Perspectives - Vol. 6, No. 1 - A Primer on Narcissism - Page 3 of 3

Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

Continued from Page 2

XIV. Narcissism - Cultural Considerations

The ethnopsychologist George Devereux ("Basic Problems of Ethnopsychiatry", University of Chicago Press, 1980) suggested to divide the unconscious into the id (the part that was always instinctual and unconscious) and the "ethnic unconscious" (repressed material that was once conscious). The latter includes all our defence mechanisms and most of the superego. Culture dictates what is to be repressed. Mental illness is either idiosyncratic (cultural directives are not followed and the individual is unique and schizophrenic) - or conformist, abiding by the cultural dictates of what is allowed and disallowed.

Our culture, according to Christopher Lasch teaches us to withdraw into ourselves when we are confronted with stressful situations. It is a vicious circle. One of the main stressors of modern society is alienation and a pervasive sense of isolation. The solution our culture offers us - to further withdraw - only exacerbates the problem.

Richard Sennett expounded on this theme in "The Fall of Public Man: On the Social Psychology of Capitalism" (Vintage Books, 1978). One of the chapters in Devereux's aforementioned tome is entitled "Schizophrenia: An Ethnic Psychosis, or Schizophrenia without Tears". To him, the whole USA is afflicted by what came later to be called a "schizoid disorder". C. Fred Alford (in "Narcissism: Socrates, the Frankfurt School, and Psychoanalytic Theory", Yale University Press, 1988) enumerates the symptoms:

"...withdrawal, emotional aloofness, hyporeactivity (emotional flatness), sex without emotional involvement, segmentation and partial involvement (lack of interest and commitment to things outside oneself), fixation on oral-stage issues, regression, infantilism and depersonalization. These, of course, are many of the same designations that Lasch employs to describe the culture of narcissism. Thus, it appears, that it is not misleading to equate narcissism with schizoid disorder." (page 19).

XV. Narcissism and Schizoid Disorders - Melanie Klein

The first to seriously consider the similarity between Narcissistic and Schizoid pathologies was Melanie Klein. She broke with Freud in that she believed that we are born with a fragile, easily fragmentable, weak and unintegrated ego. The most primordial human fear is the fear of disintegration (death), according to Klein. Thus, the infant is forced to employ primitive defence mechanisms such as splitting, projection and introjection to cope with this fear (actually, with the result of aggression generated by the ego). The ego splits and projects this part (death, disintegration, aggression). It does the same with the life-related, constructive, integrative part of itself. The result of all these dynamics is to view the world as either "good" (satisfying, complying, responding, gratifying) - or bad (frustrating). Klein called it the good and the bad "breasts". The child then proceeds to introject (internalize and assimilate) the good object while keeping out (=defending against) the bad objects. The good object becomes the nucleus of the forming ego. The bad object is felt as fragmented. But it is not gone, it is there.

This (the fact that the bad object is "out there", persecutory, threatening) - gives rise to the first schizoid defence mechanisms, foremost amongst them the mechanism of "projective identification" (so often employed by Narcissists). The infant projects parts of himself (his organs, his behaviours, his traits) unto the bad object. This is the Kleinian "paranoid-schizoid position". The ego is split. This is terrifying but it allows the baby to make a clear distinction between the "good object" (inside him) and the "bad object" (out there, split from him). If this phase is not transcended the individual develops schizophrenia and a fragmentation of the self.

Around the third or fourth month of life, the infant realizes that the good and the bad objects are really facets of one and the same object. He develops the depressive position. This depression (Klein believes that the two positions continue throughout life) is a reaction of fear and anxiety. The infant feels guilty (at his own rage), anxious (lest his aggression harm the object and eliminate the source of good things). He experiences loss (of his own omnipotence since the object is outside his self). The infant wishes to erase the results of his own aggression by "making the object whole again". By recognizing the wholeness of other objects - the infant comes to realize and to experience his own wholeness. The ego re-integrates.

But the transition from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive one is by no means smooth and assured. Excess anxiety and envy can delay it or prevent it altogether. Envy seeks to destroy all good objects, so that others don't have them. It, therefore, hinders the split between the good and the bad "breasts". Envy destroys the good object but leaves the persecutory , bad object intact. Moreover, it does not allow the re-integration ("reparation" in the Kleinian term) to take place. The more whole the object - the greater the envy. Thus, envy feeds on its own outcomes. The more envy, the less integrated the ego is, the weaker and inadequate it is - the more reason for envying the good object and other people. Envy is the hallmark of narcissism and the prime source of what is known as narcissistic rage. The schizoid self - fragmented, weak, primitive - is intimately connected with narcissism through envy. Narcissists prefer to destroy themselves and to deny themselves - rather than to endure someone else's happiness, wholeness and "triumph". They will fail an exam - to frustrate a teacher they adore and envy. They will fail in therapy -not to give the therapist a reason to feel professionally satisfied. By failing and self-destructing, narcissists deny the worth of others. If the narcissist fails in therapy - his analyst must be inept. If he destroys himself by consuming drugs - his parents are blameworthy and should feel guilty (bad). One cannot exaggerate the importance of envy as a motivating power in the narcissist's life.

The psychodynamic connection is obvious. Envy is a rage reaction at not controlling or "having" or engulfing the good, desired object. Narcissists defend themselves against this acidulous, corroding sensation by pretending that they DO control, possess and engulf the good object. This is what we call "grandiose fantasies (of omnipotence or omniscience)". But, in doing so, the narcissist MUST deny the existence of ANY good outside himself. The narcissist defends himself against raging, all consuming envy - by solipsistically claiming to be the ONLY good object in the world. This is an object that cannot be had by anyone, except the narcissist and, therefore, is immune to the narcissist's threatening, annihilating envy. In order not to be "owned" by anyone (and, thus, avoid self destruction in the hands of his own envy) - the narcissist reduces others to "non-entities" or avoids all meaningful contact with them (the schizoid solution).

The suppression of envy is at the CORE of the narcissist's being. If he fails to convince his self that he is the ONLY good object in the universe - he is exposed to his own murderous envy. If there are others out there who are better than he - he envies them, he lashes out at them ferociously, uncontrollably, madly, hatefully and spitefully. If someone tries to get emotionally intimate with the narcissist - he threatens the grandiose belief that no one but the narcissist can possess the good object (the narcissist himself). Only the narcissist can own himself, have access to himself, possess himself. This is the only way to avoid seething envy and certain self-annihilation. Perhaps it is clearer now why narcissists react as raving madmen to ANYTHING, however minute, however remote that seems to threaten their grandiose fantasies, the only protective barrier between themselves and their envy.

There is nothing new in trying to link narcissism to schizophrenia. Freud did as much in his "On Narcissism" (1914). Klein's contribution was the introduction of immediately post-natal internal objects. Schizophrenia, she proposed, was a narcissistic and intense relationship with internal objects (such as fantasies or images, including fantasies of grandeur). It was a new language. Freud suggested a transition from (primary, object-less) narcissism (self directed libido) to "objects relations" (objects directed libido). Klein suggested a transition from internal objects to external ones. While Freud thought that the common denominator of narcissism and schizoid phenomena was a withdrawal of libido from the world - Klein suggested it was a fixation on an early phase of relating to internal objects.

But is the difference not merely a question of terminology?

"The term 'narcissism' tends to be employed diagnostically by those proclaiming loyalty to the drive model (Otto Kernberg and Edith Jacobson, for instance - SV) and mixed model theorists (Kohut), who are interested in preserving a tie to drive theory. 'Schizoid' tends to be employed diagnostically by adherents of relational models (Fairbairn, Guntrip), who are interested in articulating their break with drive theory... These two differing diagnoses and accompanying formulations are applied to patients who are essentially similar, by theorists who start with very different conceptual premises and ideological affiliations." (Greenberg and Mitchell - "Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory" - Harvard University Press - 1983)

Klein, in effect, said that drives (e.g., the libido) are relational flows. A drive is the way a relationship between an individual and his objects (internal and external) is. Thus, a retreat from the world (Freud) into internal objects (object relations theorists and especially the British school of Fairbairn and Guntrip) - IS the drive itself. Drives are orientations (to external or internal objects). Narcissism is an orientation (a preference, we could say) to internal objects - the very definition of schizoid phenomena. This is why narcissists feel empty, fragmented, "unreal" (movie-like) and diffuse. It is because their ego is still split (never integrated) and because they withdrew from the world (of external objects). Kernberg identifies these internal objects with which the narcissist maintains a special relationship with the idealized, grandiose images of the narcissist's parents. He believes that the narcissist's very ego (self-representation) fused with these parental images.

Fairbairn's work - even more than Kernberg's, not to mention Kohut's - integrates all these insights into a coherent framework. Guntrip elaborated on it and together they created one of the most impressive theoretical bodies in the history of psychology.

W. R. D. Fairbairn internalized Klein's insights that drives are object-orientated and their goal is the formation of relationships and not primarily the attainment of pleasure. Pleasurable sensations are the means to achieve relationships. The ego does not look to be stimulated and pleased but to find the right "good", supporting object. The infant is fused with his primary object, the mother. Life is not about using objects for pleasure under the supervision of the ego and superego, as Freud postulated. Life is about separating, differentiating, achieving independence from the Primary Object and the initial state of fusion with it. Dependence on internal objects is narcissism. Freud's post-narcissistic (anaclitic) phase of life can be either dependent (immature) or mature.

The new-born's ego is looking for objects with which to form relationships with. Inevitably, some of these objects and some of these relationships frustrate the infant and disappoint him. He compensates for these setbacks by creating compensatory internal objects. The initially unitary ego thus fragments into a growing group of internal objects. Reality breaks our hearts and minds, according to Fairbairn. The ego and its objects are "twinned" and the ego is split in three (Harry Guntrip added a fourth ego). A schizoid state ensues.

The "original" (Freudian or libidinal) ego is unitary, instinctual, needy and object seeking. It then fragments as a result of the three typical interactions with the mother (gratification, disappointment and deprivation). The Central Ego idealizes the "good" parents. It is conformist and obedient. The Antilibidinal Ego is a reaction to frustrations. It is rejecting, harsh, unsatisfying, against natural needs. The Libidinal Ego is the seat of cravings, desires and needs. It is active in that it keeps seeking objects to form relationships with. Guntrip added the Regressed Ego which is the "True Self" in "cold storage"; the "lost heart of the personal self".

Fairbairn's definition of psychopathology is quantitative. Which part of the ego is dedicated to relationships with internal objects rather than with external ones (e.g., real people)? In other words: how Fragmented (=how schizoid) is the ego?

To achieve a successful transition from internal objects to external ones - the child needs the right parents (in Winnicott parlance, the "good enough mother" - not the perfect, but the "good enough"). The child internalizes the bad aspects of his parents in the form of internal, bad objects and then proceeds to suppress them, together ('twinned") with portions of his ego. Thus, his parents become PART of the child (though a repressed one). The more bad objects are repressed, the "less ego is left" for healthy relationships with external objects. To Fairbairn, the source of all psychological disturbances is in these schizoid phenomena. Later developments (such as the Oedipus Complex) are less crucial. Fairbairn and Guntrip think that if a person is too attached to his compensatory internal object - he will find it hard to mature psychologically. Maturing is about letting go of internal objects. Some people just don't want to mature, or are reluctant to do so, or are ambivalent about it. This reluctance, this withdrawal to an internal world of representations, internal objects and broken ego - is narcissism itself. Narcissists simply don't know how to be themselves, how to acquire independence and, simultaneously manage their relationships with other people.

Both Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut agreed that narcissism is between neuroses and psychoses. Kernberg thought that it was a borderline phenomenon, on the verge of psychosis (where the ego is completely shattered). In this respect, Kernberg identifies narcissism with schizoid phenomena and with schizophrenia more than Kohut did. This is not the only difference between them. They also disagree on the developmental locus of narcissism. Kohut thinks that narcissism is an early phase of development, fossilized, forever to be repeated (a massive repetition complex) while Kernberg maintains that the narcissistic self is pathological from its very inception. Kohut believes that the narcissist's parents provided him with no assurances that he does possess a self (in his words, with no selfobject). They did not explicitly recognize the child's nascent self, its separate existence, its boundaries. The child learned to have a schizoid, split, fragmented self - rather than a coherent and integrated one. To him, narcissism is really all-pervasive, at the very core of being (whether in its mature form, as self-love, or in it regressive, infantile form as a narcissistic disorder).

Kernberg regards "mature narcissism" (also espoused by neo-Freudians like Grunberger and Chasseguet-Smirgel) as a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. He observes that narcissists are already grandiose and schizoid (detached, cold, aloof, asocial) at an early age (at three years old, according to him!). Like Klein, Kernberg believes that narcissism is a last ditch effort (defence) to halt the emergence of the paranoid-schizoid position described by Klein. In an adult such an emergence is known as "psychosis" and this is why Kernberg classifies narcissists as borderline (almost) psychotics. Even Kohut, who is an opponent of Kernberg's classification, uses Eugene O'Neill's famous sentence (in "The Great God Brown"): "Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue." Kernberg himself sees a clear connection between schizoid phenomena (such as alienation in modern society and subsequent withdrawal) and narcissistic phenomena (inability to form relationships or to make commitments or to empathize).

C. Fred Alford in "Narcissism: Socrates, the Frankfurt School and psychoanalytic Theory":

"Fairbairn and Guntrip represent the purest expression of object relations theory, which is characterized by the insight that real relationships with real people build psychic structure. Although they rarely mention narcissism, they see a schizoid split in the self as characteristic of virtually all emotional disorder. It is Greenberg and Mitchell, in Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory who establish the relevance of Fairbairn and Guntrip... by pointing out that what American analysts label 'narcissism', British analysts tend to call 'schizoid personality disorder'. This insight allows us to connect the symptomatology of narcissism - feelings of emptiness, unreality, alienation and emotional withdrawal - with a theory that sees such symptoms as an accurate reflection of the experience of being split off from a part of oneself. That narcissism is such a confusing category is in large part because its drive-theoretic definition, the libidinal cathexis of the self - in a word, self-love - seems far removed from the experience of narcissism, as characterized by a loss of, or split in, the self. Fairbairn's and Guntrip's view of narcissism as an excessive attachment of the ego to internal objects (roughly analogous to Freud's narcissistic, as opposed to object, love), resulting in various splits in the ego necessary to maintain these attachments, allows us to penetrate this confusion" (page 67).

XVI. Narcissism, Aggression, Anger and Narcissistic Rage

Anger is a compounded phenomenon. It has dispositional properties, expressive and motivational components, situational and individual variations, cognitive and excitatory interdependent manifestations and psychophysiological (especially neuroendocrine) aspects. From the psychobiological point of view, it probably had its survival utility in early evolution, but it seems to have lost a lot of it in modern societies. Actually, in most cases it is counterproductive, even dangerous. Dysfunctional anger is known to have pathogenic effects (mostly cardiovascular).

Most Personality Disordered people are prone to be angry. Their anger is always sudden, raging, frightening and without an apparent provocation by an outside agent. It would seem that people suffering from personality disorders are in a CONSTANT state of anger, which is effectively suppressed most of the time. It manifests itself only when the person's defenses are down, incapacitated, or adversely affected by circumstances, inner or external.

The person thus affected was, usually, unable to express anger and direct it at "forbidden" targets in his early, formative years (his parents, in most cases). The anger, however, was a justified reaction to abuses and mistreatment. The patient was, therefore, left to nurture a sense of profound injustice and frustrated rage.

Healthy people experience anger, but as a transitory state. This is what sets the Personality Disordered apart: their anger is always acute, permanently present, often suppressed or repressed. Healthy anger has an external inducing agent (a reason). It is directed at this agent (coherence). Pathological anger is neither coherent, not externally induced. It emanates from the inside and it is diffuse, directed at the "world" and at "injustice" in general. The personality disordered person is able to identify the IMMEDIATE cause of the anger. Still, upon closer scrutiny, the cause is found lacking and the anger excessive, disproportionate and incoherent. It might be more accurate to say that the Personality Disordered is expressing (and experiencing) TWO layers of anger, simultaneously and always. The first layer, the superficial anger, is indeed directed at an identified target, the alleged cause of the eruption. The second layer, however, is anger directed at himself. The patient is angry at himself for being unable to vent off normal anger, normally. He often says that he feels like a miscreant. He hates and loathes himself. This second layer of anger also comprises strong and easily identifiable elements of frustration, irritation and annoyance.

While normal anger generates action regarding its source (or at least the planning or contemplation of such action) - pathological anger is mostly directed at oneself or even lacks direction altogether ("diffuse anger"). The Personality Disordered are afraid to show that they are angry to signifi cant others because they are afraid to lose them. The Borderline Personality Disordered is terrified of being abandoned, the Narcissist (NPD) needs his Narcissistic supply sources, the Paranoid - his persecutors and so on. These people prefer to direct their anger at people who are insignificant to them, people whose withdrawal will not constitute a threat to their precariously balanced personality. They will yell at a waitress, shout at a taxi driver, or explode at an underling. Alternatively, they will sulk, feel anhedonic or pathologically bored, drink or do drugs - all forms of self-directed aggression. From time to time, no longer able to pretend and to suppress, they have it out with the real source of their anger. They rage. They shout incoherently, make absurd accusations, distort facts, pronounce allegations and suspicions. These episodes are followed by periods of saccharine sweetness and excessive flattering and submissiveness towards the victim of the latest rage attack. These pendulum-like emotional swings make life with the Personality Disordered difficult.

Anger in healthy persons is diminished through action. It is an aversive, unpleasant emotion. It is intended to generate action in order to eradicate this uncomfortable sensation. It is coupled with physiological arousal. But it is not clear whether action diminishes anger or anger is used up in action. Similarly, it is not clear whether the consciousness of anger is dependent on a stream of cognition expressed in words? Do we become angry because we say that we are angry (=we identify the anger and capture it) - or do we say that we are angry because we are angry to begin with?

Anger is induced by numerous factors. It is almost a universal reaction. Threats to one's welfare (physical, emotional, social, financial, or mental) is met with anger. But so are threats to one's affiliates, nearest, dearest, nation, favorite football club, pet and so on. The territory of anger is enlarged to include not only the person - but all his real and perceived environment, human and non-human. This does not sound like a very adaptive strategy. Moreover, threats are not the only situations met with anger. Anger is the reaction to injustice (perceived injustice, it does not have to be real), to disagreements, to inconvenience. But the two sources of anger are threat (a disagreement is potentially threatening) and injustice (inconvenience is injustice inflicted on the angry person by the world).

These are also the two sources of personality disorders. The Personality Disordered is molded by recurrent and frequent injustice and he is constantly threatened both by his internal and by his external universes. No wonder that there is a close affinity between the Personality Disordered and the acutely angry person.

And, as opposed to common opinion, the angry person becomes angry whether he believes that what was done to him was deliberate or not. If we lose a precious manuscript, we are bound to become angry at ourselves, though no intent was involved. If his home is devastated by an earthquake - a person will surely rage, though no conscious mind was at work. When we perceive an injustice in the distribution of incentives or wealth or love - we become angry because of moral reasoning, whether the injustice was deliberately applied or not. We retaliate and we punish as a result of our ability to morally reason, to get even. Sometimes even moral reasoning is lacking, as in when we simply wish to alleviate our anger.

The Personality Disordered suppresses the anger, but he has no effective mechanisms of redirecting it in order to correct the inducing conditions. His hostile expressions are not constructive - they are destructive because they are diffuse, excessive and, therefore, unclear. He does not lash out at people in order to restore his lost esteem, his prestige, his sense of power and control over his life, to recover emotionally, or to restore his well being. He rages because he cannot help it and is in a self destructive and self-loathing mode. His anger does not contain a signal, which could alter his environment in general and the behaviour of those around him, in particular. His anger is primitive, maladaptive, pent up.

Anger is a primitive, limbic emotion. Its excitatory components and patterns are shared with sexual excitation and with fear. It is cognition that guides our behaviour, aimed at avoiding harm and aversion or at minimizing them. Our cognition is in charge of attaining certain kinds of mental gratification. A prognosis, a prediction regarding the future values of the relief-gratification versus repercussions (reward to risk) ratio- these can be obtained only with the use of cognitive tools. Anger is evoked by aversive treatment, deliberately or unintentionally inflicted. Such treatment must violate either prevailing conventions regarding social interactions or some otherwise deeply ingrained sense of what is fair and what is just. The judgement of fairness or justice (namely, the appraisal of the extent of compliance with conventions of social exchange) - is also cognitive.

The angry person and the Personality Disordered both suffer from a cognitive deficit. They are unable to conceptualize, to design effective strategies and to execute them. They dedicate all their attention to the immediate and ignore the future consequences of their actions. In other words, their attention and information processing faculties are distorted, skewed in favor of the here and now, biased on both the intake and the output. Time is "relativistically dilated" - the present feels more protracted, "longer" than any future. Immediate facts and actions are judged more relevant and weighted more heavily than any remote aversive conditions. Anger impairs cognition.

The angry person is a worried person. The Personality Disordered is also excessively preoccupied with himself. Worry and anger are the cornerstones of the edifice of anxiety. This is where the knot is finally tied: people become angry because they are excessively concerned with bad things which might happen to them. Anger is a result of anxiety (or, when the anger is not acute, of fear).

The striking similarity between anger and personality disorders is the deterioration of the faculty of empathy. Angry people cannot empathize. Actually, "counter-empathy" develops in a state of acute anger. All mitigating circumstances related to the source of the anger - will be taken as meaning to devalue and belittle the suffering of the angry person. His anger will thus increase the more mitigating circumstances are brought to his attention. Judgement is altered by anger. Later provocative acts are judged to be more serious - just by "virtue" of their chronological position. All this is very typical of the Personality Disordered. An impairment of the empathic sensitivities is a prime symptom in many of them (in the Narcissistic, Schizoid and Schizotypal Personality Disordered, to mention but three).

Moreover, the aforementioned impairment of judgement (=impairment of the proper functioning of the mechanism of risk assessment) appears in both acute anger and in many personality disorders. The illusion of omnipotence (power) and invulnerability, the partiality of judgement - are typical of both states. Acute anger (rage attacks in personality disorders) is always incommensurate with the magnitude of the source of the emotion and is fuelled by extraneous experiences. An acutely angry person usually reacts to an ACCUMULATION, an amalgamation of aversive experiences, all enhancing each other in vicious feedback loops, many of them not directly related to the cause of the specific anger episode. The angry person may be reacting to stress, agitation, disturbance, drugs, violence or aggression witnessed by him, to social or to national conflict, to elation and even to sexual excitation. The same is true of the Personality Disordered. His inner world is fraught with unpleasant, ego-dystonic, discomfiting, unsettling, worrisome experiences. His external environment - influenced and molded by his distorted personality - is also transformed into a source of aversive, repulsive, or plainly unpleasant experiences. The personality Disordered explodes in rage - because he implodes AND reacts to outside stimuli, simultaneously. Because he is prone to magical thinking and, therefore, regards himself as immune, omnipotent, omniscient and protected from the consequences of his own acts - the Personality Disordered often acts in a self destructive and self defeating manner. The similarities are so numerous and so striking that it seems safe to say that the Personality Disordered is in a constant state of acute anger.

Finally, acutely angry people perceive anger to have been the result of intentional (or circumstantial) provocation with a hostile purpose (by the target of their anger). Their targets, on the other hand, invariably regard them as incoherent people, acting arbitrarily, in an unjustified manner.

Sam Vaknin has a combined doctorate in Physics and Philosophy. He is an economic and political columnist in many periodicals in a few countries and a published and awarded author of short fiction and reference books in Hebrew, English and Macedonian in Israel, Macedonia and the Czech Republic. He has collaborated with Israeli psychologists and criminologists in the study of personality disorders and is the author of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited. He is the editor of the Mental Health Disorders and Central and Eastern Europe categories in the Open Directory Project and in as well as the editor of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder topic in Suite101 and He is serving currently as the Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia. His new book "After the Rain - How the West Lost the East" is an anthology of essays about societies in transition in CEE.

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Email address: [email protected] or [email protected]

Vaknin, Sam (2000). A Primer On Narcissism. [Online]


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