Narcissistic Defenses

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Narcissistic defenses are coping techniques that preserve idealized aspects of the self while repressing limitations. They tend to be rigid and totalistic, and are often driven by feelings of shame and guilt, conscious or unconscious. Narcissistic variants are among the earliest defense mechanisms to emerge, and include denial, distortion, and projection. Splitting is also common- seeing people and situations in black and white terms, either as all bad or all good. A narcissistic defense, with the narcissist’s typical over-valuation of the self, can come to the fore at any stage of development.

The narcissist typically runs through a sequence of defenses to discharge painful feelings until he or she finds one that works: unconscious repression, conscious denial, distortion (including exaggeration and minimization) and lies, psychological projection (blaming someone else), and finally, enlisting the help of one or more of his or her codependent friends who will support his or her distorted view.

Defense mechanisms were first proposed by Sigmund Freud. Although he did not focus specifically on narcissistic defenses, he did note in ‘On Narcissism’ that ‘even great criminals and humorists, as they are represented in literature, compel our interest by the narcissistic consistency with which they manage to keep away from their ego anything that would diminish it.’ Freud saw narcissistic regression (believing that essential needs can be satisfied by the individual alone) as a defensive answer to object loss – denying the loss of an important object by way of a substitutive identification with it. Freud also generalized this concept to society at large, pointing to irrational panics at perceived threats to ‘Throne and Altar’ or ‘Free Markets.’

Austrian-American psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel considered that ‘identification, performed by means of introjection, is the most primitive form of relationship to objects’ a primitive mechanism only used ‘if the ego’s function of reality testing is severely damaged by a narcissistic regression.’ Fenichel also highlighted ‘eccentrics who have more or less succeeded in regaining the security of primary narcissism and who feel ‘Nothing can happen to me’….[failing] to give up the archaic stages of repudiating displeasure and to turn toward reality.’

Austrian-British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, emphasized projective identification in narcissism, and the manic defense against becoming aware of the damage done to objects in this way. For Kleinians, at the core of manic defenses in narcissism stood what her protege Hanna Segal called ‘a triad of feelings – control, triumph and contempt.’ British psychoanalyst Herbert Rosenfeld looked at the role of omnipotence (feelings of unlimited power), combined with projective identification (forcing parts of the self unconsciously into another person), as a narcissistic means of defending against awareness of separation between ego and object.

In the wake of Klein, object relations theory (the process of developing a psyche in relation to others in the environment during childhood), including particularly the American schools of Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut has explored narcissistic defenses through analysis of such mechanisms as denial, projective identification, and extreme idealization. Kernberg emphasised the role of the splitting apart introjections (internal replication of attributes from the surrounding world), and identifications of opposing qualities, as a cause of ego weakness. Kohut too stressed the fact in narcissism ‘vertical splits are between self-structures (among others) – ‘I am grand’ and ‘I am wretched’ – with very little communication between them.’

British psychoanalyst Neville Symington however placed greater weight on the way ‘a person dominated by narcissistic currents…survives through being able to sense the emotional tone of the other…wearing the cloaks of others’; while for group therapy pioneer Hyman Spotnitz the key element is that the narcissist turns feelings in upon the self in narcissistic defense. Kernberg emphasized the positive side to narcissistic defenses, as did Kohut, who stressed the necessity in early life for narcissistic positions to succeed each other in orderly maturational sequences. Others like Symington would maintain that ‘it is a mistake to split narcissism into positive and negative…we do not get positive narcissism without self-hatred.’

In literature, Sir Philip Sidney is said to have seen poetry in itself as a narcissistic defense. Jean-Paul Sartre’s aloof, detached protagonists have been seen as crude narcissists who preserve their sense of self only by petrifying it into solid form. The twenty-first century has seen a distinction drawn between cerebral and somatic narcissists – the former building up their self-sense through intellectualism, the latter through an obsession with their bodies, as with the woman who, in bad faith, invests her sense of freedom only in being an object of beauty for others.

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