Infantile Omnipotence

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The sense of omnipotence that arises in the fundamental misapprehension of reality which is central to the period of primary narcissism, during which the infant hallucinates its original love-object, persists into childhood and is found among prehistoric and prelite-rate peoples who overestimate the power of wishful thinking and the real-world effect of psychic acts. Infantile omnipotence is also a feature of obsessional pathology, in which it appears as superstitious or magical thinking; in psychosis, as delusions of grandeur; and, finally and to a lesser extent, in creative people who are able to momentarily escape reality and manipulate a world of fantasy. Sigmund Freud treated the concept of omnipotent thinking at length through investigations of primitive peoples and their beliefs in telepathic and animistic thought, and also through pathologies such as obsessional neurosis and psychotic megalomania.

Although Freud did not discuss it in these terms, narcissistic regression in sleep may be viewed as putting the dreamer in a situation typical of infantile omnipotence, able to realize frustrated desires of the previous day and, on a deeper level, to fulfill repressed wishes. Dreams revive the earliest situation of the nursing infant who seeks to re-experience satisfaction through primary process thinkingthat is, to use hallucination to short-circuit reality. Perceptual identity is achieved by means that are rapid, regressive, and interior to the psychic apparatus. "It was only," wrote Freud, "the non-occurrence of the expected satisfaction, the disappointment experienced, that led to the abandonment of this attempt at satisfaction by means of hallucination" (1911b, p. 219). Omnipotence in this sense is essentially indistinguishable from the capacity of the psychic apparatus to ignore reality and has universal purchase as an archaic function of the psyche.

For the child, learning the limitations that the reality principle imposes on the pleasure principle is in effect a limitation on its sense of omnipotence. However, as Melanie Klein (1921 [1919]) noted, the child's sense of omnipotence is also tied to that which it endows its parents and with which it identifies. Reality opposes it in either case. The "decline of the omnipotence-feeling that is brought about by the impulse to diminish parental perfection (which certainly assists in establishing the limits of his own as well as of their power) in turn influences the impairment of authority, so that an interaction, a reciprocal support would exist between the impairment of authority and the weakening of the omnipotence-feeling" (p. 17). In her view, the child's experience of omnipotence as increasing or diminishing will determine whether he or she will become bold and optimistic or fearful and pessimistic. However, she added: "For the result of development not to be boundless utopianism and phantasy but optimism, a timely correction must be administered by thought" (p. 24). A compromise thus emerges between the pleasure principle that regulates wishes and fantasies and the area in which the reality principle prevails in the sphere of thoughts and established facts.

Donald W. Winnicott showed how the young child's mental activity can transform a "good-enough" environment into perfect surroundings. This transformation is necessary for object constancy not to be disturbed. By contrast, a defective environment is harmful because faulty adaptation overwhelms the psyche-soma of the young child and prematurely forces it out of the its narcissistic universe. In terms of the illusion of creating the object and what he calls "transitional objects," Winnicott (1952) wrote: "We allow the infant this madness, and only gradually ask for a clear distinguishing between the subjective and that which is capable of objective or scientific proof. We adults use the arts and religion for the off-moments which we all need in the course of reality-testing and reality-acceptance" (p. 224).

Omnipotence does not disappear as childhood ends, but it delimits itself to specific areas and coexists with the recognition that reality imposes limitations upon it. Literary fiction and especially Romanesque adventure permits safe enjoyment of omnipotence through all manner of imagined danger. "It seems to me, however," wrote Freud (1908a), "that through this revealing characteristic of invulnerability we can immediately recognize His Majesty the Ego, the hero alike of every day-dream and of every story" (1908a, p. 150). Moreover, parents transmit omnipotence to the child inasmuch as "they are inclined to suspend in the child's favour the operation of all the cultural acquisitions which their own narcissism has been forced to respect, and to renew on his behalf the claims to privileges which were long ago given up by themselves. . . Illness, death, renunciation of enjoyment, restrictions on his own will, shall not touch him; the laws of nature and of society shall be abrogated in his favour; he shall once more really be the centre and core of creation'His Majesty the Baby', as we once fancied ourselves" (1914c, p. 19).

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Alpha function; Amplification (analytical psychology); Anxiety; Arrogance; Borderline conditions; "Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest"; Dead mother complex; Dependence; Ego ideal; Ego ideal/ideal ego; Encopresis; Inferiority, feeling of; Good enough mother; Holding; Illusion; Infant observation (direct); Mania; Megalomania; Narcissism; Narcissistic defenses; Narcissistic elation; Omnipotence of thought; Paranoia; Pregnancy, fantasy of; Psycho-Analysis of Children, The ; Quasi-independence, Transitional stage; Rite and ritual; Self (true/false); Self esteem; Silence; Squiggle; Suicidal behavior; Technique with children, psychoanalytic; Termination of treatment; Transference/counter-transference (analytical psychology); Transgression; Transitional phenomena; Transitional object; Transitional object, space.


Freud, Sigmund. (1908e). Creative writers and day-dreaming. SE, 9: 141-153.

. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 7: 213-226.

. (1914c). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 81-105.

Klein, Melanie. (1921 [1919]). The development of a child. In: Love, guilt and reparation and other works, 1921-1945, pp. 1-53. Delacorte Press, 1975.

Winnicott, Donald W. (1952). Psychosis and child care. In: Collected papers (pp. 219-228). New York: Basic Books, 1958.