1.Excessive love or admiration of oneself. See Synonyms at conceit.
2.A psychological condition characterized by self-preoccupation, lack of empathy, and unconscious deficits in self-esteem.
3.Erotic pleasure derived from contemplation or admiration of one's own body or self, especially as a fixation on or a regression to an infantile stage of development.
4.The attribute of the human psyche characterized by admiration of oneself but within normal limits.
Narcissism, a greatly overused word, is typically understood to include excessive self-regard, inflated self esteem, and lack of empathy for others. The first there definitions all refer to pathological narcissism. The last definition is vague and fairly banal; in reality, healthy narcissism is a prerequisite for healthy relationships and functioning in the world. I would like to more carefully craft a description of narcissism, and show how pathological narcissism can merge into sociopathy and paranoia. This has significant importance in our politics because, as I have pointed out elsewhere in slightly different language, Democratic systems are the best ways we have found to manage conflicting narcissistic needs.
Closely related to narcissism is self esteem, another concept which is often invoked and even more often, poorly understood. In general when one has a healthy narcissistic investment in one's self, one also usually has decent self esteem, and the ability to weather various injuries to one's image of oneself. When you read the following, you should try to keep in mind that only part of what I am describing is conscious to the person; much of what makes us who we are is out of our awareness most of the time (and some of it can never be accessed.)
To better understand narcissism, you need to better understand the development of self esteem and a related concept of the "ego ideal." Early in life we take the various images we have developed of ourselves (our self representations, in Psychoanalytic terms) and merge them to form a relatively stable, and usually only moderately distorted, sense of who we are and how we fit into the world around us. If we had the good fortune to be raised by a "good enough" mother (D.W. Winnicott, again) part of our core self representation will be of the adored child, the "apple of the mother's eye" as Kohut once so elegantly put it. Many other self representations are added through the years, some positive, some negative, until we form a relatively stable, relatively realistic, core sense of who we are and what kind of person we want to be. One of Kohut's contributions was to show how the child's nascent sense of himself developed primarily in relation to the mother's sense of the child and how failures of attunement by the mother left the child at high risk for narcissistic disorders. In other words, how a mother looks at her child, especially her unconscious wishes and fears, are the most important influences on the child's developing self concept. A mother who experiences her two year old as demanding or defiant or a brat, rather than appreciating (not without some difficulty; 2 year olds have their reputation for a reason) her child's need for and push for independence, will one day discover they have a poorly behaved, impulse ridden, needy child on her hands.
[Please note, I am fully aware that I am generalizing here. Many fathers, grandparents, siblings, and others, can have a salutary effect on the child's developing self esteem. Many children, despite what we might think of as poor parenting, find a teacher, or an older sibling, or relative, who values something within them, and allows the child to flourish. You might think of my use of "mother" as a shorthand to include other nurturing objects, as well as the primary care taker.]
Clearly, there are a great many influences on the developing self representations, but for a start we are considering the impact of the mother. From the various self representations the child develops his ego ideal. The ego ideal is the collection of abilities, traits, strengths and weaknesses, that make up the person who the child wishes he could be. This will include identifications with various important people in the child's world (including fantasies of people, but that takes us farther afield) and can include famous people as well. Many adolescents and pre-adolescents long to be like their favorite athlete or movie star (though what they want to be like is their fantasy of the person based on he celebrity's carefully crafted persona. Despite the celebrity culture in this country, most people give up their longing to be someone else well before they reach adulthood.)
An example of an "ego ideal" and its vicissitudes would be someone who, as a child, wishes to be a heroic "White Knight." This "ego ideal" might include images of oneself being kind and loving, brave and steadfast, honest and chivalrous, a hero who fights injustice, protects the meek, and rescues fair maidens. A healthy outcome of such wishes and fantasies about oneself might be to become a fireman, or join the military, or become a Psychiatrist who helps people overcome their own difficulties (sorry about that; a little irony is useful at times). A less healthy outcome could be a man who can only become involved with a woman who has a drug problem, because the he can save her and gratify his rescue fantasies. When our hypothesized "White Knight" succeeds in ways which allow him to feel he is close to his "ego ideal", he feels that he has returned to his position as "the apple of his mother's eye", he is on top of the world. When he finds himself distant form his "ego ideal", he loses the glow of his mother's love and approval (now internalized) and his self esteem plummets.
In the healthy person, by adulthood, the ego ideal has been tempered by reality and includes a realistic assessment of one's abilities and attributes. (Many a "great" third grade athlete recognizes, by high school, that his two left feet render him a better bet for college than for pro sports, and is able to negotiate the metamorphosis, without too much emotional pain, of his ego ideal to more closely approximate reality.) The healthy person sees himself as lovable, likable, able to like and love others, able to do good and useful work, and adding some benefit to the community.
I will return to this topic and continue discussing what happens when normal development is skewed and pathological and malignant narcissism eventuates.