The label – “Narcissism”

A bit like dissociation, our narcissistic ways are often regarded as one of the “bad boys” of human growth and development; see more on this in human Defence Mechanisms.

This does a disservice to narcissism and the part it plays in our lives. Also, it demonstrates an implicit judgementalism. There is a lot of this going on in the diagnosis of behaviour: what about “Borderline Personality Disorder”?!  This is a term almost certainly demonstrating not only prejudice, but also a misunderstanding of the nature of the traumatic response, and how it presents in public.

So where does the term come from?

Narcissus, pictured above, was a hunter in Greek mythology, son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. He was a very beautiful young man, and many fell in love with him. However, he only showed them disdain and contempt. He preferred to look at his own reflection in the water concluding only that he was not ‘beautiful enough’.

One day, while he was hunting in the woods, the nymph Echo spotted him and immediately fell for him. Narcissus sensed that someone was following him and Echo eventually revealed herself. She tried to hug him. However, he pushed her off and told her not to disturb him. Echo, in despair, roamed around the woods for the rest of her life, and wilted away until all it remained of her was an echo.

For you and me, the story warns us about falling in love with ourselves rather than others – so much so that we miss the love and compassion that surrounds us.

So how might this Greek myth help with small, safe experiments? What use is the story of Narcissus, apart from being Greek myth providing 20th century therapists with metaphors?

Given that I am very fond of my narcissistic part (there’s a joke in there some-where, there are important things to say!

There is a useful, if detailed account, of our narcissistic ‘part’ available via the Cognitive Analytic website.

Here are my own thoughts with a ‘slant’ on how narcassism can respond to safe experiments.


In this account, I refer to ‘parts’. 

This is a problematic word and it can cause disputes between professionals and, indeed, between professionals and clients. However, it is difficult to invent a proper word that fits the bill. Furthermore, the idea of a ‘part’ is pretty central to psychology – Freud‘s id, ego and superego and Berne’s Parent, Adult and Child being just two models with ‘parts’ that are well know to many.

Internal Family Systems is a more modern re-development of parts work led by Richard Schwartz and others. I’d give mention, as well, to John Omaha’s work on Parts Therapy coming, as it does, out of the clinical hynotherapy approach.

So, I am going to ask you to bear with me, as I assert that all our ‘parts’ can be both healthy or unhelpful, even at one and the same time!  Those parts can be very different from one another, and, sometimes, very ‘in tune’ one with another.

One aim of therapy is to improvement the level of attunement.

Attachment and Integration

So let me say more. In a normal attachment relationship, the small child will gaze into a carer’s eye – as they so often do – and they will see themselves. It is likely that ‘mirror’ neurons in both carer and baby will start to buzz in harmony.  D you remember the scene in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when the alien spaceship and the Earth scientists found a way to communicate through music! Could it be like that?

As the child grows, an intimate relationship can be extended to others. Because we are all different, each relationship is different as it evolves. Each has a different impact on the psycho-sexual and psycho-social development of the child as it incorporates a representation of each relationship into its growing personality.

Where that integration works, then each part can talk, one to another, and the total can remain in harmony, for the most part. The individual will make a (roughly) normal development into adulthood.

However, that process of integration is easily disrupted.

For instance, if that initial gaze into the eyes of a parent (for the most part) does not happen, then the child is not able to see that reflection and feel a ‘connection’ with the carer.

That is a lonely experience. In time – that child will find its reflection somewhere else. The obvious place to look is in a mirror – literally or metaphorically. At that point, the child can see only herself. In due time, the child learns self-sufficiency; one based on a growing confidence in his ability to stand alone; to have mastery of the seas and continents. However, it is a ‘cover job’, and deep down there is uncertainty, anxiety and self-doubt.

So that superficial mastery is an illusion. Indeed, through the process, the child itself will develop a sneaking suspicion that all is not well; something is missing. The child learns to put that doubt into a box and to keep it separate – hidden from other parts – a secret. Over time, a visible split can develop between the content of that ‘box’ and other parts of ourselves.

More on Dissociation

Sometimes this split is known to the individual  – it becames a structural dissociation. Other times the split is not so evident and the individual can develop a Dissociative Identifty Disorder (DID). This can be problematic for the ‘client’ and other people in her life.

The US-based National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM) have a very clear way of presenting this split:

One obvious split that can emerge is between admiring and contemptuous parts. Here, the admiring/admired part, in which I feel special and admired, fosters omnipotence.  By contrast, the contemptuous part offers a profound devaluation of both the self and others. Those contradiction – perhaps a special case of catastrophising – can lead to deep feelings of worthlessness and vulnerability.

Most of us would find such strong feelings unbearable and so it’s understandable that there is a drive to hide that part away. The tension, however, can manifest in a pervasive anxiety arising from a suspicion that something is wrong. In its strongest form, this tension can manifest in a wish to be invisible; to become a ‘nobody’.

This can be accompanied by a sense of failure and we all have experiences from our lives that provide ‘evidence’ of having failed.  It’s not such a long stride to generalise from specific falures to a sense of being a failure.

A contribution from Transactional Analysis

These tensions are so profound that is difficult to think of the small, safe experiments that might promote change.  Even so, The Transactional Analytic (TA) notion of the Driver can help. All that is said here is likely to manifest in highly ‘driverised’ behaviour.

For instance, Be Perfect can set up a tendency to build up conditions of excellence for self or others that are arduous.  When my Be Perfect succeeds, excellence is rewarded by the admiring part.  Given the standard is high, and some failure is almost inevitable, then the Be Perfect is bound to fail; usually with a 0 – 60 mph shift into the contemptuous part. Because the feelings are so strong and unpleasant, it’s possible that the pain will be lessened by creating contempt for others – that, at least, shifts of some of the blame.

The TA perspective is helpful as it identifes ‘antidotes’ to highly driverised behaviour. In the case of Be Perfect, it is: it’s OK to make mistakes. It follows that all the safe experiment information on Affirmations has some part to play in the process of healing – or, in this case, the re-integation of parts.

Another strategy to keep in mind is acceptance of self and others.  ACT is a therapeutic model well able to harness self-compassion. Even so, this assumes we can be respectful of the struggle experienced by the contemptuous part as we acknowledge the validity of any self-compassion, in the first place!

It’s not easy to know what different parts are trying to tell us; often, it is simply easier to put them away or feel they are not remotely helpful. That’s why I would want to be less judgemental about our defence mechanisms. Most are there for a very good reason – even if it is one from way back when.

Further leads to follow

What is a nudge

The scenic route

Small is beautiful

Learning from discomfort


Defence mechanisms

An Index of pages on Your Nudge

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