Primary Narcissism

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A baby developing in a healthy family environment has no reason to suspect she is not the center of the universe. All of her needs are taken care of, usually at the moment they arise. When she is hungry she is fed. When she makes a mess it is cleaned up. When she wants attention she gets it. She is fawned over and shown affection by everyone who comes into contact with her. She learns that she can make people smile by smiling at them first. She she can make people rush to her side when she starts crying. Everything and everyone seem to be an extension of her.

The paradox is that primary caregivers who are devoted to their children, creating the best conditions possible for their growth and happiness, set the stage for primary narcissism with these actions. Primary narcissism is the inability to take on the perspective of another. It is believing the world revolves around you, that everyone should be able to read your mind and should cater to your every whim. It’s the inability to be objective, projecting your subjective reality onto the external world, not even recognizing that there is a difference between the two.

The psychologist Erich Fromm believed that moving through primary narcissism is a central life task and essential for becoming a healthy adult. Parents can help children in their development with the slight but important distinction, “You are the center of my universe, but you are not the center of the universe.”

It’s easy to see why kids don’t make this distinction on their own. For the young child primary caregivers are the universe because kids don’t have any outside experiences to use for comparison and their cognitive apparatus has not yet developed to where they can think symbolically. In our culture, the nuclear family is the blueprint for all subsequent relationships for this reason. Encouraging kids to try to put themselves in the shoes of others, whether it be the family dog, a sibling, a playmate, or anyone else, is a giant assist in helping them move out of the egocentric mindset where everything exists in relation to them and into the mature mindset where objective reality is seen more clearly for what it is.