Narcissistic Withdrawal

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The term narcissistic withdrawal is used to describe the turning back of the individual's libido from the object onto themselves. Narcissistic withdrawal is what occurs in the hallucinatory regression of dreams. This term is also used in pathology, where narcissistic withdrawal is differentiated from regression in the dream-work and must be studied in relation to the ego. Finally, in the context of psychoanalytic treatment, following Donald Winnicott (1954), regression, as a process of change, can be differentiated from withdrawal, a state that is not very productive. Thus narcissism, inseparable from the notion of regression, can be considered as a movement, with a libidinal trajectory from subject to object followed by a return of the object-cathexes to the subject.

Sigmund Freud had referred to narcissism several times before devoting a whole study to it in 1914: "On Narcissism: An Introduction." Here he broached the notion of withdrawal: "The condition of sleep, too, resembles illness in implying a narcissistic withdrawal of the positions of the libido onto the subject's own self, or, more precisely onto the single wish to sleep.... In both states we have . . . examples of changes in the distribution of libido that are consequent upon a change in the ego" (p. 83)the ego that is manifested in the dream appearance. This withdrawal is also found in illness or pain, where libidinal cathexes are withdrawn from the object to the ego. Freud returned to this notion of regression in "A Metapsychological Supplement to the Theory of Dreams" (1916-17f [1915], where he wrote: "We distinguish two regressionsone affecting the development of the ego and the other that of the libido. In the state of sleep, the latter is carried to the point of restoring primitive narcissism, while the former goes back to the stage of hallucinatory satisfaction of wishes" (pp. 222-223). In "Mourning and Melancholia" (1916-17g [1915]), written the same year, he took up the study of the object, showing that following a disappointment linked to the object the latter is decathected of its libidinal charge, which flows back onto the ego in a movement of narcissistic regression.

In "La tendance convergente de la regression narcissique" (The tendency towards convergence in narcissistic regression; 1996), César and Sara Botella insist on "the unifying instinctual quality of narcissistic regression, for which the model is the dream-work." Alongside this positive approach towards narcissistic regression, we can consider the case in which the subject appeals to narcissistic withdrawal as a defensive solution. In Life Narcissism, Death Narcissism (1983/2001), André Green viewed narcissistic withdrawal as "yet another lure. Freud showed he was aware of this in his description of 'Libidinal Types' (1931). The narcissistic character type is more independent, but also more vulnerable" (p. 101). And indeed, Freud believed that evolution towards psychosis was possible in this type of personality. Green added: "The disinvestment of the object and narcissistic withdrawal expose the subject's ego to a very threatening type of anxiety: narcissistic anxiety" (p. 101). He viewed this withdrawal as a precarious refuge that comes into being as a defense against a disappointing or untrustworthy object. This is found in studies of narcissistic personalities or borderline pathologies by authors such as Heinz Kohut or Otto Kernberg.

In conclusion, it can be said that although Freud uses the notion of withdrawal as the equivalent of narcissistic regression, in the contemporary literature the term narcissistic withdrawal is instead reserved for an ego defense in pathological personalities.

Martine Myquel

See also: Acute psychoses; Anorexia nervosa; Basic depression; Bulimia; Desexualization; Face-to-face situation; Hypochondria; Indications and contraindications for psychoanalysis in an adult; Internal object; Melancholia; Mourning; "Mourning and Melancholia"; Narcissistic neurosis; Negative, work of; Neurosis; Organ pleasure; Paranoia; Psychoanalytical nosography; Self-hatred; Sleep/wakefulness; Transference depression; Ulcerative colitis.


Botella, César, and Botella, Sara. (1996). La tendance convergente de la regression narcissique. Revue française de psychosomatique, 9, 109-125.

Freud, Sigmund. (1914c). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

. (1916-17f [1915]). A metapsychological supplement to the theory of dreams. SE, 14: 217-235.

. (1916-17g [1915]). Mourning and melancholia. SE 14: 237-258.

. Libidinal types. SE, 21: 215-220.

Green, André. (2001). Life narcissism, death narcissism (Andrew Weller, Trans.). London and New York: Free Association Books. (Original work published 1983)

Winnicott, Donald W. (1954). Withdrawal and regression. In Collected Papers. London: Tavistock, 1958.