Modern Psychoanalysis

Modern Psychoanalysis is a treatment for relieving mental and emotional distress. Its simple technique heals through the talking interaction between patient and therapist. Join us to learn more or post your own thoughts.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Narcissistic Defense

The Narcissistic Defense
One of the unique offerings of modern psychoanalysis has to do with its understanding of the importance of “the narcissistic defense.” While it is well known that the narcissistic disorders possess a vast range of defenses available for use, something much more particular is meant when modern analysts refer to “the narcissistic defense.”
Dr. Spotnitz first observed the narcissistic defense during his clinical investigations of schizophrenia, and later successfully applied the concept to treatment of other patients:

“When the patient is frustrated, the appropriate way to discharge his feelings is to put them into words. If he is prevented from doing so when frustrated and feeling deprived by the analyst, he usually bottles up the aggression: in other words, he turns these feelings inward and begins to attack the self. This is referred to as the narcissistic defense.” (Spotnitz, 1976b, pp. 56-57, emphasis original).

Freud’s idea was that the “narcissistic wall… brings us to a stop,” and that “…(o)ur technical methods must accordingly be replaced by others; and we do not know yet whether we shall succeed in finding a substitute.” (1917, p.423). Spotnitz, however. “… discovered that the analyst resolves the adult patient’s repetitive self-attacks by changing the flow of destructive impulsivity.” (1976b, p. 56).

From the root of the word narcissism, it might at first appear that the problem is excessive “self-love,“ yet not all narcissism is “disordered:”

“We commonly recognize the value of narcissism, as well as the vital role it plays in creative activity. If we regard sleep as the quintessence of absorption in the self, we agree that narcissism is essential for self-preservation.
Need I point out that ‘narcissistic defense’ does not involve these kinds of normal activity? What we are concerned with is narcissism in a pathological sense, with self-love that serves as a cloak for self-hatred. The polarities of self-hatred and self-love are linked together in the defensive system, but the nuclear problem is the self-hatred.” (Spotnitz, 1976a, p. 104).

How might an individual develop the narcissistic defense? According to Spotnitz, the foundation is likely to be found in early childhood and:

“… is not total emotional deprivation... The defense seems to originate in a relationship which was gratifying to the infant in some respects, especially in meeting his biological needs for the intake of stimuli, but failed to meet the need of his mental apparatus for cooperation in discharging destructive energy. Nevertheless, he was not totally abandoned; he was sufficiently gratified to develop a strong craving for more gratification and, consequently, to place an unduly high value on the source of this bounty.” (Spotnitz, 1976a, p. 104).

Could it be that for the infant it is a question of survival? In the minds of very young children thoughts may have magical properties. If we have horrible thoughts; i.e., that mother frustrates us, or that we hate her, or worse; even for an instant – mother might leave us forever. Or, our violent thoughts might actually kill her; or maybe if we’re so monstrous as to think those thoughts, she might actually die, as punishment for our bad thoughts. We need to protect her at all costs.

Spotnitz hypothesizes that…

“(t)he infant got to understand that his mother might be damaged by his rage; perhaps she discouraged such reactions by withholding her favors. At any rate, the infantile ego which was not trained to release mobilized aggressive energy towards its object in feelings and language responded to prolonged periods of frustration by internalizing its destructive impulses. Much of the energy that would otherwise have been available for maturational processes was expended to bottle up this impulsivity…
The child who started out to console himself with self-love thus compensates for a specific type of damage incurred in the course of maturation by becoming the object of his own hatred. Sacrificially, he attacks his ego to preserve his external object.” (1976a, pp.104-05).
As with all the other defenses, “(t)he survival function of the narcissistic defense is respected. Though primitively organized, it has served to stabilize his mental apparatus in his interpersonal relations and insulate him against unwanted feeling states.” (Spotnitz, 1985, p. 164).

Modern psychoanalysts have a greater understanding and a wider range of techniques available to outflank Freud’s “stone wall of narcissism,” and “…(i)f the analyst provides the proper environment, the patient will re-experience emotional reactions in his relationship with the analyst that resemble those he had at some point in the past when his maturation was blocked.” (Spotnitz, 1976b, pp. 57-58).

With proper treatment, the narcissistic defense can thus be made unnecessary, allowing patients the full range of options and emotions available to mature individuals.


Freud, S. (1917). Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (Part 3) in the Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, (James Strachey, et al., Ed., 1953-74), London, Hogart Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 16:243-463.

Spotnitz, H. (1976a). Psychotherapy of Preoedipal Conditions, N.Y., Jason Aronson.

Spotnitz, H. and Meadow, P. (1976b). Treatment of the Narcissistic Neuroses, NY, Man. Center For Advanced Psychoanalytic Studies.

Spotnitz, H. (1985). Modern Psychoanalysis of the Schizophrenic Patient: Theory of the Technique, Second Edition, NY, Human Sciences Press.
© 2006, James G. Fennessy, M.A., J.D.
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