In Defense of Narcissism

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EXCERPT: [...] The Americanization of Narcissism, by the historian Elizabeth Lunbeck, is a deeply researched account of the long and complicated life the concept of narcissism has had among psychoanalysts, as well as its short, oversimplified one at the hands of the social critics who in the 1970s chose to make polemical use of it. As such, this book is by way of being a corrective. Its author seeks to rescue narcissism from the distortions she feels it has been subjected to by the critics who, instead of addressing the noisy discontent of their time with sympathetic interest, sought only to castigate it, and in the process did irreparable harm to any working definition of narcissism that was ever in analytic use.

“From the beginning,” Lunbeck writes, “analysts used narcissism to account for the best and worst in us, to explain our capacities for creativity and idealism as well as for rage and cruelty, our strivings for perfection and our delight in destructiveness.” In its fullest sense, narcissism is a complicated theory of human development that, to begin with, includes a description of the healthy selfishness that an infant or a youth demonstrates in seeking to stand on its own two feet. When one matures, this infantile selfishness drops away as one becomes an independent person with a proper respect for one’s own needs as well as the needs of others. When the process goes off the rails, and there is a failure to mature, elements of primitive self-involvement linger on throughout one’s adult years. Then, if a person is dominated by infantile self-absorption, we say they have narcissistic personality disorder.

In America, in the 1970s, two eminent analysts became famous for arguing the polarizing characteristics of narcissism—on the one hand it was normal, on the other pathological—and the analyst who argued for the pathological won the day....

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