The myth of Narcissus warns of the perils of excessive self-absorption, but is there more to narcissism than meets our gaze?
I remember two patients – Marty, a meek young man, always on guard for any situation hinting of potential shame and only showing himself when guaranteed of perfect understanding and emotional attunement to his needs and feelings; and Ms. Z, a self-focused artist, who believed she knew more than everyone, inhaling all of the oxygen in the room, and only acknowledging me when I admired the paintings she brought in.
Two such different people on the surface, each suffered from a form of narcissistic disturbance and, like Narcissus, craved an echo. While Ms. Z met the criteria for a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Marty did not. Diagnosed as an Avoidant Personality, Marty seemed the antithesis of the selfie-obsessed Ms. Z. However, both suffered from an unstable sense of themselves, which required a great deal of admiration or unfailing attunement to their needs and feelings.
In the face of setbacks, failures, or ruptures in empathy, both individuals were prone to depressive reactions. Viewing two such opposite individuals as suffering from different kinds of narcissistic disturbances invites us to look beneath the surface to try to understand them more deeply.
Narcissism and Spectrum of Narcissistic Disturbances
Narcissism is understood as taking the self as an object of love which, when extreme, blinds one to the needs and thoughts of others and interferes with investment in their lives. Unfortunately, the nar-word has become a pejorative term, which ignores the role of narcissism in normal development, as well as healthy or adaptive forms of narcissism.
Healthy narcissism involves investing in the self but not at the expense of investing in others.
When the balance between self-love and focus obscures love for and focusing on others, we find the development of narcissistic disturbances.
Gabbard (1989, 2016) drew attention to a broader spectrum of patients with narcissistic issues. He criticized conventional diagnostic classification of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as being restrictive and emphasizing the more florid characteristics including:
- lack of empathy,
- and interpersonal exploitation.
This is the face of pathological narcissism trumpeted nightly on our TVs. Ms. Z was emblematic of this more familiar type of narcissistic personality.
However, Gabbard wrote about another group of individuals who manifest their narcissistic issues in strikingly different ways. Unlike the first group, which he called “oblivious” narcissists (O-N), because they are unaware of the reactions of others, he identified a second group, which was characterized by extreme hypersensitivity to how others react to them. He called this group “hypervigilant” narcissists (H-N), who scanned the environment for anticipated signs of disapproval, criticism, or lack of attunement.
Whereas the oblivious narcissist needs to be the center of attention, the hypervigilant individual seeks to avoid being noticed, but may simultaneously feel slighted if ignored or misunderstood.
O-N needs admiration, praise, and recognition from others to bolster her self-esteem, while the H-N craves perfect attunement from the other and is easily bruised at inevitable ruptures. Both are vulnerable to plummeting into depression when encountering disappointment or slights. The O-N is mother’s greatest success but is susceptible to feeling like mother’s greatest failure. The H-N is easily hurt and prone to feeling great shame, humiliation, and despair.
What unifies both types is an impoverished sense of self. Though it is harder to see through the blustery air of superiority of the O-N, and all-too-obvious in the H-N, both suffer from extreme narcissistic vulnerability. The O-N craves attention and adulation because, beneath the thick crust of bravado, they are incapable of generating and sustaining their self-esteem. They are dependent on an admiring Echo. The narcissistic vulnerability of the H-N is less encrusted and more palpably felt by others.
As therapists, we might feel bored by the O-N who ignores our existence, except as an admiring audience. It is as if we exist in the O-N’s mind only as a mirror, reflecting back their brilliance or accomplishments. Should we depart from the role of the audience or mirror, the O-N may feel angry and become dismissive.
On the other hand, when sitting with the H-N, every move or comment we make during a session is scrutinized. When they catch us glancing at the clock, they feel dismissed. “Oh, I see, you’re wanting to get rid of me.” Misremembering a detail from a previous session makes them feel emotionally injured and angry, reinforcing their belief that, just as they suspected, they are not important to us after all. If the O-N makes us feel insignificant, the H-N evokes an uncomfortable sense of being held captive or controlled.
In describing the narcissistic vulnerability and impoverished selves of both types of people, we shouldn’t ignore the third type of narcissistic vulnerability found in Echo. Echo is the yin to Narcissus’ yang, the perfect pairing.
In the Ovid version of the myth, Echo not only falls in love with Narcissus but does not feel she can live without him. She follows him; and when he asks, “Who’s there,” she has no words of her own, only his. “Who’s there,” she answers. Because Narcissus has no interest in Echo, and she no sense of self, she withers away and only her voice remains. It is the voice of adulation, not the person with the voice, that matters to Narcissus.
Narcissistic Use of the Other
The O-N, the H-N, and the Echo have difficulty seeing the other as a separate person with her own mind, feelings, and needs. In each case, the narcissistically vulnerable person uses the other to make up for what is lacking inside: an adoring audience, a perfectly attuned partner, or an idol. Failure to see the other and using them to meet one’s own needs touches on Shengold’s concept of “soul murder” (Shengold, 1991) and Fine’s (2017) discussion of “narcissistic abuse.”
Even in an ostensibly loving relationship, there can be a narcissistic use of the other. In my novel The 11th Inkblot, what appeared to be an adoring relationship between father and son is revealed to be a narcissistically-based identification, as father failed to truly see his eldest son whom he tried to make in his own image. When the son finally rejected father’s narcissistic use of him and proclaimed his separate sense of self, the father fell into deep despair.
Beyond excessive self-love, there is more to understand about forms of pathological narcissism. Looking beneath their manifest, off-putting behavior helps humanize the narcissist, even the O-N type. A broader, more nuanced understanding is particularly important for those involved with and those who choose to treat individuals with narcissistic issues.
By thinking in terms of underlying narcissistic vulnerability and narcissistic misuse of the other, we can understand the human struggles of Narcissus and Echo, and above all, reach out to those who have been harmed by abusive, self-erasing, narcissistic relationships. The ultimate goal is to help transform destructive forms of narcissism into the flower of self-acceptance, authenticity, and, most critically, compassion and empathy for the needs and feelings of others.
Looking beneath the surface, beyond the self-love, thirst for attention, or exquisite sensitivity to humiliation and shame, helps us understand the struggles of these individuals and how they can use and abuse others who become caught in their web.
My patients Marty and Ms. Z were heavily disguised composites of many people I’ve had the privilege to see in therapy over the last 40 years. Individuals suffering narcissistic vulnerability and forms of narcissistic disturbances can be helped. Finding a therapist, experienced in working with all types of individuals with deficits in healthy narcissism, can change one’s life.
Purchase his book The 11th Inkblot here