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1857 lithograph by Armand Gautier, showing personifications of dementia, megalomania, acute mania, melancholia, idiocy, hallucination, erotomania and paralysis in the gardens of the Hospice de la Salpêtrière.

Megalomania is a psychopathological disorder characterized by delusional fantasies of power, relevance, or omnipotence. "Megalomania is characterized by an inflated sense of self-esteem and overestimation by persons of their powers and beliefs."[1] Historically it was used as an old name for narcissistic personality disorder prior to the latter's first use by Heinz Kohut in 1968, and is used these days as a non-clinical equivalent.[2][3] It is not mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)[4] or the International Statistical Classification of Diseases (ICD).


The word megalomania is derived from the Greek words "μεγαλο": megalo-, meaning large or great, and "μανία": mania, meaning madness, frenzy. The first attested use of the word "megalomania" in English is in 1890 as a translation of the French word "mégalomanie".

Proposed distinction from narcissism: Bertrand Russell[edit]

A quotation by Bertrand Russell gives his interpretation of megalomania: "The megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved. To this type belong many lunatics and most of the great men of history."[5]

Early Freudianism[edit]

Russell's near-contemporary, Sigmund Freud, freely used the same term in a comparable way. Referring with respect to an adult neurotic to 'the omnipotence which he ascribed to his thoughts and feelings', Freud reckoned that 'this belief is a frank acknowledgement of a relic of the old megalomania of infancy'.[6] Similarly Freud concluded that 'we can detect an element of megalomania in most other forms of paranoic disorder. We are justified in assuming that this megalomania is essentially of an infantile nature and that, as development proceeds, it is sacrificed to social considerations'.[7]

Edmund Bergler, one of his early followers, considered that 'as Freud and Ferenczi have shown, the child lives in a sort of megalomania for a long period; he knows only one yardstick, and that is his own over-inflated ego....Megalomania, it must be understood, is normal in the very young child'.[8] Bergler was of the opinion that in later life 'the activity of gambling in itself unconsciously activates the megalomania and grandiosity of childhood, reverting to the "fiction of omnipotence".[9]

Otto Fenichel states that, for those who react in later life to narcissistic hurt with denial, ' a regression to narcissism is also a regression to the primary narcissistic omnipotence which makes its reappearance in the form of megalomania'.[10]

Object relations[edit]

Where Freud saw megalomania as an obstacle to psychoanalysis, in the second half of the 20th century object relations theory, both in the States and among British Kleinians, set about 'rethinking megalomania... intent on transforming an obstacle... into a complex organization that linked object relations and defence mechanisms' in such a way as to offer new 'prospects for therapy'.[11]

Heinz Kohut regarded 'the narcissistic patient's "megalomania" part of normal development. By contrast, Kernberg viewed the "grandiose self" as pathological, as an instance of development gone away',[12] as did Herbert Rosenfeld and John Steiner. Thus 'when it came to megalomania - Freud's term - or the grandiose self - Kohut and Kernberg's term - or the omnipotent self - Rosenfeld's term - there was disagreement....Developmental arrest or pathological formation?'[13]


Arguably, however, 'in addition to its pathological forms, megalomania is a mental behavior that can be used by any individual as a way of coping with distress linked to frustration, abandonment, loss, or disappearance of the object'[14] in everyday life. In this sense, we may see 'megalomania as an extreme form of manic defense...against the anxiety resulting from separation from the object'.[15]

In the social world, 'megalomania...can be a characteristic of power-drunk or control-freak dictators, some executives, some politicians and some army generals'.[16] All such figures may be said to have 'a "Big Ego". A baby's ego, in fact, insufficiently shrunk....So they're much more likely to miscalculate. To offend people'.[17]


Unfortunately, 'a person with megalomania may not be interested in self-reflection or personal change',[18] so the talking cures may be less effective than medication.

An additional complication with analysis is comprised by the transference: 'if the analyst has any tendencies toward megalomania or authoritarianism, the response of the patient to the analyst will strengthen them'.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ I. B. Weiner/W. E. Craighead, The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology: Vol III (2010) p. 977
  2. ^ Megalomiacs abound in politics/medicine/finance Business Day 2011/01/07
  3. ^ Kohut H The Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders: Outline of a Systematic Approach, 1968
  4. ^ The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual published by the American Psychiatric Association
  5. ^ "The megalomaniac differs from the... at BrainyQuote". 1970-02-02. Retrieved 2011-12-21. 
  6. ^ Sigmund Freud, Case Histories II (PFL 9) p. 113
  7. ^ Freud, p. 203
  8. ^ Edmund Bergler, "The Psychology of Gambling", in J. Halliday/P. Fuller eds., The Psychology of Gambling (London 1974) p. 176 and p. 182
  9. ^ Robert M. Lindner, "The Psychodynamics of Gambling", in Halliday/Fuller eds., p. 220.
  10. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neorosis (London 1946) p. 420
  11. ^ Judith M. Hughes, From Obstacle to Ally (2004) p. 175
  12. ^ Hughes, p. 149
  13. ^ Hughes, p. 182
  14. ^ "Marc Bonnet, "Megalomania"". Retrieved 2011-12-21. 
  15. ^ "Bonnet". Retrieved 2011-12-21. 
  16. ^ Hani Montan, Thorny Opinion (2008) p. 15
  17. ^ Robin Skynner/John Cleese, Families and how to survive them (London 1994) p. 206-7
  18. ^ Weiner/Craighead, p. 977
  19. ^ J. Bensman/R. Lilienfeld, Craft and Consciousness (1991) p. 159

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]