Echo and Narcissus


This journal article looks briefly at Freud’s Psychoanalytic concepts of auto-erotism, regression, fixation, denial and primary, secondary and pathological narcissism, to understand addiction and compulsive behaviours/practices. Central to understanding any psychical or human behavioural phenomena psychoanalytically, is Freud’s large scale Meta-Psychological schema of the Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latent and Genital stages of psychosexual development and his concept of Libido, the instinctual sexual energy or life force that drives his work and this article. I also draw on his theories of need deprivation, separation anxiety and dependence on narcissistic supply and conclude by drawing attention to the issue of whether or not a sufficiently conscious adult is making a choice to repeat or is driven by a compulsion to repeat, a crucial distinction to be made in understanding addiction.

Freud’s essay On Narcissism (1914) developed the concept of auto-eroticism, the idea that an infant initially takes its own body as a sexual object and that at the start of life, its libido i.e. life energy, its psyche and attitude towards primary carers, is narcissistic i.e. based on the other’s capacity to provide the infant with attention, energy, pleasure and satisfaction. Narcissism is excessive love of the self, when most of a person’s energy and affections are fixated upon their self.  The focus of a child, on its own body and on the gratification of its instinctual needs e.g. hunger, Freud termed primary narcissism and is understandable considering the helpless condition of the human baby. In adults too, some degree self love and self affection is essential to maintain self-esteem and the proper functioning of the ego. Problems and illnesses occur however, when the relationship between libidinal energy investment and expenditure in the self and/or in others, becomes misdirected, imbalanced and fixated.

Freud initially trained as a neurologist, so his psychological theories were born of and directly concerned with bodily processes, as well as psychical processes. Attached, as they are, to bodily functions, Freud used his psychological concepts and his theory of psychosexual development, to show the connection between habitual addictive behaviours/practices and areas/functions of the body.  In his theory of psychosexual development, an infant is said to pass through five stages i.e. the Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latent and Genital stages of psychosexual development. Each stage is associated with a part of the body that is an erotogenic zone, i.e. the mouth, anus, penis and genital organs respectively. During the oral stage, interest i.e. libidinal psychosexual energy focuses on the mouth. During the anal stage, interest/energy focuses on the anus. During the phallic stage interest focuses or put psychoanalytically, energy cathexis (investment) is on the penis. After a latent period, finally the genital stage is when life energy is invested in sexual activity.


Important to note, is that the erogenous zones – eyes, ears, mouth, vagina, penis and anus – are all openings of the body (windows and doors of perception), that become particularly vulnerable and sensitive to erotic stimulation at certain stages of sexual development. The openings of the eyes, ears and nose can be understood as the most highly developed erogenous zones that have evolved into organs of sense perception, receiving and emitting subtle transmissions of energy. But even these most developed psychosomatic body organs become inhibited and damaged in their functioning and activity i.e. in their processing of libidinal energies and require psychotherapeutic intervention to treat.

The concept of libido runs through Freud’s work, as an instinctual sexual life energy/force, that comes into conflict with the conventions of society.  Freud thought that it was the need to control sexual energy that resulted in neuroses and other mental illnesses.  According to his theory of psychosexual development, the infant’s libido focuses on a particular body organ/erogenous zone at each developmental stage and cannot develop onto the next stage of sexual development, without resolving the developmental conflict of the stage that the energy is catheted (invested) in.  At each stage, the child has certain instinctual needs e.g. to feed, to defecate and urinate, to masturbate and be loved, etc, but gets frustrated when these instinctual needs are not immediately met by carers in the environment, so that gratification and instinctual relief is not immediately supplied. Freud thought that if a child fails to immediately attract the attention of its mother/primary carer, it regresses back into an earlier narcissistic stage of development.  While ample meeting of a child’s needs makes the child reluctant to progress, both frustration and overindulgence lock some of the libidinal energy into the stage in which the frustration or overindulgence occurs, resulting in a fixation of energy in that part of the body and activities focused around that area of the body.

Baby Watching Television

Psychoanalytically, health is equated with the free flowing movement of libido, the life force, which needs to be available to power mental and physical activity. In a healthy scenario, a child progresses normally through the psychosexual stages of development, resolving each developmental conflict at each stage and moving on.  Little libido remains invested or fixated in any particular stage or corresponding erogenous zone.  But if a child or adult fixates at a particular stage, their method of obtaining gratification and satisfaction, remains characterized by that particular stage and effects and dominates their personality and behaviour.  Fixation, is the failure to progress from an earlier stage of psychosexual development e.g. oral fixation on the mouth, or progress from an earlier relationship e.g. fixation on the mother or father.  The term is used more broadly however, for any relationship which is seen as inappropriately attached, intense and dependent.

Secondary narcissism is Freud’s concept for the love of self that results when a child introjects and internalises qualities of a primary carer, a defence mechanism that enables it to deny that it is separate from the parent/primary carer. Also called narcissistic regression, secondary narcissism occurs when a child or adult encounters an obstacle to its development and retreats into an earlier narcissistic state, rather than address the immediate hindrance. While regressed in the earlier developmental stage, they feel omnipotent and constantly seek more energy and attention. Thus begins the ego game of identity and society formation.

Similarly, pathological narcissism is where a narcissist introjects and internalises a negative object or person perceived as bad, then harbours socially forbidden feelings towards it such as hatred, envy and other forms of aggression. These negative feelings reinforce the narcissist’s internal self-image as a bad person, so that gradually they develop a dysfunctional sense of self-worth and their self-esteem becomes unrealistically low and distorted.  In an effort to repress these negative instincts and feelings, the narcissist uses a fixation, such as a drug addiction, to suppress all instincts and feelings and their aggression is channelled into destructive fantasies and socially legitimate even if illegal outlets such as drug taking, dangerous sex, dangerous sports, gambling and crime. According to Freud, when libido investment in others fails to produce gratification for the self or fair and justifiable relations with others, secondary and pathological narcissism occurs and is played and acted out through addictions.

Smiling at Phone

The Psychoanalytic view of addiction is that it is a fixation of sexual energy, a narcissistic defence mechanism that allows the addict in fantasy and repetitive practices, to maintain control over internal instincts and phantasies and external others. That is, control over inner phantasy figures based on memory traces of earlier real life relational experiences with primary others. Through habitual, repetitive, fixated and compulsive behaviours and ritual practices, libidinal energy flows back into the narcissistic addict, instead of towards others and the addict becomes energetically, psychologically and physically dependent on the drug or whatever repetitive compulsive habit or object they are addicted to.

The most common example is the smoking drug addict, who regresses to the oral stage of psychosexual development, where they act out omnipotent behaviours associated with that stage. But this habitual acting out is hindered by recourse to auto-erotism and fantasy, which further deflects libido into the self, so that the addict is unable to invest their energy in others.  Psychoanalytically, addicts are seen as having narcissistic personalities, as they are insatiable.  All their energy is directed towards obtaining one thing, either a drug or the attention/affection of a person in the form of affirmation and admiration, for the gratification and satisfaction of their self.  In psychoanalysis this energy/attention from others that the addict craves, is referred to as narcissistic supply and its fixations and movements are recognised, tracked and traced to relational fixation points in the recent and distant past with significant others and to defensive armouring in particular areas of the body, in analysis of one’s psychodynamics i.e. psychosexual energy exchanges, transactions and fixations. To get constant energy and attention, the narcissist/addict projects a regressed powerless false self onto others and uses their true life energy to maintain their regressed state and false self, to regulate their self-worth and to control others. Addictive and pathological behaviour is exploitative of others, it does not take into account the mutual satisfaction of two separate people involved in a relationship.  The ritualistic compulsive behaviour is in fact a repetitive re-enactment of a past relation and has little to do with people in the present real world.

A major theme for all addicts is that they have experienced need deprivation in the past. Characteristic is a history of traumatic child-parent relations, which affected their ability to relate to others in childhood and adulthood.  Usually they either lacked affectionate relations with their primary carer and experienced traumatic relations with them, so they have no healthy internal role models as templates to help them relate to people in the present.  A narcissistic addict mother, may have had low tolerance for her child’s instinctual needs and frustrations.  She may have been unable to provide the nurturing the child needed.

In the Bathroom Mirror

In adulthood, this results in separation anxiety that sends the addict to their eroticised fantasies and ritual habits, where they experience safety, security and a suppression of their unconscious desire to maintain a tie to the (neglectful or missing) primary other.  Paraphernalia such as the drug, alcohol, tobacco, bottle, papers, needle, syringe, etc themselves become objects that symbolically represent the primary carer who cannot be experienced as separate.  There is a wish to go back to a state of psychical fusion, an oceanic feeling of oneness with the primary carer.  The addict’s early life need deprivation results in intense interpersonal anxiety, so that they experience anxiety in all intimate relationships.  Because they have such intense anxiety about getting their instinctual needs met by others and are desperate for fulfilment, they turn to a reliance on fantasies, rituals and enactments to alleviate anxiety about intimacy and achieve a sense of self-affirmation.

Addictive and pathological behaviours arise when we see people get trapped in repetitive cycles of compulsion, secrecy, loss of control, guilt, lies, self-hatred and shame.  However, whether a repetitive practice/behaviour/activity can be judged an addiction or not, is determined by an individual’s inner subjective experience. The difference between healthy repetition and pathological repetition, is the difference between a person who has a solid sense of self and can consciously choose their actions and relationships, and a person who still needs to develop a sufficient sense of self to be able to fairly relate to others.

The standard psychological definition of addiction is continued and compulsive use of a substance and/or repetitive ritual behaviour, despite adverse consequences.  Taking this standard psychological definition of addiction into account, it would be fair to assume that an adult should be consciously able to determine for themselves what constitutes adverse consequences and whether or not their behaviour is compulsive. The central issue here is whether the drug use and/or ritual behaviour/practice is compulsive or not. Did the adult consciously choose their repetitive attitude, ideology or practice?  Psychoanalytically thinking, this is an unfair question, for few are conscious and the unconscious i.e. merger with the oceanic collective psyche, prevails.

Freud's Couch

Questions can be posed to an addict in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, addicts can find a place to acknowledge their deepest instinctual needs that were not met in the past, learn to mourn their loss and become energetically free and sexually satisfied in the present, rather than chained to a historical internal object i.e. a phantasy figure, or to an unfair/unsatisfying and limiting historical behavioural/relating pattern that must compulsively repeat itself in the present.  What is needed is for the addict to be willing to undergo the hard work of personal healing.  Emotional blockages and perceptual distortions can be finally faced, worked through, understood and resolved. Addicts can learn to lessen narcissistic and dependent psychical states through learning new psychological processes, rather than repeating compulsive ritual behaviours, so that they become less anxiety ridden and dependent. With psychological healing, addicts can begin to reinvest their energy in present day relationships with real people in mutually satisfying, fulfilling and rewarding relationships.



Freud, S. (1914). On Narcissism. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, p.67-102.

Schwartz-Salant (1982) Narcissism and Character Transformation: The Psychology of Narcissistic Character Disorders. Inner City Books, Toronto.

Ayla Michelle Demir. Academia Education website http://brunel.academia.edu/AylaMichelleDemir

Bedroom Mirror

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