19 May

Understanding Narcissists (Part I)

Have you ever felt frustrated at your inability to solve relationship problems in your life? Do you try talking to your spouse and no matter how hard you try it not only doesn’t seem to help your relationship, it often makes matters worse? Are you continually frustrated by the disturbing actions of those around you and feel a constant stress in your life?

This  two-part article examines one of the fundamental reasons why we not only suffer, but continue to suffer without being able to do anything about it in spite of our best efforts.  This first part of the article examines how this happens, and why it is so fundamentally difficult to deal with.

In Stendhal‘s novel Le Rouge et le Noir (1830), there is a classic narcissist in the character of Mathilde. Says Prince Korasoff to Julien Sorel, the protagonist, with respect to his beloved girl:

“She looks at herself instead of looking at you, and so doesn’t know you.  During the two or three little outbursts of passion she has allowed herself in your favor, she has, by a great effort of imagination, seen in you the hero of her dreams, and not yourself as you really are.”(Page 401, 1953 Penguin Edition, trans. Margaret R.B. Shaw).

To understand the nature of this particular difficulty, let us consider the “Myth of Narcissus” (Ovid) which goes briefly like this.

Narcissus was an exceptionally beautiful young boy who attracted and enjoyed the attention of many nymphs, yet scorned and refused each of them.  The gods grew tired of  this behaviour and cursed him. They wanted him to know what it felt like to love, and never be loved in return.  As punishment, they made it so there was only one whom he would love, someone who was not real, and could never love him back.

Accordingly, one day while out enjoying the sunshine, Narcissus came upon a pool of water. As he gazed into this pool he caught a glimpse of his own reflection which he mistook as a beautiful water spirit, and became immediately enamoured.  So captivated was he by this reflection that he ignored everything and everyone, and eventually, when all his efforts to attract the attention of this reflection failed and he realized he could never have what he so desperately wanted, he killed himself.

As commonly interpreted,  this myth is seen as providing a warning against positive self-absorption in which a person is so enamoured and absorbed by his or her wonderful self, they are incapable of appreciating or caring for others.

But there is a more basic problem here, one that I wonder how much we all suffer from to some degree, and it is not about the perception of one’s self as being more beautiful or better than others.

Specifically, failing to recognize  his own reflection and instead perceiving it as something completely independent of him, Narcissus tried to develop a relationship with another characterized by an almost complete loss of awareness of, and understanding of  his own self.  Being confused about his own perceptions, Narcissus not only didn’t realize it, but couldn’t realize it and there was no to break the illusion.

So here is the question: “When we are with other people, how clearly do we see them for who they are?”   How much do we confuse “our” perceptions of the other person, as being who they really are, and don’t even realize we are doing this?  How confused are we not only in terms of how much of ourself we are seeing in others, but how much we are simultaneously failing to recognize the other for they truly are?

Most importantly, what is the effect of doing this in terms of how it impacts on our relationships?

The second part of this article looks more closely at how this confusion plays itself out in real life.