Forms and Transformations of Narcissism (excerpt)

Excerpt: Pp. 106-118 from "Forms and Transformations of Narcissism" (1966). In Self Psychology and the Humanities: Reflections on a New Psychoanalytic Approach. by Heinz Kohut.

Forms and Transformations of Narcissism (excerpt)

Written by Heinz Kohut

"Forms and Transformations of Narcissism" (1966). In Self Psychology and the Humanities: Reflections on a New Psychoanalytic Approach. W.W. Norton & Company, New York 1985. Copyright Charles B. Strozier and Elizabeth Kohut 1985.

Before we can pursue our examination of the relationship between the narcissistic self and the ego, however, we must turn our attention to two subsidiary topics: exhibitionism and the grandiose fantasy.

Let me begin with the description of a mother's interaction with her infant boy from the chapter called "Baby Worship" from Trollope's novel Barchester Towers (51). "Diddle, diddle .... dum ... ; hasn't he got lovely legs?" said the rapturous mother. ".. . He's a ... little ... darling, so he is; and he has the nicest little pink legs in all the world, so he has Well.... did you ever see? ... My naughty ... Johnny. He's pulled down all Mamma's hair ... the naughtiest little man. . . . The child screamed with delight...." The foregoing much abbreviated description of a very commonplace scene illustrates well the external surroundings correlated to two important aspects of the child's psychological equipment: his exhibitionistic propensities and his fantasies of grandeur. Exhibitionism, in a broad sense, can be regarded as a principal narcissistic dimension of all drives, as the expression of a narcissistic emphasis on the aim of the drive (upon the self as the performer) rather than on its object. The object is important only in so far as it is invited to participate in the child's narcissistic pleasure and thus to confirm it. Before psychological separateness has been established, the baby experiences the mother's pleasure in his whole body self, as part of his own psychological equipment. After psychological separation has taken place the child needs the gleam in the mother's eye in order to maintain the narcissistic libidinal suffusion which now concerns, in their sequence, the leading functions and activities of the various maturational phases. We speak thus of anal, or urethral, and of phallic exhibitionism, noting that in the girl the exhibitionism of the urethral-phallic phase is soon replaced by exhibitionism concerning her total appearance and by an interrelated exhibitionistic emphasis on morality and drive control.

The exhibitionism of the child must gradually become desexualized and subordinated to his goal-directed activities, a task which is achieved best through gradual frustrations accompanied by loving support, while the various overt and covert attitudes of rejection and overindulgence (and especially their amalgamations and rapid, unpredictable alternations) are the emotional soil for a wide range of disturbances. Although the unwholesome results vary greatly, ranging from severe hypochondria to mild forms of embarrassment, metapsychologically speaking they are all states of heightened narcissistic-exhibitionistic tension with incomplete and aberrant modes of discharge. In all these conditions the ego attempts to enlist the object's participation in the exhibitionism of the narcissistic self, but after the object's rejection the free discharge of exhibitionistic libido fails; instead of a pleasant suffusion of the body surface there is the heat of unpleasant blushing; instead of a pleasurable confirmation of the value, beauty, and lovableness of the self, there is painful shame.

Now I shall turn to an examination of the position which is held by the grandiose fantasy in the structure of the personality and of the function which it fulfills. While the exhibitionistic--narcissistic urges may be considered as the predominant drive aspect of the narcissistic self, the grandiose fantasy is its ideational content. Whether it contributes to health or disease, to the success of the individual or to his downfall, depends on the degree of its deinstinctualization and the extent of its integration into the realistic purposes of the ego. Take, for instance, Freud's statement that "a man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success" (24, p. 26 [as transl. by E. Jones, 38, p. 5]). Here Freud obviously speaks about the results of adaptively valuable narcissistic fantasies which provide lasting support to the personality. It is evident that in these instances the early narcissistic fantasies of power and greatness had not been opposed by sudden premature experiences of traumatic disappointment but had been gradually integrated into the ego's reality-oriented organization.

We can now attempt to summarize the ultimate influence which is exerted by the two major derivatives of the original narcissism upon the mature psychological organization. Under favorable circumstances the neutralized forces emanating from the narcissistic self (the narcissistic needs of the personality and its ambitions) become gradually integrated into the web of our ego as a healthy enjoyment of our own activities and successes and as an adaptively useful sense of disappointment tinged with anger and shame over our failures and shortcomings. And, similarly, the ego ideal (the internalized image of perfection which we admire and to which we are looking up) may come to form a continuum with the ego, as a focus for our ego-syntonic values, as a healthy sense of direction and beacon for our activities and pursuits, and as an adaptively useful object of longing disappointment, when we cannot reach it. A firmly cathected, strongly idealized superego absorbs considerable amounts of narcissistic energy, a fact which lessens the personality's propensity toward narcissistic imbalance. Shame, on the other hand, arises when the ego is unable to provide a proper discharge for the exhibitionistic demands of the narcissistic self. Indeed, in almost all clinically significant instances of shame propensity, the personality is characterized by a defective idealization of the superego and by a concentration of the narcissistic libido upon the narcissistic self; and it is therefore the ambitious success-driven person with a poorly integrated grandiose self concept and intense exhibitionistic-narcissistic tensions who is most prone to experience shame.8 If the pressures from the narcissistic self are intense and the ego is unable to control them, the personality will respond with shame to failures of any kind, whether its ambitions concern moral perfection or external success (or, which is frequently the case, alternatingly the one or the other, since the personality possesses neither a firm structure of goals nor of ideals).

Under optimal circumstances, therefore, the ego ideal and the goal structure of the ego are the personality's best protection against narcissistic vulnerability and shame propensity. In the maintenance of the homeostatic narcissistic equilibrium of the personality, however, the interplay of the narcissistic self, the ego, and the superego may be depicted in the following way. The narcissistic self supplies small amounts of narcissistic-exhibitionistic libido which are transformed into subliminal signals of narcissistic imbalance (subliminal shame signals) as the ego tries to reach its goals, to emulate external examples and to obey external demands, or to live up to the standards and, especially, to the ideals of the superego (i.e., to the "ego ideal ... whose

'E. Jacobson (36, p. 203f.), in harmony with A. Reich (47), speaks cogently of the fact that such patients often blame their high ideals for their "agonizing experiences of anxiety, shame, and inferiority" but that in reality they suffer from conflicts relating to "aggrandized, wishful self images" and "narcissistic--exhibitionistic strivings." demands for ever greater perfection it strives to fulfil" [27]). Or, stated in a whimsical fashion: the narcissistic self attempts to exhibit its perfection to the ego or, indirectly through the mediation of the ego, to the external world or the superego and finds itself wanting; the resulting minute faulty discharge of libido, however, alerts the ego about a potential experience of painful shame.

In contrast to the metapsychological explanation of the emotion of shame presented here, Saul (49, pp. 92-94), basing himself on Alexander (1), and in harmony with the approach of cultural anthropology (2), compared guilt and shame as parallel phenomena; he suggested a differentiation between these two emotions by specifying that, unlike guilt, shame arises when people are unable to live up to their ideals. The question of the appropriateness of such structural distinctions (cf. especially Piers and Singer's comprehensive statement of his position [44]) is not germane to the present study and will not be pursued here. It was recently discussed by Hartmann and Loewenstein (34, p. 67) who maintain that it is inadvisable "to overemphasize the separateness of the ego ideal from the other parts of the superego," a theoretical procedure on which "the structural opposition of guilt and shame hinges."*

*See also Kohut and Seitz (39, p. 135) who stress the importance of retaining the conception of the essential "functional and genetic cohesion" of the internal moral forces which reside in the superego, despite the heuristic advantages and the convenience of a differentiation according to the phenomenology of their psychological effects.

Sandler, Holder, and Meers (48, p. 156f.), on the other hand, retain the ego ideal within the context of the superego. Basing themselves on contributions by Jacobson (35) and A. Reich (47), however, they postulate the existence of an "ideal self" (as differentiated from the ego ideal), state that the child attempts to "avoid disappointment and frustration by living up to his ideal self," and conclude that shame arises when the individual fails "to live up to ideal standards which he accepts, whereas guilt is experienced when his ideal self differs from that which he feels to be directed by his introjects."

The interplay between the narcissistic self, the ego, and the superego determines the characteristic flavor of the personality and is thus, more than other building blocks or attributes of the personality, instinctively regarded as the touchstone of a person's individuality or identity.*

*It is difficult to find an appropriate place in psychoanalysis for the concept of "identity" (8) since, amphibologically, it is equally applicable in social and individual psychology. Under these circumstances an empirical approach to an area vaguely outlined by the impressionistic use of the term seems justified and, indeed, has occasionally (see, for example, Kramer [40]) led to illuminating findings, especially in the realm of psychopathology.

In many outstanding personalities this inner balance appears to be dominated more by a well-integrated narcissistic self (which channels the drives) than by the ego ideal (which guides and controls them). Churchill, for example, repeated again and again, in an ever-enlarging arena, the feat of extricating himself from a situation from which there seemed to be no escape by ordinary means. (His famous escape during the Boer war is one example.) I would not be surprised if deep in his personality there was hidden the conviction that he could fly and thus get away when ordinary locomotion was barred. In the autobiographical volume My Early Life (5, p. 43f.) he describes the following events. During a vacation in the country he played a game in which he was being chased by a cousin and a younger brother. As he was crossing a bridge which led over a ravine he found himself entrapped by his pursuers who had divided their forces. ". . . capture seemed certain" he wrote, but "in a flash there came across me a great project." He looked at the young fir trees below and decided to leap onto one of them. He computed, he meditated. "In a second, I had plunged," he continues, "throwing out my arms to embrace the summit of the fir tree." It was three days before he regained consciousness and more than three months before he crawled out of bed. Yet although it is obvious that on this occasion the driving unconscious grandiose fantasy was not yet fully integrated, the struggle of the reasoning ego to perform the behest of the narcissistic self in a realistic way was already joined. Luckily, for him and for the forces of civilization, when he reached the peak of his responsibilities the inner balance had shifted.


Up to this point I have surveyed the origin, development, and functions of two major forms of narcissism and their integration into the personality. Although the mutual influences between the narcissistic self, the ego, and the ego ideal were not ignored, our attention was focused predominantly on the narcissistic structures themselves and not on the ego's capacity to harness the narcissistic energies and to transform the narcissistic constellations into more highly differentiated, new psychological configurations. There exist, however, a number of acquisitions of the ego which, although genetically and dynamically related to the narcissistic drives and energized by them, are far removed from the preformed narcissistic structures of the personality, and which therefore must be evaluated not only as transformations of narcissism but even more as attainments of the ego and as attitudes and achievements of the personality.* Let me first enumerate those whose relationship to narcissism I shall discuss. They are: (i) man's creativity; (ii) his ability to be empathic; (iii) his capacity to contemplate his own impermanence; (iv) his sense of humor; and (v) his wisdom.

*In his paper on poise Rangell (45) demonstrated the genetic and dynamic interrelatedness of specific drives with a whole integrative attitude of the ego. Poise, to state it in my words, rests on the desexualization of the crudely exhibitionistic cathexis of the narcissistic self and on the permeation of the neutralized libido into the whole physical and mental personality. Although poise may be nearer to the exhibitionistic drives than the various achievements of the ego to be discussed here, it too cannot be fully explained by reference to the drives which supply its fuel but must be considered as a new, broad configuration within the realm of the ego itself.

First we will briefly examine the relationship of narcissism to creativity. Like all complex human activities, artistic and scientific creativity serves many purposes, and it involves the whole personality, and thus a wide range of psychological structures and drives. It is therefore to be expected that the narcissism of the creative individual participates in his creative activity, for example, as a spur, driving him toward fame and acclaim. If there existed no further connection between narcissism and creativity, however, than the interplay between ambition and superior executive equipment, there would be no justification for discussing creativity specifically among the transformations of narcissism. It is my contention, however, that while artists and scientists may indeed be acclaim-hungry, narcissistically vulnerable individuals, and while their ambitions may be helpful in prompting them toward the appropriate communication of their work, the creative activity itself deserves to be considered among the transformations of narcissism.

The ambitions of a creative individual play an important role in his relationship to the public, i.e., to an audience of potential admirers; the transformation of narcissism, however, is a feature of the creator's relationship to his work. In creative work narcissistic energies are employed which have been changed into a form to which I referred earlier as idealizing libido, i.e., the elaboration of that specific point on the developmental road from narcissism toward object love at which an object (in the sense of social psychology) is cathected with narcissistic libido and thus included in the context of the self.

The analogy to the mother's love for the unborn fetus and for the newborn baby is inviting, and undoubtedly the singleminded devotion to the child who is taken into her expanded self, and her empathic responsiveness to him are similar to the creative person's involvement with his work. Nevertheless, I believe that the creative person's relationship to his work has less in common with the expanded narcissism of motherhood than with the still unrestricted narcissism of early childhood. Phenomenologically, too, the personality of many unusually creative individuals is more childlike than maternal. Even the experiments of some of the great in science impress the observer with their almost childlike freshness and simplicity. The behavior of Enrico Fermi, for example, while witnessing the first atomic explosion is described by his wife in the following way. He tore a piece of paper into small bits and, as soon as the blast had been set off, dropped them, one by one, watching the impact of the shock wave rise and subside (11, p. 239).

The creative individual, whether in art or science, is less psychologically separated from his surroundings than the noncreative one; the "I-you" barrier is not as clearly defined. The intensity of the creative person's awareness of the relevant aspects of his surroundings is akin to the detailed self perceptions of the schizoid and the childlike: it is nearer to a child's relationship to his excretions or to some schizophrenics' experiences of their body,* than to a healthy mother's feeling for her unborn child.

* I treated once a gifted schizoid young woman who at one point gave me an artistically detached, beautiful description of the areolar area of one of her nippies, with an almost microscopic knowledge about the details and a concentrated absorption as if it were the most fascinating landscape.

The indistinctness of "internal" and "external" is familiar to all of us in our relationship to the surrounding air which, as we take it in and expel it, is experienced by us as part of our selves, while we hardly perceive it as long as it forms a part of our external surroundings. Similarly, the creative individual is keenly aware of these aspects of his surroundings which are of significance to his work and he invests them with narcissistic-idealizing libido. Like the air which we breathe, they are most clearly experienced at the moment of union with the self. The traditional metaphor which is expressed by the term "inspiration" (it refers both to the taking in of air and to the fertilizing influence of an external stimulation upon the internal creative powers) and the prototypical description of creativity ("and the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" [Genesis 2:7]) support the assertion that there exists a close psychological proximity, on the one hand, between respiratory and creative inspiration and, on the other hand, between the coming to life of dust and the creative transformation of a narcissistically experienced material into a work of art.

Greenacre who recently discussed the nature of creative inspiration (30, p. I If.) and who mentions the child's interest in the air as a mysterious unseen force which becomes a symbol for his dreams and thoughts, and for his dawning conscience, maintains that the future creative artist already possesses in infancy not only great sensitivity to sensory stimuli coming from the primary object, the mother, but also to those from peripheral objects which resemble the primary one. She uses the terms "collective alternates" and "love affair with the world" in describing the artist's attitude to his surroundings, and declares that it should not be considered as an expression of his narcissism but that "it partakes of an object relationship, though a collective one . . ." (29, p. 67f.).

K. R. Eissler, too, refers to the problem of the artist's relationship to reality when he speaks of "automorphic techniques" (7, p. 544), i.e., artistic activities which take place in a borderland of autoplastic and alloplastic attitudes toward reality. A work of art, he explains, is autoplastic in so far as, like a dream or symptom, it serves the solution of an inner conflict and the fulfillment of a wish; it is simultaneously alloplastic, however, since it modifies reality by the creation of something original and new.

Greenacre and Eissler approach the problem of creativity from directions which are different from the one taken here, and arrive therefore at different conclusions. I believe, nonetheless, that their findings are consistent with the proposition that the artist invests his work with a specific form of narcissistic libido. Thus Greenacre's observation of the intensity of the future artist's early perception of the world, and of the persistence of his sensitivity during maturity, is in harmony with the contention that a leading part of the psychological equipment of creative people has been shaped through the extensive elaboration of a transitional point in libido development: idealization. In the average individual this form of the narcissistic libido survives only as the idealizing component of the state of being in love, and a surplus of idealizing libido which is not absorbed through the amalgamation with the object cathexis may account for the brief spurt of artistic activity which is not uncommon during this state. The well-established fact, furthermore, that creative people tend to alternate during periods of productivity between phases when they think extremely highly of their work and phases when they are convinced that it has no value, is a sure indication that the work is cathected with a form of narcissistic libido. The spreading of the libidinal investment upon "collective alternates" and ultimately upon "the world," which Greenacre describes, appears to me as an indication of a narcissistic experience of the world (an expanded self which includes the world) rather than as the manifestation of a "love affair' within an unqualified context of object love. The fact, too, that, as Eissler shows convincingly, the work of art is simultaneously the materialization of autoplastic and alloplastic psychic processes and that, in certain respects, the artist's attitude to his work is similar to that of the fetishist toward the fetish, lends support to the idea that, for the creator, the work is a transitional object and that it is invested with transitional narcissistic libido. The fetishist's attachment to the fetish has the intensity of an addiction, a fact which is a manifestation not of object love but of a fixation on an early object that is experienced as part of the self. Creative artists, and scientists, may be attached to their work with the intensity of an addiction, and they try to control and shape it with forces and for purposes which belong to narcissistically experienced world. They are attempting to re-create a perfection which formerly was directly an attribute of their own; during the act of creation, however, they do not relate to their work in the give-and-take mutuality which characterizes object love.

I am now turning to empathy as the second of the faculties of the ego which, though far removed from the drives and largely autonomous, are here considered in the context of the transformation of narcissism. *

* Although, even concerning the other subject matters discussed in this study, I am, within the present limits, often not able to adduce sufficient empirical support for my assertions, the following considerations about empathy are more speculative in essence and, for their verification, are probably in need of a psychoanalytically oriented experimental approach.

Empathy is the mode by which one gathers psychological data about other people and, when they say what they think or feel, imagines their inner experience even though it is not open to direct observation. Through empathy we aim at discerning, in one single act of certain recognition, complex psychological configurations which we could either define only through the laborious presentation of a host of details or which it may even be beyond our ability to define. *

* The capacity to recognize complex psychological states through empathy has its analogy in the capacity to identify a face in a single act of apperception. Here, too, we do, in general, not add up details or go through complex theories of comparative judgment, and here, too, we are generally unable to define our certain recognition by adducing details. The similarity between the perceptual immediacy of the recognition of a face and the empathic grasp of another person's psychological state may not be only an incidental one; it may well be derived from the significant genetic fact that the small child's perceptual merging with the mother's face constitutes simultaneously its most important access to the mother's identity and to her emotional state (cf. 50, p. 103ff.).

Empathy is an essential constituent of psychological observation and is, therefore, of special importance for the psychoanalyst who, as an empirical scientist, must first perceive the complex psychological configurations which are the raw data of human experience before he can attempt to explain them. The scientific use of empathy, however, is a specific achievement of the autonomous ego since, during the act of empathy, it must deliberately suspend its predominant mode of operation which is geared to the perception of nonpsychological data in the surroundings.

The groundwork for our ability to obtain access to another person's mind is laid by the fact that in our earliest mental organization the feelings, actions, and behavior of the mother had been included in our self. This primary empathy with the mother prepares us for the recognition that, to a large extent, the basic inner experiences of people remain similar to our own. Our first perception of the manifestations of another person's feelings, wishes, and thoughts occurred within the framework of a narcissistic conception of the world; the capacity for empathy belongs, therefore, to the innate equipment of the human psyche and remains to some extent associated with the primary process.

Nonempathic forms of cognition, however, which are attuned to objects which are essentially dissimilar to the self become increasingly superimposed over the original empathic mode of reality perception and tend to impede its free operation. The persistence of empathic forms of observation outside psychology is, indeed, archaic and leads to a faulty, prerational, animistic conception of reality. Nonempathic modes of observation, on the other hand, are not attuned to the experiences of other people and, if they are employed in the psychological field, lead to a mechanistic and lifeless conception of psychological reality.

Nonempathic forms of cognition are dominant in the adult. Empathy must thus often be achieved speedily before nonempathic modes of observation are interposed. The approximate correctness of first impressions in the assessment of people, by contrast with subsequent evaluations, is well known and is exploited by skillful men of affairs. Empathy seems here to be able to evade interference and to complete a rapid scrutiny before other modes of observation can assert their ascendancy. The exhaustive empathic comprehension, however, which is the aim of the analyst requires the ability to use the empathic capacity for prolonged periods. His customary observational attitude ("evenly suspended attention"; avoidance of note taking; curtailment of realistic interactions; concentration on the purpose of achieving understanding rather than on the wish to cure and to help) aims at excluding psychological processes attuned to the non-psychological perception of objects and to encourage empathic comprehension through the perception of experiential identities.

Foremost among the obstacles which interfere with the use of empathy (especially for prolonged periods) are those which stem from conflicts about relating to another person in a narcissistic mode. Since training in empathy is an important aspect of psychoanalytic education, the loosening of narcissistic positions constitutes a specific task of the training analysis, and the candidate's increasing ability to employ the transformed narcissistic cathexes in empathic observation is a sign that this goal is being reached.

Could it be that among the obstacles to the use of empathy is also the resistance against the acknowledgment of unconscious knowledge about others? Could it be that to the "I have always known it" of the analysand when an unconscious content is uncovered (20, p. 148) may correspond an "I have always recognized it" in the analyst when he and the patient arrive at a valid reconstruction, or when the patient supplies a relevant memory?

Freud pondered the question whether thought transference does occur (27, pp. 54-56) and referred to such biological and social phenomena as the means by which "the common purpose comes about in the great insect communities" and the possibility of the persistence of an "original, archaic method of communication between individuals" which "in the course of phylogenetic evolution ... has been replaced by the better method of giving information with the help of signals," yet which may still "put itself into effect under certain conditions-for instance, in passionately excited mobs" (p. 55). To these statements one could add only that an intentional curbing of the usual cognitive processes of the ego (such as is brought about in the analytic situation) may free the access to empathic communication as does the involuntary trancelike condition which occurs in those who become submerged in an excited mob* and that the prototype of empathic understanding must be sought not only in the prehistory of the race but also in the early life of the individual. Under favorable circumstances, however, the faculty of perceiving the psychological manifestations of the mother, achieved through the extension of narcissistic cathexes, becomes the starting point for a series of developmental steps which lead ultimately to a state in which the ego can choose between the use of empathic and nonempathic modes of observation, depending on realistic requirements and on the nature of the surroundings that it scrutinizes.

* For a striking description of the ego's perviousness to the dominant mental tendencies of an aroused multitude, and an illuminating discussion of the propensity of the individual who is trapped in an agitated group to shed ego autonomy and to respond regressively in narcissistic-identificatory compliance, see A. Mitscherlich (42, esp. p. 202f.).

Excerpt: Pp. 106-118

"Forms and Transformations of Narcissism" (1966). In Self Psychology and the Humanities: Reflections on a New Psychoanalytic Approach. W.W. Norton & Company, New York 1985. Copyright Charles B. Strozier and Elizabeth Kohut 1985.