Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Thin-Skinned or Vulnerable Narcissism and Thick-Skinned or Grandiose Narcissism: Similarities and Differences †

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Thin-Skinned or Vulnerable Narcissism and Thick-Skinned or Grandiose Narcissism: Similarities and Differences †

Article excerpt

Introduction

The term "narcissism" is generally used at the clinical level to indicate a tendency toward the grandiose self-affirmation, along with a lack of awareness or consideration toward the other. These ideas were already present in early clinical work on the topic. In 1931, Freud (1990) described a narcissistic character that differentiates men who impose themselves upon others as "personalities," able to both support others and take on the role of leader. Similar ideas are found in the pioneering contributions of Reich [1933] (1945). Reich identified the existence of a phallic/narcissistic character that expresses itself through arrogance, self-confidence, and dominant attitudes. The idea that exaggerated self-affirmation accompanies a devaluation of the importance of the other is consistent with the Freudian metapsychological conception that the narcissistic libido and object libido behave like a system of communicating vessels, such that an increase in one leads to a decrease in the other.

Over time, other ways of observing the clinical phenomena typical of the narcissistic pathology and of conceiving of its nature have arisen. For example, for Kohut (1977), it is not that the narcissistic libido becomes object libido, but rather that both follow their own paths of development throughout life. In archaic narcissism, the other does not lose his or her importance; rather, narcissistic transferences, whether they are grandiose or idealising, show that the other, experienced as a self-object or as part of oneself, plays a fundamental role. Many of these ideas have greatly influenced many currents of contemporary relational psychoanalysis, yet they are in opposition to those of other authors, such as O. Kernberg, who prioritise the role of aggression and the primitive defences that limit the possibility of developing profound relationships. For Rosenfeld (1971), too, pathological narcissism is characterised by an omnipotent, envious, and destructive self. French psychoanalysis took a different direction. If we consider each author's perspective we find that while Kohut emphasises the immature character of pathological narcissism, and Rosenfeld and Kernberg focus on aggression, Green (1994) highlights the phenomena of disobjectalisation, which distinguishes thanatic narcissism from trophic narcissism. Similarly, Lacan emphasises the immobilising role of the movement of desire, blocked by the aspiration to completeness.

We particularly focus here on a distinction on which authors from diverse theoretical traditions agree; namely, the differentiation between thick-skinned or grandiose narcissism (GN) and thin-skinned or vulnerable narcissism (VN). Although this distinction has been made by many authors, its importance for psychoanalytic theory and clinics has not been sufficiently discussed in the current international literature. Therefore, we do not compare the different metapsychological approaches to the clinical forms of narcissism described in the text; instead, the focus of our contribution remains in the clinical field. We emphasise the significance of some of the clinical and theoretical problems that arise from recognising the vulnerable forms of narcissism and the importance of discussions about their relation to the classical forms of grandiose narcissism. It is no longer possible to think about narcissism merely as the phenomenon of a return from the libido to the ego, nor can we focus exclusively on grandiosity or equate such grandiosity with an aggressive disregard of the other. The distinction between different forms of narcissistic phenomena enriches our psychopathological understanding and therapeutic approaches and helps to better understand the complexity of the processes that underlie recognition of the self and of the other. From a theoretical point of view, we want to highlight a model of thought in which the psyche is conceived of as an open and dynamic structure. From this position, the self/other, internal world/external world dialectical relationship emerges as important for the constitution of narcissism and of both its grandiose and vulnerable aspects. …

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