Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Beyond Narcissism: Ideal Child Development

Originally posted on April 21, 2008

This mini-essay is aimed at broadening our sense of what the core motivations are for children (and adults). The Freudian view has been excessively reductionistic, and even more contemporary efforts to expand the set of what are considered to be core motivations don’t go far enough. The concept of “primary narcissism” in particular is a profoundly misleading term, because in its essence it suggests an assumption of egocentricity as a dominating theme. Admittedly, this is a factor in young people, but the point to note is that egocentricity operates only partially. There are other dynamics that interact and are equally important!

Imagine a healthy child in a “good enough” environment and how she develops a distribution of enjoyments:
– a feeling of belonging not only with primary caretakers, but distributed also to peers, certain other adults, a neighborhood, and to some degree wider circles of affiliation—identities, religion, cultures, planetary, spiritual.
– a feeling of effectiveness in the belonging, of participation
– a feeling of performance, of showing off, being enjoyed, having an audience (closer to the more general meaning of narcissism)
– an enjoyment of being an audience to others’ performances, including the performances of animals and Mother Nature, wonder, excitement, curiosity, etc.
– an enjoyment of one’s own body and its vitality, movement, and extensions into art, dance, wordplay
– the enjoyment of play, exploration, testing limits, expansion of mind-body
– a deepening of awareness, opening to intuition, imagination, and connectedness with soul, spirit, inner stirrings, “the God within,” sources of inspiration
– opportunities for regression, relaxation, comfort and comforting, security, dreaming
– and so forth.

In short, a happy kid is liking, loving, enjoying, differentiating, rejecting, playing with, trying out, trying on, challenging, and extending all dimensions of life. To repeat, calling this “narcissism” (even with a qualification that it can be healthy) nevertheless focuses on an excessively reductionistic, one-dimensional view of motivation, and, frankly, I wonder how much those who come to think in these terms forget the importance and vividness of the other not-so-egocentric forms of delight.

Psychoanalysis in particular, as a school of thought, has erred in the direction of over-emphasizing the individual, with some overlap into somatic and close interpersonal fields. It has—with some exceptions, such as the work of Erich Fromm—tended to neglect the powerful involvements and interactions with larger social networks, groups, organizations, and culture in general. (Alfred Adler’s concept of community feeling or social interest – he called it “Gemeinschaftsgefühl”—as the truly healthy goal does fit with (and influenced) my suggestion above of the importance and deeply rewarding dimension of wanting to participate and contribute to the group.) The development of children should not be viewed as being dependent on primary caretaker interrelations because these are rapidly transcended and relationships with siblings, playmates, extended family, other social networks, toys, nature, mass media, and so forth soon become part of the enjoyment, manipulation, participation, and meaning of life.

Narcissism in the sense of excessive self-regard (i.e., “secondary narcissism”) emerges as an over-development of the elements of performance and the sense of value in one or just a few of these, especially relating to what Jung called the “persona,” the outward appearance and stance. In Adler’s terms, narcissism relates to the need to feel superior—based on an inner feeling of emptiness or inferiority— instead of a more secure balance of the aforementioned range of enjoyments. (The emphasis I’m giving in this mini-essay is on the variety of types of input and opportunities for output, giving, participating, doing; also there’s an emphasis on the need for such a variety, analogous to the need for a variety of types of food and vitamins.)

When healthy development does not proceed for reasons of trauma, emotional, cognitive, or physical deficiencies, illness, significant interpersonal conflicts, overwhelming frustrations, and other problems, the life force tends to make the most of whatever resources are available. Generally, this coping strategy becomes unbalanced, overemphasizing certain elements and understandably—given the circumstances—avoiding, splitting off, numbing, denying, suppressing, or neglecting other aspects of life. Many different characterological styles, neuroses, and other patterns may be viewed as having this kind of etiology.

The point to emphasize is that the sources of enjoyment and efficacy are broad and that it becomes misleading to impose a premature oversimplification of theory. progressing in this way.

The major implication of all this, though, is that healing might be better promoted if a wider range of “psychic nutrients” are included. The one-to-one analysis may proceed for years with no investigation or encouragement of vocational development, clarification of social interests, play, spiritual interests, and so forth, and this would be the equivalent of trying to re-nourish a person who has been starving by calories, which, though important, may yet lack other essential nutrients, such as vitamins or protein.

In summary, I suggest that we give up using the misleading term “primary narcissism” and instead simply talk about healthy child development, noting its many facets. There’s a lot more going on than simple the vicissitudes of self-esteem.

One Response to “Beyond Narcissism: Ideal Child Development”

  • Maximilian says:

    Hi Adam,
    I like your clear and simple lists!
    Could you expand on that point?
    “exploration, testing limits, expansion of mind-body”?

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