Source: Michelangelo Caravaggio
It’s not surprising in this new nation of Me that we’ve become obsessed with narcissism and fixated on narcissists (which is just how the narcissists want it anyway). Articles, quizzes, and columns are devoted to determining if our parents, our children, our siblings, our coworkers, our bosses, and our political leaders are narcissists. And, in typical narcissistic fashion, the person many of us are most concerned may be a narcissist is our self.
Narcissism was formally introduced to the masses by Sigmund Freud in his essay “On Narcissism” (1914) and focused on the self, but carried to the extreme. Rather than stopping at pride, the narcissist feels superiority, entitlement, and arrogance, expecting others to prop up his or her ego and cater to his or her demands, desires, whims, and needs. Karen Horney, a Neo-Freudian, posits that the narcissist was most likely favored by their parents, sparking the belief that he or she can do anything.
The strange irony is that while we, the little people, are nothing to the narcissist, the narcissist cannot function without us. Who would recognize the achievements and take the abuses? There is no winner without a trail of losers behind and no top rung without the ladder rungs below. If a narcissist falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, there is no sound. Never forget that, after you look behind the curtain and get past all the puffing and strutting and crowing, underneath the big and loud talk is a tiny little voice whispering in insecurity, desperate for affirmation.
Aaron Beck, a well-known psychiatrist, explains that narcissistic individuals lack this objective self-reflection because of their core beliefs. Our core beliefs represent our assumptions about ourselves and our environment. A narcissist’s core beliefs are warped and twisted in such a way that they unknowingly incite reactions from others that are consistent with their faulty perceptions. Their core beliefs center on ideas such as “Since I’m special, I deserve special treatment and privileges” and “I’m superior, so therefore I am above the rules.” Therefore, they will seek out wealth, positions of power, and glory to confirm their perceptions of themselves.
The myth of Narcissus, from which narcissism derives its name, comes in multiple versions. The common line running through them all is that Narcissus is a beautiful youth who either ignores or rejects all of his suitors, even those desperately in love with him. Eventually, he sees his own reflection and falls in love with it. Unable to attain it, he either dies by his own hand, pining and wasting away for what he cannot have (himself), or drowning after falling into the water. Undaunted even in death, he still tries to catch a glimpse of himself as he crosses a river on his way to the underworld. Naturally, we see the parallel between the myth of Narcissus and what is scientifically known about Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Even in death Narcissus could not change. In fact, this is true of personality disorders in general. They are persistent and rigid and rarely does the individual with the disorder desire change. You cannot force a person to change if he or she does not want to; the most you can do is to support people in their efforts to change.
There are no accounts of Narcissus in which he felt something was wrong with him and wanted to modify his behavior. In one version, he realizes how others feel now that he is transfixed on his unattainable image, but this realization does not result in a transformation of behavior. Considering that narcissism is about protecting and enhancing the ego and finding ways to convince oneself that one is better than everyone else, it is not difficult to see why so few narcissists recognize they have an issue, let alone want to change it. Whatever the version or manifestation, the narcissist who demands his or her self be admiringly gazed upon is incapable, ironically, of objective self-reflection.
There is an important counterpart to the myth, the significance of which we often overlook. The goddess Hera punishes the nymph Echo by reducing her ability to communicate so that she is only able to repeat the last part of what someone has just spoken. Completely in love with Narcissus, she hovers around him and tries to repeat parts of his speech as a way to communicate with him. He rejects her and in the end she fades away until nothing is left but her voice. The relationship between Narcissus and Echo is both a classical and classic description of the narcissistic relationship in which Echo is only a reflection of Narcissus, dependent upon him for her voice and identity. When he says, “I will die before I give you power over me,” she responds, “I give you power over me.” What relationship there is constitutes a masochistic one in which Echo provides the admiration that Narcissus craves.
Again, this parallels the clinical symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Much research has demonstrated that narcissists have a difficult time forming and maintaining romantic relationships and friendships. Because the narcissist cares only for his or her self and lacks empathy for others, their relationships are often superficial and undeveloped. It is only a matter of time before the partner realizes the narcissist’s tendencies and leaves. Herein lies the second lesson: Those who allow themselves to play the role of Echo will eventually starve for lack of authentic love and attention.
The modern mythologies of literature and movies give us updated examples: Serena Pemberton from Serena, Gordon Gekko from Wall Street, Charles Foster Kane from Citizen Kane, Walter White from the later episodes of Breaking Bad, and Lenny Belardo from the earlier episodes of The Young Pope. All of them seek positions that will confirm their high opinions of themselves. Comic books and graphic novels feature no shortage of narcissists: Lex Luthor, Dr. Doom, and Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias, are notable instances. While the power-mad mastermind is a common trope, let’s briefly consider a less obvious example from Marvel comics. Galactus is a god-like entity who must regularly devour entire planets to feed himself. When he arrives, the whole planet must stop everything they are doing to deal with him. Thus, the globe and everyone on it becomes a collective nanny trying to quiet a terrible baby throwing a cosmic temper tantrum—the narcissist must always be the center of attention. After decades of plotlines, there are instances here and there in which Galactus expresses reflection and remorse, but for the most part he cares nothing about the worlds and peoples he devours.
Galactus represents a multitude of destructive forces and urges, such as insatiable appetite, addiction, world-destroying powers, and corporate greed, but he is also a narcissist too caught up in his existence to care about ours as he must continually feed—it is fitting that his spaceship resembles an infinity symbol. Real narcissists not only lack empathy, according to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V); they also exploit others because they are preoccupied with gaining success or power. Herein lies the third lesson: Whatever we throw into the narcissist’s always-open maw, it is never enough, can never be enough. The narcissistic personality is a bottomless pit. There may be a momentary, temporary halt of narcissistic searching for ego-food but there is never a lasting end. On and on the insatiable urge. Always.