Revisiting the Myth of Narcissus and “Healthy Narcissism”

Let’s distinguish “healthy” from "unhealthy" narcissism in the myth of Narcissus

Posted May 25, 2017

Walker Art Gallery/Public Domain
Detail from Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse (1903)
Source: Walker Art Gallery/Public Domain

As portrayed by the eighth century Roman poet Ovid, Narcissus is a handsome lad pursued by “youths and young girls” but indifferent to their attention. One day, while hunting alone in a shady virgin forest, he comes across a clear pool of water; bending to drink, he is transfixed by what he sees. Instantly, as if pierced by one of Cupid’s arrows, he is “struck with wonder by what’s wonderful in him … He wants himself.” Narcissus, writes Ovid in Allen Mandelbaum’s wonderful translation, “tries to quench one thirst,” and “feels another rise.” The lad has fallen into fatal self-admiration.

The story does not end happily. Speaking to his reflection in the water, the besotted Narcissus says, “Your gaze is fond and promising; I stretch my arms to you, and you reach back in turn. I smile and you smile, too…” But when Narcissus tries to embrace his simulacrum, the image disperses.

He knows not what he sees, but what he sees
invites him. Even as the pool deceives
his eyes, it tempts them with delights. But why,
o foolish boy, do you persist? Why try
to grip an image? He does not exist—
—Ovid, Metamorphoses (Allen Mandelbaum translation)

Despite his frustration and suffering, Narcissus cannot leave the spot. He lies beside the pool and wastes away. In the poem’s concluding stanza, Ovid tells us that even in the underworld, after death, Narcissus continues to stare into the pool of Styx, fixated forever on his own image.

Oxford Bodleian Library/Public Domain
Narcissus at the Fountain, from The Romance of the Rose illuminated manuscript (1380)
Source: Oxford Bodleian Library/Public Domain

Professor Jack Zipes, a renowned author and expert on fairy tales and myths reminds us in Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale that “myths and fairy tales seem to know something we do not know ... We keep returning to them for answers.” We may toss them off as lies, but “these lies are often the lies that govern our lives.” One way to look at myths is to view them as symbolic representations of our internal psychic world. By examining their narratives, we gain access to the deepest workings of our minds and hearts. “Mythology is a psychology of antiquity,” writes James Hillman, the great archetypal Jungian analyst, in The Dream and the Underworld. And “psychology is a mythology of modernity.”

What can we learn by examining the archetypal roots of Narcissus’s story, the origin of the term “narcissism,” by which we generally mean self-absorbed and self-referential behavior?

Like all human behavior, narcissism exists on a spectrum, and in itself, is a necessary component of healthy development. The child in a Superman cape ready to leap from his bed, the skateboard champion who flaunts her flip tricks—we accept these as instances of “healthy narcissism,” a pride in one’s ability to accomplish and prevail. Narcissistic traits are universal. Who of us hasn’t snuck a glance at our reflection passing a window, or stared outright into a mirror, entranced by the mystery of self? What is healthy about narcissism needs more attention, especially now, when narcissism is often loosely applied, usually pejoratively.

Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica/Public Domain
Narcissus by Caravaggio (1594-1596)
Source: Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica/Public Domain

Narcissism in infancy and childhood is a crucial factor in helping a child differentiate between “I” and “Other” by establishing a coherent core self. During early stages of development, if a parent’s response to her child’s need for food, soothing and mirroring is satisfactory, the child feels seen and recognized and can proceed to evolve without the anxiety that her needs will not be met. According to British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, the mother (or primary caretaker) must be “good enough.” The good enough mother successfully navigates the path between satisfying her own needs and yet remaining sensitive to her child’s need for nourishment, physical care, emotional warmth and love. The ideal is not for “perfect” parental mirroring. Even if that were possible, it would interfere with the child’s ability to develop a sense of her own agency and resilience.

“Healthy narcissism” in adults facilitates feelings of adequacy and self-worth. The artist who speaks enthusiastically about his latest painting may not be bragging or asking for undo praise as much as trying to share a process that is meaningful to him. He is not driven by self-interest, but rather by a social interest in communicating something important about his inner world. He is talking to us, not at us, and he will be only mildly disappointed, not violently enraged, if we interrupt, disagree, grow bored, or change the subject. We are neither at the mercy of his self-adoration nor captive to his envy and rage. He is seeking an empathic response.

We can feel the difference between this kind of exchange with a person and one driven by a person’s compulsive need for admiration and confirmation of his own reality. Dr. Erica Serlin, a licensed psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry in the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health says, “No single act defines a narcissist or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Assessment depends on duration, frequency, intensity (or degree of distress), and functional impairment or interference with developmentally appropriate expectations.” The hallmarks of narcissism in its more malignant form are hard to miss: grandiosity, rage, envy, and lack of empathy. The volatility and fury behind these states sting and burn.

L'UNIVERS ARTISTIQUE DE mARTin/Claude Martin
Narcissus by Claude Martin (2014) http://claudemartin.net/
Source: L'UNIVERS ARTISTIQUE DE mARTin/Claude Martin

But in Ovid’s version of the myth, Narcissus does not grow enraged. Instead, he is “undone by unattainable love” and withers away by the pool. The dramatic moment is one of sorrow and grief. His sisters, the Naiads, water nymphs, lament and crop their hair. Here the myth might be telling us that beneath the manifest destructive energy of a narcissistic personality exists a depressed and sorrowful soul. Like today’s diagnosed narcissist, Narcissus sees only an idealized likeness, one that ignores the warts and blemishes that mar our human surface—what Jung would call “the shadow.” His self-identity is inflated, unrealistic, and incomplete. To become whole complex human beings, in Jungian psychology, our task is to accept the disowned and split off energies secreted away in our shadowy unconscious. As Jung once put it, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Once integrated into a new and expanded self-image, these once barred-from-consciousness, shaming aspects of ourselves can rejuvenate our psyches, which have to labor hard to deny and dissociate. Freedom from those labors releases the withheld energy needed to revitalize the psyche.

In “Narcissus’s Forlorn Hope,” the essay he contributed to the book A Clear and Present Danger: Narcissism in the Age of Trump, Jungian analyst James Hollis writes,“Is not the central task of psychotherapy to examine, identify, what stories, what concepts, what self-images have captivated us, led us to our current impasse, our suffering, and to bring them to the surface, challenge them, and perhaps replace them with something larger, more capacious? Freud called the process Nachérziehung, or re-education, given the need to repair, or redeem the original paideia, or education, which instructed us as to who we were and what we were to do with our lives.”

Perhaps this is why Ovid ends his treatment of the myth of Narcissus on a note of redemption. The Naiads cannot find his body. Where Narcissus once lay, they find “a flower, its yellow center circled by white petals.” Known as a narcissus or daffodil, the flower blooms in spring, often around Easter, and is associated with rebirth or resurrection. Could this suggest that even those of us stuck in stasis are capable of transformation and change? Neuroscience and research on brain plasticity reflect a growing awareness that our identities, our old gripes and woes, our ancestral patterns, and even our neural grooves may not be fixed, but more fluid and shifting than we consciously understand.

Dale Kushner is the author of the novel, The Conditions of Love. She wrote about her decision to become a novelist rather than a Jungian therapist in her first post for Psychology Today, “Treating Patients, Creating Characters.” If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in “Dreaming Our Lives: 5 Things Our Dreams Could Be Telling Us,” “Understand Your Dreams by Using Jung’s ‘Active Imagination’,” and “Mothers, Witches, and the Power of Archetypes.” Keep up with Dale by liking her Facebook page. Read more from Dale on her blog.

Pixabay/Coffee
Narcissi, which we know today as daffodils.
Source: Pixabay/Coffee