by Daniel Shaw, LCSW
These days I hear the term “narcissist” thrown around quite casually, and what I think people usually mean by it is “it’s always all about him,” or “she’s so vain,” or “he’s selfish.” Psychoanalysts since Freud have been referring, for the last 100 years or so, to the Greek myth about the beautiful boy named Narcissus, to try to describe certain traits of human nature. The story goes like this. Narcissus was cruel and cold to Echo, a nymph who loved him. He hurt her so much, she withered away until only her voice remained. You can still hear her ghostly “echo” when you call out while hiking in the hills. One day, Narcissus saw his face in a pool of water and got stuck gazing at his own awesome beauty. He got so enchanted with his exquisite reflection that he stared at himself until he wasted away and died. The pretty, fragrant spring flower we call Narcissus grew up from where he decomposed.
Readers of “He’s Just Not That Into You” would no doubt have been delighted by the bad news about Narcissus. “Serves him right, that bastard!” Which, undoubtedly, is a healthier reaction than the nymph’s, a woman who loved too much, evaporated, and became nothing more than a mournful echo.
The truth is, while we’re usually not as bad as Narcissus, we all have some of the narcissist in us. Sure, we do our best not to obsess too much about our hair, our waistline, our wrinkles, and so on - but we end up spending a lot of money anyway, on products that promise to confer youth, vigor and beauty on our too, too solid flesh. And beyond the usual vanity most of us would confess to, we all enjoy, or perhaps only long for, admiration of one kind or another. We all spend at least some time, energy and money on self-promotion, on our “narcissism.” How could anyone ever get anything done if they didn’t have some kind of belief in themselves?
The Narcissus myth, though, points to something darker and more cruel than just the foibles of everyday human vanity, or the very human needs we all have for the maintenance of healthy self-esteem. In some cases, narcissism can be pathological. Such people are abusers, people who need to prove and assert their sense of superiority and entitlement again and again, by persuading others that they are inferior. These abusive narcissists love themselves unconditionally, but others are always unworthy in their eyes, always falling short, always not good enough. Maybe it was a boss, or a teacher; it might even have been a religious leader, or a therapist. It might have been one or both of your parents, or a sibling. If you’ve been around at all, you’ve probably known an abusive narcissist. They are the people who proclaim their own perfection, and according to them, they are never, ever wrong. So if there has been any problem, or disagreement, or mistake, or failure - according to the abusive narcissist, it’s all YOUR fault. With this kind of person, you can never win. And because so often they are charming, seductive, persuasive and charismatic, we want their approval, and we keep trying, over and over, to win it. But according to them, we never seem to be good enough.
Abusive narcissists inflate themselves by sucking the self-esteem out of others - and the most powerful ones can make us feel so intimidated and dependent, we might even find ourselves persuaded that their abuse is for our own good. Abuse from a narcissist family member can be the most difficult abuse from which to recover. When the abuser is a parent or sibling, a spouse or partner – someone whom we depend on and have deep bonds to – their repeated attacks on our self-esteem get under our skin more readily and deeply. All the Greek tragedies are stories of the terrible destructiveness and cruelty family members can inflict on one another. This pain is especially acute, because it is caused by someone one has loved and trusted deeply.
But not all cruelty is the same as abuse. If you’ve ever loved anyone, you know that, at times, it’s possible to be terribly cruel to those you love; in fact, it’s almost impossible not to be cruel, sometimes, to those you love the most. If you’re healthy, you can apologize, atone, forgive. Both of you in the relationship can learn to become increasingly less destructive, more and more loving. But an abusive narcissist will never offer a truly heartfelt apology. The real distinguishing sign of an abusive narcissist is that they cannot and will not admit they ever do anything wrong.
If you are trapped in a relationship with an abuser, and you want to get out, you’ll have to learn to stop believing the abuser’s accusations - that you and only you are the wrong one and the bad one. For some people long used to taking it from an abuser -- even, and often especially, if that abuse happened in childhood long ago – shame, fear, guilt and poor self-esteem can be tenacious. It can take a lot of hard work and support to gain enough faith and confidence in yourself to successfully navigate the rough shoals of life, love and work. Healthy narcissism, enough self-love, can help us learn some of life’s hardest lessons about relationships: with some people, we can experience mutual growth, and constructive, creative collaborations; and with others, no matter how hard we try, we’re always left at the bottom of the win-lose seesaw. A healthy narcissism can keep our self-esteem balanced, and give us enough confidence to pursue our dreams and ambitions, to feel worthy of love and to be loving. And it can help us learn to break free from and steer clear of abusive relationships.
Daniel Shaw, L.C.S.W. Upper Nyack, NY firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.danielshawlcsw.com/