Revisiting the Myth of Narcissus and “Healthy Narcissism”

Narcissus by John William Waterhouse for "Healthy Narcissism" blog post

 

As portrayed by the eighth-century Roman poet Ovid, Narcissus is a handsome lad pursued by “youths and young girls” but indifferent to their attention. One day, while hunting alone in a shady virgin forest, he comes across a clear pool of water; bending to drink, he is transfixed by what he sees. Instantly, as if pierced by one of Cupid’s arrows, he is “struck with wonder by what’s wonderful in him … He wants himself.” Narcissus, writes Ovid in Allen Mandelbaum’s wonderful translation, “tries to quench one thirst,” and “feels another rise.” The lad has fallen into fatal self-admiration.

The story does not end happily. Speaking to his reflection in the water, the besotted Narcissus says, “Your gaze is fond and promising; I stretch my arms to you, and you reach back in turn. I smile and you smile, too…” But when Narcissus tries to embrace his simulacrum, the image disperses.

He knows not what he sees, but what he sees

invites him. Even as the pool deceives

his eyes, it tempts them with delights. But why,

o foolish boy, do you persist? Why try

to grip an image? He does not exist—

—Ovid, Metamorphoses (Allen Mandelbaum translation)

Despite his frustration and suffering, Narcissus cannot leave the spot. He lies beside the  pool and wastes away. In the poem’s concluding stanza, Ovid tells us that even in the underworld, after death, Narcissus continues to stare into the pool of Styx, fixated forever on his own image.

Narcissus at the Fountain for Healthy Narcissism blog postProfessor Jack Zipes, a renowned author and expert on fairy tales and myths reminds us in Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale that “myths and fairy tales seem to know something we do not know.… We keep returning to them for answers.” We may toss them off as lies, but “these lies are often the lies that govern our lives.” One way to look at myths is to view them as symbolic representations of our internal psychic world. By examining their narratives, we gain access to the deepest workings of our minds and hearts. “Mythology is a psychology of antiquity,” writes James Hillman, the great archetypal Jungian analyst, in The Dream and the Underworld. And “psychology is a mythology of modernity.”

What can we learn by examining the archetypal roots of Narcissus’s story, the origin of the term “narcissism,” by which we generally mean self-absorbed and self-referential behavior?

Like all human behavior, narcissism exists on a spectrum, and in itself, is a necessary component of healthy development. The child in a Superman cape ready to leap from his bed, the skateboard champion who flaunts her flip tricks—we accept these as instances of “healthy narcissism,” a pride in one’s ability to accomplish and prevail. Narcissistic traits are universal. Who of us hasn’t snuck a glance at our reflection passing a window, or stared outright into a mirror, entranced by the mystery of self? What is healthy about narcissism needs more attention, especially now, when narcissism is often loosely applied, usually pejoratively.

Narcissus by Caravaggio for Healthy Narcissism blog postNarcissism in infancy and childhood is a crucial factor in helping a child differentiate between “I” and “Other” by establishing a coherent core self. During early stages of development, if a parent’s response to her child’s need for food, soothing and mirroring is satisfactory, the child feels seen and recognized and can proceed to evolve without the anxiety that her needs will not be met. According to British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, the mother (or primary caretaker) must be “good enough.” The good enough mother successfully navigates the path between satisfying her own needs and yet remaining sensitive to her child’s need for nourishment, physical care, emotional warmth and love. The ideal is not for “perfect” parental mirroring. Even if that were possible, it would interfere with the child’s ability to develop a sense of her own agency and resilience.

“Healthy narcissism” in adults facilitates feelings of adequacy and self-worth. The artist who speaks enthusiastically about his latest painting may not be bragging or asking for undo praise as much as trying to share a process that is meaningful to him. He is not driven by self-interest, but rather by a social interest in communicating something important about his inner world. He is talking to us, not at us, and he will be only mildly disappointed, not violently enraged, if we interrupt, disagree, grow bored, or change the subject. We are neither at the mercy of his self-adoration nor captive to his envy and rage. He is seeking an empathic response. We can feel the difference between this kind of exchange with a person and one driven by a person’s compulsive need for admiration and confirmation of his own reality. Dr. Erica Serlin, a licensed psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry in the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health says, “No single act defines a narcissist or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Assessment depends on duration, frequency, intensity (or degree of distress), and functional impairment or interference with developmentally appropriate expectations.” The hallmarks of narcissism in its more malignant form are hard to miss: grandiosity, rage, envy, and lack of empathy. The volatility and fury behind these states sting and burn.

Narcissus by Claude Martin for Healthy Narcissism blog postBut in Ovid’s version of the myth, Narcissus does not grow enraged. Instead, he is “undone by unattainable love” and withers away by the pool. The dramatic moment is one of sorrow and grief. His sisters, the Naiads, water nymphs, lament and crop their hair. Here the myth might be telling us that beneath the manifest destructive energy of a narcissistic personality exists a depressed and sorrowful soul. Like today’s diagnosed narcissist, Narcissus sees only an idealized likeness, one that ignores the warts and blemishes that mar our human surface—what Jung would call “the shadow.” His self-identity is inflated, unrealistic, and incomplete. To become whole complex human beings, in Jungian psychology, our task is to accept the disowned and split off energies secreted away in our shadowy unconscious. As Jung once put it, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Once integrated into a new and expanded self-image, these once barred-from-consciousness, shaming aspects of ourselves can rejuvenate our psyches, which have to labor hard to deny and dissociate. Freedom from those labors releases the withheld energy needed to revitalize the psyche.

In “Narcissus’s Forlorn Hope,” the essay he contributed to the book A Clear and Present Danger: Narcissism in the Age of Trump, Jungian analyst James Hollis writes,“Is not the central task of psychotherapy to examine, identify, what stories, what concepts, what self-images have captivated us, led us to our current impasse, our suffering, and to bring them to the surface, challenge them, and perhaps replace them with something larger, more capacious? Freud called the process Nachérziehung, or re-education, given the need to repair, or redeem the original paideia, or education, which instructed us as to who we were and what we were to do with our lives.”

Perhaps this is why Ovid ends his treatment of the myth of Narcissus on a note of redemption. The Naiads cannot find his body. Where Narcissus once lay, they find “a flower, its yellow center circled by white petals.” Known as a narcissus or daffodil, the flower blooms in spring, often around Easter, and is associated with rebirth or resurrection. Could this suggest that even those of us stuck in stasis are capable of transformation and change? Neuroscience and research on brain plasticity reflect a growing awareness that our identities, our old gripes and woes, our ancestral patterns, and even our neural grooves may not be fixed, but more fluid and shifting than we consciously understand.

Narcissi flowers aka daffodils for Health Narcissism blog post



Worried About Safety? Join the Club

Triangles for Safety post

 

My father had a gun. I discovered it one day while snooping in his dresser, the shock of its chill black metal, heavy as stone in my hand. That gun made me feel safe. My father has a gun, and he’s going to kill you. Unbeknownst to my father, I bragged about its existence, wielding my threats shamelessly when confronted with neighborhood toughs. (Back then, bravado was enough to give a childhood adversary second thoughts.) My conscious notion of safety was based on access to weaponry, a model I’d picked up from Mr. Khrushchev and our military, who were duking it out over the missiles in Cuba. The strategy was fortified further by mother’s fondness for warning me it was a dog-eat-dog world, and I had to choose to be either predator or prey.

The memory of my dad’s gun came to my mind recently when watching North Korea’s celebratory parade of its newest missiles and seeing the braggadocio smile of that country’s gleefully menacing leader. How blatantly perverse it is that our species feels safest when we’ve stockpiled enough armament to blow up the world.

Auden for Safety postIn a recent issue on climate change (a subject that provokes its own sense of doom), the New York Times Magazine published an article called “Panic Attack.” The first line mentions a Pulitzer Prize-winning poem by the British poet W. H. Auden. “The Age of Anxiety,” a book-length reflection on Auden’s experience as part of the 1945 U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey team gathered to assess the impact of the Allied bombing on Germany and the German people, defines a cultural moment in the mid-nineteen-forties just as Irish poet W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” defined the enormous cultural changes after the First World War. Nitsuh Abebe, author of the Times article, names the present cultural moment, one of diffuse apprehension. “Anxiety is the ambient apprehension that terrible things might happen and the physical response—tension, alarm, fight or flight vigor, snapping awake at 2 a.m. to check the president’s Twitter feed—that accompanies this feeling,” he writes.

The word safety comes from the Latin salvus, meaning uninjured, in good health. The correlation between health, injury and feeling safe is compelling. Any injury to our emotional or physical self can lead to a sense of vulnerability. It is, after all, the lame sheep that gets culled by the coyote from the herd. One of the ways we make ourselves feel safe is by hiding our weaknesses, but those bent on power and destruction possess an uncanny ability to sniff out weaklings, as anyone who bullies or is bullied knows. Hiding or disguising our fragility does not provide a sense of safety and may only reinforce our dread of being discovered or “found out.”

The amniotic sac is our first protected space. As fetuses, we cannot survive outside the maternal womb. At birth, when the umbilicus is cut, we’re severed from our original life source and forced to breathe on our own. This separation, which all of us undergo if we are to live, causes us to wail in rage and bafflement. In an unstable environment, we seek stable and predictable objects outside ourselves. But we are also curious creatures, and thus, the learning curve begins: moment to moment, life presents us with reminders of our tenuous relationship to existence. We search for security in an insecure world. Our survival depends on the development of skills of mind, heart and body that awaken us to our position in the net and network of all life. The challenge is urgent to recognize that if our air is not safe to breathe, we are not safe. If our lakes and rivers are not safe to fish or drink, we are not safe. If the Great Coral Reef is bleaching out and dying, some part of us is deeply at risk.

In the interest of understanding how people think about safety, I decided to investigate what helps others feel safe and unsafe. What follows is not scientific research but compiled from online sources of a mostly personal nature. The lists are not in any particular order.

We feel safe when:

  • Hugged by a loved one
  • Showing dominance
  • Have job security, financial security
  • People smile at us
  • We can hide under a blanket
  • Have a protective and protected private space
  • Know we can escape
  • We are with pets: petting a dog, curling up with a cat
  • We feel loved

Conversely, what makes us feel unsafe are

  • Change
  • Unpredictability
  • Being judged
  • The experience of loss
  • Natural disasters
  • Pain, injury, illness
  • Being humiliated or ostracized
  • Being without physical resources
  • Feeling betrayed and abandoned

Peter Wohlleben for safety postMy brief online exploration persuades me that we best experience safety when we are in the presence of loving others. This aligns with significant studies in animal and human research on bonding and attachment theories. In this we are not much different from other creatures, or indeed, as new research shows, other sentient beings. It also underscores a premise of most Eastern wisdom traditions: we are part of an interconnected universe. New technologies have given scientists the tools to study and document exactly how connected we are to all life. Peter Wohlleben, a professional forester in Germany and the author of the bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees, poses the question, “Are trees social beings?” His answer, that indeed they are, makes fascinating reading. Though trees in a forest compete for food, water and light, they also nourish and sustain each other through their root systems and the fungi that dominate those roots. There is, he writes, “an advantage to working together.”

Let’s cherish our connections. As Auden wrote in his other great poem about World War II, “September 1, 1939,” “we must love one another or die.”

Intelligent Trees from Dorcon Film on Vimeo.