A Short History Of Narcissism
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is “a pervasive disorder characterized by symptoms that include grandiosity, an exaggerated sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy for others” according to the revised fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR). Similar to other personality disorders (bipolar, histrionic, antisocial), NPD involves a pattern of behaviors and thoughts over a lengthier amount of time that negatively impacts multiple facets of a person’s life including work, family and friendships. While the concept dates back thousands of years ago, NPD only became a recognized illness in the past 50 years.
The story of Narcissus comes from Greek mythology. Narcissus was a beautiful, proud young man. When he chanced to see his reflection in a pool of water for the first time, and did not recognize it as his own image, he became so enamored that he was unable to stop gazing at his own image. He was unable to leave the image at the water’s edge and eventually wasted away, changing into a flower that bears his name (the Narcissus flower).
This idea of excessive self-admiration has also been explored by a variety of philosophers throughout history. In Ancient Greece, the idea was known as “hubris”, which is a state of extreme arrogance and overwhelming pride that can go so far as to become out of touch with reality. It wasn’t until the 1900’s that the notion of narcissism as an illness became a subject of scientific interest in the field of psychology.
In the early 1900s, the topic of narcissism started to attract interest in the flourishing school of thought known as psychoanalysis. In 1911, Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank published one of the earliest descriptions of narcissism in which he linked it to self-admiration and vanity.
Shortly thereafter, Sigmund Freud published a paper in 1914 titled On Narcissism: An Introduction. Freud suggested that narcissism is actually a normal part of the human psyche. He referred to this as “primary narcissism”, or the energy that lies behind each person’s survival instincts. According to Freud’s theory, people are born without a basic sense of self. It is only through infancy and early childhood experiences that people develop what Freud called “ego”, or a sense of self. As children interact with others and the outside world, they begin to learn social norms and cultural expectations which leads to the development of an “ego idea”, that is, a perfect image of oneself that the ego strives to attain.
Freud’s theory of personality goes on to say that this love of one’s self could be transferred onto another person or object. By giving away that self-love, Freud believed that people then experienced diminished primary narcissism, leaving them less capable of nurturing and protecting themselves. He believed that receiving love and affection from others in return was essential to replenish the reduced supply of primary narcissism.
The History of Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Narcissism as a Disorder
During the 1960s, psychoanalysts Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut helped develop more interest and debate about narcissism with their publications. Kernberg introduced the term “narcissistic personality structure” in 1967. His theory of narcissism included three major types: normal adult narcissism, normal infantile narcissism and pathological narcissism. Pathological narcissism was the basis for NPD.
In 1968, Kohut expanded on some of Freud’s earlier ideas about narcissism and first coined the term “narcissistic personality disorder”. Narcissism played an important role in Kohut’s theory of ‘self-psychology’. He suggested that narcissism allows people to suppress feelings of low self-esteem and develop their sense of self.
In 1980, narcissistic personality disorder was officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Associations’ third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). Specific criteria were established for its diagnosis which is still debated today. There is a proposal for the upcoming 5th edition of the DSM, due for publication in 2013 that suggests removal of five of the ten personality disorders that are in the current edition of the manual (DSM IV-TR). One of those suggested for removal is narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). The proposal to exclude the disorder has caused some heated controversy, particularly among psychiatrists and psychologists currently working with clients who suffer from narcissistic personality disorder.