The Myth of Narcissus - What's in a Word?
The dictionary tells us the basic definition of a 'Narcissist':
- a person who has an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves i.e. "narcissists who think the world revolves around them"
The word narcissist is derived from the character Narcissus from Greek mythology. Narcissus was a beautiful-looking youth, the son of River God Cephisus and nymph Lyriope. The Narcissus myth is perhaps the best-known around the world of all the Greek myths.
There are different versions of the myth (in the Roman version, Narcissus is pursued by Echo, who he cruelly rejects), but in nearly all versions, Narcissus ends up staring at his reflection in the water and being astonished by the beauty he sees; he became entranced by the reflection of himself. He cannot attain the object of his desires though, and he dies at the banks of the river or lake from his sorrow.
According to the myth, Narcissus is still admiring himself in the Underworld, looking at his reflection in the waters of the Styx.
The essence of the myth is that of an individual who is fundamentally so obsessed with their own image and beauty that nothing else matters and those around them fade into insignificance. But used in the present day and applied to those around us, it's a much broader concept than that. Read on...
Why does it matter if someone is a 'Narcissist' and how do we recognise one?
Most of us, in our immediate or broader family or social circles, know people who we may consider to be selfish, self-absorbed or vain, but we may not know or recognise an actual narcissist. Why is this? Well, some narcissists wear their colours proudly, and may even revel in their pathological self-absorption. Many, however, can adeptly fly under the radar. They may do just enough good deeds to convince us they're just a regular Joe Blow, or may be able to 'talk the talk' in a way that deflects scrutiny of their true nature. For instance, would we ever label our friend who donates regularly to charity as a 'narcissist'? Well maybe, depending on their true motivations for doing so.
There's another reason we don't easily recognise narcissism in others. It's because we're fundamentally a rather selfish species ourselves -we've evolved over millions of years to be that way, to ensure our long term survival as homo sapiens. If we constantly gave our food and shelter to others, then we'd die. On the other hand, we're more than capable of being altruistic if (and when) it serves our needs and interests to be that way, but it's certainly not our default setting.
So, why does it really matter then if someone is a narcissist? Aren't narcissists fundamentally harmless? The answer is 'No', definitely not (I'll discuss why later on). The psychology profession has identified Narcissism as a diagnosable personality disorder in which there are three fundamental elements present:
(1) An inflated sense of their own importance;
(2) A deep need for admiration;
(3) A lack of empathy for others.
Simple, you might think, but narcissism is often difficult to recognise and pin down in another person. Since an elusive concept is often better illustrated with examples than descriptions, so let's look at a few examples that don't involve 'appearance vanity':
(1) One-way traffic.
Have you ever known a person with whom you cannot have a genuinely "two-way conversation"? This is a person who, when you attempt to tell them something about yourself (what you've done, what you're feeling/thinking, or what you're planning), will immediately turn the conversation around to themselves? They'll do this either by starting a new topic of conversation that relates solely to them, by "telling a better story" on the same topic, or by trying to apply your issue to themselves, without really caring much about your initial thought or statement. Sometimes it's not obvious someone is doing this, but if it happens repeatedly, you'll eventually notice, and become very annoyed. It's especially annoying when it's a situation that almost demands engagement and empathy from the other person, such as you informing them that you (or someone else) is ill, or having a serious problem of some other kind. If your migraines are really bothering you and becoming a problem, do you immediately want to hear about some minor physical problem the other person has, when they've not even bothered to respond to you about your migraines? Good news/success is another area where narcissists revel in deflecting the topic to themselves. If you climbed Mt Cook last year and were proud of yourself despite your lack of fitness and mountaineering experience, well good God, they climbed Mt Everest -the highest mountain in the world!
(2) "Me first!"
The second type of narcissist is the one that constantly puts themselves and their own needs first, above everyone else's. This person will consider it their God-given right to eat first, get the best or most comfortable seat in the car/ bus or at a concert, have the first shower if you're sharing a room with them, and the list goes on. It won't even occur to them that there may need to be a discussion about who gets what, and why -they'll just insert themselves right into the primary position, whatever that might be.
(3) "My views are more important than yours"
This type of narcissist is even more difficult to recognise. S/he won't necessarily be appearance obsessed, and may not seem especially selfish, but when it comes to arguing the toss, his or her views will always hold sway, even if they're wrong. It won't really matter what this person's qualifications or experience are in a professional context - s/he is always 'the expert'. This is because the underlying assumption of a narcissist is "I'm more important than you are", so by necessity, "my thoughts/feelings are more important than yours".
I can almost guarantee each and every reader of this hub will be able to recognise at least one person in their lives who can comfortably slot into category (1), (2) or (3), but does this mean they are a narcissist, and if so, is this really such a bad thing?
(4) The Reptile
This type of narcissist is capable of dishing out scathing criticism to others, and belittling them, but is uncapable of dealing with criticism or even feedback directed his or her way. S/he will deflect, dismiss or disregard it - and frequently turn it back on the person trying to offer it -making it seem like their problem.
(5) The "special kind of person"
This is perhaps the most subtle of all types of narcissist, and very difficult to recognise, but you may be able to pick them out from the number of "I" or "me" statements they will tend to make. They will try to convey their "specialness" or "uniqueness" at every given opportunity, to a point where they have essentially elevated themselves above ordinary mortals. It may be statements like "I'm just a crazy, full of life kind of person who needs constant thrills", or "nobody really gets me, I'm so deep".
Is Narcissism Really a Problem?
Narcissism may seem like a mild affliction to have in the grand scheme of things, but there's a reason it's been classified as a mental disorder that requires counselling/behavioural therapy. For the narcissist and those around them, their underlying selfish traits can have a very profoundly negative impact on their lives. Here are just some the ways a narcissist can wreak havoc in their own or others' lives:
- Inability to form meaningful friendships or relationships with others -leading to social isolation;
- Hurting others deeply through selfish, uncaring actions;
- Depression/moodiness through excessive perfectionism in oneself
Chances are the narcissist won't ever seek help or treatment, because they won't be able to recognise the problem in themselves. This is the curious paradox of narcissism. Narcissists are pathologically self-focused and self-absorbed, and yet they seem to possess a kind of absolute myopia when it comes to genuine self-reflection and improvement. How can you improve on something that's perfect, after all?
So what should you do then when you recognise a narcissist? Well, there's no "one size fits all" prescription for how to approach the situation -it really depends on whether the person is someone you want or need to interact with, or have in your life, and the nature and extent of the impact their narcissistic behaviour is having on you.
Sometimes, for your own self-protection, you may simply have to cut that person out of your life, or push them to the margins of your social circle. I had to do this recently with a woman I was developing what I thought was a close friendship with. It wasn't till I got to know her really well, and in close living quarters, that her narcissistic traits began to come to the fore, and I found it almost shocking, and very disappointing. Suddenly, I felt not only unimportant (in her eyes), but actually diminished. If you're not careful, this is how being around a narcissist can make you feel. I had to make a tough decision to put distance between the two of us.
In the end, it's not narcissistic to want to have people around you who build you up, enhance your happiness level, and make you feel like a better version of yourself. That's what life is about, so do what you need to do to look after yourself.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.