Updated: Jul 6, 2021
Most of us heard the story of Narcissus in our childhood: he falls in love with his reflected image, and becomes so fixated that he eventually tumbles into the water and drowns.
Children get the message of the fable; Narcissus is foolish, as foolish as the three little pigs, or the emperor without clothes, all of whom we readily saw through, even as children.
The term Narcissism, however, is maligned. While I make this complaint about the misinterpretation of the word, I also understand its origins. We relate to the term in popular culture vis a vis narcissistic personalities but give little thought to developmental psychology from whence the terms is derived. The paradox is that the narcissistic core which is a part of our development is a normal constituent of personality, yet, if you notice a person's narcissism, especially in an adult, you are likely seeing its pathological form.
The term 'narcissism,' is associated to such a degree with pathological narcissism that I must take a moment to help you disentangle the terms.
Consider this, go to a large urban newspaper and find the wedding announcement photographs. Imagine cutting out the little thumb nails of the paired lovers, then mixing them up in a hat. Then ask a friend to pick from the hat and pair up the couples again. I promise your friend will be able to successfully pair them at a much greater success rate than would be predicted by chance. Simple truth, lovers tend to look like one another, in choosing one's lover, we like Narcissus, are seeing our reflections in the face of the other in a sort of virtual pond . The next time you are in a public place notice how much couples tend to look like one another and you'll see what I mean.
While Narcissus' narcissism was unbalanced leading him to fall into a pond, normal narcissism should be looked at from a developmental perspective and we should recognize its healthy manifestations.
From a developmental perspective the human personality is somewhat like an onion, with layers that evolve as we grow into mature personhood. We don't discard our previous selves as we mature, the past becomes integrated into an evolving whole.
I like to think of the narcissistic core of the human personality as like the nucleus of an atom. It is invisible, doesn't interact a whole lot with the external world, but nevertheless defines our identity. And, like an atomic nucleus, our narcissistic core is rather inflexible to change.
Our narcissistic core has a lot to do with identity, and it also has to do with self preservation, and deep values that we hold. To be frank, the narcissistic core is the part of our personality that is least likely to negotiate with others. A person is not likely to surrender his religious beliefs to the persuasion of another, not would he be expected to change his dress, or his style, to the whims of another. When sick, a person will tend to withdraw from others in order to nurse his wounds.
Healthy narcissism supplies us with balanced self esteem, and flexible self protection. Self-centeredness does not need to be at the expense of others. In fact, the healthy narcissism of a leader, or good parent, contributes to a person's energy and resourcefulness which can be a boon to others.
All of this is pertinent to the clinician because when we are aware that we are brushing up against the psychological core of person, we know to tread lightly. At the same time, when we notice that maladaptive behaviors have sidled up to the energy of a patient's narcissistic core we can intervene with greater precision by virtue of recognizing what is taking place. For example, people with addictive problems will often relate to their drug of choice with a narcissistic attachment. When they think of their drug being taken from them they will feel violated.
We won't have much to say here about pathological narcissism, as so much is being said about it elsewhere. Narcissism that is running amuck is harmful to others. For all that is being said about narcissists these days, perhaps what is missing is devoting more attention to understanding what makes people vulnerable to narcissists. A narcissist is not likely to change, but we clinicians can certainly help those who are vulnerable to one.