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How Does Freud Understand the Concept of "Narcissism”?

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Caravaggio's painting "Narcissus" (1597–99) shows a man who is enamored with his own reflection and is unable to look away.

Caravaggio's painting "Narcissus" (1597–99) shows a man who is enamored with his own reflection and is unable to look away.

How does Freud understand the concept of "Narcissism”?


Narcissus is a character in the narrative who is a young man who is described as being gorgeous and conceited. As soon as he first saw his reflection in the water, he became so fascinated by it that he was unable to tear his gaze away for the duration of the time he was observing it. He remained in his position close to the water until the day he died of starvation. He stayed there for the duration.

Theoretical Underpinning

Narcissism is a mental disease defined by extreme self-absorption, an exaggerated perception of self-importance, and a need for attention and admiration from other people(Cratsley, 2016). Narcissism characterizes the desire to be the center of attention and be admired by others. Those who struggle with the mental illness known as narcissism have an unhealthy obsession with garnering the praise and admiration of others. While narcissism roots in ancient Greece's mythology, researchers started investigating it recently. Among these researchers was Sigmund Freud, who provided the theoretical basis of this condition based on the concept of psychosexual development. Therefore, this essay aims to give the principal arguments set forth by Sigmund Freud about narcissism.

Firstly, Freud provided a reasonably complex set of theories. He stated that narcissism concerns whether or not an individual's libido (the energy beneath each person's survival instincts) is directed inwardly toward oneself or outwardly toward others (Cherry, 2021). He stated that narcissism is tied to whether or not an individual's libido is directed inwardly toward one's needs. Ideally, Freud felt infants run all their desires inward, a state Freud named "primary narcissism," and Freud believed this was the case (Cratsley, 2016). Perhaps, Freud believed that people were born without an idea of themselves as individuals, which he referred to as an ego. However, the concept of self or ego only emerges when the outside world, typically parental controls and expectations, intrudes upon primary narcissism (Cherry, 2021), which causes the ego to develop during infancy and early childhood(Rees, 2020). Such intrusion teaches an individual about the nature and standards of his social environment from which he can form the ideal ego, an image of the perfect self toward which the ego should aspire(Cherry, 2021).

Secondly, Freud believed there is a finite amount of this energy through his theory. The degree to which an individual's libido is directed outwardly toward attachment to other people reduces the amount of energy available for the individual to use for themselves (Cherry, 2021). Freud considered that people's underlying narcissism is weakened when they "threw away" this love (Cherry, 2021). Also, he believed that to replenish this capacity, receiving love and affection from the external world was vital to maintaining a sense of satisfaction (Cherry, 2021). Further, Freud believed that a child's sense of who they are as an individual starts to take shape as soon as they start engaging with the outside environment and pick up on cultural and social mores and conventions (Rees, 2020). Thus, Rees concludes that according to Freud's theory of personality development, this results in the formation of an ego ideal that is a picture of one’s ideal self that the ego aspires to achieve

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Lastly, the idea that a person's love for themselves may be transferred to another person or item is another fundamental component of Freud's theoretical underpinning. Freud proposed this idea in his essay "The Transfer of Love." Freud postulated that an individual's level of essential narcissism would decrease when they loved other people more than they loved themselves (Cherry, 2021). They had a reduced capacity to care for, safeguard, and defend themselves as a direct consequence. Cherry further reveals that Freud believed that it was necessary to get love and affection in return to refill this talent, which was crucial to him.


From the illustrations above, Freud's significant arguments can be concluded. Firstly, narcissism is the libidinal counterpart to the egoism of the instinct of self-preservation. Secondly, Freud also argues that Ego-libido is transformed into object-libido by caring for another person, which can be accomplished by sharing one's self-love with another person. Consequently, there is less ego-libido available for primary narcissism, which may be defined as the behavior of guarding and sustaining one's self.


Cherry, K. (2021, October 11). The History of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Verywell Mind. Retrieved May 16, 2022, from’s,%2C%20protect%2C%20and%20defend%20themselves.

Cratsley, K. (2016). Revisiting Freud and Kohut on narcissism. Theory & Psychology, 26(3), 333–359.

Rees, W. (2020). We other narcissists: self-love in Freud and culture. Textual Practice, 1–20.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Gabriel Sikuku

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