What is narcissism and is there a cure?
Narcissism has become a prevalent concept in the modern world, with numerous politicians, corporate executives and, more recently, particularly abhorrent movie producers summed up as narcissists, in an attempt to make sense of the recurring themes of abuse in so many workplaces and communities today.
But what has made the idea of narcissism become so pervasive in our societies, and what, in fact, does it mean to be a narcissist?
All of us possess an ego, which can be considered in a nutshell as the psychological apparatus of our self-identity, which in turn informs the way that we identify with other possessors of egos, more commonly referred to as people, or ‘that jerk’, ‘my pathetic ex’, or ‘Karen from accounting who won’t shut up about her trip to Bali.’
Being simply egotistical, which, let’s face it, we all are, is not necessarily the same as being narcissistic.
When attempting to unpack the more tragic complexities of the human psyche, I often turn to the poignant themes described in ancient Greek mythology, of which the tale of Echo and Narcissus informed the more recent attempt to understand this insidious phenomenon.
As the woeful tale from Ovid's Metamorphoses goes, a beautiful human youth named Narcissus became lost in the forest inhabited by the cursed wood-nymph, Echo.
Glimpsing his extraordinary beauty through the glimmering trees, Echo fell immediately in love, but under the curse inflicted on her by the vengeful goddess Hera, she was doomed to only repeat the last words addressed to her.
This made for some particularly confusing dialogue, which ended with Narcissus ultimately rejecting her advances, causing her to wither into dust from heartbreak, and leaving only her voice to ‘echo’ through time.
Narcissus, in turn, fell in love with his own reflection which he saw in a pool close by the cave where Echo had perished, and so mesmerized by his own good looks was he that Narcissus also died of starvation, yearning relentlessly for his ultimate love – himself.
Narcissism as it is understood today is a personality pattern that is equally as charming, charismatic and confident as it is raging, abusive, and manipulative.
As such, a relationship with a narcissist, whether it be romantic, platonic, or professional, can create a pattern of abuse from which it becomes hard to break free.
According to clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, those who find themselves either emotionally attached or professionally dependant on a narcissist become gradually indoctrinated into accepting these regular bouts of rage, insults and lies.
Even more tragically, they often end up internalizing this barrage of narcissistic abuse as a belief that they are actually not worthy enough of the narcissist’s love, creating a cycle that can continue ad nauseum.
And yet, this very creation of inherent self-doubt in their victim is actually a manifestation of one of the main drivers of narcissism itself – that of pathological insecurity.
Narcissists are desperate for validation, and when they feel that they are not receiving their due recognition, will quickly shift the climate from one of charm and charisma to rage, shame and vindictiveness in order to cover a deeper sense of instability, and emptiness.
Unfortunately, this pathological phenomenon is only enhanced by the parameters of our modern values, which place greater emphasis on the external attributes of wealth, status, power and beauty than they do on less glamorous attributes such as empathy and kindness.
We live in a world that actually rewards narcissistic behaviour more and more, and which places on pedestals individuals who carve their identity solely from the wealth and power they have attained.
As a result, recent studies have shown that our societies have become more miserable, and our current zeitgeist is one of insecurity, dissatisfaction, and the normalisation of achieving success at all costs.
So how do we turn this dismal state of affairs around?
On the individual level, it is considered extremely difficult for a narcissist to ever change their behaviour.
Doing so requires a process of self-recognition, and of making small rectifications to behaviour in order to stop causing harm to others.
This of course would have to arise from a desire to no longer cause harm, a desire which is not common amongst narcissists in the first place.
Since much of this pathological insecurity arises from early development, the narcissist would have to effectively re-parent themselves in order to improve their sense of security in who they are.
All of this takes an extraordinary level of self-awareness, which again is a trait not common amongst narcissists, and since much of their pathological behaviour actually brings them success in today’s society, it is much easier to simply not change at all.
This is relevant to those who cannot as easily extricate themselves from a relationship with a narcissist, maybe because they are a child of theirs, a parent, or any other individual from which walking away is not the simplest option.
Fundamental to this process is the acceptance that your own behaviour will not affect a change in theirs, and that continual forgiveness will only be perceived as a validation of their abuse.
Giving in to narcissistic demands, placating their tantrums, believing that their vitriol is somehow your fault, are all patterns that will only serve cement the cycle of abuse that will ultimately lead to a deeply destructive end.
In the broader scheme of things, there is much change that needs to occur on the societal level in order to stem the growing tide of narcissistic behaviour in the world today.
Values of empathy, kindness, and fairness need to find their place again, and supersede the destructive addiction to wealth and power that is not only destroying us as individuals, but the world we live in.
Without these steps towards recognizing and invalidating narcissistic behaviour, victims will continue to live in a cycle of abuse that will wither them to dust, leaving only their sad legacies to echo through time.
And narcissists, in turn, will find themselves emotionally and spiritually starved as they futilely pursue an image of themselves that will never be more than a reflection of their inner longing for validation.
Editor: Anchen Coetzee
Written by: Naomi Roebert