Narcissus was the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. Liriope was told by the blind seer Tiresias, that Narcissus would have a long life so long as he didn’t recognise himself. As the story goes, Narcissus was rejected by the nymph Echo (though in earlier versions, he was rejected by Ameinias). He went to a pool and gazed in and was captivated by his own image. Narcissus was know for his beauty. He fell in love with himself, and could not leave his reflection, and as a result he died there. The ancient Greeks are said to hold the belief that to see your reflection was fatal (there is a third story that says Narcissus was consumed with grief by the death of his sister, but this is not commonly accepted).
Freud took the term and utilized it as a clinical descriptor. For Freud, narcissism is when you have an excessive degree of self-esteem or self-involvement (focus) which usually denotes immaturity. Freud noted that narcissists become their own sex object (sexual overevaluation), are experts on everything, have no understanding of other people’s boundaries, are likely to exploit others, suffer envy, and more. There are seven types listed, ranging from Positive Narcissism to Success Oriented Narcissism. Many confuse Narcissim with being egotistical, or with being arrogant. The fact that Narcissism memes float around Facebook with indiscriminate likes and comments is proof of this, too many think they can diagnose someone as a narcissist by a single trait. It’s more complex than that. That sort of thing is best left to those professionals trained to make such judgments.
But clinical diagnosis aside, there are still things we can attend to in this story.
It raises a number of valid questions. Am I consumed with myself (am I just gazing into myself all the time)? Am I aware of others? Do I know other people’s boundaries? Do I claim to know things when I really don’t know? Do I exploit other people? Do I shame others regularly? Am I crippled with envy? A yes to any of these would warrant some self-work to effect change. If we don’t we might just die! There is a body of evidence in the public sphere now where medical researchers have show connections between health problems and anger, jealousy, hate, egotism and more. Such things literally eat away at us. But we also die in others ways, constant anger kills relationships, as does egotism, envy, lack of boundaries and so on. And when we live an unfiltered life we not only have an impact on others around us, we also affect ourselves deeply, often crippling oursleves emotionally.
The way forward is not to smash the mirror, but rather to set the mirror aside and notice the world around us, to respond to others in our lives, to not love the self more than another (balance), to respect our own and other people’s boundaries … Our health is in each other, we are the key to each other in some ways and should value each other as reflections to learn from rather than being absorbed in solely ourselves. We are not singular repositories of excellence, we all have pieces of the puzzle of life and we need each other to be able to put the whole picture together as best we can, it still won’t be perfect (and my view is that life can’t be perfect, nor was it meant to be). Alone we may flounder and stagnate. Together we can thrive and flourish and grow. The best reflection is not our own image but the things we give out into the world.