Narcissism is a topic Freud gave frequent attention to. He borrowed the name from the Greek myth of Narcissus. Narcissus falls in love with the reflection of his beautiful face in the water. His reflection deceives him because it only shows his perfect, beautiful self. He eventually dies of a longing that his image could never satisfy.
Narcissus’s rapture with his own “beauty” is compared with the modern day narcissist’s grandiosity. Narcissus denied his true self. He could not acknowledge his whole self, only acknowledging his beautiful, good parts. He denies his unacceptable sides: his impotence, jealousy, shame, mistakes. Narcissus is in love with his idealized picture, but he cannot love his true self (which includes his imperfections). He is fixated on his perfect, grandiose false self. This is the tragedy of the narcissist. Narcissistic people are arrogant, energetic, emotionally inaccessible and have fantasies of omnipotence. They are sometimes called people with a “God Complex”. Successful narcissistic people are often admired. Yet, underlying this are fears of their own weakness, inferiority and insufficiency.
Rothstein says that the main job of the narcissist is to be perfect, to achieve approbation and to never be dependent or feel lacking in any way. The partner of a narsissitic individual is there to admire them. Alice Miller explains that the narcissistic person is fixated on gaining the admiration of his/her partner. There is very little room for a real, deep relationship when the main focus of the relationship is for the narcissist to feel admired. The narcissist cannot be real in a relationship because he cannot accept his human imperfections. Yet, the narcissistic individual senses that as long as it is his perfect qualities that are admired, he is not loved for who he really is. The narcissist cannot destinguigh between admiration and love. He never gets enough admiration, because admiration can never meet the need for real love.
The self-respect of the narcissist is dependent on his achievements and admiration of others. When this suddenly fails he is left feeling worthless and depressed. They cannot show remorse, because acknowledging a failure exposes them to be seen as not perfect. They do not acknowledge their need for others because dependency feel like a failure to them.
What happens during the childhood of a narcissistic adult? According to Alice Miller it is often found that the mother (or father) needed her child to meet her needs. These mothers often love their children passionately, but raise their children to meet their needs. What these mothers did not find in their own relationships with their mothers they now find in their children: someone who can be controlled, someone who will never desert them and someone who gives them their full attention. The mother is still a child in her relationship to her own child (the mother still needs her own unmet needs to be met). These mothers tend to love their children for their achievements and good qualities, not for their true selves including all their true emotions and characteristics. These children are exploited by their parents to maintain the parent’s self-esteem. These parents tend to be overly concerned with their children’s achievements. The parents do not consciously decide to do this and mostly do not even realize that they are doing this.
These children thus grow up with an over-emphasis on achievement and being who their parents want them to be. They sacrifice their real selves and are adored by their parents for their perfection and success.
Grandiosity is the defense against the narcissistic individual’s depression and his/her depression hides the enormous pain over the loss of the real self. They had to become the self that their mothers needed and could not develop freely emotionally. These families have an over-emphasis on achievement. It is normal for parents to be proud of their children’s achievements, but where children feel pressurised to live their lives for the sake of their parents, the children are at risk.
Narcissistic people tend to idealize and devalue themselves and others. When they idealize themselves they tend to devalue others and when they idealize others they devalue themselves. They often have unrealistic ideals and either believe that they have attained them (feeling grandiose and superior) or feel that they have failed (feeling worthless and flawed). Nancy McWilliams says that narcissistic individuals sometimes solve the problem with their self-esteem by regarding someone (a friend, lover or mentor) as perfect and then feel they have value because of their relationship or identification with such a perfect person. Narcissists can’t love without idealizing and they cannot express genuine human feelings without feeling shame.
The enormously difficult task for the narcissist is to find and accept their true selves – including their weaknesses, shortcomings and imperfections without feeling worthless and depressed. They have to mourn the loss of a childhood where they could not be their true selves. They have to realize that they had to live to meet the longings and expectations of their parents at the cost of their true emotions and real humanness.
This is the tragedy of the loss of the real self. Narcissus staring at his perfect image in the water. For Narcissus and modern narcissists it is all about surface – things like appearance, wealth, success and beauty. There is very little depth. They cannot embrace their full humanness – their failures, their needs and their shortcomings and still feel they have value.
These people can evoke very negative feelings in others because others often recognise their grandiosity and their tendency to devalue others.