What is Narcissistic Withdrawal?


In children, narcissistic withdrawal may be described as ‘a form of omnipotent narcissism characterised by the turning away from parental figures and by the fantasy that essential needs can be satisfied by the individual alone’.

For adults, ‘in the contemporary literature the term narcissistic withdrawal is instead reserved for an ego defence in pathological personalities’. Such narcissists may feel obliged to withdraw from any relationship that threatens to be more than short-term.


Freud used the term ‘to describe the turning back of the individual’s libido from the object onto themselves….as the equivalent of narcissistic regression’. On Narcissism saw him explore the idea through an examination of such everyday events as illness or sleep: ‘the condition of sleep, too, resembles illness in implying a narcissistic withdrawal of the positions of the libido on to the subject’s own self’. A few years later, in ‘”Mourning and Melancholia”…Freud’s most profound contribution to object relations theory’, he examined how ‘a withdrawal of the libido…on a narcissistic basis’ in depression could allow both a freezing and a preservation of affection: ‘by taking flight into the ego love escapes extinction’.

Otto Fenichel would extend his analysis to borderline conditions, demonstrating how ‘in a reactive withdrawal of libido…a regression to narcissism is also a regression to the primal narcissistic omnipotence which makes its reappearance in the form of megalomania’.

For Melanie Klein, however, a more positive element came to the fore: ‘frustration, which stimulates narcissistic withdrawal, is also…a fundamental factor in adaptation to reality’. Similarly, ‘Winnicott points out that there is an aspect of withdrawal that is healthy’, considering that it might be ‘”helpful to think of withdrawal as a condition in which the person concerned (child or adult) holds a regressed part of the self and nurses it, at the expense of external relationships”‘.

However, from the mid-20th century onwards, attention has increasingly focused on

‘the case in which the subject appeals to narcissistic withdrawal as a defensive solution…a precarious refuge that comes into being as a defense against a disappointing or untrustworthy object. This is found in studies of narcissistic personalities or borderline pathologies by authors such as Heinz Kohut or Otto Kernberg’.

Kohut considered that ‘the narcissistically vulnerable individual responds to actual (or anticipated) narcissistic injury either with shamefaced withdrawal or with narcissistic rage’. Kernberg saw the difference between normal narcissism and ‘ pathological narcissism…[as] withdrawal into “splendid isolation”‘ in the latter instance; while Herbert Rosenfeld was concerned with ‘states of withdrawal commonly seen in narcissistic patients in which death is idealised as superior to life’, as well as with ‘the alternation of states of narcissistic withdrawal and ego disintegration’.

Schizoid Withdrawal

Closely related to narcissistic withdrawal is ‘schizoid withdrawal: the escape from too great pressure by abolishing emotional relationships altogether’. All such ‘fantastic refuges from need are forms of emotional starvation, megalomanias and distortions of reality born of fear’.


‘Narcissists will isolate themselves, leave their families, ignore others, do anything to preserve a special…sense of self’ Arguably, however, all such ‘narcissistic withdrawal is haunted by its alter ego: the ghost of a full social presence’ – with people living their lives ‘along a continuum which ranges from the maximal degree of social commitment…to a maximal degree of social withdrawal’.

If ‘of all modes of narcissistic withdrawal, depression is the most crippling’, a contributing factor may be that ‘depressed persons come to appreciate consciously how much social effort is in fact required in the normal course of keeping one’s usual place in undertakings’.


Object relations theory would see the process of therapy as one whereby the therapist enabled his or her patient to have ‘resituated the object from the purely schizoid usage to the shared schizoid usage (initially) until eventually…the object relation – discussing, arguing, idealizing, hating, etc. – emerged’.

Fenichel considered that in patients where ‘their narcissistic regression is a reaction to narcissistic injuries; if they are shown this fact and given time to face the real injuries and to develop other types of reaction, they may be helped enormously’ Neville Symington however estimated that ‘often a kind of war develops between analyst and patient, with the analyst trying to haul the patient out of the cocoon…his narcissistic envelope…and the patient pulling for all his worth in the other direction’.

Cultural Analogues

  • In I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, the therapist of the protagonist wonders ‘”if there is a pattern….You give up a secret to our view and then you get so scared that you run for cover into your panic or into your secret world. To live there.”‘.
  • More generally, the 1920s have been described as a time of ‘changes in which women were channelled toward narcissistic withdrawal rather than developing strong egos’.

What is Splitting (Psychology)?


Splitting (also called black-and-white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking) is the failure in a person’s thinking to bring together the dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole.

It is a common defence mechanism. The individual tends to think in extremes (i.e. an individual’s actions and motivations are all good or all bad with no middle ground).

Splitting was first described by Ronald Fairbairn in his formulation of object relations theory; it begins as the inability of the infant to combine the fulfilling aspects of the parents (the good object) and their unresponsive aspects (the unsatisfying object) into the same individuals, instead seeing the good and bad as separate. In psychoanalytic theory this functions as a defence mechanism.

Refer to Emotional Conflict and Psychological Projection.


Splitting creates instability in relationships because one person can be viewed as either personified virtue or personified vice at different times, depending on whether they gratify the subject’s needs or frustrate them. This, along with similar oscillations in the experience and appraisal of the self, leads to chaotic and unstable relationship patterns, identity diffusion, and mood swings. The therapeutic process can be greatly impeded by these oscillations, because the therapist too can come to be seen as all good or all bad. To attempt to overcome the negative effects on treatment outcome, constant interpretations by the therapist are needed.

Splitting contributes to unstable relationships and intense emotional experiences. Splitting is common during adolescence, but is regarded as transient. Splitting has been noted especially with persons diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Treatment strategies have been developed for individuals and groups based on dialectical behaviour therapy, and for couples. There are also self-help books on related topics such as mindfulness and emotional regulation that claim to be helpful for individuals who struggle with the consequences of splitting.

Borderline Personality Disorder

Refer to Borderline Personality Disorder.

Splitting is a relatively common defence mechanism for people with borderline personality disorder. One of the DSM IV-TR criteria for this disorder is a description of splitting: “a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation”. In psychoanalytic theory, people with borderline personality disorder are not able to integrate the good and bad images of both self and others, resulting in a bad representation which dominates the good representation.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Refer to Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

People matching the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder also use splitting as a central defence mechanism. Most often narcissists do this as an attempt to stabilise their sense of self-positivity in order to preserve their self-esteem, by perceiving themselves as purely upright or admirable and others who do not conform to their will or values as purely wicked or contemptible.

The cognitive habit of splitting also implies the use of other related defence mechanisms, namely idealisation and devaluation, which are preventive attitudes or reactions to narcissistic rage and narcissistic injury.


In depression, exaggerated all-or-nothing thinking can form a self-reinforcing cycle: these thoughts might be called emotional amplifiers because, as they go around and around, they become more intense. Typical all-or-nothing thoughts:

  • My efforts are either a success or they are an abject failure.
  • Other people are either all good or all bad.
  • I am either all good or all bad.
  • If you’re not with us, you’re against us.

Janet, Bleuler and Freud

Refer to Pierre Janet, Eugen Bleuler, and Sigmund Freud.

Splitting of consciousness (“normal self” vs. “secondary self”) was first described by Pierre Janet in De l’automatisme psychologique (1889). His ideas were extended by Bleuler (who in 1908 coined the word schizofrenia from the Ancient Greek skhízō [σχῐ́ζω, “to split”] and phrḗn [φρήν, “mind”]) and Freud to explain the splitting (German: Spaltung) of consciousness – not (with Janet) as the product of innate weakness, but as the result of inner conflict. With the development of the idea of repression, splitting moved to the background of Freud’s thought for some years, being largely reserved for cases of double personality. However, his late work saw a renewed interest in how it was “possible for the ego to avoid a rupture… by effecting a cleavage or division of itself”, a theme which was extended in his Outline of Psycho-Analysis (1940a [1938]) beyond fetishism to the neurotic in general.

His daughter Anna Freud explored how, in healthy childhood development, a splitting of loving and aggressive instincts could be avoided.

Melanie Klein

Refer to Melanie Klein.

There was, however, from early on, another use of the term “splitting” in Freud, referring rather to resolving ambivalence “by splitting the contradictory feelings so that one person is only loved, another one only hated … the good mother and the wicked stepmother in fairy tales”. Or, with opposing feelings of love and hate, perhaps “the two opposites should have been split apart and one of them, usually the hatred, has been repressed”. Such splitting was closely linked to the defence of “isolation … The division of objects into congenial and uncongenial ones … making ‘disconnections’.”

It was the latter sense of the term that was predominantly adopted and exploited by Melanie Klein. After Freud, “the most important contribution has come from Melanie Klein, whose work enlightens the idea of ‘splitting of the object’ (Objektspaltung) (in terms of ‘good/bad’ objects)”. In her object relations theory, Klein argues that “the earliest experiences of the infant are split between wholly good ones with ‘good’ objects and wholly bad experiences with ‘bad’ objects”, as children struggle to integrate the two primary drives, love and hate, into constructive social interaction. An important step in childhood development is the gradual depolarization of these two drives.

At what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position, there is a stark separation of the things the child loves (good, gratifying objects) and the things the child hates (bad, frustrating objects), “because everything is polarised into extremes of love and hate, just like what the baby seems to experience and young children are still very close to.” Klein refers to the good breast and the bad breast as split mental entities, resulting from the way “these primitive states tend to deconstruct objects into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bits (called ‘part-objects’)”. The child sees the breasts as opposite in nature at different times, although they actually are the same, belonging to the same mother. As the child learns that people and objects can be good and bad at the same time, he or she progresses to the next phase, the depressive position, which “entails a steady, though painful, approximation towards the reality of oneself and others”: integrating the splits and “being able to balance [them] out … are tasks that continue into early childhood and indeed are never completely finished.”

However, Kleinians also utilize Freud’s first conception of splitting, to explain the way “In a related process of splitting, the person divides his own self. This is called ‘splitting of the ego’.” Indeed, Klein herself maintained that “the ego is incapable of splitting the object—internal or external—without a corresponding splitting taking place within the ego”. Arguably at least, by this point “the idea of splitting does not carry the same meaning for Freud and for Klein”: for the former, “the ego finds itself ‘passively’ split, as it were. For Klein and the post-Kleinians, on the other hand, splitting is an ‘active’ defence mechanism”. As a result, by the close of the century “four kinds of splitting can be clearly identified, among many other possibilities” for post-Kleinians: “a coherent split in the object, a coherent split in the ego, a fragmentation of the object, and a fragmentation of the ego.”

Otto Kernberg

Refer to Otto Kernberg.

In the developmental model of Otto Kernberg, the overcoming of splitting is also an important developmental task. The child has to learn to integrate feelings of love and hate. Kernberg distinguishes three different stages in the development of a child with respect to splitting:

  • The child does not experience the self and the object, nor the good and the bad as different entities.
  • Good and bad are viewed as different. Because the boundaries between the self and the other are not stable yet, the other as a person is viewed as either all good or all bad, depending on their actions. This also means that thinking about another person as bad implies that the self is bad as well, so it’s better to think about the caregiver as a good person, so the self is viewed as good too. “Bringing together extremely opposite loving and hateful images of the self and of significant others would trigger unbearable anxiety and guilt.”
  • Splitting – “the division of external objects into ‘all good’ or ‘all bad'” – begins to be resolved when the self and the other can be seen as possessing both good and bad qualities. Having hateful thoughts about the other does not mean that the self is all hateful and does not mean that the other person is all hateful either.

If a person fails to accomplish this developmental task satisfactorily, borderline pathology can emerge. “In the borderline personality organization”, Kernberg found ‘dissociated ego states that result from the use of “splitting” defences’. His therapeutic work then aimed at “the analysis of the repeated and oscillating projections of unwanted self and object representations onto the therapist” so as to produce “something more durable, complex and encompassing than the initial, split-off and polarized state of affairs”.

Horizontal and Vertical

Heinz Kohut has emphasized in his self psychology the distinction between horizontal and vertical forms of splitting. Traditional psychoanalysis saw repression as forming a horizontal barrier between different levels of the mind – so that for example an unpleasant truth might be accepted superficially but denied in a deeper part of the psyche. Kohut contrasted with this vertical fractures of the mind into two parts with incompatible attitudes separated by mutual disavowal.


Refer to Transference.

It has been suggested that interpretation of the transference “becomes effective through a sort of splitting of the ego into a reasonable, judging portion and an experiencing portion, the former recognizing the latter as not appropriate in the present and as coming from the past”. Clearly, “in this sense, splitting, so far from being a pathological phenomenon, is a manifestation of self-awareness”. Nevertheless, “it remains to be investigated how this desirable ‘splitting of the ego’ and ‘self-observation’ are to be differentiated from the pathological cleavage … directed at preserving isolations”.