How Can We Distinguish Between Healthy and Pathological Narcissism?

By Ronnie Solan, PhD

Ronnie Solan, The Enigma of ChildhoodFrom birth onwards (and even during pregnancy), our innate objective from an emotional point of view is, in my opinion, to always recognize ourselves and those dearest to us, to decipher our familiar and true Self and narratives. Can we imagine a situation in which we do not identify ourselves?

We have a biological immune system that preserves our cell’s protein codes and resists alien, “non-self” strangers and invaders. We have also, in my opinion, an emotional immune system that preserves the familiar sense of our true Self and resists any invasion of the “non-self” – foreign influences that might endanger this cohesive recognition. Both types of immune systems process attraction to the familiar and resist/reject strangeness, working to reduce the chances of being injured by a sense of otherness triggered by an intruder.

Narcissism as an emotional immune system

I have been asked why I conceptualize narcissism as this emotional immune system. This concept emerged from my acknowledgment (and actually, we have always known this to be true) that through narcissism we search for the familiar, which is very often experienced as perfect and even ideal, and when encountering “the familiar” we feel well-being or even narcissistic euphoria. We also speak of narcissistic injury or even racism that may arise when encountering strangers. That is why I have re-conceptualized narcissism as the emotional immune system (Solan, 1998; 2015).

The primordial network of the newborn, comprising of their inherited genetic makeup and physiological sensations, is enriched by the accumulation of sensory information and fortified from babyhood onward by infinite subjective experiences. Personal and object relations experiences leave enduring memory traces, continuously organized into familiar “senses of the self” (Stern, 1985) so much so that we can recognize ourselves and our familiar family members across various day-to-day situations. However, on certain occasions, we sense something in ourselves as representing the strange. For example, this may occur during times of illness, or when in the company of our parent/spouse we sense the emergence of something unfamiliar or unknown. At these moments we might be vulnerable, injured, or traumatized as a function of having to face this otherness.

Narcissism immunizes the self against negative past interpersonal experiences

The narcissistic emotional system immunizes the familiar Self through infinite reverberations of these memory traces and does so on a scale with points ranging from beneficial to traumatic, all triggered by the present experiences. Thus, we interpret our present according to our familiar past experiences (Solms, 2004). Whenever most of these memory traces encompass the positive impact of object relations (jointness-separateness, cf. Solan 1999; 2015) such as enjoying intimacy, considering separateness, encouraging separation and individuation, then the familiar sense of our true Self is immune and consolidated. As a result, we will be happy with our love relationships and creativities. Our self-esteem will be rewarded. Concomitantly, the familiar true Self and our love relationship will be restored following those inevitable injuries and conflicts of interests we encounter when we experience the otherness of those around us.

Whenever most of the aforementioned reverberating memory traces encompass negative impact of object relations (symbiotic relations, repeated rejections) such as denial of separateness, intolerance of otherness, shaming, criticism, trauma and rejection, the familiar sense of a false Self is organized and preserved (Winnicott, 1960). It is often fragile and vulnerable, representing an ideal or damaged Self, subsequently arousing a sense of fusion with the object or structured into a disordered personality. All these are signs, as we know well, of a pathological narcissism – that is, narcissistic immune processing of the false self.

Finally, we may remember that we all have healthy and pathological narcissism, but we might help ourselves and our patients to preserve the positive memory traces in order that they prevail over the negative, to befriend the otherness in others, but to remain sufficiently alert to strangeness.


Solan, R. (1991). “Jointness” as integration of merging and separateness in object relations and narcissism. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 46, 337–352.

Solan, R. (1998a). Narcissistic fragility in the process of befriending the unfamiliar. American Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 58, 163–186.

Solan, R. (1999). The interaction between self and others: A different perspective on narcissism. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 54: 193– 215.

Solan, R. (2015). The enigma of childhood: The profound impact of first years of life on adults as couples and parents. London, UK: Karnac.

Solms, M. (2004). Freud returns. Scientific American, 290(5): 83–89.

Stern, D. N. (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. New York, NY:  Basic Books.

Winnicott, D. W. (1960). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In The maturational processes and the facilitating environment (pp. 140– 152). New York, NY: International Universities Press.

* Article originally posted at

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