Sometimes it’s very subtle, other times so in your face that it halts you in your tracks. Both leave you with a kind of sick feeling in your stomach and self doubt. I’m talking about narcissism. Every once in a while I’m asked about how to deal with a kind of hurt that doesn’t ever really get resolved, whether you just swallow your doubts or you try to address it and end up feeling worse in the process.
A disclaimer here………..this is not about figuring out whether someone in your life is a narcissist or offering a diagnosis of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That can’t and shouldn’t be done third hand and really doesn’t matter if you’re just trying to handle a relationship with someone who seems to make you feel diminished or hurt sometimes for no apparent reason.
Narcissus was a youth in Greek mythology of great beauty who was loved by the nymph Echo. He rejected her love, considering himself to be deserving of much more, but in his constant search for a worthy partner, fell in love with his own reflection in a pool. Seeing but never able to touch his reflection, he eventually withered away in sorrow and was reborn as the flower narcissus. His story illustrates the central element of narcissism…………..seeking to be validated in a way which will never really be enough, always feeling rejected and perceiving the fault to be in others’ imperfect appreciation.
Echo’s story is an interesting one, as she had angered the goddess Hera, so was punished by being doomed to only repeat the words of others, deprived of her own voice. Loving Narcissus, she perpetually echoed his sentiments and wasted away in her sorrow.
Narcissism is a personality trait that we all have to some degree. Only at the far end of the spectrum is it pathological. Consider the developing child who has a natural perception of him/herself as central in the world, much as we once believed that the solar system revolved around the earth. We learn as we grow to temper that perception with empathy, awareness of others and the ability to delay gratification through reason and judgement. For a variety of reasons, some individuals don’t develop the capacity to manage the narcissistic wound of not having their needs immediately met, or they do, mostly, but in times of difficulty, retreat to feeling wounded and rejected, striking out and rejecting others in compensation.
I’m addressing you here, Echo! Other than in mythology, you are possessed of your own voice. If you choose not to use it, it becomes harder to recognize. Your Narcissus may call for your validation and may seem to need you to soothe his or her wound. To do so isn’t wrong, but to do so at the cost of your own self will not work in the long run. Consider a real life example. Mary has messed up somehow, maybe forgot Sam’s birthday. Deep down, knowing she was inconsiderate of his feelings, she feels ashamed. The narcissistic impulse is to hold him responsible for her sense of shame and to strike out, calling him inconsiderate, that she’s had a bad day that he didn’t even bother to ask about, even maybe calling him narcissistic, concerned only with his own needs. So who’s the narcissist here? Well the clue is in his response…………….apologizing and telling her she’s right, he’s inconsiderate and wrong and asking how he can make it up to her. By diminishing his own experience here, he’s playing Echo to her Narcissus.
Neither Sam nor Mary is necessarily pathologically wrong here…………… this interaction or a version of it plays out all around the globe on a regular basis. Am I saying you should never soothe the wounds of someone you care about, or that you should reject all criticism that seems unfair, out of hand? Definitely not………………we can and should recognize when someone is feeling hurt and acknowledge that, even when we think their thinking and accusations are off base. The Echo response, though, denies our own experience in the process. We lose perspective and agree to an unfair and unbalanced resolution to the problem. If that continues, it becomes default mode. Perhaps the biggest problem in it is that the reassurances and soothing become so automatic, that even Narcissus begins to experience them as hollow, inspiring further feelings of being inadequately loved, and so the dance continues.
What’s the ideal response for Sam (or Echo)? “You know, I think you are right that I wasn’t thinking about your day. I was looking forward to celebrating my birthday, and felt hurt when I thought you didn’t care about it. Seems like we both are a little hurt right now. I do want to hear about your day and I do want us to celebrate my birthday as well. Can we talk about how to do both?” Yeah, I know………………good luck sounding so calm and reasoned when you’re hurt and upset! The key here is not to have all the right words at the tip of your tongue……………it’s to look for what you can agree with, find a way to acknowledge that, and let the other person know that you also have a stake in this relationship. In real life, there isn’t a delete or edit button, and it may take a few missteps, some time outs and some reflection before you can get back on track.
If you have someone in your life who strikes out in a narcissistic style, or who seems to chronically fail to recognize your feelings as valid, it hurts. While you don’t have to bash them over the head with it, and you may have little success in remodelling them, you can preserve your own self and sanity by remembering that your voice needs to exist in the relationship. Without your voice, you become Echo, which doesn’t save either you or your Narcissus.