Narcissus: full of self or full of shame?



The myth of Narcissus is a debated one.


To me, it almost feels an insult to the early poets who wrote about him to imagine this is simply a cautionary tale about not becoming too full of oneself.


To explain myself further, let's first recap the story (for which there are nuances, depending on the version you choose).


The short story is that Narcissus was the son of a river god and a nymph. He was a handsome man and captured the hearts of many, but refused to reciprocate any sort of love that others felt for him.


One day, the young man caught his reflection in the river and fell in love with it. Spellbound, completely infatuated with his own reflection, he stayed there by the riverside. His enchantment with his image drove him to stop eating and sleeping and he eventually perished, right there, next to his own reflection.


Narcissus became the namesake of the modern day "narcissist". People speak to this story of Narcissus and take it as a lesson that one should not love themselves too much.


That one should not act as though they think themselves to be good.


One should reign in a "big ego".


Interestingly, though this tale from Ovid's Metamorphoses is around 2,000 years old, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (sometimes called "NPD") was only recently coined as diagnosable condition and later added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.


As such, and having some sense of the complexity of messages that are laid down in myth, I have to wonder if we missed the point when it came to Narcissus...


I think the story of Narcissus is about shame.


You see, the aspect of narcissism that gets little attention is that people who are assessed as having this disorder also present with other co-morbidities, namely strong feelings of low self-esteem and even depression. Such people have an inability to handle disapproval or rebuff.


Doesn't that sound remarkably similar to codependence? Another way of being that stems from a core concept of shame.


People who have a core self concept of shame must build an identity (a self image) that enables them to feel okay in the world, as if they are allowed to be here. For if people knew how "bad" they really were, they'd be outcast (noting this is an internal narrative, not a truth).


Perhaps Narcissus fell in love with his image, one he created to establish a sense of approval in the world, because he couldn't fall in love with who he really was. Maybe he hated who he was underneath, which prevented him from receiving true love from the outside world.


How can one receive love when they feel completely and utterly unlovable?


With great difficultly I'd say. Perhaps that was the real drama of Narcissus.


I don't know for sure.But I do think it pays to have compassion while we're busy labelling "dysfunctional" behaviour. This whole being human stuff can be really hard and really complicated sometimes.


Not much is truly as it seems.


Perhaps his story is there for us to learn the importance of being someone we can love, and deciding to do that for ourselves, so that we can be received by the world and give back to it more of ourselves.Perhaps it is a call to heal the shame that binds us on the inside, so we no longer have to wear masks to cover our dysfunctional self-concepts and in the process inadvertently bring pain to self and other.I'd be glad to hear what you think - was Narcissus bad through and through, or is there something behind it that's too difficult to talk about, so we simply make Narcissus wrong?