Psychoanalysis teaches us that we are all narcissistic creatures at a very early age. The baby feels that he is the center of the universe, that he/she is the most important one, that he is omnipotent. In this stage of development parents are perceived as being immortal, all-powerful, that they only exist to fulfill the needs of the children, to protect and feed them. Babies see themselves, but others also, in an immature, idealizing manner. This stage is called primary narcissism in psychoanalysis. Inevitably, conflicts appearing throughout life lead to a certain degree of disillusionment. If this process is abrupt, inconsistent, unpredictable, capricious, intense or arbitrary, then the hurts suffered by the child's self-esteem can become severe and often irreversible. Moreover, when the essential empathic support offered by those who take care of the baby - parents or other substitutes, primary objects in psychoanalysis - is missing, then the feeling of one's own value and self-esteem tends to fluctuate between overvaluation (or idealization) and under-evaluation or devaluation, both of oneself and the others.
Narcissistic grown-ups are considered to be the result of a terrible disappointment, of radical disillusionment towards the close ones during childhood. Healthy adults realistically accept the fact that they do have certain limitations and can successfully face failures, disappointments, critiques and disillusionments. Their own self-esteem and own values are constant and positive, they are not permanently and consistently affected by the exterior circumstances.
Within psychology, primary narcissism is a mechanism of defense that is quite common in the first years of life - from 6 months to six years of age. It has the purpose of protecting the child from unavoidable wounds and fears which are implicated in the process of separation and individualization, meaning the process by which the baby becomes a separate and individual entity.
Secondary or pathological narcissism is a way of thinking and behaving during the adolescent or adult period which implies conceit, self-obsession and excluding others. Narcissism can manifest by permanent following of self-gratitude, of gaining attention, by personal dominance and ambition, lack of sensitivity towards others, bragging, lack of empathy or excessive dependence on others on a day-to-day basis.
Pathological narcissism is at the core of narcissistic personality disorder. When an individual, regardless of his/her age, comes across an insurmountable obstacle in the progress of personal development from one stage to another, he/she will regress to the infantile narcissistic stage rather than to face those difficult circumstances. In the regression, the person acts childishly, immaturely, like he/she were omnipotent, judges his own powers in a wrong way, underestimates difficulties and pretends to know it all. Thus, the sensitivity towards other people's needs and emotions he/she feels towards them can get seriously deteriorated. Such a person can become intolerably arrogant, with sadistic and paranoid tendencies and above all, that person looks for unconditional admiration to the eyes of others. Narcissistic preoccupations can include phantasms, magical thinking or day-dreaming by which such people tend to exploit others because they feel jealous of them.
The basic function of the secondary, reactive and transient type of narcissism is to encourage the individual to engage in a kind of magical way of thinking in order to avoid problems, to sort of bewitch life's problems or to face them from an omnipotent stand. Personality disorders may appear when the repeated attacks on the obstacle continue to fail especially when the recurring failures take place in the personality formation stages - i.e. from 0 to 6 years.
The contrast between the temporarily occupied fantastic world and the real one in which the individual keeps on feeling frustrated is too strong for him to face it in the long run. Because of that, this dissonance leads to the unconscious decision to feel justified to live within this world of fantasy and grandiosity.
Narcissism is a defense mechanism. Narcissistic people fail to see others as being made of good and evil elements. They either idealize the others, or they devalue them completely. They tend to see things in black and white. So the good characteristics get internalized, whereas the "evil" ones are projected unto the other. These are the main characteristics of narcissism and knowing them will help us deal with people that we are in relationships with and have this difficulty, knowing more about their condition.