Modern Psychoanalysis

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Narcissistic Transference

Narcissistic Transference

Freud (1926, pp 52-3, emphasis original) was describing the phenomenon of transference when he said:

The neurotic sets to work because he believes in the analyst, and he believes in him because he begins to entertain certain feelings towards him…. The patient repeats, in the form of falling in love with the analyst, psychical experiences which he underwent before; he has transferred to the analyst psychical attitudes which lay ready within him…
Yet classical analysts soon found that many individuals appeared to be unable to form this type of transference with their analysts. These individuals were then often deemed “unanalyzable,” because of the central role that transference plays in psychoanalysis. (See e.g., Fennessy, 2006).

How can individuals who seem to lack the capacity to develop this “object transference” be helped? Modern psychoanalysts understand that the difficulties experienced by many patients have their origins in the pre-oedipal period. Another way of expressing this is that “(t)he narcissistic patient is arrested at some point or points in approximately the first two years of life.” (Margolis, 1981, p. 149).

Modern analysts are then able to use their skills to build a transference on a narcissistic basis. In this narcissistic transference:

“(t)he patient is permitted to mold the transference object in his own image. He builds up a picture of the therapist as someone like himself – the kind of person whom he will eventually feel free to love and hate.” (Spotnitz, 1976a, p. 109).
Dr. Spotnitz answers the question:

“’Do we want a narcissistic transference to develop?’ We do because in a negative, regressed state, the patient may experience the analyst as being like him or part of him. Or the analyst may not exist for him. The syntonic feeling of oneness is a curative one, while the feeling of aloneness, the withdrawn state, is merely protective. Because traces of narcissism remain in everyone, we seek, when beginning treatment, to create an environment that will facilitate a narcissistic transference so that, first we can work through the patient’s narcissistic aggression.” (Spotnitz, 1976b, p. 58).
Margolis further says that:

“In operational terms… the oedipal patient transfers the images of distinctive objects of his oedipal period onto the analyst, whereas the preoedipal patients transfers onto the analyst the fuzzy and ambiguous images of his narcissistic period… In building the narcissistic transference and eliciting the patient’s picture of the analyst, we are actually eliciting his picture of himself.” (1979, p.140).
Therapists who have any experience with narcissism know that narcissists are often consumed with themselves and themselves alone - given the opportunity they may talk about nothing but their own self-absorptions for years on end. Therefore, it should be apparent that the narcissistic transference will not be come into being on its own – it must be developed through the skills of the therapist.

What does the narcissistic transference look like? Spotnitz (1976a, p. 109) states that:

“On the surface it looks positive. He builds up this attitude: ‘You are like me so I like you. You spend time with me and try to understand me, and I love you for it.’ Underneath the sweet crust, however, one gets transient glimpses of the opposite attitude: ‘I hate you as I hate myself. But when I feel like hating you, I try to hate myself instead.”
Developing the narcissistic transference is normally an emotionally charged process, that proceeds at the patient’s own pace. (See generally, Fennessy, 2008). The training and clinical skills of the modern analyst, including proper use of emotional reinforcement, object-oriented questions and joining techniques, make all the difference between success and failure in nurturing this relationship.

Spotnitz (1985, p. 201) describes the result when the narcissistic transference is successfully developed:

“(w)hen one focuses on the narcissistic patterns and works consistently to help the patient verbalize frustration-tension, object transference phenomena become increasingly prominent… Eventually, the patient’s transferences are aroused by his emotional perceptions of the therapist as a parental transference figure.”
In other words, personality maturation takes place. The symbiotic relationship developed between analyst and patient (See, Spotnitz, 1984, p. 135) may help the patient’s emotional perceptions along. Repeated emotional associations to the mental images of the analyst, as constructed by the patient; strengthen the object field of the mind, or form new neuronal connections.

The greater emotional maturity which results has enduring and important ramifications for the patient in therapy, and in life.


Fennessy, J. (2008). Narcissism and the Contact Function, in PRACTICE MATTERS, A Journal of Modern Psychoanalytic Treatment Technique (Vol. 2), Philadelphia, PSP.

Fennessy, J. (2006). Modern Psychoanalytic Education. (Online at:, June 08, 2006).

Freud, S. (1926). The Question of Lay Analysis. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XX (1925-1926).

Margolis, B. (1981). Narcissistic Transference: Further Considerations. (Modern Psychoanalysis, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1981).

Margolis, B. (1979). Narcissistic Transference: The Product of Overlapping Self and Object Fields. (Modern Psychoanalysis, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1979).

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. (1984). The Case of Anna O.: Aggression and the Narcissistic Countertransference. In M. Rosenbaum & M. Muroff (Eds.), Anna O.: One Hundred Years of Psychoanalysis. NY, Free Press.

Spotnitz, H. (1985). Modern Psychoanalysis of the Schizophrenic Patient: Theory of the Technique, Second Edition, NY, Human Sciences Press.

© 2007, James G. Fennessy, M.A., J.D.
Matawan, New Jersey 07747