Narcissism, Ego, and Self: Kohut – a Key Figure in Transpersonal Psychology

By Schipke, Timothy | Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Narcissism, Ego, and Self: Kohut – a Key Figure in Transpersonal Psychology


Schipke, Timothy, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology


Pathological narcissism is endemic to our times. Whether preoccupation with the self is a cause or effect of narcissism, narcissistic character traits have become culturally and individually widespread. This fact is confirmed by recent psychological meta-studies (Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell, & Bushman, 2008). Despite the potentially toxic effects of unrestrained narcissism, balanced, healthy narcissism is necessary to psychological health, according to both Freud and Kohut (Freud, 1914/2012; Kohut, 1966). Narcissism seems to be biologically inherent to life itself. In his own practice, Kohut (1977) specialized in the most severely pathological forms of narcissism, and his extensive experience in treating narcissistic disorders led to his views on the centrality of the self, which at the time were heterodox to psychoanalytic theory. Kohut ultimately embraced ideas that were very similar to the ideas of Jung regarding the self and its unknowable, transpersonal nature (Jacoby, 1981).

Although I address theoretical views on narcissism from psychoanalytic, analytical, and transpersonal schools, the central focus is Kohutian self-psychology. The central tenets of Kohutian self-psychology affirm both the suprapersonal nature of the self and the possibility that narcissism can be transcended through a developmental process that results in what Kohut referred to as "cosmic narcissism." With his novel, ground-breaking theories regarding the innermost genesis and structure of the self, Kohut successfully extended psychoanalytic thought to the boundaries of transpersonal psychology. Kohut bridged psychoanalytic, analytical, and transpersonal psychology. Although the underlying theoretical differences separating these schools are pronounced, Kohut's views provide integrating themes that can potentially help bring together psychoanalytic theories of ego development and transpersonal accounts of the transcendent aspects of the self.

Narcissism

Individual and Collective Aspects of Narcissism

Since Freud's time, narcissism and increasing preoccupation with the self have gradually become prominent as a Western and particularly as an American cultural phenomenon. Narcissism became a byword in the 1970s for cultural critics of American affluence and consumerism and was extended, perhaps erroneously, as an overly reductionist critique of complex societal ills (Lunbeck, 2014). In any case, the narcissification of both the individual and society, with accompanying negative consequences, seems to be increasing apace. Clinical tests designed to measure narcissistic personality traits, such as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), show that emphasis on self-esteem in child-rearing and in school systems has contributed to a marked increase in the self-esteem of eleven- to thirteen-year-olds, which is currently 93% higher than it was in 1980 (Twenge & Campbell, 2009). These tests indicate the potential for a continued increase in social and cultural problems stemming from excessive and unhealthy forms of narcissism.

Narcissism manifests simultaneously in the realms of the individual and the collective (Lasch, 1979). As Twenge & Campbell note,

Every culture is shaped by its fundamental core beliefs, and in America today there are few values more fiercely held than the importance of self-admiration. Most of us don't tattoo it on our bodies, but it is tattooed on the flesh of cultural beliefs. (2009, p. 26)

Individual and collective expressions of narcissism are interrelated and interdependent. As Lasch (1979, p. 34) observed, "Every society reproduces its culture- its norms, its underlying assumptions, its modes of organizing experience- in the individual, in the form of personality." Much the same point was made by Durkheim (2005), who held that personality is the individual socialized.

Inner subjective manifestations of unhealthy narcissism, as observed through a psychoanalytic lens, can provide a deeper understanding of the social aspects of narcissism. …

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