A Review Of Psychological Theories On Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Narcissism is definitely not a new concept as it has been noticed as far back as thousands of years ago but only gained relevance in psychology as something worth studying in the last century. To better understand the disorder that is Narcissistic Personality Disorder, it is imperative to review some of the earliest and iconic psychologists' school of thoughts on the disorder. In that regard, I will be reviewing some of the well-recognized theories on Narcissism.

Freud’s Approach

One of the pacesetters that sparked up interest in understanding the concept of Narcissism is, Sigmund Freud. His opinions on Narcissism was first shared on a published paper titled, On Narcissism: An introduction. In his published paper on Narcissism, we can summarize what was being discussed with the following key points: In trying to understand Narcissism, Freud brought to light the concept, primary narcissism. According to him, it is a situation where it is believed humans (especially as infants) tend to direct love towards themselves than to others (although “love” was referred to as energy in his paper). In more understandable terms, that individual sees himself as the only one needing more affection than others; and in that regard, expects to receive that much love and attention from others.

Also, in his model, he recognized that the love directed to one's self is prone to depreciation when directed towards others – making the one available for one’s self to be depreciated. He also highlighted the importance of receiving as much love and affection that is shared with others, so as to maintain self-worth as an individual. Another point discussed in Freud’s model is discovering one's self. In his paper, he made mention that cohabitation and coexistence with the outside world are essential to help an individual have a sense of himself.

And finally, Freud recognized the transferability of this self-love. In his paper, this love for one’s self can be transferred to another person or object. And in this case, transferring the love can be likened to what is being experienced in a case of primary narcissism. To keep this in check, he posited that receiving love from others is very crucial.

Kernberg's Approach

Another psychologist that did as much as study and wrote extensively on Narcissism is, Kernberg, in 1967. In his paper, Kernberg viewed the average narcissist as someone that craves for love and admiration from others; that it seems as though it is what they feed on. They can do almost anything to be admired and to create that bloated sense of dominance; like no one else in the room matches up to them. In their quest for being held in high esteem by others, being admired; they lose themselves and become so self-absorbed that they become apathetic to happenings around them. In the long run, it will lead them on a path of self-destruction. Also, those with narcissistic disorder envisage high expectations for themselves; when they end up not achieving all they have in mind to achieve, and they find others that are in closely related to them recording successes, they become envious, and they plot out ways to mar their accomplishments. In summary, a clinically narcissistic individual is exploitative, apathetic to others' feelings and generally at the mercy of others' admiration to have a sense of self-worth.

Kohut's Approach

Kohut further buttressed on what Freud earlier discussed, only this time, with a fresher perspective. He recognized the existence of primary narcissism, often experienced as a child – a case where the child sees himself to be all deserving of attention – but believed that with proper parental guidance it could be taken care of before reaching to the point where it becomes a disorder. Basically, Kohut saw the possibility of the excesses being curtailed. According to Kohut, a child will grow to develop a realistic sense of self, if the parents took it upon themselves to offer appropriate praise; but in a case where there is no parent or guardian to put the child in check, the child might grow to uphold that unrealistic sense of self even to adulthood.

Cooper's Approach

Another psychologist that penned down his thoughts and opinions about the narcissistic personality is Cooper, 1984. In Cooper’s case, he brought a whole new perspective to understanding a narcissist. He believes that narcissism could be a means to an offensive end – masochism (a condition where an individual attains pleasure from pain either inflicted on him/her by others or by himself/herself). Or better put, he believes there is a relationship between narcissism and masochism. In his words, “Frustrations of narcissistic strivings lead to repara­tive attempts to maintain omnipotent fantasies.” In clinical narcissistic cases, this could make the individual have a messed up sense of self and belief system, making the individual keep striving to create a perfect image for the outside world; as a means to hide their imperfections and flaws.

Akhttar and Thomsan's Approach

Akhtar and Thomsan, 1982, were hell-bent on making sense out of the many kinds of literature already written about narcissistic personality disorder; hence they tried to write a paper that adequately puts in perspective who the narcissist is to himself and who he/she is to the outside world. According to Akhtar and Thomsan, the narcissist presents himself as charming, sophisticated and well-spoken but within, they are unsure of themselves, envious of the achievements of others, exploitative, and fundamentally incapable of loving others. Their inputs on the disparity between what the narcissist portray and who they really are have proved insightful over time and helped therapists to psychoanalyze patients with such tendencies with ease.

Gunderson’s Approach

Talking about prominent men that significantly contributed in demystifying who the narcissist is, Gunderson and Ronningstam deserve mentioning. They provided a justification or an explanation instead as to why narcissists act the way they do. In their books, the lots of narcissists are usually known to record successes in their endeavors, and because of that, they feel somewhat superior to their contemporaries. They also revealed that narcissistic patients are usually wary of others because they feel every other person out there is set out to destroy their achievements and harm them; making them socially recluse sort of.

Stone's Approach

Like Kohut, Stone was more interested in the roots; he wanted to see how the upbringing of the narcissistic patient played a role in shaping them up to be narcissists. His input is very similar to what Kohut had to say. Stone believed, children generally seek approval and gratification especially from parents; but the parents approach towards handling the situation is very vital in determining whether the child will grow up being a narcissist or not. According to Stone, when the parent showers excessive praises to their child, it could give rise to a bloated sense of superiority; and when the parent shows indifference about the child’s little victories, the child could grow up putting up an image he wishes for himself but within all he/she feels is emptiness.

Leary's Approach

Timothy Larry, 1957, gave insights based on his interactions or sessions with narcissistic patients to help understand them better. According to him, the narcissistic patient is usually negatively competitive that every opportunity is an avenue for comparison among their peers. The patient is generally wary of dependence, usually considers himself as self-sufficient and opposed to any form of meaningful relationship between himself and others.

Benjamin’s Approach

On demystification of the narcissistic personality, Benjamin (1993) in her work, had these to say about the narcissistic personality:

The narcissist often presents themselves as self-sufficient and but they are highly susceptible to criticisms or rejections and usually craves for love and affection.

The narcissist expects everyone to be at their beck and call; to be worshipped like royalty and be given all their heart desires without considering how it will affect others. They are basically self-absorbed. One example given is that he/she will expect dedication and overwork from others without considering how this defaulted pattern affects their lives.

Beck and Freeman’s Approach

According to them, the narcissistic patient goes the extra mile to acquire substantial addendums – like power, wealth, etc. – to help them better reinforce that above image of themselves on others and make themselves feel more special than they already are. But the twist here is since they expect to be treated specially – you know, because of who they believe they are – they tend to exhibit anger when others don’t conform. Which could eventually lead to a deflated sense of self and depression in the long run.


One way or the other, you will find out that, irrespective of the perspective each theorist viewed the narcissist from, there seems to be some similarity shared between the theories mentioned above. All of them, basically made inputs to help us understand who narcissists really are.

01 February 2021
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