Abuser focuses in to get something positive out of their prey in the ways they have found most successful in the past.

“One of the real misconceptions is that psychological abusers are insecure — and they’re really not,” Thomas said. “They have a huge sense of entitlement… so this sense of picking somebody who’s strong, who they can try to deconstruct, that gives them power, not because they feel insecure, but because they like to feel superior to other people. It feeds what they already believe about [themselves].”

Dodgson above explains that the abuser is taking from others in line with Freud’s pleasure principle, instead of looking to better themselves in line with Freud’s reality principle mentioned above. But what about the other side of the coin, those who do not identify as a narcissist but have some of the traits?

Those moments when our ego is threatened, when we feel inadequate, or when we feel vulnerable we have the choice to stay in those feelings and look at them or we have the choice to jump back and defend our predefined sense of self.

If we are looking to walk to long hard road to better ourselves in line with the reality principle and utilise this approach in our lives then we will not feel entitled. We will presumably be aware that there is always more that can be done to develop ourselves and others. The trouble here is when the narcissist is convinced that they are perfect and thus nothing that they have done is wrong. This means that no responsibility will be taken and certainly no apology will occur for their actions as they are fully in line with the pleasure principle. So then we have a stalemate where one gives and the other takes.

The dissolution of the shell is actually a surrender of the self, letting go of our concept of self.

Narcissistic traits are present in all of us and if we are looking to develop our ego strength and ultimately our increased self fulfilment we must inevitably look at where we can each improve. It is described by Almas (1996) here as the Emptiness Wound.

‘We sometimes referred to the narcissistic wound as the “emptiness wound.” This wound opens us up to emptiness, to nothingness. It opens us to the nothingness of the dissolution of the self. No wonder it evokes such terror, which sometimes we feel as the fear of death. It is the ultimate fear of disintegration and disappearing. The vague sense of dread that we felt before we were directly aware of the wound becomes an immense terror, as the wound opens up to emptiness. It is here that we understand the existential dread and terror unique to narcissism. However, when we understand the situation accurately, appreciating that we are opening up to a deeper experience of ourselves, and have the empathic support of the teacher, it becomes easier to surrender to the process. The dissolution of the shell is actually a surrender of the self, letting go of our concept of self. The opening can then become an entrance into vastness, and into the fundamental presence and truth of the self.’
Almas, A,H. (1996)

Based on Almas’s perspective here it could be argued that outward narcissistic traits are a fear response to death anxiety and also the fear of ego fragmentation. If the ego is not able to allow this to occur then it may fight back asserting dominance over another in order to survive. In a narcissistic dispute then, the individual labelled as the narcissist is reacting to an inherent and shared human fear of not existing, disappearing or dying.

The answer to the narcissism in all of us then is to stand on the edge of the abyss and feel the fear

The answer to the narcissism in all of us then is to stand on the edge of the abyss and feel the fear we that we shy against. What is it like to feel as if we are nothing? What is it like to feel as it we no longer exist? If we are able to practise feeling these experiences and build a tolerance to hold them within our own psyche. This exercise may then increase the strength of our own ego and may allow our own experience of the narcissistic void to be able to begin to be tolerated and not acted out as abuse, or as power games in our intimate or wider relationships.

Can we tolerate nothingness?

According to Almas if we are able to tolerate the feeling of an absence of self, and the existential dread and terror that it is felt as then we may be able to drop into a deeper experience of self. One which is more boundless than the finite concept of self that we previously knew as ‘I’.

Understanding the theory may be useful as a map but strikes me that one cannot simply go through the motions, that the only way through is directly through the storm. The way to learn here is to directly experience the absolute horror of standing on the edge of the abyss.

This can be exemplified in close relationship by a dispute with another in which we do not know where we stand with the other person. By doing our best to understand our own and the others motive we can form a deeper connection to others and also ourselves. This will only occur if both parties are looking to accept that they are wrong and come from a place of acceptance of the other. It does not serve the individual or the collective to ignore and stand above or ignore such issues. It is only when we dive deeper in the uncomfortable process of being embodied do we have a change of working out a dispute. This way we can know where we stand with another person and both can learn from the situation if they are so willing.

if we are able to tolerate the feeling of an absence of self, and the existential dread and terror that it is felt as then we may be able to drop into a deeper experience of self

This brings me back to look at Dodgsons perspective earlier mentioned. Her article was in reference to severe emotional abuse in relationships and how damaging this may be to the survivor of the abuser. In such cases then it seems that the survivor is unable to work with the abuser because they have consistently shut down their own sense of responsibility of the scenario and relentlessly throw it back in the face of the survivor. This harbours the narcissists development potential because the stance that they have taken is that they are perfect and are not interested to admit that they were wrong to use, diminish or attack the survivor. Therefore the narcissist here has not been fully in relationship with the other.

Through the direct experiencing of the Void and succumbing to its wrath we can be transformed. Below I have added a passage from Almas (1996) on ‘The Narcissistic Wound Seen as Indistinguishable from Narcissistic Emptiness’.

‘The narcissistic wound that arises has all the characteristics of the wound of alienation from the Essential Identity, but feels more profound and has other differentiating characteristics. The wound feels like a deep hurt, a very teary sadness, but we do not generally experience this sadness and hurt as differentiated from the deficient emptiness. We feel an emptiness permeated with sadness, a vast nothingness that pervades the whole world. This nothingness is pregnant with hurt. There is hurt, a sense of wounding, a sadness, but also a compassionate warmth that pervades the emptiness. Thus, when we experience the narcissistic wound at this level of narcissism, it is indistinguishable from narcissistic emptiness. It is as if the wound opens up and pervades the emptiness, inviting the quality of loving kindness, which we experience now as boundless and infinite. This allows the sadness to become deep and profound, as if the wound goes through the depth of the universe. We feel as if tears drown all of reality. The wound feels like a very deep and boundless emptiness, filled with tears and pervaded by compassion. These phenomena hint at the specific properties of the true self which is about to manifest, but also show that the narcissistic wound at this level is the same as the chasm that separates the self from this dimension of Being. Remaining in this emptiness, and not resisting or reacting to it, clarifies the nature of the sadness and loss. Sometimes the sadness becomes a deep longing for the dissolution of our separateness from everything. We feel what seems to be the deepest and most expanded longing, from the depths of the universe, a longing to lose our personal boundaries and to be part of the whole.’

Almas has described beautifully here how by staying with our uncomfortable and painful feelings may we begin to truly have a chance at experiencing the characteristics of a truer and more essential self directly and that to achieve this, we must be in relationship to ourselves and to others.


Zarate,O. (1979) ‘Freud’ Icon Books
Ababri https://selfcarehaven.wordpress.com/tag/victim-blaming/ (2017)
viewed on sat 24/3/18 1800
Dodgson,L. Business insider
http://uk.businessinsider.com/strong-confident-people-end-up-in-abusive-relationships-2017-8 Aug. 11, 2017, 10:34 AM
viewed on sat 24/3/18 1800
Almas, A,H. (1996) ’The Point of Existence’ Shambala publications

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