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A Brief History of Narcissism

From Roman myth to modern personality disorder.

Narcissism is all the rage these days. Everyone wants to understand more about narcissistic personalities—how to get along with them or how to avoid them. Narcissism now has many subtypes: the idealizing, grandiose, and mirroring narcissists that Kohut named in the 1970s arising from his work with narcissistic transferences, as well as new types of narcissists that seem to pop up every day. Examples of these are pro-social, anti-social, malignant, exhibitionist, and vulnerable.

Narcissistic personality disorder has become a more and more typical diagnosis. In 1979, social critic Christopher Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism, arguing that what was once viewed as narcissistic personality disorder had become typical of American society as a whole.

Narcissism has a long history, stretching back to ancient Greece but made famous by a Roman poet. The earliest reference to Narcissus in Western literature is a mention of the Narcissus flower. The Greek poet Homer tells us that it was the seductive charm of the narcissus flower which tempted the young girl Persephone and thrust her into hell.

A later reference to Narcissus as a mythical character (and a flower) is much more well-known. In the first century A.D., the Roman poet Ovid made Narcissus the star of an unhappy and ill-fated love story in his epic poem The Metamorphoses. In Ovid's tale, Narcissus is a much-pursued handsome adolescent boy who, because of his "cold pride," does not return the love of anyone who wants to get close to him.

Concerned about her son, Narcissus' mother Liriope, took him to a therapist—in those days the blind visionary Tiresias. Tiresias became blind because he unwittingly got tangled in his clients' marriage problem. He interfered in a marital quarrel between the powerful gods Jove and Juno. Tiresias sided with Jove, and the angry Juno took away his sight.

In compensation for the loss of his vision, Jove rewarded the blind therapist with the power of seeing the future. Concerned about her self-involved son, Liriope asked Tiresias what the future held for Narcissus. Would he live a long life?

Tiresias answered her in a riddle, as prophets and soothsayers often did in ancient times. He said Narcissus would live a long life "if he did not come to know himself." When Narcissus reached the age of 16, the therapist's prophecy was borne out. One day when he wandered too far into a forest, he is spied by the shy wood nymph Echo. Another object of Juno's wrath (that's another story), Echo had a speech problem. She could only repeat words that others spoke to her. She spent some time echoing Narcissus in the woods, but when she approached him in person the boy fled for his life. As long she merely mirrored him, Narcissus could tolerate Echo; but when she appeared and wanted his love in return, the young Narcissus fled forthwith.

All this rejection of his would-be lovers brought on some negative energy toward Narcissus. One of his rejected lovers (this time a male) prayed to the goddess Nemesis for revenge. He asked the goddess that Narcissus fall in love but never possess the object of his love. Nemesis perceives this request as just and leads Narcissus to the pool where he falls in love with his own godlike image. Looking at his image in water, Narcissus pines away from unrequited love, and metamorphoses into a white flower.

An astute psychologist as well as a poet, Ovid sets forth the basic themes of narcissism: the narcissist's inability to love another person except insofar as the other reflects himself, grandiosity, need for mirroring, and lack of empathy.

Freud, who took ancient myths seriously, believed that myths like Oedipus and Narcissus illustrated themes deep in the human psyche. He thought that narcissism was a stage of development ("primary narcissism") when the infant was aware of others only as an extension of himself. According to Freud, some people get stuck at this early stage and remain narcissists, unable to truly love another person as separate from themselves.

In the Freudian tradition, psychoanalyst Alice Miller made famous the concept of the narcissistic mother who is able to experience her child only as an extension of herself. As I describe in a previous post, in Miller's book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, she describes the damage that a narcissistic mother does to her child.

Kohut, who broke from Freudian psychoanalysis to originate self-psychology, became aware of narcissism as a flaw in his patients' ability to make a traditional transference. Some of his patients experienced him not as a separate person, but only as a reflection of themselves. Kohut attributed this to inadequate parenting ("mother absence") and lack of stimulation in early childhood.

Since Kohut, narcissism became known as a disorder of the self (which required interminable therapy) and later was described as a personality disorder. However, narcissism has become so pervasive in our society that it seems like our society itself is disordered.

More from Marilyn Wedge Ph.D.
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