Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members. Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.
Jung and Others on Narcissism
“… narcissist… a term specifically coined for the pathology of neurosis.”
“In general, meditation and contemplation have had a bad reputation in the West. They are regarded as a particularly reprehensible form of idleness or as pathological narcissism. No one has time for self-knowledge or believes that it could serve any sensible purpose…. nobody has drawn any conclusions from the fact that Western man confronts himself as a stranger and that self-knowledge is one of the most difficult and exacting of the arts.” Jung (1955)
“To meet the criteria for NPD, the DSM-5 requires at least 5 out of the following 9 characteristics to be met: grandiosity; fantasies of unlimited power and success; sees self as ‘special’ and only associates with others of high status; needs admiration; has a sense of entitlement; is interpersonally exploitative; lacks empathy; is envious of others; or appears arrogant.” Cruz & Buser (2017)
The terms “narcissism” and “narcissist” appear frequently in current media. These terms were rarely used by Jung, turning up only four times in Jung’s Collected Works. In half of those four instances, Jung refers to Freud’s attitude and use of the term, in ways that Jung clearly disagreed with. Just what narcissism means, its features and why it is significant for us to know about are the subjects of this essay.
Definitions of Narcissism
The dictionary defines “narcissism” as “excessive love of oneself;” in the context of psychoanalysis: “gratification manifested in admiration and love of oneself, usually associated with infantile behavior and regarded as abnormally regressive in adults.” Quoting Sigmund Freud, it adds: “In my opinion, narcissism is the libidinal complement of egoism.” The etymology of the word, like so many technical terms in psychology, is ancient, drawing upon the myth of Narcissus, a young man of cruel, self-absorbed temperament, who saw his reflection in a pool of water, fell in love with himself and died.
Jung regarded “narcissism” as “a term specifically coined for the pathology of neurosis.” That is, he saw it as one pathological form of “a dissociation of personality due to the existence of complexes.” He did not agree with Freud that it was always linked to the “pleasure principle,” nor did he appreciate how it often was associated with Introversion. People who are Introverts by innate temperament are no more to be regarded as narcissists than others: relishing solitude, meditation and contemplation does not make a person a narcissist.
Current psychological theory labels narcissism as a one form of “personality disorder.” In general “Individuals diagnosed with a ‘personality disorder’ have a chronic, maladaptive way of engaging with others. They tend to react to their environment in rigid and unchanging patterns that lead to negative consequences….” In other words, the lives of people with this condition tend not to work very well.
This does not mean a narcissist never succeeds. Quite the contrary: Given his/her confidence and flair for self-dramatization, the narcissist often becomes a leader, but often the disorder breeds failure: “The narcissistic leaders who have fared worse throughout history,… fell prey to unbridled greed and grandiosity, were puffed up by their own vision and initial success, and isolated themselves from advisers who could help them from self-destructing.”
Features of Narcissism
Greed, grandiosity, inflation and isolation are just some of the features of narcissism. Others are: “an absence of empathy,… a need for being admired by others throughout adulthood. … a sense of superiority, viewing themselves as better than others; look[ing] at others with a sense of disdain and perceiv[ing] others as inferior [to] themselves; … see[ing] themselves as unique and overly important and often exaggerate[ing] their achievements,… [being] unmoved by others’ suffering…. hav[ing] difficulty seeing how their actions can harm others or how someone might feel in a particular situation.”
The “bible” of the psychological profession is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a compendium that is updated periodically, now in its fifth edition. It is the standard reference work for diagnosticians, and, in regard to a possible diagnosis of narcissism, the DSM-5 lists 9 characteristics an individual might have, with a minimum of five being required to assign that diagnosis.
These nine are:
grandiosity: being affected or pompous; pretentious; inflated
fantasies of unlimited power and success: these often result in the narcissist attaining a position of leadership, e.g. Napoleon, with eventual destructive consequences, since all life on the physical plane has limits
seeing oneself as ‘special’ and associating only with others of high status, e.g. filling a cabinet with CEOs of major corporations and military generals
needing admiration, as in rallies and public appearances before thousands of fans
having a sense of entitlement, e.g. operating under the assumption that one is deserving of only the best, the choicest, the rarest, regardless of others’ needs or preferences
being interpersonally exploitative, e.g. using people to get what he/she wants, with little thought to reciprocity or the others’ needs
lacking in empathy, i.e. the inability to feel concern, compassion or caring for others and what might be going on in their lives; the narcissist often feels free to “fire” people with impunity
envying others, i.e. “feeling discontent or ill will at another’s good fortune…; dislike for a person who has what one wants”
appearing arrogant, i.e. inflated, puffed up, full of oneself
Given our current “epidemic” of narcissism, it is very likely that you may know or have heard of someone who manifests some of these traits.
Besides these traits, there are seven myths that students of the phenomenon associate with narcissism. Note: “myth” is used here not as Jung defined the term (i.e. as an important “libido transformer” or life-directing story) but in our more common usage as an “invented story,” i.e. a statement that is not true. Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, in The Narcissism Epidemic, identify these seven myths:
“Narcissism is ‘really high’ self-esteem.”
fact: The narcissist may think very highly of him/herself, but in reality s/he is no more moral, caring, compassionate than others, and s/he lacks perspective: the narcissist does not have close relationships that help to keep the ego in check.
“Narcissists are insecure and have low self-esteem”
fact: in scientific research, narcissists think they are “awesome,… good, wonderful, great, right, “but believe that caring about others isn’t all that important.” “… narcissism is not about deep self-loathing or low self-esteem, but a confidence in individual achievement areas paired with a neutral or negative attitude toward closeness and emotional intimacy with others.” As a personality disorder narcissism cannot be cured with even more self-admiration.
“Narcissists really are great/better looking/smarter”
fact: Twenge & Campbell state that “there isn’t much evidence that narcissists are any better on average… Overall, narcissists believe that they are smarter and more beautiful than they actually are.”
“Some narcissism is healthy.”
fact: “you can like yourself just fine without loving yourself to excess.”
“Narcissism is just physical vanity.”
fact: the key word here is “just:” narcissism includes far more than vanity, e.g. materialism, entitlement, aggression when insulted, and a lack of interest in emotional closeness.
“You have to love yourself to love someone else.”
fact: love involves feelings of warmth, caring and passion, commitment, loyalty–all qualities which narcissists are not able to manifest.
“You have to be narcissistic to be successful.”
fact: in most settings, narcissists actually aren’t that great at winning, because true success in life includes more than just the big title, corner office, private jet, and billionaire wealth; it requires possessing values like empathy, compassion, wisdom, emotional intelligence and tact.
Our current media are full of accounts of narcissists who display the trappings of “success,” with few or none of the values marking psychological health and spiritual wholeness. Given this prevalence of narcissism in our public life, it is important for us to be aware of this form of psychological pathology.
Why It is Significant for Us to Know About
For both personal and collective reasons we need to be aware of narcissism and the narcissism epidemic. On the personal level, it is very likely that we see and/or deal with narcissism in daily life, e.g. in social media, advertising, reality shows on television, and among friends and family. Given the popularity and seeming ubiquity these days of the cell phone, many of the younger generation are manifesting some of the traits of narcissism, like self-absorption and lack of empathy. TV shows like “The Apprentice,” “Survivor” and “The Real World: San Francisco” have presented narcissistic characters. You Tube and MTV also present us with narcissistic images. Why does this matter? Because many people–especially young people–take their cues, and their values–from such programs, in the absence of parental guidance and adult modeling of non-narcissistic behavior. Jung would remind us that narcissism is a pathology, i.e. a disease, a form of illness that compromises the quality of life. It is not something to which we should aspire, but rather is a phenomenon that we should condemn.
Doing so, however, is not easy, given that it would require that independence of mind which Jung felt was essential, if we hope to individuate. This is because our whole society now is suffering under narcissism. Our political leaders manifest it to a greater or lesser degree, prompting the American Psychoanalytic Association recently to remind its 3,500 members that they (unlike psychiatrists) are not bound by the “Goldwater rule.”
The “Goldwater rule” was created in 1973, after the 1964 Presidential election, when Barry Goldwater was labeled unfit to be president by some psychologists. A lawsuit followed, prompting the rule that forbid psychiatrists from diagnosing any public figure they had not personally evaluated. The current egregious display of narcissistic traits by some politicians have led the APA to implicitly encourage psychoanalysts to express their professional opinion as to the fitness, or lack thereof, of public figures. As a result, in the future, should we again be in the position, as voters, of choosing between the “corrupt” and the “crazy,” we might be able to do so with the imprimatur of the medical community, instead of relying only on our own assessments.
Cruz, Leonard & Steven Buser (2017), A Clear and Present Danger: Narcissism in the Era of President Trump. Asheville NC: Chiron Publications.
Jung, C.G. (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press
________ (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1959), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1966), “The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature,” CW 15. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.
Singal, Jesse (2017), “It’s Time to Retire the ‘Goldwater Rule’,” New York Magazine (July 26, 2017).
Turkle, Sherry (2015), Reclaiming Conversation. New York: Penguin.
Twenge, Jean & W. Keith Campbell (2009), The Narcissism Epidemic. New York: Simon & Shcuster.
 Collected Works 15 ¶102. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 CW 14 ¶709.
 Cruz & Buser (2017), x-xi.
 In CW 15 ¶102; CW 14 ¶709; CW 11 ¶770; and CW 10 ¶340. In general, Jung was far less interested in labeling patients (i.e. sticking a diagnosis on them) than he was in understanding the teleology (i.e. the goal or direction the psyche was seeking.). Of course, Jung did not have to deal with insurance companies.
 I.e. CW 11 ¶770 and CW 10 ¶340.
 World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1286.
 Bulfinch (1959), 88-89.
 CW 15 ¶102.
 CW 18 ¶382.
 Cw 10 ¶340.
 Cw 14 ¶709; cf. CW 11 ¶770.
 Cruz & Buser (2017), x.
 The DSM-3 appeared in 1987; the DSM-4 in 1994; and the DSM-5 in 2013.
 Cruz & Buser (2017), x-xi.
 Ibid., x.
 As we see in the current (2017) White House cabinet.
 As we see with some politicians and rock stars.
 E.g. on the TV show “The Apprentice.”
 World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 659.
 Twenge & Campbell (2009), x; an “epidemic,” in the sense of a collective, widespread, communicable condition, with four “legs” or vectors: self-esteem-focused education and permissive parenting; our “media culture of shallow celebrity;” the Internet and social media; and easy credit, which encourages people to live above their means.
 Cf. CW 6 ¶355 and Jung (1965), 3 & 171.
 World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1283.
 Twenge & Campbell (2009), 24-30, 40-56 & 211-229.
 Ibid., 24.
 Ibid., 24-28.
 Ibid., 28.
 Ibid., 29.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 213.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 107-122, 270-271.
 Ibid., 97-99, 161-162, 184-187, 193.
 E.g. “My Super Sweet 16” show; ibid., 100.
 Turkle (2015), 3, 33, 360-361.
 Twenge & Campbell (2009), 100.
 Ibid, 98.
 CW 15 ¶102.
 Cf. CW 7 ¶264 & CW 9ii ¶48.
 Singal (2017).
 These were how some voters perceived the choices in the 2016 Presidential race.
 If you want a rough gauge of your own level of narcissism, answer the following questions “yes” or “no” (from Twenge & Campbell, (2009), 20-21). Would you like to rule the world, feeling that you’d make it a better place? Do you like to be the center of attention in a crowd? Do you prefer to live any way you want? Do you enjoy showing off your body? Do you feel dissatisfied with your life, feeling that you are not getting all that you deserve? Do you think you are a special person? Do you find it easy to manipulate people? Do you show off if you get the chance? Do you think you are an extraordinary person? Do you enjoy having authority over others? Scoring: If you answered “yes” to 5 or more of these questions, you have scored average or above in narcissism.