Once upon a time, the Goddess Hera cast a spell over her servant Echo for talking too much. Her punishment meant that Echo could now only repeat what someone else said. Alas, Echo was in love with handsome Narcissus, and deeply desired to tell him. Then came the day when she saw Narcissus staring at his own reflection in a clear pond, vainly telling the face in the water, “I love you.” This was Echo’s opportunity. She repeated his words, “I love you,” because they expressed how she felt. Sadly, Narcissus, believing that his reflection had spoken, became so enamored as he gazed at himself that he stayed there until he died. Echo was left to pine for him until she faded away. But you can still hear her in the hollow and empty places, thoughtlessly repeating back the words of others.
Narcissism is a word used to describe the love of self, but it can be a bit of a misnomer. Because quite often, those we call narcissists actually don’t love themselves at all.
Some do. And sometimes, that’s actually a good thing. There’s the healthy narcissism of childhood that we all experience. And some degree of narcissism, of feeling somehow special, moves us as individuals to try new things, take risks, and test our ideas against reality. And as adults, people who behave like narcissists can indeed be highly creative and truly special. They can think of, dream of and make happen some amazing things, for their own reasons, immune to the reasons of the world. They may be outliers who become the ultimate insiders, highly successful, charming people with giant sized ambitions to match their self concept (Steve Jobs and Ted Turner come quickly to mind.)
But self absorption can also become a disease of the mind, when people with low self esteem get so wrapped up in themselves that they become oblivious to the needs of the people around them. The result is that they can be unable to put themselves in another’s shoes, to even imagine the effect that their needs and demands place on others. If then they construct an idea of themselves for public viewing, a way to put their best foot forward while concealing the ‘other’ foot completely, they may find that the only person who can remain interested in their illusory self is themselves.
We could describe pathological self absorption as either toxic (because the behavior is poisonous and destructive to relationships) or malignant (in that the effect of it spreads and gets worse, destroying families, businesses, and even nations and cultures – think Hitler, Hussein and Ghaddafi).
Here’s an important element of narcissism to take into account, because it may explain how narcissists find and maintain a role in your life. In order to manipulate you into serving them, narcissists concern themselves with identifying the failures, weaknesses and self doubts you carry with you. Using this information, they can undermine you, confuse you, assault you mentally, emotionally, and even physically. In a very real sense, you become a psychic food source for them, their ‘narcissistic supply.’ By drawing you in to their patterns of self love, while preying on your weaknesses to keep you involved, they satisfy their need to feel special and important. Threaten that inflated false front, and they may fly into a rage or break down into uncontrollable tears, thus starting up the cycle all over again. That’s no way, by the way, to click with people.
Freud gets credit for coming up with the term ‘narcissism’, back in 1915. And there’s lot of info about it on the Internet. Here’s a post from the Huffington Post that appeared this previous weekend on the topic, an article by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman. I’m fascinated by the behavioral phenomenon, and have much to say about it. Thus the series I begin today with this post.
In my next post in this series, I’ll talk about how this behavioral condition can be recognized and even diagnosed. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your stories about dealing with the self absorbed people in your life.