The Narcissist's Split Off Ego

Elsewhere ("The Stripped Ego")

We have extensively dealt with the classical, Freudian, concept of the Ego. It is a partly conscious, partly preconscious and unconscious. It operates on a "reality principle" (as opposed to the Id's "pleasure principle"). It maintains an inner equilibrium between the onerous (and unrealistic, or ideal) demands of the Superego and the almost irresistible (and unrealistic) drives of the Id. It also has to fend off the unfavourable consequences of comparisons between itself and the Ego Ideal (comparisons that the Superego is only too eager to perform). In many respects, therefore, the Ego in Freudian psychoanalysis IS the Self. Not so in Jungian psychology.

The famous, though controversial, psychoanalyst, C. G. Jung, wrote [all quotes from C.G. Jung. Collected Works. G. Adler, M. Fordham and H. Read (Eds.). 21 volumes. Princeton University Press, 1960-1983]:

"Complexes are psychic fragments which have split off owing to traumatic influences or certain incompatible tendencies. As the association experiments prove, complexes interfere with the intentions of the will and disturb the conscious performance; they produce disturbances of memory and blockages in the flow of associations; they appear and disappear according to their own laws; they can temporarily obsess consciousness, or influence speech and action in an unconscious way. In a word, complexes behave like independent beings, a fact especially evident in abnormal states of mind. In the voices heard by the insane they even take on a personal ego-character like that of the spirits who manifest themselves through automatic writing and similar techniques."
(The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Collected Writings, Volume 8, p. 121)

And further: "I use the term 'individuation' to denote the process by which a person becomes a psychological 'in-dividual,' that is, a separate, indivisible unity or 'whole'."
(The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Collected Writings, Volume 9, i. p. 275)

"Individuation means becoming a single, homogeneous being, and, in so far as 'individuality' embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, also implies becoming one's own self. We could, therefore, translate individuation as 'coming to selfhood' or 'self-realisation'."
(Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Collected Writings, Volume 7, par. 266)

"But again and again I note that the individuation process is confused with the coming of the Ego into consciousness and that the Ego is in consequence identified with the self, which naturally produces a hopeless conceptual muddle. Individuation is then nothing but egocentredness and autoeroticism. But the self comprises infinitely more than a mere Ego It is as much one's self, and all other selves, as the Ego. Individuation does not shut one out from the world, but gathers the world to oneself."
(The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Collected Writings, Volume 8, p. 226)

To Jung, the self is an archetype, THE archetype. It is the archetype of order as manifested in the totality of the personality, and as symbolised by a circle, a square, or the famous quaternity. Sometimes, Jung uses other symbols: the child, the mandala, etc.

"the self is a quantity that is supraordinate to the conscious Ego. It embraces not only the conscious but also the unconscious psyche, and is therefore, so to speak, a personality, which we also are.... There is little hope of our ever being able to reach even approximate consciousness of the self, since however much we may make conscious there will always exist an indeterminate and indeterminable amount of unconscious material which belongs to the totality of the self."
(Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Collected Writings, Volume 7, par. 274)

"The self is not only the centre but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the Ego is the centre of consciousness."
(Psychology and Alchemy, Collected Writings, Volume 12, par. 44)

"the self is our life's goal, for it is the completest expression of that fateful combination we call individuality"
(Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Collected Writings, Volume 7, par. 404)

Jung postulated the existence of two "personalities" (actually, two selves). The other one is the Shadow. Technically, the Shadow is a part (though an inferior part) of the overarching personality. The latter is a chosen conscious attitude. Inevitably, some personal and collective psychic elements are found wanting or incompatible with it. Their expression is suppressed and they coalesce into an almost autonomous "splinter personality". This second personality is contrarian: it negates the official, chosen, personality, though it is totally relegated to the unconscious. Jung believes, therefore, in a system of "checks and balances": the Shadow balances the Ego (consciousness). This is not necessarily negative. The behavioural and attitudinal compensation offered by the Shadow can be positive.

Jung: "The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly for instance, inferior traits of character and other incompatible tendencies."
(The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Collected Writings, Volume 9, i. pp. 284 f.)

"the shadow [is] that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors and so comprise the whole historical aspect of the unconscious... If it has been believed hitherto that the human shadow was the source of all evil, it can now be ascertained on closer investigation that the unconscious man, that is, his shadow, does not consist only of morally reprehensible tendencies, but also displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc." (Ibid.)


It would seem fair to conclude that there is a close affinity between the complexes (split-off materials) and the Shadow. Perhaps the complexes (also the result of incompatibility with the conscious personality) are the negative part of the Shadow. Perhaps they just reside in it, on closely collaborate with it, in a feedback mechanism. To my mind, whenever the Shadow manifests itself in a manner obstructive, destructive or disruptive to the Ego we can call it a complex. They are one and the same, the result of a massive split-off of material and its relegation to the realm of the unconscious.

This is part and parcel of the individuation-separation phase of our infantile development. Prior to this phase, the infant begins to differentiate between self and everything that is NOT self. He tentatively explores the world and these excursions bring about the differentiated worldview.

The child begins to form and store images of his self and of the World (initially, of the Primary Object in his life, normally his mother). These images are separate. To the infant, this is revolutionary stuff, nothing short of a breakdown of a unitary universe and its substitution with fragmented, unconnected, entities. It is traumatic. Moreover, these images in themselves are split. The child has separate images of a "good" mother and a "bad" mother linked to the gratification of his needs and desires or to their frustration. He also constructs separate images of a "good" self and a "bad" self, linked to the ensuing states of being gratified (by the "good" mother) and being frustrated (by the "bad" mother). At this stage, the child is unable to see that people are both good and bad (can gratify and frustrate while maintaining a single identity). He derives his sense of being good or bad from an outside source. The "good" mother inevitably and invariably leads to a "good", satisfied, self and the "bad", frustrating mother always generates the "bad", frustrated, self. This is too much to countenance. The "bad" mother split image is very threatening. It is anxiety provoking. The child is afraid that, if it is found out, his mother will abandon him. Moreover, mother is a forbidden subject of negative feelings (one must not think about mother in bad terms). Thus, the child splits the bad images off and uses them to form a separate image. The child, unknowingly, engages in "object splitting". It is the most primitive defence mechanism. When employed by adults it is an indication of pathology.

This is followed, as we said, by the phase of "separation" and "individuation" (18-36 months). The child no longer splits his objects (bad to one repressed side and good to another, conscious, side). He learns to relate to objects (people) as integrated wholes, with the "good" and the "bad" aspects coalesced. An integrated self-concept follows.

In parallel, the child internalises the mother (he memorises her roles). He becomes mother and performs her functions by himself. He acquires "object constancy" (=he learns that the existence of objects does not depend on his presence or on his vigilance). Mother returns to him after she disappears from his sight. A major reduction in anxiety follows and this permits the child to dedicate his energy to the development of stable, consistent, and independent senses of self an

d (images) of others.

This is the juncture at which personality disorders form. Between the age of 15 months and 22 months, a sub-phase in this stage of separation-individuation is known as "rapprochement".

The child, as we said, is exploring the world. This is a terrifying and anxiety producing process. The child needs to know that he is protected, that he is doing the right thing and that he is gaining the approval of his mother while doing it. The child periodically returns to his mother for reassurance, approval and admiration, as if making sure that his mother approved of his newfound autonomy and independence, of his separate individuality.

When the mother is immature, narcissistic, suffers from a mental pathology or aberration she does not give the child what he needs: approval, admiration, and reassurance. She feels threatened by his independence. She feels that she is losing him. She does not let go sufficiently. She suffocates him with over-protection. She offers him much stronger emotional incentives to remain "mother-bound", dependent, undeveloped, a part of a mother-child symbiotic dyad. The child develops mortal fears of being abandoned, of losing his mother's love and support. His dilemma is: to become independent and lose mother or to retain mother and never be his self?

The child is enraged (because he is frustrated in his quest for his self). He is anxious (losing mother), he feels guilty (for being angry at mother), he is attracted and repelled. In short, he is in a chaotic state of mind.

Whereas healthy people experience such eroding dilemmas now and then to the personality disordered they are a constant, characteristic emotional state.

To defend himself against this intolerable vortex of emotions, the child keeps them out of his consciousness. He splits them off. The "bad" mother and the "bad" self plus all the negative feelings of abandonment, anxiety, and rage are "split-off". The child's over-reliance on this primitive defence mechanism obstructs his orderly development: he cannot integrate the split images. The Bad parts are so laden with negative emotions that they remain virtually untouched (in the Shadow, as complexes). It is impossible to integrate such explosive material with the more benign Good parts.

Thus, the adult remains fixated at this earlier stage of development. He is unable to integrate and to see people as whole objects. They are either all "good" or all "bad" (idealisation and devaluation cycles). He is terrified (unconsciously) of abandonment, actually feels abandoned, or under threat of being abandoned and subtly plays it out in his/her interpersonal relationships.


Is the reintroduction of split-off material in any way helpful? Is it likely to lead to an integrated Ego (or self)?

To ask this is to confuse two issues. With the exception of schizophrenics and some types of psychotics, the Ego (or self) is always integrated. That a person cannot integrate the images of others (libidinal or non-libidinal objects) does not mean that he has a non-integrated or a disintegrative Ego. These are two separate matters. The inability to integrate the world (as is the case in the Borderline or in the Narcissistic Personality Disorders) relates to the choice of defence mechanisms. It is a secondary layer: the issue here is not what is the state of the self (integrated or not) but what is the state of our perception of the self. Thus, from the theoretical point of view, the reintroduction of split-off material will do nothing to "improve" the level of integration of the Ego. This is especially true if we adopt the Freudian concept of the Ego as inclusive of all split-off material. The question then is reduced to the following: will the transfer of the split-off material from one part of the Ego (the unconscious) to another (the conscious) in any way affect the integration of the Ego?

The encounter with split-off, repressed material is still an important part of many psychodynamic therapies. It has been shown to reduce anxiety, cure conversion symptoms and, generally, have a beneficial and therapeutic effect on the individual. Yet, this has nothing to do with integration. It has to do with conflict resolution. That various parts of the personality are in constant conflict is a principle integral to all psychodynamic theories. Bringing up split-off material to our consciousness reduces the scope or the intensity of these conflicts. This is achieved simply by definition: split-off material brought to consciousness is no longer split-off material and, therefore, can no longer participate in the "war" raging in the unconscious.

But is it always recommended? Not in my view.Consider personality disorders (see again my: The Stripped Ego).

Personality disorders are adaptive solutions in the given circumstances. It is true that, as circumstances change, these "solutions" prove to be rigid straitjackets, maladaptive rather than adaptive. But the patient has no coping substitutes available. No therapy can provide him with such a substitutes because the whole personality is affected by the ensuing pathology, not just an aspect or an element of it.

Bringing up split-off material may constrain or even eliminate the patient's personality disorder. And then what? How is the patient supposed to cope with the world then, a world that has suddenly reverted to being hostile, abandoning, capricious, whimsical, cruel and devouring just like it was in his infancy, before he stumbled across the magic of splitting?


next:  The Serious Narcissist

APA Reference
Vaknin, S. (2008, November 22). The Narcissist's Split Off Ego, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 25 from

Last Updated: July 4, 2018

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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