In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a handsome young man who could not love or be loved and rejected the girls who fell for him.
One of these was the nymph Echo. One day she followed him through the woods to a pool in a clearing. She had pined away so much for him that all that was left of her was her plaintive voice, which could only repeat what it heard.
Narcissus saw his reflection in the pool and fell in love with it.
When he said, “You’re so beautiful,” Echo would say, “So beautiful,” or if his words were, “I love you”, she would say, “I love you”.
Narcissus leaned forward to kiss the lips in the reflection in the pool, fell in and drowned. A white flower grew in that place, named narcissus after him. Echo faded away.
We use the term “narcissist” quite casually but in psychology its meaning is precise. The characteristics and behaviour are many and include:
- A sense of entitlement and a belief they are special
- A lack of empathy and disregard for the needs of others
- A need for attention and admiration
- Grandiosity and fantasies of power and success
- Being self-absorbed and arrogant
- Liable to mood swings
They may have charm and charisma, but they are often insecure, with low self-esteem, feelings of shame and emptiness, anxiety and depression and denial of their condition.
In relationships, narcissists can’t take criticism, won’t take responsibility, and are often manipulative and demanding, while being competitive and neglectful. They are quick to anger and blame. They do not show approval or understanding, for them the relationship is transactional, with poor boundaries.
Partners are usually co-dependent and alter their behaviour to fit in with the narcissist’s needs and expectations. They need to be needed because of their own low self-worth and desire for approval. They are often rescuers while being victims, with feelings of guilt and shame.
Narcissism is a longstanding dysfunction and the only effective treatment is psychotherapy. But the person has to feel motivated to change, which is not often the case.
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is one of the least diagnosed personality disorders. However, it is estimated that the disorder, or narcissistic traits, are present in a large number of patients presenting to a psychiatrist’s office with complaints of depression or other mood symptoms. It is caused by a lack of unconditional love, secure attachment and unmet needs in infancy and early childhood.
There are many theories about the causes of NPD. Often certain childhood developmental and parental factors have been implicated. An example of a developmental factor includes a postulated innate oversensitive temperament in the child; parental factors include excessive admiration by parents, lack of realistic feedback from parents during development, unreliable parental caregiving, and/or emotional abuse during childhood
All psychotherapy takes longer than most clients expect. There is no ten-session cure for complex problems. Full psychotherapy of NPD generally takes years.
It is a gradual and complex process. Clients can stop at any point. How far they get in therapy depends on how many stages they complete and how impaired they were, to begin with.
Carol Martin-Sperry is a sex therapist and the author of three books about couples and sex. Carol is a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.