This essay attempts a phenomenological study of ordinary, day-to-day manifestations of narcissistic dynamics. Despite the importance to psychoanalysis of Freud’s careful explication of everyday-life evidence of unconscious defensive processes (1901), analysts have naturally tended to give greater attention to more obvious and serious psychopathologies, the kinds for which people come to them for help. We propose in this article to revive the Freudian tradition of scrutinizing what is ostensibly mundane and commonplace, addressing those aspects of narcissistic pathology in ourselves and others that invade daily life, in both the personal and professional spheres, often rendering it less gratifying, more bewildering, and lonelier than it might be.


We assume that the reader brings to this essay some basic familiarity with psychoanalytic ideas about the narcissistic conditions. We do not intend to take a position on the etiology of narcissistic disorders, or to offer a particular technical stance for their treatment, or to lament, in the tradition of Lasch’s work (e.g., 1978), the seeming increase in narcissistic phenomena in our culture as a whole. Instead, we shall start with the premise that the organizing task of the various narcissistic defenses is the preservation of what has usually been called the grandiose self (after Kohut, 1971), and then go on to portray in concrete terms what kinds of activities that preservation effort entails. In particular, we shall focus on the apparent inability of the person who needs to protect an internal sense of grandiosity either to apologize (i.e., to express genuine remorse) or to thank (i.e., to express genuine gratitude). We shall then depict a number of defensive maneuvers that a narcissistically motivated person may use in lieu of expressing remorse or gratitude, and comment on the typical effects that these operations have on the objects in such a person’s world. In the spirit of Levinson’s (1987) pursuit of the particular,” we shall try to attend to the specific and the observable.


It is interesting how little psychoanalytic writing exists concerning commonplace emotional processes like thanking and apologizing. In researching the literature for this paper, we could find only one article, respectively (Heilbrun, 1972; Kubie & Israel, 1955), on each of these topics. Few analysts seem to have enjoyed explicating the unconscious sources of everyday phenomena like humor or forgetting in the disciplined but readable way that Freud did (a notable exception is Theodor Reik, e.g., 1963, on love and its familiar vicissitudes), probably because the case for the ubiquitous influence of unconscious processes on everyday transactions has been made to the satisfaction of most of us, and our overriding interest is the application of our concepts to patients. Humorists have probably exposed the narcissistic origins of most human interactions far better than analytic theorists have.

Two comments may orient the reader to the perspective of this paper. While we believe that some of our observations may have implications for psychotherapy technique, this is not an article about working therapeutically with patients who have narcissistic pathology. To the extent that our ideas have relevance to clinical work, they will probably be more pertinent to the treatment of people emotionally involved with others who rely regularly on narcissistic defenses ñ the “gaslighted” rather than the “gaslighters” (Calef & Weinshel, 1981). Although it will not be a central focus here, we believe a convincing case can be made that the objects of narcissistic processes can increase their own autonomy, and increase the genuineness and thus the realistic self-esteem of narcissistic others, by refusing to play the pathological reciprocal role that narcissistic behavior typically induces. To step out of that role, they must be able to conceptualize what is “coming at” them.


Second, we are departing somewhat from the tone of much of the current literature on narcissism, which, because it is about treating patients with pathological self-structures, observes narcissistic processes from a position of sympathetic identification with the person who manifests them. Our exploration of the nuances of narcissistic operations will be conducted primarily from a position of identification with the objects of these subtle and often malignant processes. In explicating what might be considered the typical dilemmas of “victims” of narcissistic operations, we do not want to be misunderstood as minimizing the suffering of the “perpetrators” of narcissistically motivated acts.