In the Greek tragedy, Narcissus was punished by the Gods for being unkind to a woman. As a result, when he caught sight of his own image, he fell in love with it so completely he was unable to turn from it. He died of starvation. Like all Greek tragedies, it plays to the frailties of the human condition. When I go to the gym and pump my body, in my head I am creating a new, more youthful me. When I catch sight in the mirror of the slightly overweight middle aged man that is me looking back at myself, I am struck down with the tragedy of Narcissus. To some extent I am in love with an image of myself, something I can never be or ever was.
In psychology, narcissism is a term widely used to describe those large numbers of us who have separated our image of ourselves from our emotional reality. In extremely narcissistic individuals, they often learnt as children that to be themselves was unacceptable. They therefore put forward an image of themselves they thought would be acceptable to their caregivers. By operating from this image, rather than their authentic experience, they become divorced from their real selves. Such a split creates personalities that are often obsessed with the trapping of success, but whose inner life is described as ‘empty’. Such people rarely feel.
If this is a tragedy for them, it is also for those around them. Narcissists can be quick to lie, cheat and steal. Like a chameleon they shape their image to their circumstances as they see fit. Their lack of compassion for others can make them hurtful and dangerous to know. But how common is Narcissism?
Well narcissism, in one form or another, is so common it has led some writers to suggest we could describe our culture as narcissistic. It’s not hard to see why. With fame being sought as an end in itself, not as a means to an end, we know we have come a long way from authentic living. But at the more ordinary level, we have become a society where we, as individuals, broadcast our lives on Facebook and MySpace to anyone who will listen. We no longer live lives, but star in a life we represent through social media. Such free disclosure of our ‘private matters’ is anathema to many older people who were brought up to value dignity above self promotion. The mask and the reality, of course, are often in painful contrast.
The roots of narcissism lie deep in childhood. As childhood becomes increasingly devalued by parents too busy to meet the real needs of the real child, the age of narcissism will continue for years to come.
Dr Phil Tyson is a Men's Psychotherapist based in Manchester in the UK. He offers: