Narcissism, from Freud to Pop Psychology

by Carman C.

In contemporary American psychoanalytic theory, the “narcissistic” individual resembles Ovid’s Narcissus very little, their personalities similar only in their investment in the self.  In fact, Sigmund Freud, the twentieth-century father of psychoanalytic theory, and Sandy Hotchkiss, a twenty-first century author of the self-help book Why Is It Always about You?, proffer visions of the narcissist that resemble each other very little.  Freud records in his essay, “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” that the term “narcissism” developed in 1899 “to denote the attitude of a person who treats his own body in the same way in which the body of a sexual object is ordinarily treated—who looks at it, that is to say, strokes it and fondles it till he obtains complete satisfaction through these activities.”  For Freud, narcissism indicates sexual perversion, and he notes that narcissistic traits tend to appear in individuals suffering from other psychiatric disorders—such as, in Freud’s time, homosexuality.  The narcissistic attitude is, in Freud’s opinion, highly sexual, occurring when erotic desire is misplaced, emanating from and directed back at the self.  

Freud’s definition of narcissism accords somewhat with Narcissus’ behavior in Ovid and condemns it as perverse: Narcissus, like Freud’s narcissist, “mistakes” himself for an external person—or, for Freud, a “sexual object.”  Unlike the narcissist, however, Narcissus is unable to act on his desire for self, and laments his impotence, that a mere sheet of water separates Narcissus from his “lover,” exigua prohibemur aqua (450)!  Rather than understand himself as the object of his desire, Narcissus seems to distinguish himself, embodied, from himself, reflected, and Narcissus desires not his own embodied self but the image of it.  For instance, Narcissus, to describe his desiring self’s sorrow, uses a first-person verb, doleam, and, only two lines later, employs a third-person verb, cupit, to describe his reflection’s actions (448, 450).  Freud’s narcissist, meanwhile, eroticizes his own, unreflected body, making no distinction between his desiring self and his desired self: the narcissist is one individual, sexualizing and being sexualized, whereas Narcissus envisions he and his reflection as distinct individuals.

Nearly a century after Freud, Hotchkiss dissects narcissism in her book, Why Is It Always About You?, defining narcissism not as a sexual perversion, but as a “personality flaw” unfortunately normalized in twenty-first century American culture.  Narcissists exhibit, according to Hotchkiss, seven co-morbid qualities: shamelessness, magical thinking, arrogance, envy, entitlement, exploitation, and bad boundaries, each flaw feeding the next.  A narcissist’s refusal to feel shame requires magical thinking, distortions of reality that shield the individual, while his arrogance breeds envy.  Hotchkiss aims, by explaining the often stunted and injured psyche of the narcissist, to aid the true victims of narcissism: the family, friends, and co-workers of narcissists.

Hotchkiss’ narcissist, like Freud’s, differs in character from Ovid’s Narcissus: each of Hotchkiss’ examples of narcissists acts out, wounding, if only slightly, those unfortunate enough to be in their vicinity.  For instance, Hotchkiss relates that the mother of one of her patients, in classic narcissistic fashion, became enraged, spoiling her daughter’s wedding and refusing to return her calls for months, when her daughter insisted that the bridesmaids at her own wedding wear the dresses preferred by the bride.  On a lighter note, Hotchkiss relates the tale of another narcissist, who annually plans a holiday party at which she is the star entertainment for her close circle of friends and admirers—who, in reality, must numb themselves with alcohol to brave the performance of an acquaintance.  In each of these vignettes, the narcissist, because of their focus on the self, scatters emotional shrapnel.  Ovid’s Narcissus, on the other hand, once struck with his narcissistic curse, is completely self-contained, stuck in a feedback loop of desiring and being desired.  So inconsequential is he to his surroundings that Narcissus has neither care for food nor sleep; he cannot act out, so engrossed is Narcissus in himself (437-438).  Each of these three visions of the narcissist, however, share their isolation and loneliness, an inability to connect with other people.  Shared too is each narcissist’s investment—whether perversely sexual as for Freud, obsessive and directed externally as for Hotchkiss, or desirous and directed inward as in Ovid—in the self.

Source: https://iris.haverford.edu/echo/narcissism-from-freud-to-pop-psychology/