The Narcissist's Split Off Ego

Frequently Asked Question # 51

Using Jung’s language (shadow, complexes, images, archetypes, repressed material) to describe the narcissist’s early childhood

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Elsewhere ("The Stripped Ego") I have dealt with the classical, Freudian, concept of the Ego. It is partly conscious, partly preconscious and unconscious. It operates on a "reality principle" (as opposed to the Id's "pleasure principle"). It maintains an inner equilibrium between the onerous (and unrealistic, or ideal) demands of the Superego and the almost irresistible (and unrealistic) drives of the Id. It also has to fend off the unfavourable consequences of comparisons between itself and the Ego Ideal (comparisons that the Superego is only too eager to make). In many respects, therefore, the Ego in Freudian psychoanalysis is the Self. Not so in Jungian psychology.

The famous, though controversial, psychoanalyst, C. G. Jung, wrote [all quotes from C.G. Jung. Collected Works. G. Adler, M. Fordham and H. Read (Eds.). 21 volumes. Princeton University Press, 1960-1983]:

"Complexes are psychic fragments which have split off owing to traumatic influences or certain incompatible tendencies. As the association experiments prove, complexes interfere with the intentions of the will and disturb the conscious performance; they produce disturbances of memory and blockages in the flow of associations; they appear and disappear according to their own laws; they can temporarily obsess consciousness, or influence speech and action in an unconscious way. In a word, complexes behave like independent beings, a fact especially evident in abnormal states of mind. In the voices heard by the insane they even take on a personal ego-character like that of the spirits who manifest themselves through automatic writing and similar techniques."

(The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Collected Writings, Volume 8, p. 121)

And further:

"I use the term 'individuation' to denote the process by which a person becomes a psychological 'in-dividual,' that is, a separate, indivisible unity or 'whole'."

(The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Collected Writings, Volume 9, i. p. 275)

"Individuation means becoming a single, homogeneous being, and, in so far as 'individuality' embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, also implies becoming one's own self. We could, therefore, translate individuation as 'coming to selfhood' or 'self-realisation'."

(Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Collected Writings, Volume 7, par. 266)

"But again and again I note that the individuation process is confused with the coming of the Ego into consciousness and that the Ego is in consequence identified with the self, which naturally produces a hopeless conceptual muddle. Individuation is then nothing but egocentredness and autoeroticism. But the self comprises infinitely more than a mere Ego… It is as much one's self, and all other selves, as the Ego. Individuation does not shut one out from the world, but gathers the world to oneself."

(The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Collected Writings, Volume 8, p. 226)

To Jung, the self is an archetype, THE archetype. It is the archetype of order as manifested in the totality of the personality, and as symbolised by a circle, a square, or the famous quaternity. Sometimes, Jung uses other symbols: the child, the mandala, etc.

"…the self is a quantity that is supraordinate to the conscious Ego. It embraces not only the conscious but also the unconscious psyche, and is therefore, so to speak, a personality, which we also are.... There is little hope of our ever being able to reach even approximate consciousness of the self, since however much we may make conscious there will always exist an indeterminate and indeterminable amount of unconscious material which belongs to the totality of the self."

(Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Collected Writings, Volume 7, par. 274)

"The self is not only the centre but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the Ego is the centre of consciousness."

(Psychology and Alchemy, Collected Writings, Volume 12, par. 44)

"…the self is our life's goal, for it is the completest expression of that fateful combination we call individuality…"

(Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Collected Writings, Volume 7, par. 404)

In his essay “Puer Aeternus: The Narcissistic Relation to the Self”, Jeffrey Satinover sums up the differences between Freud and Jung thus:

“Freud considered that all people begin life in a blissful state he called ‘primary narcissism’. In this state, no distinction between self and world exists, hence no painful tensions in the form of as-yet-unfulfilled desires of the subject for any object; and therefore no conscious experience of drives and frustrations.

As the infant develops, it separates itself from its surroundings, and begins to experience needs for other things. As it grows, these needs put pressure on the developing ego to acquire the skills necessary to fulfil them, and so the ego adapts to object-reality. All the energy which in infancy was bound to the subject in this way slowly extends out and becomes bound up in the subject’s pursuit of objects. This process is normal development.

Freud originally described the essence of neurosis as an interruption in this smooth transition from subject-bound to object-bound libido ... (T)he childhood libido reaches out, fascinated by the objects of its desire. But being as yet insufficiently adapted to succeed, it fails to attain its goal. To compensate for this failure in adaptation, and for the consequent lack of gratification, an alternate, easier form of gratification is sought, one with which the ego is already familiar: The libido regresses and reactivates an earlier form of adaptation; it reactivates the blissful state of narcissism, now called ‘secondary narcissism’.

In this view, a narcissistic neurosis consists of the habitual seeking of gratification through self-stimulation, and the consistent refusal to take the more difficult path of adaptation, or work ... The grandiose fantasy is preferred to the modest accomplishment; the brief, idealized affair, or masturbation is preferred to the rocky, long-term commitment.

Jung’s ... modification of this idea is that the retreat to earlier forms of psychic life and behavior, to secondary narcissism, is not only or even primarily an alternate means of gratification. It is rather the necessary way that as yet unused instinctive modes of adaptation, latent within the psyche, are released. Thus, the retreat to the narcissistic state releases archetypal fantasies, and these fantasies are the representations in consciousness of inherited, but as yet unused, adaptive behaviors. The regression, therefore, is not in itself neurotic, but, rather, it is the sign of a compensatory process of the psyche, whose purpose is enhanced adaptation.

Early in his career, Jung equated narcissism with introversion. The general notion that introversion per se is pathological stems from the early Freudian idea that narcissism is a substitute employed where adaptation to object-reality, or extraversion, has failed. In consequence of his expansion of Freud’s conception, Jung separated the two terms, and the general turning inward of libido – introversion – was recognized as a servant of psychological development rather than as an enemy to it.

(In his book, Psychological Types, Jung suggested) that introversion does not occur only in response to failures of extraversion, but that the habitual turning of attention inward to the self is a normal function of the psyche which, in some individuals, actually predominates in degree over the habitual turning of attention outward to objects. To summarize, narcissism or introversion can be 1) a pathological state; 2) a compensatory response (regression in the service of the ego); 3) a normal form of psychological development.

This last idea of Jung means that there is such a thing as normal narcissism. It implies that, to some extent, narcissism or introversion is a necessary aspect of all individuals and that, like adaptation to the outer world, there is such a thing as better or worse sorts of adaptation to the inner world. That neuroses can develop which are narcissistic not in the sense that the narcissism per se is the neurotic response to failures of external adaptation, but narcissistic in the sense that they are failures to develop healthy introversion, failures to develop a proper form and degree of narcissism.”

Jung postulated the existence of two "personalities" (actually, two selves), one of them being the Shadow. Technically, the Shadow is a part (though an inferior part) of the overarching personality (one's chosen conscious attitude).

The Shadow develops thus:

Inevitably, some personal and collective psychic elements are found wanting or incompatible with one's personality (narrative). Their expression is suppressed and they coalesce into an almost autonomous "splinter personality".

This second personality is contrarian: it negates the official, chosen, personality, though it is totally relegated to the unconscious. Jung believes, therefore, in a system of "checks and balances": the Shadow balances the Ego (consciousness). This is not necessarily negative. The behavioural and attitudinal compensation offered by the Shadow can be positive.


"The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly – for instance, inferior traits of character and other incompatible tendencies."

(The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Collected Writings, Volume 9, i. pp. 284 f.)

"…the shadow [is] that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors and so comprise the whole historical aspect of the unconscious… If it has been believed hitherto that the human shadow was the source of all evil, it can now be ascertained on closer investigation that the unconscious man, that is, his shadow, does not consist only of morally reprehensible tendencies, but also displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc." (Ibid.)

It would seem fair to conclude that there is a close affinity between the complexes (split-off materials) and the Shadow.

Perhaps the complexes (also the result of incompatibility with the conscious personality) are the negative part of the Shadow. Perhaps they just reside in it, on closely collaborate with it, in a feedback mechanism. Perhaps whenever the Shadow manifests itself in a manner obstructive, destructive or disruptive to the Ego – we call it a complex. They may really be one and the same, the result of a massive split-off of material and its relegation to the realm of the unconscious.

This is part and parcel of the individuation-separation phase of our early childhood development. Prior to this phase, the infant begins to differentiate between self and everything that is not self. He tentatively explores the world and these excursions bring about a differentiated worldview.

The child begins to form and store images of his self and of the World (initially, of the Primary Object in his life, normally his mother). These images are distinct. To the infant, this is revolutionary stuff, nothing short of a breakdown of an erstwhile unitary universe and its substitution with fragmented, unconnected, entities. It is traumatic.

Moreover, these images in themselves are split. The child has separate images of a "good" mother and a "bad" mother, respectively associated with the gratification of his needs and desires and with their frustration. He also constructs separate images of a "good" self and a "bad" self, linked to the ensuing states of being gratified (by the "good" mother) and being frustrated (by the "bad" mother).

At this stage, the child is unable to see that people are both good and bad (that an entity with a single identity can both gratify and frustrate). He derives his own sense of being good or bad from the outside. The "good" mother inevitably and invariably leads to a "good", satisfied, self and the "bad", frustrating mother always generates the "bad", frustrated, self.

(continued below)

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But the image of the "bad" mother is very threatening. It is anxiety provoking. The child is afraid that, if it is found out by his mother, she will abandon him. Moreover, the "bad" mother is a forbidden subject of negative feelings (one must not think about mother in bad terms!).

Thus, the child splits the bad images off and uses them to form a separate collage of "bad objects". This process is called "object splitting". It is the most primitive defence mechanism. When still used by adults it is an indication of pathology.

This is followed by the phases of "separation" and "individuation" (18-36 months). The child no longer splits his objects (bad objects to one, repressed side and good objects to another, conscious, side). He learns to relate to objects (people) as integrated wholes, with the "good" and the "bad" aspects coalesced. An integrated self-concept inevitably follows.

The child internalises the mother (he memorises her roles). He becomes his own parent (mother) and performs her functions by himself. He acquires "object constancy" (he learns that the existence of objects does not depend on his presence or on his vigilance). Mother always comes back to him after she disappears from sight. A major reduction in anxiety follows and this permits the child to dedicate his energy to the development of stable, consistent, and independent senses of self and introjects (internalized images) of others.

This is the juncture at which personality disorders form. Between the ages of 15 months and 22 months, a sub-phase in this stage of separation-individuation is known as "rapprochement".

The child, at this stage, is exploring the world. This is a terrifying and anxiety-inducing process. The child needs to know that he is protected, that he is doing the right thing and that he is gaining the approval of his mother. The child periodically returns to his mother for reassurance, affirmation, and admiration, as if making sure that his mother endorses his newfound autonomy and independence and accepts his separate individuality.

When the mother is immature, narcissistic, or suffers from a mental pathology, she withholds from the child what he needs: approval, admiration, and reassurance. She feels threatened by his independence. She feels that she is losing him. She does not let go sufficiently. She smothers him with over-protection and indulgence. She offers him overpowering emotional incentives to remain "mother-bound", dependent, undeveloped, a part of a mother-child symbiotic dyad.

The child, in turn, develops mortal fears of being abandoned, of losing his mother's love and support. His unspoken dilemma is: to become independent and lose mother – or to retain mother and never have a self?

The child is enraged (because he is frustrated in his quest for his self). He is anxious (fearful of losing mother), he feels guilty (for being angry at mother), he is attracted and repelled. In short, he is in a chaotic state of mind.

Whereas healthy people experience such eroding dilemmas now and then – to the personality disordered they are a constant, characteristic emotional state.

To defend himself against this intolerable vortex of emotions, the child keeps them out of his consciousness. The "bad" mother and the "bad" self plus all the negative feelings of abandonment, anxiety, and rage – are "split-off".

But the child's over-reliance on this primitive defence mechanism obstructs his orderly development: he fails to integrate the split images. The Bad parts are so laden with negative emotions that they remain virtually untouched throughout life (in the Shadow, as complexes). It proves impossible to integrate such explosive material with the more benign Good parts.

Thus, the adult remains fixated at this earlier stage of development. He is unable to integrate and to see people as whole objects. They are either all "good" or all "bad" (idealisation and devaluation cycles). He is terrified (unconsciously) of abandonment, actually feels abandoned, or under threat of being abandoned and subtly plays it out in his/her interpersonal relationships.

Is the reintroduction of split-off material in any way helpful? Is it likely to lead to an integrated Ego (or self)?

To ask this is to confuse two issues. With the exception of schizophrenics and some types of psychotics, the Ego (or self) is always integrated. That the patient cannot integrate the images of objects, both libidinal and non-libidinal, does not mean that he has a non-integrated or a disintegrative Ego.

The inability to integrate the world (as is the case in the Borderline or in Narcissistic Personality Disorders) relates to the patient's choice of defence mechanisms. It is a secondary layer. The crux of the matter is not what state the self is in (integrated or not) – but what is the state of one's perception of the self.

Thus, from the theoretical point of view, the reintroduction of split-off material does nothing to "increase" the Ego's integration. This is especially true if we adopt the Freudian concept of the Ego as inclusive of all split-off material.

But does the transfer of the split-off material from one part of the Ego (the unconscious) to another (the conscious) in any way affect the integration of the Ego?

Confronting split-off, repressed material is still an important part of many psychodynamic therapies. It has been shown to reduce anxiety, cure conversion symptoms and, generally, have a beneficial and therapeutic effect on the individual. Yet, this has nothing to do with integration. It has to do with conflict resolution.

That various parts of the personality are in constant conflict is an integral principle of all psychodynamic theories. Dredging split-off material to our consciousness reduces the scope or the intensity of these conflicts. This is so by definition: split-off material introduced to consciousness is no longer split-off material and, therefore, can no longer participate in the "war" raging in the unconscious.

But is it always recommended? Not in my view.

Consider personality disorders.

Personality disorders are adaptive solutions in the given circumstances. It is true that, as circumstances change, these "solutions" prove to be rigid straitjackets, maladaptive rather than adaptive. But the patient has no coping substitutes available. No therapy can provide him with such a substitutes because the whole personality is affected by the ensuing pathology, not just an aspect or an element of it.

Bringing up split-off material may constrain or even eliminate the patient's personality disorder. And then what? How is the patient supposed to cope with the world then, a world that has suddenly reverted to being hostile, abandoning, capricious, whimsical, cruel and devouring – just like it was in his infancy, before he stumbled across the magic of splitting?

Also Read

Warped Reality

The Stripped Ego

Narcissists and Introspection

The Dual Role of the False Self

 The Narcissist's Confabulated Life

The Narcissist's Object Constancy

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