From Narcissism to Empathy

by Elder M. Lindahl

Humans are born selfish.  When one observes young children at play, the central, operative word is often “mine.”  It is like:  What’s mine is mine, and what my playmates want is also mine.  Toddlers do not at first feel the interests of the other, share toys or offer possessions. They live in the moment, grabbing things without thinking about the wishes, needs, or even the private property of their playmates.

How does one refer to this primary ego-centric human trait?  The issue of human selfishness has been discussed and labeled from a variety of perspectives.  Richard Dawson, for example, writes about the presence of a selfish gene in humans.  Christian Scriptures claim we are all sinful, at one with the old Adam.  Theologians use the term “original sin” for this.  Psychologists appropriate the Greek myth of Narcissus and employ the term “narcissism” to denote human selfishness.  I shall use the term “narcissism” to cover some of the different ways humans are said to be selfish.

Are humans hopelessly narcissistic?  What forces might cause narcissism to modify into more positive feelings for the other?  When and how does empathy emerge?  What happens in adults when empathy fails to develop?  How might conversion fit in?

There is hope. Human emotional development is a normal process in which there is growth or movement toward the control and strengthening of the emotions. Infants from birth are busy satisfying their own physical needs for food and emotional security. With time, a transition and transformation of their infantile selves occur, an unfolding of the inherent potentiality for wider human relationships. Profound stirrings happen causing the self-centered, narcissistic self to open and unfold.  This unfolding, like any growth in nature, is a wonder and a mystery—a miracle which portrays the possibility of moving from narcissism to the mature attribute called empathy.

What I find amazing is how naturally and quickly narcissism begins to modify in the direction of cooperation and concern for the common good. Recent research has found that infants by eighteen months and even younger already demonstrate what is called helper empathy.

Experimenter Felix Warneken performed a series of tasks with toddlers nearby and found that basic empathy was actively present. The toddlers would retrieve dropped clothespins, help stack books, or open a closed cabinet without being asked and without expecting thanks or a reward. This required that the toddlers understood the experimenter’s goals and was motivated to help non-kin strangers. Sensing the experimenter’s problems, the infants would crawl or walk to the spot and help out. The toddlers were not moved to help if they felt the experimenter was only pretending to need help. These experiments give evidence that the beginning of the transformation of narcissism to helper empathy is very early and quite natural.1


Professor Heinz Kohut has done some good work on the normal, healthy process through which narcissism transforms to empathy.2 The process, according to him, begins with the child’s self-centered desire to idealize the parents. This idealization entails the child’s projection of power, perfection, original bliss, and goodness on the parental figure. Children cling tenaciously to these qualities in their fulfillment of primary human needs for nourishment, security, love, and, significantly, for models. Self-centeredly, children will find ideals of strength and courage in their parents. The idealization process may also focus on Divine parents, on other heroic-type personalities or on charismatic figures on whom the child leans for support.

Idealization is an essential maturational factor in a child’s emotional development. The same drive which makes for self-centeredness pushes and pulls the self beyond itself.  By idealizing parents, children’s fear of extending themselves to others is overcome. The narcissistic structures are reshaped and integrated into the child’s personality and changed into object love. The self-esteem which operates within a closed circle around the individual, with experience, breaks out in various generous directions.

Kohut holds that the process is both a “maturationally predetermined step” and an achievement by children themselves.  A wholesome transformation of narcissism into humor, creativity, empathy, and wisdom occurs naturally in children when significant adults admire them and allow them to merge into their idealized perfection.

For Kohut, what happens when this normal process is frustrated, when the object is lost through death, absence, mental or physical illness, or for other reasons? Unselfish, altruistic dispositions fail to develop normally as the child preserves, defends and maintains those external qualities within. This means that omniscience and omnipotence, ideals in the parent imago, remain in the core self of the child. “....The narcissistic self wants to be looked at and admired” (Kohut, 67). The grandiose fantasy normally attributed to the idealized parent when repressed or prematurely interfered with comes home to roost in the ego of the child. In short, the child fails to grow up, that is, to grow outward and into new social relationships. The tragedy is that an opportunity to turn private experience into human experience has been missed. Grandiosity and egocentricity continue into adulthood.

A central theological issue comes in here for many of us who were raised in, and still maintain, the sola tradition, namely, that salvation from self-centeredness comes sola gratia, sola fidei, and sola scriptura. Only the Grace of God in Jesus Christ is sufficient to break the narcissistic hold and set us free. And yet, the evidence that narcissism can and does transition to empathy naturally is compelling. How does that come together?

Divine Grace operates both in creation and redemption. Though humans are created with the potential to become empathetic, that does not always happen. When, for some reason or other, the normal transformation process from narcissism to empathy misfires, specific help is available from above and beyond. The Good News is that redemption is possible, that people can and do become generous, unselfish, and caring. The Gospel energizes and completes the natural process. Thus, whether empathy emerges naturally and/or supernaturally, Soli Deo Gloria, to God is the glory.


1. Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, “Altruistic Helping in Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees, Science, Vol. 311, 3 March, 2006, pp. 1391-3.

2. Heinz Kohut, Self Psychology and the Humanities: Reflections on a New Psychoanalytic Approach, edited with an introduction by Charles B. Strozier, NY: Norton, 1985, pp. 97-123.