On the Dynamics of Narcissism


One of Brodeys most theoretical pieces - and the last one written in psychoanalytic jargon. Without making his cybernetic influences too visible, Brodey presents narcissism as an information-processing dysfunction.

The disturbances to which a child’s original narcissism is exposed, the reactions with which he seeks to protect himself from them and the paths into which he is forced in doing so—these are themes which I propose to leave on one side, as an important field of work which still awaits exploration.—Freud (1914, p. 92)


This paper has its beginning in a study (Brodey, 1959) of fourteen families, each having a schizophrenic young adult member and most including father, mother, and siblings. These families were observed in their daily living in residence in a research hospital, the period of residence varying from six months to two and a half years.

A subsequent four years of clinical work with other family units treated for a variety of problems, together with the study (Brodey, 1962) of a group of families, each stressed by the birth of a blind child, has inspired critical elaboration of the themes presented originally. What follows rests on a correlation of these clinical observations.

What is special about the operations of these families? This question arose every day for two and a half years as I worked with the hospitalized families. I attempted to develop concepts with which to begin to map this new territory. Fully aware of the bias and distortion introduced by the hospitalization, I valued the opportunity to explore families in were directed to integrating commonly known clinical information (the products of many different techniques of observation) with what I observed daily in these families. I hoped to find a simple and useful formulation and looked for the words that would encompass the outstanding special features of what I saw. It seemed to me that many variables depended on two major characteristics:

In each member of these families, there was extreme individual narcissism. This was expected; but it was not anticipated that such narcissistic people could be so powerfully bound together within the family unit. This extreme intensity of relationship required explanation.


The term “narcissism” is now a part of the common language; in its wide usage it has acquired many meanings. But the roots of the idea “narcissism” are epitomized in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

As I bent down to look, just opposite, A Shape within the watry gleam appeerd Bending to look on me, I started back, It started back, but pleasd I soon returnd, Pleas’d it returnd as soon with answering looks Of sympathie and love, there I had fixt Mine eyes till now, and pin’d with vain desire...”[1]

Narcissus is not aware that he is looking at his own image. To him, his love has an external object; it is answering looks of sympathy and love that lead him to pine with vain desire.

An intense relationship exists between Narcissus and his distanced reflection. This is not a relationship with another—-it is interpersonal only as described by Narcissus. Narcissus can love only himself. The image of himself seen reflected at a distance is called an as-if other.[2]

Externalization is a defense of the narcissistic, preobject period of ego development. It makes possible a way of life based on relationships with unseparated but distanced aspects of the self. What is perceived as reality is an as-if reality, a projection of inner expectation. The senses are trained to validate; the intense searching for what is expected dominates and forces validation. It is difficult not to validate an unquestionable conclusion. Each validation makes the conclusion even less questionable. The restricted reality perceived is experienced as though it were the total world. A special kind of learning is needed to hold this restricted world intact. The narcissistic person learns to manipulate reality to conform with his projection. His experiments are designed to make prior conclusions inevitable. Within this framework his world is reasonable. This way of life becomes a system of survival.


Working with a family unit makes it possible to observe directly a way of family life that holds—indeed clutches—at its very core the function of externalization. Externalization is a mechanism of defense defined by the following characteristics:

1. Projection is combined with the manipulation of reality selected for the purpose of verifying the projection (Brodey, 1959).

2. The reality that cannot be used to verify the projection is not perceived.

3. When this mechanism is prominent in a stable group where people are learning from each other (as in a family), information known by the externalizing person but beyond the Umwelt[3] of the others is not transmitted to these others except as it is useful to train or manipulate them into validating what will then become the realization of the projection (Brodey, 1961).[4] Reality testing is subverted in this process. Interlocking systems of externalization shared in a family potentiate disturbed ego development.

As may be the case with other defenses, externalization so extreme as to fix the cathexis and prevent energy from flowing to later defense structures becomes a way of life. The budding narcissism of the child and thus his earliest movement toward a beginning of self-other separation are destructively disturbed by this way of life.

Externalization is more easily defined by the observer of the family unit, though it is equally significant in individual psychoanalytic therapy.[5]


The difference between transference and externalization becomes apparent to the expert therapist as he comes to realize that for the patient he has no meaning beyond the patient’s expectation. What is left out has never been cathected and thus is not repressed. The full power of the problem envelops him as he feels the intensity of his patient’s effort to manipulate him into validating projections. He feels the conflict as he struggles against this manipulation. But behavior that will be used as validation seems the only way to gain relationship.

The manipulation of the therapist into behavior that is symmetrical with the projection is different from the transfer of feelings to a therapist. The transference object has an existence to the patient beyond the transference. The therapist as a narcissistic extension has no other existence to the patient; the therapist must match the expected answering looks—otherwise, to the patient, he does not exist. Even if the therapist does not wish to conform, he still finds himself conforming to the narcissistic image. For no matter what he does, pieces of the therapist’s actual behavior irrelevant to the therapist’s self-identity are seized on by the patient, to whom they are predominant as-if characteristics. The identity that the patient sees may 9be unknown to the therapist (although it holds a kernel of truth [Freud, 1911], which is usually disturbing to the therapist). The therapist’s active denial of the patient’s presumption may serve as confirmation of the as-if identity, particularly because the patient, constricted to his own externalized image and expectation, does not perceive the context of other characteristics.

But if the therapist gives back only what is expected, he is merely a reflection. Although the patient’s relationship with his own reflection in its as-if-therapist manifestation may be intense (Searles, 1963), he is out of contact with the existent therapist (that is, the therapist seen without the errors introduced by narcissistic perception). Therefore, the therapist of the ego-disturbed patient must become skilled at managing his congruence with the patient’s projected image. This management is often intuitive and usually very demanding emotionally. Being a distorted object is much easier than being nonexistent.


The Narcissus myth provides a poetic analogue useful in describing the original self-other separations and their later repetitions.

Freud (1914) conceived of the original process of separation in intrapsychic terms. He speaks of the gradual movement of energy from mouth to intrapsychic percept of the breast as the early paradigm of the movement of narcissistic libido to object libido. He describes the hallucination and the wish as mediators in this process.

The intrapsychic genetic approach, when combined with interpersonal family observations, leads to the dynamic formulation of one form of altered ego development commonly seen in those unable to establish adequate object relationships. These dynamic considerations extend theory to catch in its net clinical data which, although felt to be important, have previously not been structured.

To build this approach I shall begin with the child’s maturing relationship toward his differentiating percept of the parent, then proceed to the parents’ unfolding relationship toward their percept of the child. Finally, I shall attempt a conceptualization of the mutual relationship between child and parent in the family unit.


The infant at first does not distinguish between stimuli perceived in his internal and external environments. Narcissus, too, does not realize that he is in love with his extension; he does not know inside from outside. This differentiation and separation must be learned (Bruch, 1945). This process of differentiation, which I have called developmental learning,[6] takes place, I believe, as follows:

1. In the first or differentiated tension stage of ego development,[7] instinctual energy is directed only by the differentiation of pleasant and unpleasant states of being. It does not differentiate in terms of aim and object. Outside experiences remain diffuse except as they are experienced in terms of total tension level.

Distance and time are not patterned into information. “Nipple” is a tension-change memory. Absent “nipple” wished for is “unpleasant.”

The experience of undifferentiated tension-tension release is gradually defined by the mother’s response as she answers the infant’s activities—grasping of the nipple, sucking, digestion, and snuggling. The child and mother’s patterning of these activities in relation to the child’s pleasure-pain experiences moves the differentiation toward including specified aims in the next phase.

The rhythms of this physiological experience are patterned into the sense of time, and the tensions become localized in separate focal body areas where there has been more defined sensation. This body separation—fingers from mouth, for example—provides a beginning sense of distance. The activity center of this period is the mouth, in terms of which tension and tension release are most easily represented.

2. In the second or differentiated aim phase of ego development, energy is differentiated in terms of aim but not yet of object.[8] Feeding, not the feeder, is the point of view. Distancing occurs without separation. This is the stage of externalization. “Nipple” is gradually defined by the infant as distanced from the mouth, though not yet separated from it. The mouth seeks the specific gratification of being fed, but not an object.

In this phase, the “existent nipple”[9] is attended to only as a special, localized, patterned experience of the mouth influencing the state of oral tension. The pattern has become organized beyond diffused continuousness of tension and tension release.[10] Skin and mouth sensations become differentiated. Holding and feeding are experienced as separate. The mother’s responses may reinforce the child’s own knowledge of his needs or confuse this differentiation. The “nipple” now is perceived as a specific kind of tension releaser. This tension release is actively sought. That which resembles the “nipple” is similarly perceived and explored, but only in terms of this specific function of abolishing tension at its source. For example, the mouth is used to explore what it senses in terms of its feeding potential rather than as an object in itself.

Function or aim is the essence of identity rather than who or what performs it. The clinician working with the ego-disturbed patient knows what it means to be just a feeder and not a person. At this function stage, what is not directly related to a specific kind of tension building or tension release is not perceived.

Time and space are experienced only as the energy rhythm felt when the aim is achieved or disappointed. Crying for milk or for holding is not crying for mother. Gradually, functional parts of mother join in a mosaic, but the differentiation of aim does not yet lead to the discovery of object—for example, another person. The organization of time and space, being predicated on specific kinds of tension and its release, follows rules of consistency quite different from those prevailing in the phase of object relations. The discovery of others brings with it the discovery of their distance, their space and time coordinates. Later on, tension based on inner time and movement is integrated with that of the accepted cultural patterns learned through family teaching.

A clinician working with a patient fixated at this second stage is familiar with these time and space characteristics: time flow is changed by tension level; such a patient’s lateness is different from neurotic lateness, for there is no common clock, just an inner sense of time which, though based on personal tension, becomes the world clock.

In this second phase, the wish is supreme, and the only issue is whether or not the wish is answered. Narcissus does not move to discover new sources of supply, nor can the young infant. His cry indicates a wish that needs fulfillment, but there is no intentional communication to another.

The wish when thus uncombined with the capacity for effective action becomes simply an attempt to revive the memory of a percept, to recreate the sensation of the earlier known fulfillment. The wish at this stage carries an unqualified power of expectation.[11] This self-fulfilling expectation is unsubstantial in its gratification except as mother makes it substantial by her comprehension of the need.

In this second stage, the “absent nipple” does not extend to an awareness of mother’s other activities outside the child’s immediate aim. The wish at first is not that her nipple return; there is simply a sense of the absence of gratification of the wish at its physiological source.[12] This genetic statement helps differentiate externalization from denial and projection.[13] In externalization, the absence of gratification does not stimulate an advance beyond the sense of absence. The world beyond the felt sense of absence is not a world that contributes information to be denied—it has no existence. That the hungry infant is narrow-minded comes as no surprise. That the child of this stage dreads abandonment is appropriate to survival. The child’s cathexis of the mother’s functional capacity to relieve his tension at its source ensures her ability to teach as she patterns her responses. She is not yet his object.

How does the movement toward an object relationship take place? The progression is most familiarly symbolized in terms of mouth and nipple.

When the “existent nipple” moves into congruence with the hallucinated nipple, the existent nipple fulfills the wish, and it is perceived and cathected with the energy attached to the wish. Thus begins the cathexis of the primordial other—at first without separation.

The condensation of this dynamic in the Narcissus myth begins to become manifest: the cathexis of a self which is at once distanced and yet unseparated is a stage in separation. The Narcissus image is the wish transported to a distance. The vicissitudes that occur during the movement to the differentiated object phase are the theme of this paper. Externalization mediates this progression. Let us first sketch the third phase and then return to the dynamic work that either makes separation possible or develops an ego that can manage without separation (at a price).

3. In the third or differentiated object stage of ego development, distancing gives way to self-other separation. Externalization gives way to techniques of reality testing that extend beyond the wish to negotiations with what is objectively available.

How does this take place?


The movement through the first two phases described above and toward the third can be elaborated in terms of the Narcissus analogy. Distancing and separation progress as the work of these three phases of ego development proceeds.

The beginning differentiation of self and not-self is first experienced by distancing an as-if separate self. Distancing precedes true separation. It precedes the cathexis of other human and nonhuman realities beyond one’s self-control (Searles, 1960). But allowing the image of the nipple to become actually discontinuous is necessary before it is possible to be fed by another: only as separation takes place does one receive milk that is not a function of one’s own narcissistic creation.

The mother uses her relationship to help the child from distancing toward separation. She cathects the child’s beginning capacity for communication. As the child’s wish ceases to be the only control, knowledge of the environment becomes useful. The aim now elaborates its object as learning extends beyond the wish to include what was not known and so not wished for—the unexpected.

Mother and child at first communicate by such simple expedients as responsiveness to timing. A full breast at a time when the infant is not hungry is an unexpected intrusion. The existent breast presented just at the moment when tension is not quite high enough to bring a preoccupying wish can induce a more neutral wish to feed.[14] The mother keeps moving just enough, first within, then beyond, the child’s expectation, to make him aware of herself as another who, in fact, can supply his wishes even before his own attention has been turned to them. There is a critical timing (which most mothers sense) that allows her to move close enough to catch the child’s narcissistic interest even as it makes him stretch to learn her separateness. This learning facilitates separation, which in turn enhances learning. The physiological communication loop mother-child is not cut with the cord—it is gradually altered as new forms of communication are patterned[15] and, being self-reinforcing, grow.

The same loop extends to basic emotional learning.[16] This learning builds upon the child’s responsive imitation of the parent, who imitates in return. This imitation process takes place largely outside awareness and is exemplified by the change in a mother’s gesture when she is near her baby. This change is just enough more than an imitation to build more differentiated learning. As the child imitates the body attitudes and muscle-tension patterns of his siblings and parents, he experiences nonverbally the emotions that these imitations evoke in him. He begins to match these subtleties of emotional expression to his own more physiological experience and to pattern a common code of emotional language long before he learns the common code of words. He thus physically incorporates within him a pattern of himself and the other that he seeks at first to control. He approximates these behavioral patterns to fit his imitation of the other to what he feels. As he imitates with his own behavior he predicts what his learned behavior will bring as response. Separation is made possible by accurate prediction. His crying is no longer always an expression of crude unpleasure. He is more able to communicate his own person, that is, to communicate himself as an object. He is said by the parents to have become a little person. This learning development builds upon the use of aggressive and libidinal energies in the service of the ego.


Wishing, learning, discovering, testing—these are words for simultaneous aspects[17] of the expenditure of energy for the purpose of working out a pattern called normal development. Developmental learning and teaching are so fundamental to the progression to and within the third phase that they require too much data exchange to be managed in awareness. A child is taught with every breath and glance.

As the child progressively develops, he learns to signal his changing need for vital attention with increasing specificity. As his learning grows, his energies and concern can be devoted to issues less vital than learning for immediate survival. He turns his energies from serious concerns to curiosity and play.

The child’s skill in recognizing change requires learning a mode of reality testing that recognizes the unexpected and then reduces the fear of unexpected experiences arising both from within and from outside his Umwelt.

The mode of reality testing learned as an aspect of object relationship can appropriately be called the object mode. It stands in contradistinction to the image mode, which is characteristic of the first and second phases. The image mode, described above, is an aspect of the preobject forms of relationship. As will be seen later, both object and image techniques of reality testing persist. In some families, however, the children are taught by their family experience to use the image mode predominantly. The way a child learns how to learn is different from one family to another, depending on the degree to which externalization is built into the family structure.

Using the object mode of reality testing characteristic of the third phase, the child continually redesigns the inner expectation in terms of objects observed to exist substantially. Exploring behavior no longer has as its sole purpose the finding of a new way to gain satisfaction of the feeding-fed need. The jump from instinctual wish to perceiving more of what actually happens is reduced by this learning design; much more can be experienced as this integration expands. This is an open learning system. The remnants of unintegrated inner wish and awareness of satisfactions available if one wished are used as memory, fantasy, and the idea of what might be. The omnipotent continuousness with the distanced feeding image begins to be replaced by skills, knowledge, and confidence that life support can be separate yet will not fail. The term “organismic terror” may be used to describe the fear of prematurely losing (without replacement) the unseparated continuousness reminiscent of life within the life-giving mother. Energy from this period may serve to reinforce later fears of mutilation.

The mother who knows her child is able to titrate the experience of their separation, conforming with his wish just enough to alloiu the distancing of his wish to neutralize his fear of abandonment. This conforming is more than just satisfying—it is more than meeting his expectation. It is a part of teaching him to learn. She gauges his tension level so that overwhelming unpleasure will not interfere with the tender growth of investment in a separate outside world. She introduces him to the unexpected. The child’s actual and immediate behavior, particularly as it is then also unexpected, is used by the mother to correct her own predictive patterns based on previous responses. As mother tunes into his developmental learning, the child is gradually weaned from the power of his own expectation. His world broadens to include more that is unknown. The child becomes an explorer.


The mother’s capacity for object relationship to the child is one medium within which the abandonment-separateness conflict of the child’s first extra-uterine attachment is solved. The mother purposively relates herself to the child’s tension system as expressed by his spontaneous action and by his actional response to her intervention. She uses the behavior that she did not predict to correct her responses as well as to search out those unexpected messages he sends that indicate his rhythmic and continuous changing. She critically moves between responding just as he would like and introducing and responding to variations that will build new patterns. Mother and child come to know each other with a depth that allows more precise information exchange. Her image of him is constantly reformed in terms of his unique responses. She feels him with her body imitation, without losing her own identity. The mother learns to know the child in a way that the father cannot easily understand. She experiences a closeness that goes beyond receiving back what she has given. The mother’s gratification is from outside her sphere. Her Umwelt is enlarged, as is the child’s, by their shared experience.[18]

With skillful sensitivity developed out of objective awareness of the child’s communication, the mother further alters congruence with his immediate internal demand by substituting a comforting acknowledgment. By her responsive action she rewards the child’s developing skill at patterning a communicative action code and, later, symbolization. She reinforces growth by acknowledging slight change in the direction of maturation. The excellence of this preverbal teaching sets a foundation for integrated use of inner drive in behavior. The child’s energy is acknowledged.

The mother teaches communication. As distancing is replaced by separation, communication maintains contact.[19]

At first, with hypercathected listening, mother leaves other interests to come to her child with his food. She responds at first to the unintentional, and then she increasingly demands more intentional signals of discomfort. As each more distant communication succeeds,[20] the child lets slip the milk supply hallucinated as immediate, breast-in-mouth, and flesh-continuous. Mouth, impulse, and wish are patterned in the context of a feeding and teaching nipple at first continuous with the wish, then a little separated, now timed as if controlled by the wish, then gently moving outside the child’s wish and performing the pleasantly unexpected—and the child learns. As the child learns this kind of reality, the hallucinated wish or image is decathected. It remains as the precursor of imagination and of the mental representation process. The capacity to omit the unexpected is likewise decathected as the fear of abandonment is reduced. The beginnings of fantasy work develop as the child comforts himself by limiting his attention to the mother’s tension-relieving and functional presence even as he perceives that she has left the room. She knows his needs by her accurate prediction, which is based on lastminute information; each distancing step of a mother who carries with her an accurate image of her child brings renewed confidence for both.[21] She knows when he needs her. He responds. He is comforted and enjoys his verified imagination-wish that she is still present: now separate but within responsive communicative distance. This is the togetherness of the tender experience.

As the child allows distance and separation to proceed, that which floods his body with sensation does not flood his total world. He begins to organize and structure tension into attention.

As he attends to his mother as an objective other, he is more able to send signals to her according to her response; his signals then become more specific, rendering her awareness of his specific needs and his specific individuality less difficult. Receiving his more intentional communication, she can relate to him more objectively. And so the interpersonal dialogue grows.

His tension system becomes progressively neutralized by a broader percept. This percept is progressively organized and refined as the child is thus taught to learn by using the object mode of reality testing (Hartmann, 1939).

As the mother becomes less the wordless, undifferentiated ragegratification of the first stage of ego development and less the feeding mother of the second period, she comes to exist beyond the mothering function. In the latter part of the third phase, she is an existing person, attended by the child even as her behavior is totally unrelated and neutral to the child’s own expectation.[22] Awareness of incongruity, of absurdity in terms of previous expectation, sows the seeds of growth and change. The child laughs with pleasure as he explores.

The object mode of reality testing operationally defines the object relationship. In the object relationship, the inner image of the object is constantly being redesigned to fit with the experience of the existing other: unexpected experiences are utilized for their corrective potential, broadening the relationship.

When the mother cathects the child with object libido, the child is actively taught by her example and learns the object mode of reality testing. The control gained reduces externalization and makes possible the separation necessary for further growth of the object relationship.


Parents who have not resolved their own earliest fear of abandonment and who themselves have not gone beyond the function stage of ego development cathect their child as a distanced part of themselves, not as a separate other (Burlingham, 1935).

Consider again Narcissus and his reflection: the not-self that is set at a distance for relationship exists only as a relocation of a part of “I.” The reflected image of Narcissus has no separate existence. It is perceived outside of the self but is continuous with the self; it owes its existence to the primary self image rather than to the transfer[23] of energy to the perception (or misperception) of an existent other. The existent child is not libidinized. He is responded to by his mother as an as-if child—that is, responded to only when he validates his mother’s projection. It is the experience of existence itself that is altered by the narcissistic relationship. This is at the heart of the intensity of the relationship.

The image relationship of this parent to the child, well known clinically, is poignantly described in Milton’s poem:

“... I started back,

It started back, but pleasd I soon returnd, Pleas’d it returnd as soon with answering looks Of sympathie and love, there I had fixt Mine eyes till now, and pin’d with vain desire...”

The image in the pool, having no separate existence, is wholly governed by expectation and can never be spontaneous. It can give nothing.[24] The relationship will be reported to be intensely interpersonal, but it is an as-if relationship nonetheless. When, like Narcissus, a distanced self reflection is cathected as an existent other, this is delusion (Deutsch, 1934). The narcissistic parent, trained to validate delusions from childhood, may so skillfully cover them that the process is not socially apparent. The altered ego development that has as its primary skill manipulating reality to conform to expectation is most evident when it is in the process of decompensation.

The following clinical illustration describes the regression of a mother’s relationship to her child as her effort to validate her delusion breaks down. The mother fails in her effort to protect herself from psychosis by distancing her hypochondriacal preoccupation onto her child. Her validation of this distancing breaks down when her child is put (through her husband’s efforts) in a situation where he is diagnosed as healthy. This story will not be unfamiliar—it caricatures a common clinical theme.

Mrs. Compton complained that she was afraid something dreadful was happening to her five-month-old boy. “He cannot burp,” she said. As she proceeded to tell her story, the pediatrician became aware that too much energy was invested in this symptom. He was alerted by the mother’s fixed belief in the child’s symptom and by her urgent need to prove her diagnosis that the child was sick. The over-all picture indicated that it was the mother who was ill—moving rapidly into a psychotic episode.

Observed playing with her child, Mrs. Compton appeared aware only of those movements in the child that she herself had initiated. If he smiled in response to her smile or chuckling, the mother responded; if he smiled of his own accord, she was entirely unresponsive. Although desperately and completely focused on “the child,” she was obtusely unaware of his autonomous smile; its presence did not even alter the rhythm or timing of her frantic efforts to make him smile. Time was a function of her inner feeling—thus her urgency. Her movements were awkwardly out of touch with his; her muscles could not conform to his natural postures in a relevant movement. He was held like a doll. Her teaching was quite unlike that of an ordinary mother.

Using the construct previously discussed, we would say that Mrs. Compton was relating to the infant within her, now distanced. Her system of logic made reasonable her inner determined expectation. She was blind and deaf to the noncongruent objective experiences. She could not discover her child as he existed.[25] What she perceived and organized into meaning led her to the conclusions that brought her to the pediatrician: “Since I have not seen him burp, he did not burp; he must be full of gas.” She did not see the child’s healthy appearance; the energy available for observation was devoted to her wish. Her hypersensitive ear listened only in order to match anticipation.

In the narcissistic predicament, the therapist of a child who has begun to improve knows the danger—the child will be withdrawn from treatment if his illness does not continue to externalize the parents’ conflict. The experienced therapist uses the parents’ anxiety about the child’s improvement as a diagnostic criterion. He knows that this is pathognomonic of the narcissistic process.

Mrs. Compton’s pediatrician knew the pattern. She had been taken by her husband to a children’s hospital where psychiatric consultation was quickly available. The pediatrician called the psychiatrist for the mother, although he was aware that the mother had diagnosed the symptom as being located in the child.

The child was hospitalized for two days. On the third day the pediatrician (against the psychiatrist’s advice) insisted to the mother that the baby was completely well. She was sure that he was wrong; but she shifted her preoccupation. She relocated her concern to her knees, claiming that the extreme pain had begun when she knelt down to feed the baby. Several days later she disappeared. She was located by the police in a neighboring town where her mother lived. Mrs. Compton was found lying curled in her absent mother’s bed— stuperous and overtly psychotic.

Like the reflection of Narcissus in the pool, this parent’s child existed for her only as a distanced part of herself, a projected image, a hypochondriacal delusion that fixed her vision so that she was unaware of his objective existence. Her wish-expectation energized and directed the image that she libidinized as an outside as-if object —her existent child. The child within, now distanced but not separate, could give nothing to her from outside herself, though her need was desperate.

What if mother had not become overtly psychotic, thereby signaling her disorder and allowing others to take over? What is the effect of such a delusion if it is chronically superimposed on a real but vulnerable existent child? Had the tension in the mother-child relationship produced a severe feeding disorder and verified the mother’s projection, her internal conflict would have been perceived as between her (feeder) and her child (feeding) or as a problem exclusively within the child.[26]

The child who must conform to expectation to prevent severe psychological decompensation in the parents validates his early megalomanic and unbounded expectation that his behavior determines the existence of the world.

By validating or not validating the parents’ projection, the child does hold power. Skill in using this power is one factor in the intensity of relationship that facilitates manipulation by the child and by the parents—they care so much. This kind of caring by parent and child is different from the kind in the object relationship. It is the caring of the infant in the second stage of ego development, whose functional aim is unmodified by belief in the existence of a separated object.

The clinical statement of this theoretical construct is simple and heart-rending to the clinician. We know it as pathognomonic of severe ego disturbance. “I live for him.” “He couldn’t live without me.” “I feel his pain and joys.” “He has become such a problem. I can think of nothing else.” Or, in Milton’s words:

“...there I had fixt

Mine eyes till now, and pin’d with vain desire...”

Like a butterfly pinned to its own picture the child must conform to his parents’ images. Nonconforming behavior is punished by real or threatened abandonment. If the child initiates nonmirroring, spontaneous action, he produces disturbing ripples on the pool, and the Narcissus image is confused. Mother experiences separation anxiety, she clutches her own image, she withdraws from such object relationship as does exist,[27] and her delusion becomes more intense and frightening to the child.


For the child, the mother’s deafness and blindness to his spontaneous, noncongruent behavior verify his terror of abandonment.

He disappears from her Umiuelt when he does not conform to her expectation. Searching only for what she expects, she cannot find the existent child.[28] He must validate or he cannot gather to himself the distanced narcissistic libido that gives him a pattern within her differentiated aim-energy system, which operates without true objects. The child maintains his more primitive control—the hallucinated breast—as long as his pattern of hunger conforms to the mother’s. The sensitive mediation necessary for teaching the infant how to learn objective reality testing and skillful communication is gone. The child may help the mother learn to go beyond her narcissism if he can get through.

The mother feeds the child when the child within her is hungry (or lonely). Mother’s time is organized as a function of her tension. The child’s time pattern and the mother’s are not responsive to each other. To the mother, past behavior of the child is experienced as in the present. Serious long-term concerns—for example, about the child’s problem—leave no room for the mother’s timely curiosity and playful delight in momentary behavior. The child’s necessity is patterned into an as-if necessity, designed from her wish. Mother relates to the way the child should feel and manipulates the child to conform with her aims, not his. Mother’s externalization remains to conflict with the child’s. There is no delicate learning of the kind that the child of the object-relating mother has. He is induced into retaining the system of learning natural to the preobject stage of ego development.

For the child, externalization does not mediate the conflict between separation and abandonment. Instead, his fears are made real. The second or functional stage of ego development remains the organizing force. The person who feeds continues to exist only as feeder-nonfeeder. The image mode of reality testing is taught, and the child’s ego development is altered. It is not surprising that the parents’ unresolved conflicts at this level interfere with the child’s natural progression through the same stage.


The clinician is familiar with the situation in which the child is omitted except as a maternal tension releaser. In the evaluation interview, the child is described by the mother only in terms of how well or how poorly he does his job of developing “for her.’’ Mother does not recognize that she has trained the child to fulfill her expectation.

The child’s development is basically altered, but mother has skill in manipulating a context that will make reasonable the developmental lag. She may use a physician or a book or an “unfailing” sense of intuition or a birth injury or an early illness to make natural the child’s peculiarities.

Eating habits not based on one’s own hunger are more likely to be peculiar. His period of waiting (for mother’s action) has been randomly related to the child’s own hunger. His stomach patterns, as they change from day to day, are irrelevant[29] to the pattern set by his training. He will not be fed except when the mother feels he should be hungry (when she herself feels inner hunger). He literally eats “for her.”

And mother feeds her own distanced image of her as-if child. If the child conforms, the process of building a pseudo ego is begun. The clinician will recognize this kind of pattern. It is usually covered by the presentation of peculiar but valid hyperrealistic explanations.

The mother and child do not grow a living communication system that they can share and use for developmental work. This situation is not symbiotic in the spirit of that word: sym, together, and bios, life. This is more akin to death: the child the mother nurtures does not exist. The existent child feeds off her projected image, set before his birth. This child exists as a supposed-to-be, a masquerade, an image. He is split off from himself.[30]


Only those aspects of the child’s inner environment congruent with his mother’s cathected hallucination will be organized into his percepts and refined into culturally ordered ways of expression.[31] The pseudo ego is that organization which validates the parental projection. It is cathected by energy that aims to prevent abandonment and the threat of its own dissolution.

The movement from first to second stage of ego development will be limited to those energies acknowledged by the mother’s responsive patterning. The energies of the existent child irrelevant to the experience acknowledged by the mother as the Umwelt of the child are not organized by contact with parental relationship. They remain random, unorganized, and split off from the pseudo personality, which is structured to match either negatively or positively the parents’ projection. Information that enlarges the Umwelt of the child is supplied only as it makes logical the manipulation. The child’s reality and his mode of organizing reality are altered. This is the path into which the child is forced. An identity grows that is unsupported from within. The process of externalization verifies this pseudo identity, this as-if total person.

The child is taught by his experience to learn (Bateson, 1942) to give preference to his (i.e., mother’s) inner expectation. To prevent abandonment he learns to manipulate this reality to validate his (i.e., her) wish. He omits from cathexis what is not congruent. His instinctual energies are not patterned by acknowledging experience into sublimated skills and objective learning (Hartmann, 1939). One part of his energy is used to keep reasonable the Umwelt he knows. The remainder is untouched by ego work: it is a vague, intense fear, a sense of inner wildness, which is used to fortify the need to hold onto the defenses. The inner wildness—a remnant of the first stage of ego development—is not a source of information about the unexpected self.

The identity that is conceived is not continuously reworked. The meaning of any newness that seeps in is retranslated to fit the closed system. Sensations from within or responses from outside that would make the pseudo identity an obvious fiction are not skillfully received. They do not refine the image of the self according to the rules of the object mode of reality testing. As the unexpected and the absurd are increasingly omitted, the self becomes a concrete abstraction. Self becomes a single symbol or role that the child’s life verifies.[32]

This pseudo identity is self-generating. Being seen as sickly by others, the child is not asked to use his muscles. He does become sickly as he is told that he must take care not to become sick (as is expected). He grows to be inexpert with his body. This is a selfreinforcing and progressively constricting process.

Even when mother is more able to use the object mode of relationship to her child, she will not be acknowledged: the child has learned to attend only to that which fits the earlier formed projected expectations. Ego energy exists only in the service of validating the expected tautology. Inertia in a closed system is high.

Ego libido does not become object libido. Instead, it invades the object world, working to keep the (mother’s-child’s) unbounded megalomanic or hypochondriacal delusions appropriately verified. This becomes the work of the ego that has no true object relations. The ego operations become hypercathected to a preoccupation—in a hypochondriacal way.[33]

There develops a hyperrealism which, unbounded, encompasses a world unmodified by fantasy or humor or awareness of multiple points of view.[34] When hyperrealism fails, perplexity develops.

The continued energizing of this altered reality testing alters the ego structure. Escape is easier when the child is in proximity to others who are not caught up in the network. Marriages based on. this way of life propagate ego disorder and, in the extreme, psychosis. The process becomes more extreme as it passes from generation to generation of families organized around externalization as a way of life.


The family who is unable to find a way out uses its energy[35] for what the scientist would call “starting with the answer.” Energy is not used for discovering a more detailed and accurate image of self, other family members, or society. The family’s hyperrealism has the neatness of a cultist’s certainty—“the nonbelievers purposely cause that which does not fit the expectation.”

The family caught in this way of life is not unfamiliar to the clinician. The whole family together reads a repetitious script—each validating the other’s projected wish. The family’s acknowledged reality is more rational and stable than life can be—until it breaks down. This is clinically familiar especially to those who have experienced the family with a schizophrenic member; it is also seen in other common ego disorders.

To this point I have spoken of the narcissistic process as the projection of the total wish. Projection is more commonly a means of distancing conflicting parts of self. These are reified in the process of mutual externalization. They are stereotyped into part images seen as distanced from each other. Each of the family members gathers to himself parts of the others, which he constructs into a single stereotype or role. These roles, then, are crudely concrete and hypercathected. Often mutually contradictory, they are used as though they included all data. Though reasonable within the world that the family defines, they provide the clinician with a psychological caricature.

This family tautology, together with the work needed to maintain it, is an identifying feature of the family held together by the narcissistic way of life. As the clinician is aware, it is the capacity to verify each other’s projection that cements the narcissistic marriage; this gives it the stability that perpetuates its teachings. The matching roles, like master and slave, are intensely related to each other and cannot exist apart without the terror of dissolution-abandonment.


Terror of abandonment and the intensity of narcissistic relationship must both combine to train the child of such a marriage to an altered ego development.

The child from birth is allowed to face abandonment and rejection in terms of his needs while he is simultaneously coddled because his as-if screaming is a validation of what his mother thinks he ought to be crying about. She acts on these suppositions, not seeing or hearing their effect.

Unwittingly, the conflict of no-separation-without-abandonment is used to transmit the terror of abandonment. When the mother of the preobject-level child is absent, she no longer exists to the child. The mother who is capable of object relationships does not allow this abandonment to reach beyond the child’s toleration—she does not allow him to become so overwhelmed that he disorganizes. The preobject mother, when she leaves the child, may literally be unaware that he is not with her. Existence is threatened by even brief separation from each other in a family joined by narcissistic grasping.

Terror is behaviorally transmitted in the family. This terror of separation is congruent with the mother’s expectation learned from her own early experience. The mother’s anticipation is now projected and validated by the child, and mother handles her terrors as existing all within her as-if child. The narcissistic intensity is a part of this process.

Terror of abandonment must be trained into the child if he is to develop the modes of ego functioning found in severe ego disturbance. A child who is only abandoned or rejected without at the same time being bathed in the intensity of narcissistic relationship develops a different variety of disorder.

The narcissistic intensity and its corollary abandonment become an important prototype. The child’s mode of structuring experience parallels this intrapsychic organization. It is repeatedly reinforced— reaching out to discover the unknown is penalized; fear of separation is extreme in the child who is specifically trained not to find his way beyond the family circle. The struggle is to hold onto what is known. Nothing must be lost or abandoned except by complete loss of cathexis. There is no mobility in these relationships—one is either continuous or abandoned.[36] Under extreme stress, the experience of reality itself may be suddenly lost in this way.


All symbolizing and abstraction require the loss of information. One cannot see or hear everything. There is always that which remains to become known if one can change one’s vantage point. In the image mode of relationship this loss is denied. The world is the product of one’s own conduct. It is held rigid, concrete, as though one’s point of view was the only one. The world does not grow except as expected. Time is denied and stretched and used to manipulate. Other persons’ time is not acknowledged. Life is confused with its words. What is learned is not integrated in an ever-expanding reworking of new sensory and labeled experiences (Luria, 1959). Knowledge does not integrate to wisdom.

Reality testing is always taught in the context of the family of significant others. Its prototype is the reality testing that is the most predictive of the infant-parent relationship. The skill necessary to the image mode of reality testing is skill in manipulating the world to fulfill conclusions.

This skill can grow best if not paralleled by skill in the object mode of reality testing. This may be taught concurrently by the other parent or siblings, or by the nursemaid or family friends.[37] Both these modes can coexist and have their functions.

The two techniques of reality testing having been described, it must now be stated that it is the quantitative matching of each that is important.

The image mode of reality testing is useful in proper proportion.

It carries continuity with the past, organizing the future in terms of the past. The object mode is important to the discovery of what was not expected. The object mode is more important in a time of rapid change when the capacity to contact change is the only stability.

The extreme form of each mode of reality testing is problematic. These extremes sometimes seem confusingly similar. But the “creative person’s” periods of vague ambiguity, when he has taken in more data than he can cope with, are quite different from the ego- disturbed person’s explosion from restricted pseudo identity into periods of perplexed confusion.

The fantasy life of a person using the image mode is different from that of a person using the object mode. In the image mode, fantasy is more available and less diffusely cathected. It is not richly developed. Imagination and the dream are replaced[38] by selecting and manipulating reality so that the dream is validated by the reality that is attended. Even the dream is used as a way of validating what was expected. Its content has no novelty or freshness. Thus, in the image mode of reality testing, fantasy does not provide a means of exploring what seems irrelevantly fantastic. The dream is subverted, for its wish is a reality prediction. Ego work turns manifest reality into the reification of what, in the neurotic, would be the latent wish. Those who have experienced working with a severely ego-disturbed family that uses the image mode will know the horror of seeing this happen. What one expects to be in the unconscious is validated into a superrationality, which has, to the observer, the feeling of a dream.


The narcissistic relationship is a reciprocal image relationship between two or more people who join in externalizing each other’s projections. They marry a person with the ego-dystonic aspect of their conflicts. They are attracted because the narcissistic intensity is released with another who conforms to the projected expectation.

This may seem too simple, but the world is simplified by the image mode of reality testing. The husband and wife and then the children have a restricted reality, built to join conflicts unmodified by a richness of integrated experience. The hyperrationalism of each is displayed in the repetitious logic of their way of life. They care more about who is “right” than about what happens—to a bizarre degree (Brodey, 1959).

The narcissistic family cannot see the fallacy intrinsic in the fact that their logic works too well. The family lives in a narrow corridor of reality that they manufacture for each other to share. The reasonableness of the reality goes far beyond what ordinary reality can produce, but then—their reality is made to order. The energy normally available for free exploration is sapped by this process. Explorations beyond the family corridor of accepted reality are not admitted to any response from the other family member, except as they undergo reduction to the usual family metaphor.

Escape from these operations of the narcissistic system of multiple pseudo relationships becomes more difficult as the reciprocities and stereotypes become more exacting and the exploratory action of the family becomes increasingly closed, allowing less and less incongruity with their predetermined reality.


The observation of families has led to some questions that may elucidate the dynamics of the developmental work necessary for passing beyond the stage of primary narcissism. Family observation provides a point of view which directs attention to this work as a family function. The conceptualization presented has grown out of observing many kinds of families. This concept is used in describing the organization of families in which the preobject mode of relationship is a primary way of life. A family system of behavioral transmission of this way of life is proposed. Continued exploration of this area holds promise of revealing pertinent information about the ways children in ordinary circumstances are taught to learn.


Bateson, G. Social Planning and the Concept of ‘Deutero Learning.” New York: Harper, 1942.

— & Mead, M. Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. New York: Academy of Science, 1942.

Bowlby, J. Maternal Child Care and Mental Health. Geneva: World Health Organization Monogr. 2, 1951.

Brodey, W. “Some Family Operations and Schizophrenia.” A.M.A. Arch. Gen. Psychiat., 1:317-402, 1959.

— “Image, Object and Narcissistic Relationships.” Amer. Orthopsychiat., 31:6973, 1961.

— “Normal Developmental Learning and the Education of the Child Born Blind.” Gifted Child Quart., 6:141-149, 1962.

Bruch, H. “Psychosomatic Approach to Childhood Disorders.” In Modern Trends in Child Psychiatry, ed. N. D. C. Lewis & B. L. Pacella. New York: International Universities Press, 1945.

Burlingham, D. T. “Die Einfiihlung des Kleinkindes in die Mutter.” Imago, 21: 429-444, 1935.

Deutsch, H. “Some Forms of Emotional Disturbance and Their Relationship to Schizophrenia.” Psa. Quart., 11:301-321, 1942 [1934].

Freud, A. “Four Contributions to the Psychoanalytic Study of the Child.” Papers delivered in New York, 1960.

Freud, S. “The Interpretation of Dreams.” In Standard Edition, 4 & 5. London: Hogarth Press, 1953 [1900].

— “Psycho-Analytic Notes upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia.” In Collected Papers, 3:387-470. London: Hogarth Press, 1925 [1911].

— “On Narcissism: An Introduction.” In Standard Edition, 14: 67-102. London: Hogarth Press, 1957 [1914].

— “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes.” In Standard Edition, 14: 105-140. London: Hogarth Press, 1957.

An Outline of Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton, 1949 [1940].

Hartmann, H. Ego Psychology and the Problem of Adaptation. New York: International Universities Press, 1958.

Hoffer, W. “The Mutual Influences in the Development of Ego and Id: Earliest Stages.” This Annual, 7:31-41, 1952.

Luria, A. The Role of Speech in the Regulation of Normal and Abnormal Behavior. New York: Pergamon, 1961 [1959].

Rosenblueth, A., Wiener, N., & Bigelow, J. “Behaviour, Purpose and Teleology.” Phil. Sei., 10:18-24, 1943.

Searles, H. F. The Nonhuman Environment. New York: International Universities Press, 1960.

— “Transference Psychosis in the Psychotherapy of Chronic Schizophrenia.” Int. J. Psa., 44:249-281, 1963.

von Uexküill, J. “A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men.” In Instinctive Behavior, tr. & ed. C. H. Schiller. New York: International Universities Press, 1957 [1934].


Thus far, Milton’s lines echo the earliest stage of narcissistic development. The lines that follow make clear Eve’s progression beyond this stage: “Had not a voice thus warnd me, What thou seest, What there thou seest fair Creature is thy self, With thee it came and goes: but follow me, And I will bring thee where no shadow staies Thy coming...”

Freud’s (1914) discussion of the narcissistic object choice does not reveal the as-if quality of the preobject relationship. For the first lucid description of this process we are indebted to Helene Deutsch (1934). As-if, in this paper, will be used to mean “involving an error of perception.” At the heart of externalization we find not mere misnaming, not conceptual or symbolic error, but perceptual constraint in an extreme form.

This term is used by von Uexküll (1934) to refer to the world available to the perceptual apparatus of a particular creature.

I am grateful for the assistance of Dr. Edith Jacobson in making similarities and differences between externalization and denial and projection clearer.

This same process has been observed in child analysis (Anna Freud, 1960).

The term “developmental learning” emphasizes the activity of the process

No effort is made to ascribe a specific duration of time to each stage. Ego development, like learning itself, is an organizing process; all stages are represented throughout life as new data are assimilated and the old ones are reintegrated. The stages conceptualize a predominant sequence most easily observable in early infancy.

Furthermore, the word “undifferentiated” is chosen with the qualification that it is used relatively.

In “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes” (1915), Freud distinguishes the aim from its object. The aim is the direction of the instinctual energy as it moves toward a specific satisfaction, by abolishing the condition of stimulation at its source. The object is that through which the aim is achieved. I have broadened the concept “object” in this presentation.

By “existent nipple” is meant the mother’s nipple as it exists within, but also beyond, the infant’s experience.

Those who wish to translate this presentation into Pavlovian terms, or into learning-theory sequences, will find ample points of juncture with these other ways of describing what is happening.

The repetition of former behavior without regard to present reality, in the sure expectation of complete functional fulfillment, is a powerful manipulating force. The more reality-oriented person is easily seduced into believing that there must be a valid reason for the certainty of the ego-disturbed person. Like the proverbial one-horse shay, this certainty may disintegrate all at once. We are not used to dealing with this negative hallucination phenomenon as an everyday life occurrence

In the narcissistic family, the internal wish is experienced as a narrowly constricted necessity arising from outside. The hallucinated wish fulfillment is a preoccupation with a function, such as being loved. The function “being loved” is unrelated to a lover or to acts and happenings that could produce a lover. The narcissistic person is preoccupied instead with the absence of loving.

In An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Freud (1940) states that the “claim from the external world which [the ego] experiences as painful” is warded off “by denying the perceptions that bring to knowledge such a demand on the part of reality,” whereas "undesirable instinctual demands [are disposed of] by means of...repressions” (p. 118).

The term “exocrine” (cf. endocrine) has been used in the literature to emphasize the physiological nature of this process, which is only gradually lifted to more abstract, nonverbal and verbal coding.

Just enough randomness consolidates the developing pattern as the child's own solution to his problem of prediction. There are critical points at which just the right amount of background noise (confusion) makes the message (pattern) stand out. In the degree to which mother becomes predictable, she begins to take form.

Even early emotions are experienced differently in different cultures and so must enter the learning pattern (Bateson and Mead, 1942).

By learning I do not necessarily mean “good” learning. Altered ego development that may lead toward psychosis is also learned.

The need for father to be a person who can also make contact is evident, particularly as mother changes with the birth of each child.

I have elsewhere (1962) discussed the difficulties arising out of a sensitive mother’s inability to be aware of her blind child’s natural development, which is different from her own.

The psychological delivery from the mother’s body image is not as precipitous as the birth process. The channels for communication are hypercathected at first by the secondary narcissism of pregnancy, which, a few days after delivery, moves out to cathect the newborn as an outside object. The newborn draws this upon himself by his unintentional activity and, being outstandingly different from the mother’s internal image, gains her cathexis as an object.

Unfortunately timed absences, such as hospitalization, during this period can prolong this process (Bowlby, 1951).

The analyst and patient may experience each other more and more in this manner toward the end of therapy.

Anna Freud (1960) has pointed out that a true transference requires some modicum of object relationship.

The child therapist knows the emotion that one experiences when one sees parents who relate in this way to their child. This makes the work with ego-disordered children technically more difficult. The child patterned to the mother’s image expectations will not easily relate to a therapist who rejects these.

Hoffer (1952) discusses the importance of the negative hallucination that raises the physiological threshold of stimulation. He states: “Negative hallucination means that stimulus does not reach the sensory system.” The existing child is not perceived by the mother's sensory apparatus and so does not exist within her Umwelt.

If the child later developed anorexia nervosa, the mother’s psychosis would have been successfully transmitted, and the mother’s preoccupation would be completely verified. The mother then would not socially be called psychotic.

The father at this time may become intensely jealous of the attention given “the child’’ and may attack the mother as he accepts her image, or, as his anxiety mounts, he may become depressed and suffer a decrease in his own capacity to relate with an object relationship, thus reducing the possibility of the child’s escape from the narcissistic system

In later analysis she may be conceptualized as a crazy witch.

The word “irrelevant” is used in distinction to “opposing the child’s pattern,” which implies objective recognition.

In the Schreber case, Freud (1911) refers to Schreber’s use of the term “soul murder.” This is an epithet that catches the feeling of this process.

The objective parents' responsive echoing and selecting for response also teaches the child not to use those sounds and movements which are not a part of the natural language of the parents. Inept and unresponsive selection increases the socially peculiar. This is different from inner-supported and broadly integrated originality. The peculiarity is not acknowledged by the pseudo ego.

The family drama enacted by the families observed in the hospital setting (Brodey, 1959) may be likened to a morality play, each family member becoming the embodiment of a dramatic role.

“An internal cathexis could only have the same value as an external one if it were maintained unceasingly, as in fact occurs in hallucinatory psychoses and in hunger phantasies, which exhaust their whole psychical activity in clinging to the object of their wish” (Freud, 1900, p. 566).

Again the reader will be reminded of the symptomatic fear of world destruction when the hold on reality of such persons is threatened

This use of energy is a characteristic of the externalizing family, but is here being diagramed in terms of the mother-child relationship.

The storminess of such relationships is well known to the analyst.

The heterogeneous family, where externalization of one family member is managed objectively by another, will be discussed in future reports. Coexistent concepts of reality, formed by these two modes of reality testing, may sharply shift their balance as their relative cathexis is altered by the expectation of an explorative or restrictive environment.

In the borderline families being described, the life situations that the clinician first believes to be delusional are often found to be actual events. The sense of horror that may develop in the clinician is much like that experienced in having a nightmare.