Narcissism and How We Overuse the Term

Narcissism, as a concept, comes from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus.  It’s a beautiful story, actually.  Narcissus was a hunter wanted by many admirers.  Everyone wanted to be with him, but he refused to show an interest.  He’d spend his days running through the woods alone, shining radiantly as he pranced amongst trees.  One nymph, feeling vengeful due to lack of attention from Narcissus prayed that one day he experience the torture of unreciprocated love.  

The nymph’s wish came true when, on a hot day, Narcissus took a break from prancing through the woods and bent over a clear pool of water in order to take a cool drink.  When he tried to drink, however, he became enchanted by a beautiful face (his own reflection).  He tried to kiss the face looking back at him, but it disappeared, only to reappear when he pulled away. Narcissus cries out with frustration, trying again, and again, the image disappears. Narcissus becomes obsessed with staring at his reflection.  His inability to grasp or kiss the reflection increases his obsession and he eventually dies of thirst and sleep deprivation staring at his own reflection. 

Analyzing this tale, it’s clear– Narcissus didn’t suffer from too much self love, but not enough.  If he truly loved himself, he would’ve been able to walk away from his self image.  The curse of narcissism is in being utterly bound to self, not out of self love, but obsession with image.  People with narcissistic tendencies seem to worship their reflection due to an inability to give or receive authentic love.  Further, expressing any feelings, like when Narcissus tries to grasp his reflection in an abundance of emotion, disturbs a narcissist’s self image. 

Perhaps, based on this tale, we can begin to have more empathy for individuals with narcissistic traits.  Difficulties with self esteem and connecting with others in a genuine way often stem from trauma, specifically neglect. Characteristics of narcissism include arrogant traits, a sense of entitlement, and using others to get ahead (see The Cleveland Clinic for a more global list). I don’t know about you, but I’ve personally been guilty of all three of the traits above at some point in my life, yet I’m a far cry from a narcissist. 

Herein lies the main point of this blog post- Narcissistic Personality Disorder- or what I think most people mean when they say “my ex-boyfriend is a narcissist” is a fairly rare personality disorder. Research varies from outcomes of .5% to 5% of people in the U.S. being clinically narcissistic, but I’m inclined to believe that under 1/100 people would qualify with enough symptoms to diagnose them with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

Although I understand why people want to blame their old partner’s infidelity, control issues, and poor judgement on narcissism, chances are, self centeredness, immaturity, or trauma are far more likely to blame.  While in no way do I intend to excuse any of these behaviors, I also think it’s essential to remember that hurt people, hurt people and understand that everyone deserves an equitable chance to work through their stuff, even those with true narcissism.  The word narcissist is an oversimplified term and it’s overuse is harmful.  Let’s expand our vocabularies when it comes to mental health.

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