Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


narcissus

(PHOTO: CEA./FLICKR)

We’re Not All Narcissists, You Narcissist

• August 28, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: CEA./FLICKR)

Or: What We Talk About When We Talk About Narcissism.

If you follow the news, you’ve probably noticed that the term “narcissist” gets thrown around quite a lot.

Today, experts seem to think narcissists are everywhere. Anthony Wiener, for example, the New York politician with a history of sexting at inopportune times, is almost certainly a narcissist. Steve Jobs, as depicted in that recent Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher, comes across as one, too. Heck, what better way to describe the entire Millennial Generation than a bunch of hard-line, self-absorbed narcissists who gaze transfixed at their own likenesses as reflected by the glow of their Facebook account?

Although the term narcissism first appeared just over a century ago, this conceited viewpoint of me and the word itself now appear so regularly that it’s hard to imagine society functioning without it.

“Your youthful beauty is not going to be there forever. However much you might want to look at it and hold it and contemplate it, it’s going to waste away.”

THIS RELATIVELY RECENT COINING was no doubt catapulted into the contemporary vernacular with the help of Sigmund Freud’s 1914 essay On Narcissism, in which he argued that self-love is a natural stage of an infant’s development intended to safeguard one’s survival. Freud thought this healthy process turned pathological only if and when a toddler was unable to outgrow it. While a certain amount of self-worth is required to cultivate a balanced individual, too much can be destructive.

In the following years, various psychoanalysts continued to tweak and tinker with the concept, at times comparing narcissism to “megalomania.” In his book The Conquest of Happiness, published in 1930, philosopher Bertrand Russell famously quipped that the “megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved. To this type belong many lunatics and most of the great men of history.”

Eventually, in 1980, narcissistic personality disorder found its way into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III. Experts introduced the malady to denote those with a pattern of high self-importance, coupled with a low level of empathy for others.

Now, in 2013, we have academics such as Dr. Thomas Plante stating that narcissists are so ubiquitous it’s perhaps “harder to spot a non-narcissist than a narcissist” since “non-narcissists seem to be more of the exception rather than the rule.”

With assessments like these and some of those mentioned above, however, comes great loss. What utility does the label still possess if it’s being stretched to cover such a wide range of American behavior? Are we even talking about ethics and pathology anymore, or just that some people abstain from putting their spare change in the tip box at Starbucks and sometimes enjoy contemplating what they’re going to wear to work tomorrow? If so, it appears the word “narcissism” has become as diluted as a pitcher of Kool-Aid comprised of one part sugar and 400 parts water.

WHAT DID THE PEOPLE of antiquity think? The Greek myth of Narcissus—from which the current buzzword springs—has been used to elucidate the deeper nature of life and living for a very long time, and if we’re still in the business of trying to better understand ourselves, perhaps a look into the past can help reveal something about our present.

Although the Roman poet Ovid’s first-century account of Narcissus, as found in Book 3 of his Metamorphoses, is arguably the most popular telling, other fragments and summaries also exist. As these things tend to go, there are a number of different versions told by different authors at different times to different audiences for different purposes. The core storyline, however, is that Narcissus, a beautiful young boy with a history of spurning the advances of both men and women alike, one day comes across his own reflection in a pool of water. He becomes completely enamored with his image, and, unable to pull his eyes away, lies on the water’s banks until death, ultimately turning into the flower that bears his name.

“What we’ve lost is the term’s connection with death,” said Peter Meineck, Classics professor at New York University. “Your youthful beauty is not going to be there forever. However much you might want to look at it and hold it and contemplate it, it’s going to waste away.”

As Meineck explained, Narcissus’ self-absorption led to paralysis and wasted potential. His great beauty, in a sense, was all for naught. Indeed, the Greek word narke, meaning “numbness” or “stupor,” is where we get the words narcotic and narcolepsy. All these things are related—they all connote what Meineck calls a kind of “living death.”

Meineck also noted that, in general, the Greeks were probably one of the first cultures in the world to begin embracing individuality—and this development would have most certainly shaped how people interpreted the myth.

“I think they were dealing with these issues that we might now call Western issues; they kind of invented them,” Meineck said. “You can actually see culture shifting from being a collective culture, the kind we might experience now in China, to being a culture of individuality. You constantly see, even in Greek tragedy, the stress between the individual and the collective, and how we’re going to deal with that.”

Viewing the myth of Narcissus as portrayed on Roman wall paintings, Micaela W. Janan, a professor of Classical Studies at Duke University, argued that the rich and powerful men who could afford to decorate their homes with such extravagant art would do so to remind themselves that not even they were invincible.

“Roman wall paintings seem to collect subjects in which vulnerability is rehearsed,” said Janan. “There are lots of scenes of rape, there are a fair number of scenes of dismemberment, and Narcissus is one of those instances in which, though he’s not specifically violently threatened, he is surprised and captured by desire that’s visually simulated.”

ACCORDING TO RECENT RESEARCH, those with higher incomes and social class also contain higher levels of both narcissism and entitlement. Maybe that’s not surprising—but it’d be interesting to know how they remind themselves of their vulnerability, if at all. Narcissus had youth, good looks, and much attention from many potential lovers, but it was his unholy yearning for his own divine beauty that eventually led to his downfall.

“I am not a clinical psychologist, but I can certainly see that the current idea of narcissism is a troubling and complex one,” Timothy Boyd, a professor of Classics from the University of Buffalo, wrote in an email. “To my mind, some of the figures in the news would appear to be, by their actions, more than simple narcissists because those actions go beyond what we expect from the very young. The worst grown-ups appear to extend this childish belief into the idea that (1) other people are no more than instruments of their all-important desires, and (2) these instruments, therefore, have no ultimate importance or reality of their own and can be abused endlessly (and disposed of—at least metaphorically—when no longer convenient).”

So, by using narcissism as a means of understanding the decisions of figures such as Lance Armstrong, are we letting him off easy? Is calling him “vain” going far enough in comprehending the impetus behind his years of lies and deceit? Perhaps when comparing Armstrong to Narcissus, it’s Narcissus who’s being defamed.

If us moderns are serious about tackling the apparent narcissism epidemic, why ignore centuries of wisdom built up by people who have come before us? Then again, maybe a narcissistic society would be expected to do exactly that.

Paul Hiebert
Paul Hiebert is the editor of Ballast, a Canadian-centric Website about culture and politics. Follow him on Twitter @hiebertpaul.

More From Paul Hiebert

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.