Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism,” 1914

Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction (1914),” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1925), 67-102.

Complete original source available here.

This excerpt comes from an essay in which Freud introduced the concept of primary narcissism and described it as being a normal, perhaps universal, human experience in infancy. The feeling of being “His Majesty the Baby” and living at “the centre and core of creation” gave infants the wonderful, if illusory, feeling of being all-powerful and completely independent. It also resembled autism. Freud used primary narcissism to elaborate a model of human development in which the effort to control, organize, and direct sexual instincts (libido) played a leading role. The essay commented on the fundamental relationship between the developing self (ego) and external “objects,” by which Freud meant people.

Sigmund Freud

A pressing motive for occupying ourselves with the conception of a primary and normal narcissism arose when the attempt was made to subsume what we know of dementia praecox (Kraepelin) or schizophrenia (Bleuler) under the hypothesis of the libido theory. Patients of this kind, whom I have proposed to term paraphrenics, display two fundamental characteristics: megalomania and diversion of their interest from the external world—from people and things….

The question arises: What happens to the libido which has been withdrawn from external objects in schizophrenia?….  The libido that has been withdrawn from the external world has been directed to the ego and thus gives rise to an attitude which may be called narcissism….

Let me insist that I am not proposing here to explain or penetrate further into the problem of schizophrenia, but that I am merely putting together what has already been said elsewhere, in order to justify the introduction of the concept of narcissism.

This extension of the libido theory—in my opinion, a legitimate one—receives reinforcement from a third quarter, namely, from our observations and views on the mental life of children and primitive peoples….

Once more, in order to arrive at an understanding of what seems so simple in normal phenomena, we shall have to turn to the field of pathology with its distortions and exaggerations…..

A third way in which we may approach the study of narcissism is by observing the erotic life of human beings, with its many kinds of differentiation in man and woman. Just as object-libido at first concealed ego-libido from our observation, so too in connection with the object-choice of infants (and of growing children) what we first noticed was that they derived their sexual objects from their experiences of satisfaction. The first auto-erotic sexual satisfactions are experienced in connection with vital functions which serve the purpose of self-preservation. The sexual instincts are at the outset attached to the satisfaction of the ego-instincts; only later do they become independent of these, and even then we have an indication of that original attachment in the fact that the persons who are concerned with a child’s feeding, care, and protection become his earliest sexual objects: that is to say, in the first instance his mother or a substitute for her. Side by side, however, with this type and source of object-choice, which may be called the ‘anaclitic’ or ‘attachment’ type, psycho-analytic research has revealed a second type, which we were not prepared for finding. We have discovered, especially clearly in people whose libidinal development has suffered some disturbance, such as perverts and homosexuals, that in their later choice of love-objects they have taken as a model not their mother but their own selves. They are plainly seeking themselves as a love-object, and are exhibiting a type of object-choice which must be termed ‘narcissistic’. In this observation we have the strongest of the reasons which have led us to adopt the hypothesis of narcissism….

We have, however, not concluded that human beings are divided into two sharply differentiated groups, according as their object-choice conforms to the anaclitic or to the narcissistic type; we assume rather that both kinds of object-choice are open to each individual, though he may show a preference for one or the other. We say that a human being has originally two sexual objects—himself and the woman who nurses him—and in doing so we are postulating a primary narcissism in everyone, which may in some cases manifest itself in a dominating fashion in his object-choice…..

The primary narcissism of children which we have assumed and which forms one of the postulates of our theories of the libido, is less easy to grasp by direct observation than to confirm by inference from elsewhere. If we look at the attitude of affectionate parents towards their children, we have to recognize that it is a revival and reproduction of their own narcissism, which they have long since abandoned…..

The child shall have a better time than his parents; he shall not be subject to the necessities which they have recognized as paramount in life. Illness, death, renunciation of enjoyment, restrictions on his own will, shall not touch him; the laws of nature and of society shall be abrogated in his favour; he shall once more really be the centre and core of creation—‘His Majesty the Baby’, as we once fancied ourselves. The child shall fulfil those wishful dreams of the parents which they never carried out—the boy shall become a great man and a hero in his father’s place, and the girl shall marry a prince as a tardy compensation for her mother. At the most touchy point in the narcissistic system, the immortality of the ego, which is so hard pressed by reality, security is achieved by taking refuge in the child. Parental love, which is so moving and at bottom so childish, is nothing but the parents’ narcissism born again, which, transformed into object-love, unmistakably reveals its former nature.

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