What are Narcissistic Defences?

Introduction

Narcissistic defences are those processes whereby the idealised aspects of the self are preserved, and its limitations denied.

They tend to be rigid and totallistic. They are often driven by feelings of shame and guilt, conscious or unconscious.

Origins

Narcissistic defences are among the earliest defence mechanisms to emerge, and include denial, distortion, and projection. Splitting is another defence mechanism prevalent among individuals with narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder – seeing people and situations in black and white terms, either as all bad or all good.

A narcissistic defence, with the disorder’s typical over-valuation of the self, can appear at any stage of development.

Defence Sequences

The narcissist typically runs through a sequence of defences to discharge painful feelings until he or she finds one that works:

  • Unconscious repression.
  • Conscious denial.
  • Distortion (including exaggeration and minimisation), rationalisation and lies.
  • Psychological projection (blaming somebody else).
  • Enlisting the help of one or more of their co-dependent friends who will support their distorted view.

Freudians

Sigmund Freud did not focus specifically on narcissistic defences, but did note in On Narcissism how “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 as a defensive answer to object loss – denying the loss of an important object by way of a substitutive identification with it.

Freud also considered social narcissism as a defence mechanism, apparent when communal identifications produce irrational panics at perceived threats to ‘Throne and Altar’ or ‘Free Markets’, or in English over-reaction to any questioning of the status and identity of William Shakespeare.

Fenichel

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”.

Lacan

Jacques Lacan, following out Freud’s view of the ego as the result of identifications, came to consider the ego itself as a narcissistic defence, driven by what he called “the ‘narcissistic passion’ …in the coming-into-being (devenir) of the subject”.

Kleinians

Melanie Klein, emphasised projective identification in narcissism, and the manic defence against becoming aware of the damage done to objects in this way. For Kleinians, at the core of manic defences in narcissism stood what Hanna Segal called “a triad of feelings—control, triumph and contempt”.

Rosenfeld

Herbert Rosenfeld looked at the role of omnipotence, combined with projective identification, as a narcissistic means of defending against awareness of separation between ego and object.

Object Relations Theory

In the wake of Klein, object relations theory, including particularly the American schools of Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut has explored narcissistic defences through analysis of such mechanisms as denial, projective identification, and extreme idealisation.

Kernberg emphasised the role of the splitting apart introjections, 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”.

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 Spotnitz the key element is that the narcissist turns feelings in upon the self in narcissistic defence.

Positive Defences

Kernberg emphasised the positive side to narcissistic defences, while Kohut also 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”.

Stigmatising Attitude to Psychiatric Illness

Arikan found that a stigmatising attitude to psychiatric patients is associated with narcissistic defences.

21st century

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.

Literary Parallels

  • Sir Philip Sidney is said to have seen poetry in itself as a narcissistic defence.
  • 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.

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