Narcissistic Object Choice in Sexual Orientation Identity Development:
A Freudian Perspective on Homosexual Identity Formation

Neil Gleason
St. Olaf College

Keywords: Freud, Oedipus complex, homosexuality, sexual orientation, sexual identity, sexual identity development, sexual orientation identity development, object relations


Within the field of LGBT psychology, several models of homosexual orientation identity development have been proposed, and most of these models emphasize the importance of assuming a non-heterosexual identity. Freud's theories of homosexuality are reinterpreted and integrated into these contemporary models in order to shed light on both the importance of non-heterosexual identity formation and the complications that can arise from it. Specifically, Freud's concepts of "narcissistic object choice" and "identification" reveal how homosexual individuals can form paradoxical attachments with heterosexual objects, and how these paradoxes can be resolved through the assumption of a homosexual identity.


Over the past century, our understanding of human sexual nature has grown immensely, and we have finally begun to acknowledge the broad diversity of sexual desire and expression. However, with this exploration comes the incessant need to understand why we have sexual diversity. The origins of homosexuality in particular remain a daunting mystery. Freud offered one of the first, and still most controversial, explanations for homosexuality. He claimed that the attachments formed with parental objects in early childhood shape adulthood expressions of sexuality and that homosexuality is the result of an abnormal pattern of attachment to the parental objects (Freud, 1922). Although these theories have been largely refuted, there are redeemable ideas behind these theories, including Freud's concepts of "identification" and "narcissistic object choice," which can be integrated into the current models of sexual identity development.

In the past few decades, several models of sexual orientation identity development have been proposed. These models attempt to identify specific stages that individuals undergo during the process of forming a sexual identity or a self-concept of who one is sexually. Models for homosexual identity development were actually proposed first, and these models became the forerunners to models of heterosexual identity development, which have only been proposed in the last few years (Hill, 2008). Most models of homosexual identity development emphasize the importance of assuming a non-heterosexual identity. This includes D'Augelli's (1994) model, which emphasized "exiting heterosexual identity" and "developing a lesbian-gay-bisexual personal identity status" as important steps in the formation of identity. The concept of identity is also an important aspect of Freud's theories of sexual development, and Freud's concept of  "identification" bears several similarities to concepts of identity discussed in these models of sexual orientation identity development. In addition, Freud's theories of the origins of homosexuality, and specifically, his concept of "narcissistic object choice," have particularly interesting implications for identity formation when integrated into these models. Before we can discuss these connections, however, we must discuss Freud's theories in further detail in order to see where these connections can be made.

Integrating Freud's Oedipal Theories and Sexual Orientation Identity Development

Freud's theory for the development of homosexuality in men is rooted firmly in the Oedipus complex. This complex occurs during the phallic stage of development, which Freud believed lasts from about 3-6 years of age. During the Oedipus complex, the young boy finds himself sexually attracted to his mother, and this leads him to develop aggressive desires toward his father, who is perceived as a rival for the affections of the mother. At the end of this stage, the boy learns to channel his aggressive urges toward his father into identification, and through this identification he can vicariously have his mother. At this point the complex is resolved, and the boy's attraction toward his mother eventually develops into a normal heterosexual desire toward women. This theory has remained controversial since it was first proposed, and critics claim that it generalizes very specific family dynamics to the entire diverse population of humans (Beard, 1994). However, if the theory is broken down into its basic ideas, it becomes much more reasonable. 

There are two objects that play a central role in the Oedipus complex: the opposite-sex parent is the object of desire, which the child desires to have, while the same-sex parent is the object of identity, which the child first feels aggressive toward, and then identifies with, or desires to become. It is these two psychological drives, desire and identification, that are at the core of the Oedipus complex, and it is through satisfying these drives, vicarious or otherwise, that the complex is resolved (McAdams, 2009). It is unreasonable to assume that all men desire their mother sexually and have aggressive urges toward their father at an early age, but it is fairly reasonable to hypothesize that all men, and women for that matter, have the basic drive to desire certain individuals and identify with other individuals. For some, the Oedipus complex may play out as Freud described it, and for others it may not. Thus, Freud's theory is flawed only in that it generalizes too broadly from one particular manifestation of desire and identification.

Here is where we can integrate Freud's theory into the model of sexual orientation identity development. Desire, we can say, is the inherent sexual and romantic desire that is felt toward other individuals of a certain gender, essentially one's sexual orientation. Identification, on the other hand, is the urge to model one's self after another individual, or in this case, to model one's sexual identity after another's. Identification, then, is simply the process by which an individual going through the stages of sexual orientation identity development models their sexual identity after an "exemplar" representing who they want to become. Thus, Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex is integrated into contemporary models of sexual identity development. Now, we must look at Freud's theories of homosexuality to see what light they can shed on the model.

Integrating Freud's Theory of Homosexuality and Sexual Orientation Identity Development

Freud believed that homosexuality is the result of placing desire and identification on the wrong objects during the Oedipus complex. The homosexual male somehow ends up identifying with his mother and desiring his father (Beard, 1994). There are many reasons for this mismatch of object-choices, and Freud outlines a few of them in his essay, "Certain Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia, and Homosexuality." These mechanisms include (a) attachment to and identification with the mother, (b) castration anxiety, which causes the man to renounce "castrated" womankind, (c) narcissism: self-obsession that leads the man to choose an object that resembles himself, and (d) jealously the male child feelings for rival males during childhood is repressed and unconsciously transformed into affection (Freud, 1922). The third mechanism can be referred to as "narcissistic object choice," as it involves the choice of an object that resembles the self (a narcissistic object).

Our modern understanding of homosexuality is that it is not caused by family dynamics in a child's development but rather by the interaction of environmental and dispositional factors throughout development. Freud assumed that all homosexuals must come from the same type of "homogenetic" family, when research shows us that there is just as much diversity in the families of homosexual children as in the families of heterosexual children (Beard, 1994). As with the Oedipus complex, Freud is criticized for basing wide-reaching claims from individual case studies and therefore not taking into account the full diversity of human personality and family structure. However, just as with his Oedipal theories, Freud's theories of homosexuality have some redeemable ideas at their core. Specifically, narcissistic object choice reveals some of the complexity that can arise with a homosexual individual's sexual identity development.

Freud explained his concept of narcissistic object choice in On Narcissism, where he distinguished between its four manifestations. Reich (1953) summarized his distinctions: "A person may love: (1) what he is himself; (2) what he once was; (3) what he would like to be; (4) someone who was a part of himself." These four objects that a person may "love" are the four potential objects of desire that can be chosen in narcissistic object choice. However, these objects of desire seem very similar to objects of identity. After all, identification is a wish to "become" the identified object, and Freud claimed that a narcissistic object of desire is an object that one "would like to be." Thus, it can be concluded that narcissistic object choice involves choosing the same object as both the object of identity and the object of desire. In the context of the Oedipus complex, this would involve both desiring and identifying with the father. Freud never described narcissistic object choice in this way although this conclusion follows logically from his description of it, and he also did not seem to notice the paradox it created. The boy in the Oedipus complex would both desire to have his father and to become his father: desires which are very much at odds with each other.

To integrate narcissistic object choice into models of sexual orientation identity development, it should be re-interpreted as an effect of homosexual desire rather than its cause. From this perspective, homosexual desire causes narcissistic attachments to be formed with objects of the same sex, which, with today's understanding of homosexuality, makes more sense than the idea that narcissistic attachments cause homosexual desire. The object of these attachments functions as both the object of desire and the object of identity for the homosexual, and thus, these attachments are inherently paradoxical: the homosexual individual desires to both have and to be the object.

This paradox becomes particularly complicated when considering a scenario in which a homosexual individual chooses a heterosexual object of identity. The paradox of narcissistic object choice emerges here not only because the object is both desired and identified with but also because the identified object is heterosexual; to assume the identity of the object, the homosexual individual must choose an opposite-sex object of desire. In short, to fully identify with the heterosexual male, the homosexual individual must become heterosexual, and thus give up the object of desire. If, however, homosexuals choose to forgo identification and pursue desire, they must shift their object of identity to an opposite-sex object that is desired by the heterosexual. This scenario, it seems, is particularity paradoxical, and it leaves only one possible solution to the paradox: adopting a homosexual object as the object of identity.

Assumption of Homosexual Identity as a Resolution to Narcissistic Object Choice

The argument can be raised that there is, perhaps, nothing inherently contradictory with desiring to be and to have the same person. If the desire to become the object is not interpreted in the strictest Freudian sense of "to kill and eat," as in Totem and Taboo (Freud, 1918), it may be possible to have and to become like the narcissistic object. However, there continues to be an inherent contradiction in identifying with an object that does not share one's sexual orientation, as in the case of a homosexual male choosing a heterosexual male as both the object of desire and identity. The only solution to this paradox is to choose a homosexual object as the object of identity. In this way, there is no conflict: the homosexual object can be both desired and an object of identity.

Moving from a heterosexual to homosexual object of identity is analogous to D'Augelli's steps of "exiting heterosexual identity" and "developing a lesbian-gay-bisexual personal identity status" in the identity formation process. Thus, narcissistic object choice is essentially a Freudian explanation for why adopting a homosexual identity is a positive psychological process for the homosexual individual. Although it cannot be known with any empirical certainty whether object choice is actually a process that occurs during sexual orientation identity development, it provides a useful narrative for understanding why the process of assuming a homosexual identity is helpful to many homosexual individuals. Indeed, many of Freud's ideas remain in popular use today not because they are empirically sound but rather because they provide a useful narrative for understanding how we become who we are. Thus, for homosexual individuals, male and female alike, who are struggling to understand their identity, this reinterpretation of Freud's theories provides an explanation for why they can experience conflictory attachments to heterosexual individuals and why assuming a homosexual identity is a helpful process in their development.


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D'Augelli, A. R. (1994). Lesbian and gay male development: Steps toward an analysis of lesbians' and gay men's lives. In B. Greene & G. M. Herek (Eds.), Lesbian and gay psychology: Theory, research, and clinical applications. Psychological perspectives on lesbian and gay issues (pp. 118-132). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Freud, S. (1918). Totem and Taboo. New York: Moffat Yard and Company.

Freud, S. (1922). Certain neurotic mechanisms in jealousy, paranoia and homosexuality (J. Riviere, Trans.). In P. Reif (Ed.), Sexuality and the psychology of love (pp. 123-149). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Inc.

Gabler, R. (Trans.). In P. Reif (Ed.), Sexuality and the psychology of love (pp. 123-149). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Inc.

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McAdams, D. P. (2009). The interpretation of stories: From Freud to today. In C. Johnson (Ed.), The person: An introduction to the science of personality psychology (pp. 431-437). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Reich, A. (1953). Narcissistic object choice in women. Journal of American Psychoanalytic Association, 1(22), 22-44.


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