CriticaLink | Freud: On Narcissism | Reading Guide for I: 73-76

The importance and extensiveness of the topic…

In this last section, Freud sums up the principal points of "On Narcissism" and speculates on some of their implications for an understanding of human society. He recapitulates his discussions of the

  1. formation of the ego and the ideal ego,
  2. the role of narcissism in love, sexual relationships, and self-concept,
    and concludes by reflecting on how his proposed model of narcissism can inform our understanding of
  3. group psychology.

The Formation of the Ego

According to Freud, we are not born with an ego; our sense of "having a self" evolves during infancy and early childhood. That evolution entails the disruption of primary narcissism brought about by the creation of the ideal ego, which in turn is brought about by intrusions from the outside--in most cases, from parental proscriptions and expectations. Fulfilling the expectations of the ideal ego is one source of libidinal satisfaction for the ego. For an extension and revision of Freud's theory of the formation of the ideal ego, see Jacques Lacan's "The Mirror Stage".

Narcissism in Love, Sexual Relationships, and Self-Concept

As the ego is developing, it is directing libido outward to objects (early on, to the mother, and later to other family members, people, and objects). Its narcissisim is depleted in this action, but is restored by the love returned to it by the objects of its love.

According to Freud, our self-concept (our sense of ourselves, including our confidence, our pride, and our sense of attractiveness to others) stems from three sources:

  1. the residue of our original primary narcissism, which never fully disappears;
  2. our fulfillment of the imagined expectations of our ideal ego (for example, our sense of being "virtuous";
  3. the satisfaction we get when our love is returned to us.

Freud seems to imagine early infancy as a realm of existence in which what we desire is fully integrated into what we are, where there is no separation between ego- and object-libido. It is a return to this state, he claims, that we are striving for in our pursuit of happiness. Returning to his treatment of idealization, Freud suggests that since this ideal (an unattainable) condition is what we are looking for in our sexual and emotional lives, every object of our desire is idealized.

How we idealize our love objects may, in some cases, have to do with deficits in our own egos. If we feel we have lost a particular fine quality, or feel that we have never possessed it, we may look for it in those we love. Freud describes a particular problem that arises in cases like these. A person suffering from a neurosis may attempt to regain narcissistic satisfaction by directing his or her love toward someone who represents the fulfillment of the neurotic's own ideal ego. Freud calls this "the cure by love," and reports that some patients leave analysis when they find a suitably ideal love-object, and continue their "therapy" in their relationship with that person. While Freud does not condemn such a solution, he cautions that it may well lead to the former patient's excessive dependence upon his or her partner.

Group Psychology

The final paragraph of the essay suggests that the theory of narcissism, and in particular the concept of the "ego ideal," is important for understanding group dynamics. Like individuals, groups have collective ideal senses of themselves, in which individuals of the group invest their own mental energies. Freud returns to his discussion of the repression of homosexual desire as a major component in the formation of the ideal ego. He suggests that the persistance of homosexual libido results in a pervasive sense of social guilt, which for him explains a number of features of mental illnesses such as paranoia and the paraphrenias. Here, as he does throughout the essay, Freud seems to take for granted the social prohibitions of his time. While he is quite open to the possibility of radical developments in science (recall his premonitions about the importance of genetics), he appears less able to imagine a social order in which gender and sexual relations take very different forms from the ones sanctioned in early-twentieth-century Vienna.

The discussion questions raise a number of issues about Freud's theory of narcissism as it concerns individual development, gender identity and sexuality, and social organization.