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.
Matawan, New Jersey 07747


Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for this explanation of the narcissistic defense. I've been trying to get the concept clear for a few months now, and this column helped a lot.

Now, I'd like to read about how the analyst helps the client achieve the agression which is necessary to overcome the narcissistic defense. What does that exchange between analyst and client look like? Does the client become aware over time of this change in feelings? Is there ever a "Eureka" type explosion of feelings\anger\agression?As the patient, this sounds kind of scary to contemplate.

Jim said...


Excellent questions, C.C.; it should prove useful to address these issues in detail in future writings.

I feel that modern analysts are generally interested in fostering the patient’s transference on a narcissistic basis. The patient’s job is to talk and the analyst’s job is to help the patient do so.

Most analysts would, therefore, attempt to create an environment which would promote talking and maturational development. An important part of this task would include the analyst’s awareness and management of frustration/aggression to avoid undesired “explosions” or psychotic regression.

It may be that some patients become aware of their changing feelings over time, but I think it may be more common for patients to become aware of the changes after they have occurred and then become curious as to what has happened.

Kyle Arnold said...

Is there a difference between the narcissistic defense and what Freud calls "turning against the self?" The two seem like the same mechanism, except for the fact that Freud never associated the latter with narcissistic pathology.

Jim said...

An intelligent question, Kyle; they seem like the same mechanism to me also.

Perhaps the difference is one of emphasis?

It often occurs to me that Freud was aware, but blocked from further exploration of certain issues, due to something unresolved in his own personality.

analytic neophyte said...

Hi Jim,
this is my first attempt to write a comment in a blog, so I hope I'm doing it correctly.
I am seeing a modern analyst for several years, but only on the couch for several months. This is her first vacation since I've gone on the couch and developed a powerful transference which has been essentially positive. In the past few days, our contact, via email, has resulted in apparent misunderstanding and extreme frustration on my part, experienced as sadness.My frustration has been resolved temporarily by assigning blame to myself as the one who misunderstood, rather than to the analyst as the one who miscommunicated. Is this an example of the narcissistic defense?

Jim said...

Hi Neo,

Apparently, you're doing it correctly.

It sounds to me as though you're aware of many of your feelings. What do you think - is this an example of the narcissistic defense?


Yes Jim, I think it is, but wanted validation. Any suggestions about how I get past this?????

Jim said...

Now that's a horse of a different color. :-)

How much of this does your analyst know about, Neo?

analytic neophyte said...

And what color horse might that be Jim :)
If she is worth the title of modern analyst,my best guess is that she knows quite well that I am more comfortable(?) blaming myself than blaming her. But for now she is away and wont be back for 2 weeks, so I'm hoping to do some useful work on this problem myself....with some insight/guidance/perhaps from you.

analytic neophyte said...

Hey Jim, have you lost interest in this dialogue? I would like to know your thoughts on the situation I presented.

Jim said...

Good question, Neo.
What insight/guidance/would you like from me?
And, if your analyst is worth the title of modern analyst I wonder if she might be able to give you any suggestions via email or phone about how you get past this?????

analytic neophyte said...

Hi Jim,
You have a very refreshing way of writing and handling these communications.You are witty but also quite on target.
As for help from my analyst at this time,she prefers to do her work with me in a personal session and not in this venue.
I guess I am looking for any specific strategy, skill, task that you might suggest to help me connect with the anger and direct it at the correct source....rather than direct it at myself.
Thanks for your interest,

Jim said...

Thanks for asking the questions, Neo.

These are difficult issues for most, particularly issues such as what the correct source might be....

I guess I am wondering why what your analyst prefers matters when you are looking for any specific strategy, skill, task that might help you connect with the anger....rather than direct it at yourself.

analytic neophyte said...

Hi Jim,
Thanks for staying with me on this issue. My analyst's preference only matters at this time since she is in control of whether she wants to assist me in this venue...which she does not. She prefers to conduct her analysis in a session. I dont like it but have to respect it because it is out of my control. However I do feel it is my right to attempt to pursue any additional venue for help in resolving this resistance.
So, if you are so inclined to offer a suggestion, I am hearing you. Thanks,

Jim said...

Hi Neo,
Have you had any ideas as to what might help?

analytic neophyte said...

Hi Jim,
If I had any suggestions I would have tried them myself. I get are trying to help me find the answers, but other than forcing myself to express anger at my analyst because I think it belongs to her, is not the samething as emotionally connecting with the feeling and then spontaneously expressing it?

Jim said...

Hi Neo,
Perhaps not... intellectual understanding doesn't seem to have much curative effect; and forcing the issue is not usually recommended, since it is understood that defenses perform a useful function.

What cures you is spontaneously expression of all of your thoughts and feelings to the therapist as they occur to you in the room.

analytic neophyte said...

Thanks Jim. My analyst will be available for a phone session tomorrow and I will follow your advice and share all of my thoughts and feelings as they occur in the session. This correspondence has been a helpful holding environment for me while awaiting her return.
I appreciate your continuing interest and dialogue.

Anonymous said...

Re: the narcissistic defense-
What about the client who cries during sessions, maybe not every session but "regularly"? Is this emotionality part of the narcissistic defense, in that, like physical action, crying prevents the "talking" or verbalization of feelings which leads to cure? And would the analyst's work would be the same as that for keeping the physically-active patient "on the couch" and learning to verbalize feelings? Or would the analyst have to employ other techniques to deal with such a tender ego? If so, what would that look like?

Jim said...


Some wonderful questions there!

I think this type of emotionality might very well be a defense; many types of behavior including crying, and even certain types of talking, are capable of functioning as a defense, as a communication, or as both at the same time. The trick for the analyst would lie in knowing which is which at that time.

On top of that, whether a particular defense is part of the narcissistic defense is a separate question, to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

In modern analysis the analyst’s work always consists of dealing with each analysand on an individual basis. Modern analysis offers a wide variety of clinical techniques for use by the analyst, but when a technique might be appropriate is always based on the individual case. (I am planning to post some brief articles in the future on the individual techniques).

Anonymous said...

This blog is excellent, thank you so much. I am having the same problem as Neo, desperate to get in touch with the anger but unable to. And want to know how, but know that that would be counter productive!! My analyst is also away for two weeks and I am finding it very difficult.
I am so very worried about the psychotic regression mentioned in an above post. I feel so scared a lot of the time. I have never had anything like that but live in fear of it.

Anonymous said...

My analyst won't give me a diagnosis. Do you have any thoughts on why a professional would not provide this information. I think it would help me.

Jim said...

What reason does your analyst give for not giving you a diagnosis?

Anonymous said...

Mine won't either but I agree with her that it is largely irrelevant.
And that most issues arise from roughly the same problem - relationship with primary caregiver.

Kris said...

Hi Jim,

A little off topic but...

The psychoanalytic tradition has a great deal to say about narcissism (for example, on this site, you have a posting about the narcissistic defense and narcissistic transference).

And while I understand that in the psychoanalytic tradition, narcissism is more about inadequately met developmental needs than pathology, I've started to wonder about the way that Modern Psychoanalysis would view or conceptualize something that DSM would call a schizoid personality disorder or perhaps dependent pd, etc.

Jim said...

Hi Kris,

A great question...

I think you've hit upon one of the major differences in how modern analysts might look at these problems (as compared to other therapies).

The titles of two books by Dr. Spotnitz - "Treatment of the Narcissistic Neuroses" and "Psychotherapy of Preoedipal Conditions" help show the commonly held view in Modern Psychoanalysis -

i.e., that what the DSM would call a schizoid personality disorder or perhaps dependent pd, etc.,would be conceptualized by most of us as being more about inadequately met developmental needs than pathology.

Anonymous said...

Psychoanalysis IS a form of narcissism itself. If I were an analyst, I would never allow a patient to torture themselves because they felt deprived and then compelled to bottle up the feelings. Anyone who can coldly sit there and watch the suffering analysand in stoney silence is a sadist and narcissist. Psychoanalysts seem far more interested in watching a patient act out the pet theories, replete with pet names for their pet theories, so they can tap into their own fantasies of omnipotence - as compensation for the fact that they are ill equipped to actually bring any real help or healing to their analysands.

Jim said...

I'm curious as to whether you think this is always the case.

TSAR said...

Can anyone help me? My brother is classic narcissist yet doesn't know and cannot be approached about it. He is extremely aggressive and makes all sorts of threats, some personal and some just to belittle people. I need to get him out of the house, but he hasn't done anything legally wrong. I fear for my life and am not sure whether he's serious or another one of his delusions?

Anonymous said...

TSAR - Are you and your brother adults, and who owns the house? It sounds like he has psychological problems, but he is not interested in addressing those, and your concerns are for your own safety. I'm a patient, not an analyst, but I think you need to look for structural responses first - if his behavior is really delusional, perhaps you need to ask a court to authorize compelled hospitalization/treatment - consult a good lawyer. Other possible responses could be eviction, moving out yourself, calling the police, etc., depending on the facts and urgency of the situation. You and he will need a stable situation before therapeutic approaches can be considered, in my humble opinion.