On Everyday Narcissism

The term narcissism was coined by Paul Nacke in 1899 to describe someone who treated his or her own body as if it were a sexual object, in lieu of having sexual desires for other people. Freud took up the term and eventually made a Spectrum Email distinction between primary (normal) and secondary (pathological) narcissism. Primary narcissism is the universal desire to protect ourselves from danger and to preserve our own lives; it has a sexual component that doesn’t preclude desire for others. People who suffer from secondary narcissism, on the other hand, “display two fundamental characteristics: megalomania and diversion of their interest from the external world — from people and things” (Freud, On Narcissism, p. 74).

Since then, the concept of narcissism has expanded beyond Freud’s original view, enlarging on the elements of megalomania and giving only secondary emphasis to the element of sexual desire. Merriam-Webster’s primary definition for narcissism is “egoism, ego-centrism,” relegating “love of or sexual desire for one’s own body” to the secondary meaning. When most people use the word today to describe someone else, they usually mean he or she has megalomaniacal tendencies: “feelings of personal omnipotence or grandeur” (Merriam-Webster again). Our use of the word often implies personal vanity, which suggests a sexual desire for one’s own body, but it’s not the primary meaning for most of us. In general, what is written today about narcissism focuses on having a grandiose self-image and an excessive need for admiration to sustain it.

As with most psychological phenomena, I believe it makes sense to talk about narcissism along a spectrum: in other words, the grandiosity and need for admiration characteristic of pathological narcissism form a milder, less dominant part of primary narcissism (Heinz Kohut has a lot to say on this subject, in case you’re interested). To a certain extent, the desire to be noticed, admired and respected by others is a type of narcissism, an everyday narcissism that doesn’t interfere with our ability to notice, admire and respect other people, and to have meaningful relationships with them. Only when that desire eclipses everything else do we enter the territory of pathological narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder.

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