Narcissism (Kernberg)

Kernberg describes the significance of object-relations on self-esteem regulation and pathological narcissism.


Key Concepts

Otto Kernberg’s theories have been instrumental in the continual development of the ‘Object-relations theory’ of psychology. This field of thought, developed by Melanie Klein in the mid 1900s, is one of the central schools of thought stemming from Freud’s psychodynamic theory. It emphasizes early interactions between infants and their primary caretakers (i.e. objects). These interactions are internalized over time as mental constructs and thus affect self concept and the nature of future relationships.

Kernberg has left numerous marks on object-relations theory, including his theory on narcissism, a form of transference based psychotherapy, a developmental model, and a construct for analyzing personality organization (most notably, borderline personality organization). His work on narcissism is often contrasted with that of Kohut, which although discusses similar phenomena, is marked by opposing points of view.

In Kernberg’s theory on narcissism, he focuses on the effect of object-relations on self-esteem[1]. He refers to narcissism as a basic structure of typically developing individuals. He defines it as libidinal investment of the self. Practically, it refers to the way in which self-esteem is regulated. Various forms of narcissism are discussed, as delineated below.

Normal adult Narcissism

Normal adult narcissism is considered the narcissism characteristic of typically developing individuals. This state is achieved to due the existence of healthy object relations. Meaning, the individual has experienced positive relationships with early caretakers, and has thus internalized a positive mental concept of the self and of others (objects).

A by-product of positive object relations is an integrated sense of self. The individual is able to cope with ambivalence and with the coexistence of good and bad in individuals and the self. Furthermore, the superego is adaptive and able to cope with disparity between the self and ideal self. Thus, a stable self concept is formed that can readily regulate self-esteem from within. Individuals who present normal adult narcissism have an inner voice which tells them they are good enough. With this basis, individuals can be active and effective players in their lives, and have a stable moral system while expressing innate drives such as aggression and sexuality in acceptable ways.

Normal infantile narcissism

As children develop, their objects relations and self concept are not yet fully integrated. Therefore, their regulation of self- esteem is partly focused at external gratification. In order to feel good about themselves, they need others to admire them or their possessions. However, at an early stage of development, this is age appropriate.

Regression to infantile narcissism

This is a pathological form of narcissism in which the superego has remained infantile, and thus maintained childish values and ideals.

Narcissistic personality disorder

This is the classic narcissistic pathology[2]. These individuals present aberrations in self-love, expression of love to others, and a deviant moral system and superego. Self- love refers to characteristic self absorbance. They are grandiose, and fantasize about excessive success in love, beauty, happiness, and influence. However, their self-love is excessively unstable and relies exclusively on praise and admiration of others.

When the environment does not respond as expected, or when they perceive an inability to achieve their grandiose aspirations, they come crashing downwards with intense feelings of worthlessness, depression, and extreme anger. Relationships are usually functional in nature, as they are necessary for regulating the narcissists’ self-esteem. When they perceive that others have achieved or own something that they haven’t, they present extreme envy and work toward destroying the object or achievement of the other by devaluation. They have a tendency to take advantage of others in order to feel superior. This precludes the ability to form stable and long lasting relationships.

According to Kernberg, this pathology develops as a result of early pathological object relations, which result in negative and ambivalent internalized mental images of the self and other. The defense mechanism characteristic of this state is splitting, a primitive method where the self and others are regarded as either entirely good or entirely bad. Having been let down by early relationships, the narcissist develops a mechanism where he becomes self sufficient by creating a pathological symbiosis between the self, the ideal self, and the ideal object. Meaning, in fantasy, the narcissist unifies the desires he has of himself and other, and therefore does not need others.

However, by taking the ideal self from the superego and unifying it with the self, the superego is weakened and becomes overly strict. Thus, it becomes increasingly difficult for the individual to pass the superego’s high standards. Taken together with the fact that the narcissist does not have comforting object relations to fall back onto, failure becomes imminent and debilitating. When they manage to override the strict ambitions of their superego they feel on top of the world, but when they don’t manage to get there, they come crashing down with no internal structure telling them they are good enough.

Additional Resources and References



  1. Kernberg, O. F. (1985). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. Rowman & Littlefield.
  2. Kernberg, O. F. (1993). Severe personality disorders: Psychotherapeutic strategies. Yale University Press.