What is the ‘narcissistic defense’?

The interesting thing about modern psychoanalysis is the way we perceive schizophrenia and many of the major mental illnesses.  There is a term coined by Dr. Spotnitz and it’s called the narcissistic defense.

The idea is that a baby is frustrated, can’t communicate, needs the mother (the object) to fulfill it’s needs. It’s guess work much of the time. What starts to happen in certain cases is the baby will have the feeling from the mother that the mother can’t handle the aggression, the crying, the screaming, so they turn it inward to protect the mother. They turn it on themselves.  This is the narcissistic defense and we all do it to some extent. We blame ourselves for what’s going on around us.  The ultimate example is schizophrenia. I think it’s both biological and it’s nurture. I don’t think just anyone is going to suffer from schizophrenia. That’s the ultimate narcissistic defense where you disable your brain so you won’t do anything disruptive to your primary object.

The narcissistic defense is a very interesting concept. One of the things that is interesting about modern psychoanalysis is that it’s nice that the patient likes the therapist, but you start to really make progress when the patient can be vocally angry with the therapist: Put those thoughts and feelings into words and realize the therapist is not going anywhere. The therapist is still there for them, still supportive, something they didn’t get in their earliest years. That becomes a corrective experience for them to realize this object, “hey wait a minute I attacked them verbally, they didn’t go anywhere. They still care and they’re still helping me.” I think that’s very curative.

The other thing I think is that much of who we are is formulated pre-verbally in the first couple years of life and in utero. We always thought in utero was such a happy wonderful nine months.  It’s not necessarily the case. A lot of chemicals cross the uterine lining, stress hormones, so it’s a little different than what we used to think. Once you’re four or five and something goes wrong you have language, you can process it, you can think about it, you can talk about.

What happens when something goes wrong at one year old? How do you process that? How do you think about that? Where does that go? To me that goes back here and affects who we are and how we behave. I think it was Dr. Spotnitz who once told me a great little story. He said the reason we talk is that the more we talk the more things sort of percolate out of the unconscious and will not necessarily affect our behavior. He said if I was to hypnotize you and say “tomorrow at 2:00 you’re going to cluck like a chicken.” I bring you out of it and tomorrow at 2:00 you will cluck like a chicken because it’s lodged in your unconscious.  It affects your behavior.

Take that same scenario and I say “tomorrow at 2:00 you’re going to cluck like a chicken.” I bring you out of it. I say “by the way, I just hypnotized you and said tomorrow at 2:00 you’re going to cluck like a chicken.” Now I’ve moved that from the unconscious to the conscious realm. Now it’s not happening unless you decide you want to cluck like a chicken on your own. That’s the idea that the more you’re taught how we behave, who we are, what we do, what we think, how we act is all unconsciously motivated. The more you talk in a therapeutic relationship, not necessarily that you’ll remember things, but it frees up the unconscious to not have so much control without your being more aware of your behavior. ~ Rafael Sharón, NCPsyA, SCPsyA, Psychoanalyst in Princeton NJ