Emphasis on Self and the Notion of Narcissism

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Ego psychology generally emphasizes the role of identity , which is experienced by the person as a sense of self. Contemporary psychoanalysts Otto Kernber g (1975) and Heinz Kohut (1977) are important contributors to the psychoanalytic conception of the role of the self in normal personality functioning and in disorders. In normal personality functioning, most people develop a stable and relatively high level of self-esteem, they have some pride in what they have so far accomplished, they have realistic ambitions for the future, and they feel that they are getting the attention and affection from others that they deserve. Most of us have a healthy level of self-esteem; we consider ourselves worthwhile, we like ourselves, and we believe that others like us as well. And most of us engage in self-serving biases, which refer to the common tendency for people to take credit for successes, yet to deny responsibility for failure.

Some take self-esteem too far , however, trying to increase their self-worth in various problematic ways. For example, they may constantly try to appear more powerful than others, more independent, or more liked by others. This style of inflate self-admiration and constant attempts to draw attention to the self and to keep others focused on oneself is called narcissism. Sometimes narcissism is carried to extremes and becomes narcissistic personality disorder (see Chapter 19). However , narcissistic tendencies can be found in normal range levels, characterized as an extreme self-focus, a sense of being special, feelings of entitlement (that one deserves admiration and attention without earning it), and a constant search for others who will serve as one's private fan club.

There is a paradox, however , commonly called the narcissistic paradox: although a narcissist appears high in self-esteem, he or she actually has doubts about his or her worth as a person. Although the narcissist appears confident and sure o him- or herself, the person needs constant praise, reassurance, and attention from others. Although the narcissist appears to have a grandiose sense of self-importance, he or she is nevertheless very vulnerable to blows to his or her self-esteem and cannot handle criticism very well. In contemporary psychoanalysis, narcissism is seen as disturbance in the sense of self that has many implications for creating problems with living and relating to others.

An example of one problem associated with narcissism is that, when narcissists are criticized or challenged, they may behave aggressively , trying to achieve some respect by belittling their critics. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV suggests that persons with narcissistic personality disorder can become at risk for violence following blows to their self-esteem, such as getting reprimanded at work and having been left by a spouse. This tendency toward violence in response to criticism was illustrated in a laboratory study conducted by psychologists Brad Bushman and Roy Baumeister (1998). The subjects went to the laboratory and wrote a short essay on a topic given to them. Another person then commented on the essays they had just written, providing strong criticism of the subjects' opinions. Later in the experiment, the subjects were given the opportunity to play a computer game with their critic and were allowed to "blast" their opponent with loud bursts of noise during the game; that is, subjects could distract their opponents with irritating blasts of noise during the competition. The narcissistic subjects who had been insulted blasted the critic much more aggressively than did either the nonnarcissistic persons or the narcissistic persons who had not received criticism. This finding suggests that narcissism can lea to aggression when the narcissist is provoked or criticized. People with secure and normally high levels of self-esteem, however , do not become distressed and aggressive when insulted (Rhodenwalt & Morf, 1998).

A questionnaire measure of narcissism. The following items are from the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) (Raskin & Hall, 1979).


1. I think I am a special person.

2. I expect a great deal from other people.

3. I am envious of other people's good fortune.

4. I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve.

5. I really like to be the center of attention.

True or False

True or False

True or False

True or False

True or False

In one interesting study of narcissism, it was found that the number of first person pronouns a person used in an essay (I, mine, me) was correlated positively with narcissism scores (Emmons, 1987). In another study it was found that when given the opportunity to watch themselves on videotape or to watch a tape of someone else, the narcissists spent more time watching the tape of themselves (Robins & John, 1997). This study also showed that narcissists rate their performance on the videotape much more positively than it is rated by others, implying an inflated sense o their own abilities.

In sum, although an interest in narcissism started in ego psychology as a style of defending against poor self-esteem, studies have confirmed the theoretical notion that narcissists are preoccupied with self, are vulnerable to criticism and blows to their self-worth, and respond to such challenges with anger and aggression. While narcissists appear to have high self-esteem their internal or private self representations are fragile and vulnerable. Clearly , an important notion from contemporary psychoanalytic thought is that one' s internal representation of self plays an important role in how one interacts with and reacts to the social environment. In the next section, "Object Relations Theory," we will see how contemporary psychoanalysis also focuses on the internal representation of other persons, and how this influences socia interactions.

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