Imagine a person you know who you just can’t figure out. It seems impossible to understand why they are habitually ignorant, selfish and arrogant. Well, someone has probably wondered the same thing about you. Unfortunately, most of us have difficulty seeing our own faults. The ancient Greek myth of Narcissus exemplifies the epitome of self-centered behavior: a man so in love with himself, he dies from the despair of not being able to possess his own reflection. I can definitely think of a few men who are at risk for a similar fate. Interestingly, the concept of narcissism has become a staple of every-day language. We are quick to label our self-absorbed relatives, friends, or co-workers as “narcissistic” when they just can’t seem to focus enough on our own issues. Are we all modern day versions of Narcissus?
Dali’s painting, The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, depicts the myth in a surrealist fashion. Dali was enthralled with hallucination and delusion, often using “double images” in his paintings. On the left, we see Narcissus kneeling in frustration beside the pool. On the right, Narcissus has been transformed into a hand holding an egg with a flower. Considering Dali’s interpretation of the myth incorporates a metamorphosis, his approach can be viewed as existential in nature. It implies we are always in the process of becoming, our actions will precipitate change regardless of our intentionality. Despite Narcissus’ tragic demise, he was still immortalized as the narcissus flower.
Freud had a drastically different perspective on narcissistic individuals. According to Freud’s libido theory, we are all driven by sexual and aggressive instincts. Virtually all behaviors was pathologized as the manifestation of these urges. A narcissistic individual was thought to have his libidinal energy directed internally, rather than at external objects in the environment. Alternatively, Heinz Kohut suggested our sense of self was central to development, rather than reducing our behavior to instinctual drives. He described the narcissistic individual as one with deeply rooted low-self worth. Thus, narcissism is really a defense against negative perceptions of self. If we consider our own needs for attention, we can begin to understand the varying degrees of narcissism that exist in our world. When we feel particularly insecure, what do we do? We go out seeking approval. Do you think we all have it within ourselves to be narcissistic while condemning others for the same behaviors?