The literature does not speak
voice about narcissism.
Freud was not the first to use the concept - Havelock Ellis did in 1898 - but Freud was the first to use it in clinical practice. He sought an explanation, a theory and a methodology for treatment.
Crucial in Freud's theory is the libido, lust in broad sense; it is also something like spirit of life, vitality or positive vital energy. This is an instinct-driven force in the human, which is nearly automatic. So, Freud's vision is deterministic, which means that certain processes unfold without interference of the human will. If this is true for narcissism, how can one heal it? Freud saw the narcissistic neurosis as untreatable.
The libido searches for an object to relate, an object-relationship. Nowadays, we prefer to speak about a subject, because usually it concerns a human, especially the mother - maybe also a teddy bear for the baby. Freud speaks about an object, because he does not refer to the real mother as a person, but to the inner image of the mother, the mother figure. Such figures are called objects. The real people they represent are subjects.
The two famous books of Anna Freud (& Dorothy Burlingham) were obligatory literature, not translated, for us first-year students at the university in 1963 for the first exam in the first term. Many years later, when I had a job as master at the university, it was scarcely possible (because of the rules regarding how many books a student had to read) to place the same books, translated, on the literature list for the final examination. Both books have given me important insights into the psyche of troublesome children.
Anna Freud broadly followed her father's thinking. However, she turned from seeing drives as the most powerful force to seeing traumas as the most important factor. This line of thinking has been followed quite consistently by others ever since she wrote her books.
She had no other choice, working with very young children who had lost their mothers and so were in great trouble. She had a clear insight and great ability to imagine the minds of these very young children - so she is a good example for a first-year student. Babies and toddlers defend themselves against emotions they cannot cope with: they develop defense mechanisms.
The word "mechanism" refers to the deterministic vision of her father Sigmund Freud, but her writing as a whole evinces sympathy for the child who has scarcely a choice, but the nevertheless has something to choose.
I use the term 'defense method' and I also see a possibility to choose for a method. This agrees with the literature and with my thesis, in which I prefer the possibility of choosing one's action. I reject the behavioralist vision for the human, even for the young.
Anyway, the child has to do something with the situation. A defense becomes an inevitable evil. This is the theme of Anna Freud's writing. One of the defenses she mentions is auto-eroticism, which resembles narcissism.
She, mutatis mutandis, holds the same. She does not see a trauma from the external world as the core of the problem for the young child but rather a drive from the inside world, the death instinct. This is the drive to kill which we see most fully expressed in the human's relation to the animals, if I may say so.
This instinct frightens the child. In her clinical practice, she sees that children project this scary drive onto objects, inner figures or psychological objects of humans or animals outside themselves. So, the children are very afraid of figures in the outside world or of feelings in the inside world. The avoidance of these fears will, in turn, rule the child's inner self.
One of the solutions is, again, auto-eroticism, which resembles narcissism. There is another aspect of it which resembles narcissism: rejecting certain vital aspects of the self and projecting these outside the self, for instance, aggression. The child splits this part from the self and projects it to outside objects. Just as one describes narcissism: the human beholds the good or grandiose side of the self and suppresses, hides and projects the rejected aspects of the self.
I will take up Melanie Klein's writings in another essay where I refer to her famous essay from 1940-1945 about the Oedipal rumble.
Fairbairn describes the narcissistic child who withdraws into itself and does not want to make really contact with humans. Originally, every child seeks contact outside itself. The force behind this is not, as Freud said, a sexual one or a libido, but according Fairbairn (who uses the same term libido) a fundamental wish, a vital energy to live and survive. But if there is nobody available or suitable, then the child directs this vital energy towards itself. This can be the case for hospitalized children or in the case of mothers who give no emotional response to their child.
Fairbairn does not follow the deterministic model of Freud. There is no drive or instinct, there is a wish and there is a trauma. There is no mechanism, there is a choice. The child can, just like Anna Freud said, chose between several paths. One child looks for a substitute, another is content with its thumb or another compensation, but others completely abandon the wish to live. These are the children with an "anti-libidinal ego". These children reject the vital wish to live, and so life itself. They withdraw into their own inner fortress. The therapist's task is to make a breach to reach the child and to entice it, to go to the outside, and make relationships with people outside itself.
Winnicott follows Fairbairn's line, going on to the next step. The child withdraws behind a fašade. This fašade looks beautiful, but is not genuine. It is this fašade which makes contact with outside people, not the real child who hides behind it. This can be the case for babies who encounter an emotional vacuum in the mother or who have very depressive mothers. The fašade mirrors the mother and reflects, for example, the 'always nice child'. It banishes the other aspects of the self to the fortress or the shadow side. So, the ego of the child has been split. The child does not act out of the real self, but from the fašade. This fašade has to be maintained at any cost. Winnicott describes this process as inevitable and automatic, without any choice, thus deterministic.
Frtiz Redl describes narcissistic children. Here he sees an ego distortion. These children see only themselves, not the outside reality, and surely not their own limits. Well, they see reality, but they interpret it in their own way. They do not learn from experiences or from other people. 'What happens to them, will never occur to me.' They are not amenable to logic or to relationships, which makes therapy very difficult. Their infantile narcissism is the basis of their personality. A real relationship, especially a loving one, will threaten this basis. Thus, they keep relationships at bay and they deny the best intentions of the adult. To maintain their interpretation of reality, they provoke punishment and rejection.
Interestingly, Redl also describes (1966, pp 110 & 118) the narcissism of the staff members of his children's home. Not only children have this kind of trouble. Redl refers to statements such as, "See how good my therapy works!", whereas any change can only be made by the child itself, from within.
Frances Tustin devotes attention to the autistic child. She describes what occurs as a heavy neurotic depression, after which the child withdraws completely into itself, nearly as in a psychotic depression. The inner fortress of these children does not represent a locked up wish for vitality, but a dark emptiness; not a restrained force but a lack of force. Thus, these children depend on an external structure, a shield around them because they lack an inner framework. A therapist first offers such a shield and then tries to re-vitalize the vital forces, the wish to live and to enjoy life; then the therapist helps to build an inner framework to make the shield superfluous later on.
Autism is, in this view, a severe form of narcissism. The difference is that the autistic child does not fight anymore and does not approach other people, whereas the more mildly-narcissistic child still needs other people to manipulate, to fight against, to impress them with his or her fašade, which in turn has to be actively maintained. The real inner world of the latter must kept hidden and even the self may not be conscious of its existence. All in all, a quite active process is going on in the soul of a mildly-narcissistic child.
Just like Redl, Bettelheim sees narcissism in his young patients, and in his students. These students had correctly learned the psychoanalytic theory and its concepts, but with its help they only looked at others, never themselves. This is typical for narcissism; it is the counterpart of self-knowledge. Remember the prophecy of the blind seer: as soon as Narcissus knows his real self, there will be no Narcissus. So, the students had to undergo a psychoanalysis themselves before they were able to help other people.
J. P. Hommes
Hommes [Link to Dutch text] describes for us the interaction with children who have been disappointed in their first relationships. He encounters a basis of distrust and a keeping relationships. If there is a relationship, it has to be confirmed again and again. Of their own accord, these children tend to, as he calls it, 'fatal forms of interaction', with which they maintain their isolation, their cocoon, fortress or ivory tower. The therapist should know to help them form real relationships.