Secondary Narcissism & Freudian Subjectivity

Alasdair Cannon
12 min readJan 17, 2023


An essay I wrote for the Concepts in Psychoanalysis Module, undertaken as part of Birkbeck, University of London’s MA in Psychoanalytic Studies.

‘Without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutely destroyed…’

Jacques Derrida (1987).

I Introduction

Ever since Freud (1914) introduced his idea of ‘secondary narcissism’ to the psychoanalytic literature, clinicians, patients and theorists have been troubled by otherness. Secondary narcissism is the psychic process whereby one exchanges an object-cathexis for the ‘cathexis of the ego with libido’ and so turns away from the world’s alterity and towards internal representations (Freud, 1914, p.85). At its pathological extreme, Freud believed, secondary narcissism prevents one from forming transference relations, making them inaccessible to psychoanalytic therapy (Freud, 1914 p.74). As Freud intended, the concept seemingly explains the detached megalomania of narcissistic patients (Freud, 1914, p.74). Yet it has difficulties explaining the constellation of relational behaviours that so often orbit self-absorbed grandiosity. The narcissistic patient’s need for closeness with others they idealise, for others’ admiration and mirroring, or to denigrate them in turn (Kohut, 1966, pp.88, 96–100; Kerberg, 1970, p.71): these phenomena reveal a continuing need for a ‘relation to the other’ (Derrida, 1987). Far from exhibiting a lack of object-relations, we may better describe the narcissistic patient’s behaviour by inverting Derrida’s (1987) proposition: ‘without a relation to the other,’ it seems, ‘the narcissist would be absolutely destroyed’.

Freud’s theory of secondary narcissism struggles with its relation to the other. As such, we shall reevaluate it against a standard Freud once endorsed. A psychoanalytic concept’s validity, said Freud, lies in its power to ‘produce order and clarity’ in the ‘raw material of observation’ (1933, p.81). Valid psychoanalytic concepts must have hermeneutic efficacy (Kohut, 1977, p.144; Pulver, 1970, p.324). On his own terms, Freud’s concept of secondary narcissism is only partially successful. It certainly provides a rich and radical account of how human subjectivity is constructed through its relation to otherness. Yet it ultimately fails to explain critical elements of the narcissistic pathology that it supposedly produces: namely, the transference patterns identified by Kohut (1966) and Kernberg (1970). To fit the clinical facts the theory must be reformulated: like a narcissistic patient, its relation to otherness demands rehabilitation.

II The Development of the Concept of Secondary Narcissism

The term ‘narcissism’ originally appeared in the 19th-century sexology literature to describe auto-erotic sexual pathology; Freud first made written references to the concept as early as 1910 (Smith, 1985, p.489). But it wasn’t until 1914 that Freud published his first sustained psychoanalytic treatment of narcissism: ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’. Several considerations motivated the paper’s production: namely, the similarities he observed in the object-choice of homosexuals and of people who take themselves or their bodies as sexual objects, alongside the need to extend his libido theory to explain schizophrenics’[1] megalomania and disinterest in ‘the external world… people and things’ (Freud, 1914, pp.73–74). Narcissism, he believed, could explain these phenomena.

First exploring schizophrenics’ grandiosity and self-absorption, Freud said their condition results when their libido attached to objects is ‘withdrawn from the external world’ and redirected ‘to the ego’. This process produces a (sexual) overvaluation of the ego at the expense of the external world and results in the aloof megalomania that characterises ‘the attitude called narcissism’ (1914, pp.74–75). Freud then designated this ‘drawing in of object-cathexes’ to be the ‘secondary’ form of narcissism, differentiating it from the ‘original’, ‘primary’ ego-cathexis leftover from childhood development (1914, pp.74–75). Finally, and in a move that was decisive for his theory’s explanatory validity, he argued that there is an economic ‘antithesis between ego-libido and object-libido’ (1914, p.76). Investing libido in the ego has an opportunity cost — our libidinal investment in objects — while secondary narcissism underpins this exchange of objects and otherness for self.

Using his economic theory of secondary narcissism, Freud rapidly argued that it undergirds ‘a whole number of mental states’ and processes (Freud, 1917a, p.417). Beneath the banner of secondary narcissism, he united phenomena whose only shared feature was increased introversion: the withdrawal from the world required for sleep; the attention one gives to organic pain; hypochondria; schizophrenic grandiosity and self-absorption; homosexuals who ‘take themselves’ as their love-objects; the woman’s loving preoccupation with herself; and the reductions and enhancements in self-regard that respectively follow from loving and being loved (1914, pp.82–90, 98–100).

Following this, he considered the varied temporal manifestations of narcissistic self-love and concluded that it can attach to what is absent or other. We can love what we are at present, said Freud. Yet we can also love what we were, would like to be, or ‘someone who was once part’ of ourselves (1914, p.93). These considerations led him to propose the existence of an ‘ideal ego’ within the psyche. Developed at greater length in 1923’s ‘The Ego and the Id’, the ideal ego informs the ego’s aspirations, censors its activities, and acts as a target for intrapsychic libidinal cathexis (1914, pp.90–93, 96–98). Most critically for psychoanalytic practitioners and their patients, Freud’s ‘economic’ vision of secondary narcissism also led him to conclude that narcissistic patients were ‘inaccessible to the influence of psychoanalysis’ (1914, p.74). Narcissistic patients lacked object-cathexes, Freud believed: at the pathological extreme, their object-libido that became ‘narcissistic’ ego-libido ‘cannot find its way back to objects’ (Freud, 1917a, p.421). Pathological narcissism stopped patients from forming the transference relationship required for analytic therapy (Dare & Holder, 1981, p.324). For Freud, secondary narcissism induced psychic autarky in the subject: it inhibited or severed their connection to others, to the outer world, to otherness as such, leaving them beyond help or cure.

In the years after Freud published ‘On Narcissism’, theoretical developments complicated Freud’s vision of the narcissistic psyche’s isolation. Narcissistic patients certainly appear self-obsessed. Yet their introversion often belies their interest in otherness: instead of targeting the ego itself, Freud realised, object-libido exchanged for ego-libido often targeted representations of external objects ‘introjected’ or ‘set up’ inside the ego (1921, pp.109, 114). Such ideas followed from his study of melancholic depression, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, where he said melancholia relied on ‘the process of regression from narcissistic object-choice to narcissism’ (1917b, p.250). In this paper, Freud said that subjects who lose their narcissistic object-cathexes can regress towards a ‘narcissistic identification’ with their lost object. Secondary narcissism then leads the object-libido displaced by the loss to cathect the subject’s ego, now identified with the lost object (Freud, 1917b, pp.248–250). In melancholia the ‘shadow of the object’ falls ‘upon the ego’, Freud famously said (1917b, p.249). In other words, ‘narcissistic reappropriation’ (Derrida, 1987) supports the subject’s introjection and cathexis of a lost object that now exists only as a psychic representation, as a ‘shadow’ on the ego. Secondary narcissism, then, underpins the melancholic defence against loss. Yet the defence ultimately subverts the narcissistic bid for self-enclosure for it does not simply isolate the self. In melancholia, the ego internalises what was formerly external to it, leaving it ‘disfigured’ by otherness (Lambert, 2005, p.57). Narcissistic libido, then, targets an ego forever marked by traces of the other.

When he published ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, Freud ‘did not appreciate the full significance’ of this narcissistic-melancholic process (Freud, 1923, p.28). Yet by 1923’s ‘The Ego and the Id’, Freud had realised secondary narcissism was central to the development of human subjectivity. As a subject matures, Freud argued in this publication, it must repeatedly renounce its object-cathexes. Drawing on his ideas from ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, he concluded that these renunciations provoke the melancholic introjection of the forgone object. The freed object-libido then transforms ‘into narcissistic libido’ that the psyche uses to cathect the lost object’s representation (1923, p.28–30). As before, secondary narcissism underpins this process, and Freud recognised that it always causes ‘an alteration’ in the subject’s ego (1923, p.29). Yet here, he extends his theory by recognising the effects of the subject’s repetition of this process. Reiterated many times, including at the Oedipal phase’s conclusion where the superego forms, narcissistic-melancholic introjection gradually transforms the ego into a ‘precipitate of abandoned object-cathexes’. Ultimately, it determines ‘the form taken by the ego’ (1923, pp.28–29, 31–34). The subject’s ego develops by its melancholic defence against loss, said Freud: as such, secondary narcissism enables the process of ego-formation.

After 1923, the process Derrida (1987) called the ‘movement of narcissistic reappropriation’ was central to Freud’s account of human subjectivity. Secondary narcissism now enabled the ego’s construction from otherness. As such, Freud’s concept suggests that human subjectivity is never self-generated; it says there is no ‘self-sufficiency of consciousness’ (Lacan, 2006, p.80). Rather, the Freudian subject originates through its relation to alterity — to others and otherness. In a word, it is a heterogeneous or ‘heterological’ entity (Bielek-Robson, 2007, p.198). Clearly, then, Freud’s concept of secondary narcissism allows us to reject all narcissistic delusions where ‘the subject forgets that she is not self-generated’ (Roussillon, 2010, p.822). It also supports the deconstruction of accounts of subjectivity premised on notions of self-enclosure or self-identity: otherness always already stains our ‘I’. And beyond this, the Freudian subject stands against the kind of Cartesian solipsism that doubts the mind’s connection to others (Descartes, 1996). Freud’s theory sets him ‘at odds with any philosophy directly stemming from the cogito’, wrote Lacan (2006, p.75): this opposition emerged precisely because he did not deny the history of the subject. Unlike his predecessors, Freud saw that we grow through the accretion of otherness. We are heterogeneous, he says: herein lies his concept’s radicality.

III Limitations

Through his account of secondary narcissism, Freud depicts a human subject constituted and defined by its relation to others. Despite this, and work showing how narcissistic processes sustain human group relations (Freud, 1921), he neglects relational aspects of pathological narcissism. As discussed, Freud believed that ego-libido was antithetical to object-libido. ‘The more of the one is employed,’ he wrote, ‘the more the other becomes depleted’ (Freud, 1914, p.76). Thus the narcissistic patient is grandiose, interpersonally aloof (Abenheimer, 1945, p.323), and forms neither object-cathexes nor transference relations (Freud, 1914, p.72). This economic vision of secondary narcissism seems sufficient for some instances of narcissistic personality disorder; Jones’ (1923, pp.204–226) isolated narcissist beholden to his ‘God Complex’ comes to mind here. Yet others who display the self-absorption and grandiosity suggestive of a narcissistic hyper-cathexis of the ego manifestly do not lack object-relations. Indeed, ‘some of the most intense narcissistic experiences’, wrote Kohut (1971, p.xiv), ‘relate to objects’. Instead of pure self-absorption, narcissistically disturbed patients exhibit at least three kinds of transference. They often demand that others give ‘mirroring and echoing’ responses to their grandiose self-displays and express a desire for closeness with idealised figures, two patterns of object-relations Kohut called the ‘mirror’ and ‘idealising’ transferences (1966, pp.88, 96–100). Elsewhere, Kernberg identifies a third pattern of aggressive denigration of others. ‘What appears as distance and uninvolvement on the surface,’ he writes, ‘is underneath an active process of devaluation, depreciation, and spoiling’ (1970, p.71). While these forms of transference are certainly ‘disturbed and atypical’ (Russell, 1985, p.145), they nonetheless reveal the narcissist’s powerful need for others.

If Freud’s economic theory of secondary narcissism correctly described the aetiology of narcissistic disorders, grandiosity and self-obsession should not accompany such intense object-relational involvement with others. Moreover, there should not be any such transference relations present in these patients, nor should analytic therapy have the efficacy Kohut (1966, pp.264–270) describes. Yet on each count we observe the opposite. Instead of psychic autarky, there is demanding dependence; we find relations where one expects isolation; others and alterity abound where absence should prevail. Freud’s ‘economic’ theory of secondary narcissism, then, ‘does not appear to hold up clinically’ (Stolorow, 1975 p.182). These relational behaviours are alien, other, to Freud’s theory. Concerning others and otherness, then, the concept of secondary narcissism lacks the hermeneutic efficacy valid psychoanalytic concepts require.

IV Conclusion

Herbert Rosenfeld (1964, p.333) once wrote that narcissism is a psychological defence employed to deny one’s dependence on others. The defence seeks the erasure of ‘anything that comes from another’; it also obliterates the traces of that process of erasure (Roussillon, 2010, pp.822–823). The narcissistic patient believes, must believe, they are independent. But this is an illusion obscuring their continued dependence on otherness Kohut (1966) and Kernberg (1970) so clearly detected. Freud’s concept of secondary narcissism allows us to pierce the narcissistic illusion: his radical account of psychic development through ‘narcissistic reappropriation’ shows how the ego’s origin lies in alterity, in others. To Freud, the narcissistic patient who believes they are self-sufficient denies their history: herein lies the great strength of his concept. Despite his sensitivity to otherness, Freud concluded that narcissistic patients lack object-cathexes. Doing so, he apparently succumbed to their narcissistic illusion and failed to detect the clinical facts that revealed their need for others. Consequently, his theory lacks hermeneutic efficacy.

Had it adhered to Freud’s formulations, psychoanalytic theory and practice would remain in thrall to this narcissistic illusion — ‘narcissized’, to borrow from Roussillon (2010, p.835). As such, psychoanalysts must do for their theories what Roussillon (2010, p.822) suggested for the analysis of narcissistic patients. First, they must follow Freud and remember how secondary narcissism reveals our origins in otherness. But then, instead of following Freud into the narcissistic illusion, they must see how the narcissistic patient, being born of alterity, continues to live through it today.

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Alasdair Cannon

Writer / Author. Debut book, Holding Patterns, out now via Bonfire Books.