Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Egocentrism and the Cognitive Psychotherapy of Personality Disorders

Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Egocentrism and the Cognitive Psychotherapy of Personality Disorders

Article excerpt

The concept of cognitive egocentrism provides useful guidelines for the cognitive psychotherapy of personality disorders. The patient's imaginary audience- and "personal fable" (aspects of egocentrism that are normally overcome in late adolescence, according to developmental psychologists, and that unhealthily permeate the thinking of adult personality disorders) may be effectively selected as targets for the therapist's assessment and intervention. This paper illustrates the hypothesis that therapy should involve criticism of the imaginary audience first, and that this should be followed by exercises of interpersonal perspective-taking. These first steps allow for deliberate, responsible self-disclosure in interpersonal relationships that the patient may wish to develop in the direction of growing degrees of intimacy. The experience of healthy relationships seems necessary in order to relinquish the personal fable.

In developmental psychology, "egocentrism" means the inability to deal with multiple perspectives simultaneously, and therefore the lack of the capacity to differentiate between one's point of view and the point of view of others (Elkind, 1967; Flavell, 1963; Rosen, 1985). Egocentrism is obviously a limiting feature in cognitive-emotional development and declines as long as the cognitive growth proceeds. This decline is gradual, but not linear. In periods of life crises and existential changes, as for instance in adolescence, egocentric behavior may increase dramatically after having decreased in frequency because of the preceding cognitive growth (Rosenroll, 1987). If the crisis is overcome successfully, egocentrism is further relinquished with the conquering of a higher level of cognitive growth. Egocentrism limits the knowledge of both inner and outer realities: The proper understanding of one's emotions and thoughts, not only the understanding of the emotions and thoughts of other people, is hindered by cognitive egocentrism (Baldwin & Holmes, 1987; Elkind, 1967, 1974, 1985; Enright & Deist, 1979; Fenigstein, 1984).

The concept of egocentrism should be taken in its purely cognitive meaning, and be carefully distinguished from that of selfishness, egotism and narcissism, which imply emotional and motivational components. Egocentrism and selfishness or narcissism may or may not go hand in hand during development and in psychopathology. An infant is egocentric but it would be inappropriate to consider it egotistical. A child's normal love for its parents is not necessarily narcissistic-it may be, rather, an instance of cooperative partnership (Bowlby, 1982, pp. 352-356)-although how parents are known by their children is certainly an egocentric kind of knowledge. To give an example pertaining to developmental psychopathology, children forced to assume an inverted protective relationship with their parents (compulsive caregiving) (see Bowlby, 1980, p. 222-224) certainly think in an egocentric way, but their feelings, motivations and actions could hardly be labeled selfish or narcissistic.

In this paper it will be argued that the concept of egocentrism may provide fertile grounds for the understanding of psychopathological phenomena in general, and for the treatment of adult personality disorders in particular.


At the beginning of cognitive development, egocentrism implies the inability to discriminate one's perceptions of a given object from other people's perceptions of the same object: The child is totally unaware that others may have different viewpoints regarding a given object. The child, during the sensory-motor stage of cognitive development construes all of reality with the self as the only possible model (see Ravell, 1963, for explanations of this and other Piagetian conceptions of cognitive growth).

Later on in childhood and in adolescence, egocentrism is gradually overcome at the perceptual level, but it still persists at more abstract levels of cognitive operations. …

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