Narcissus & Echo: An Ancient Cautionary Tale That Still Rings True

Apr 16, 2021 | Uncategorized

“I wonder if the course of narcissism through the ages would have been any different had Narcissus first peered into a cesspool. He probably did.”

Frank O'Hara, Early Writing

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) wasn’t recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980, in the third edition. But back in 8 AD, the Roman poet, Ovid, first lay down the myth of Narcissus and his co-dependent gal, Echo.

Poor talkative Echo got on the wrong side of Venus, who cursed her by making her able to only finish a sentence not started, and unable to say anything on her own. (See where this is going?) One day she was wandering around in the forest, as you do, and espied the epically handsome Narcissus out on a hunting spree. She wanted to call to him, but couldn’t (because curse), so lucky her when he got lost from his friends and called out “Is anyone there?”, which allowed her to enter into a convo with him by finishing his sentence for him. They came together, she threw herself onto him, and he rejected her. Not surprisingly, because that’s the way things seem to go, she only fell more in love with him.

Narcissus had a bevy of young ladies fall for him, but at the end of the day, he only loved himself. He died staring at himself in a pool of water, unable to see or love anyone else. Since then the story has influenced poets and artists, playwrights, and composers. And psychologists.

The term Narcissistic Personality Disorder was coined in 1968 by Heinz Kohut, so it really hasn’t been in use for very long. Since then, there is plenty of discussion in the research community about whether it’s actually a thing, whether you can actually diagnose it, whether it’s part of another thing, how it’s diagnosed, etc.

Having said that, however, you wouldn’t know it if you Googled “narcissism” – it’s a HUGE buzzword these days. Everyone knows a narcissist, every divorce involves a narcissist: it seems that narcissism has become a catch-all phrase for “asshole”. And we all know plenty of those.

So what’s the deal with narcissism? Is it an overused buzzword, or a tale as old as time, played out in homes around the world and only recently recognized as an actual, diagnosable disorder? Welp. I can’t tell you that. But I can tell you that if you talk to people who are going through a divorce, you will see evidence of it everywhere. And people are starting to take note of the way it plays out behind closed doors, and the damage it can do to families for generations.

It can be diagnosed clinically by identifying at least 5 of 9 traits that are outlined in the DSM-5, although the fact is that very few people are actually diagnosed with it. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, between 0.5 and 1 percent of the general population (50 to 75% are men) is diagnosed with NPD. This can be frustrating to people who are suffering from abuse by a clearly narcissistic person – because while a person may not be clinically diagnosed with NPD, that doesn’t stop a narcissist from heaping abuse on a partner.

Here are some traits that are identified with a Narcissist. I’m sure we all know people who have one or more of these traits, but a narcissist has an overwhelming preponderance of these:

  • A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (making themselves appear impressive)
  • Need for admiration
  • Fantasies about power, success, beauty, or an idealized vision of love
  • Sense of entitlement
  • The belief of being special, unique or high-status
  • Lack of empathy for others
  • Tendency to exploit others
  • Arrogant behavior

If you in a relationship with a narcissist, you might experience these traits as gaslighting, emotional abuse, being disregarded or made into a villain. You might feel like you’re losing your mind or that you have to walk on eggshells all the time. You might feel like you want to record your conversations so that you can go back and hear what was actually said. You might feel like you will never get away or be allowed to have your own thoughts or experiences. You might feel like poor Echo, not allowed to have your own voice, unseen and unloved, despite your efforts to love and support.

It’s awful.

If you or anyone you know is playing Echo to someone’s Narcissus and need support, I am offering a free workshop called Surviving a Narcissist. We will cover a lot of ground, including how to recognize a narcissist, how to communicate and negotiate with one, how to set healthy boundaries, and what to do when you’re ready to leave one.





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