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 The syntonic feeling of oneness is a curative one, while the feeling of aloneness, the withdrawn state, is merely protective.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


Anonymous said...

Working within the narcissistic transference can be quite helpful for persons trying to cope with the symptoms of Asperger's Disorder. More on this later.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,
Wondering if you could elucidate the concept of transferences. One can have feelings from a past relationship, e.g.-anger felt towards father or mother, and transfer those feelings onto the analyst, right? But what is the deal when one has angry or sorrowful feelings towards father or mother, but develops a relationship with the analyst as the ideal, wished-for parent? Is that still transference? Feelings from a past relationship are (technically) not being transferred onto the analyst, but "wished-for" feelings are being transferred: i.e.- "I see you, the analyst, as warm & fuzzy and understanding---the kind of father I wished I had but didn't ." Is that still transference?

Jim said...

You're onto some important issues; to me its all transference, or a closely enough related idea so as to not make much of a difference. To amplify it a bit, my conception is that the strict definition of transference is scarcely adequate to describe what actually happens; i.e., feelings may be elicited that have to do with what is actually there in the other, with ideal or fantasized others, or even with parts of ourselves. In studying our transferences to another; we may clearly see one pattern that is familiar, or we may see combinations of patterns from different others, or we may not see it at all. Since we are dealing with the unconscious, we can expect that time and logical order have little meaning. In my opinion, we're ahead of the game as long as we're still thinking about it.

Anonymous said...

Hello Jim,
Yes, we're certainly still thinking about it. :-)
It's also my understanding that one can have a "father transference" to a female therapist or a "mother transference" to a male therapist. Is that because one is really just reacting to the therapist as one reacted to the parent(or whoever from their past)and it doesn't matter what the sex of the therapist is, only that we're transfering the same feelings? On the other hand, if I've developed powerful feelings for a male analyst as the "always-wished-for good father," it doesn't seem likely (to me)that I'd develop those same feelings for a female analyst, because no matter how much I might have feelings for her, I'll never view her as a wished-for father-figure. Do you know what I mean?

Jim said...

Hello CLC,
Gender undoubtedly plays a role; though the feelings are frequently unconscious, so we wouldn't want to make a definite statement to cover all cases; rather, we work with the feelings in each session.
I may have an idea of what you mean when you indicate there are certain feeelings you don't think you'll ever have - but with the unconscious one never knows for sure.

Anonymous said...

Aha! So gender DOES play a role? I've never heard anyone say that before. Through the years, I first had two male therapists, then a female (all non-analytic). I thought I appreciated the males, because I was always looking for the good father. But a while after I began with the female, I realized there were all kinds of things I'd say to her that I wouldn't have said to the men (e.g.- "I'm so depressed because when I was getting dressed to come here today, I couldn't find any pants that still fit me.") I would NEVER have said that to a man. It was an amazing realization.
Maybe the analytic therapist is somewhat different because you're not sitting there looking at the analyst. any of the analytic writers address the gender issue?

Jim said...

There has been some writing on the subject; (see e.g., Lachmann, F.M. (1992). The Importance of Gender in the Psychoanalytic Relation (Discussion). Int. Forum Psychoanal., 1:32-36); though I'm not sure its been adequately addressed from the viewpoint of Modern Psychoanalysis.
I think it would be an excellent topic for someone to research and write about.

Unknown said...

How can individuals who seem to lack the capacity to develop this “object transference” be helped?

Hm, but isnt a lack of attachment to the object also the transference?
This is a very interesting article and will re read it again later on, am loving yourblog very much, keep up the brilliant and awesome work.

Jim said...

Thanks for the kind words.

Re: your question "...but isnt a lack of attachment to the object also the transference?" -

I wonder if you might be willing to say more about your idea.