A person with narcissistic personality disorder has an extreme feeling of self-importance, a sense of entitlement, and a need to be admired. He is envious of others and expects them to be the same of him. He lacks empathy and readily lies and exploits others to achieve his aims. To others, he may seem self-absorbed, controlling, intolerant, selfish, or insensitive. If he feels obstructed or ridiculed, he can fly into a fit of destructive anger and revenge. Such a reaction is sometimes called ‘narcissistic rage’, and can have disastrous consequences for all those involved.
Narcissistic personality disorder is named for the Greek myth of Narcissus, of which there are several versions. In Ovid’s version, which is the most commonly related, the nymph Echo falls in love with Narcissus, a youth of extraordinary beauty. As a child, Narcissus had been prophesized by Teiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, to ‘live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself’.
One day, Echo followed the grown up Narcissus through the woods as he went about hunting for stags. She longed to speak to him but dared not utter the first word. Overhearing her footsteps, the youth cried out, ‘Who’s there?’ to which she responded, ‘Who’s there?’ When at last she revealed herself, she rushed out to embrace Narcissus, but he scorned her and pushed her away. Echo spent the rest of her life pining for Narcissus, and slowly withered away until there was nothing left of her but her voice.
Some time after his encounter with Echo, Narcissus went to quench his thirst at a pool of water. Seeing his own image in the water, he fell in love with it. But each time he bent down to kiss it, it seemed to disappear. Narcissus grew ever more thirsty, but would not leave or disturb the pool of water for fear of losing sight of his reflection. In the end, he died of thirst, and there, on that very spot, appeared the narcissus flower, with its bright face and bowed neck.
What does this myth mean? On one level, it is an admonition to treat others as we would be treated, and in particular to be considerate in responding to the affections of others, which, as with Echo, are often so raw and visceral as to be existential. Poor Echo had no self and no being outside of Narcissus.
On another level, the myth is a warning against vanity and self-love. Sometimes we get so caught up in our self, in our own little ego, that we lose sight of our bigger picture and, as a result, pass over the beauty and bounty that is life. Paradoxically, by being too wrapped up in ourselves, we actually restrict our range of perception and action and, ultimately, our potential as human beings. And so in some sense, we kill ourselves, like so many ambitious people.
Our self, our ego, is nothing but an illusion, nothing more substantial than Narcissus’s reflection in the pool of water. Ultimately, Narcissus’s ego boundaries dissolve in death and he merges back into the world in the form of a flower.
Echo had not enough ego, and Narcissus far too much: the key is to find the right and dynamic equilibrium, to be secure and yet to dissociate.