For years, I've heard people describing others as narcissistic. And if you've been paying attention in this 21st century, I'm sure you've heard these descriptions as well. You know how it goes, "Oh, I can't stand her. She's soooooo narcissistic." Or, "He could care less about anyone. It's all about him. He's such a narcissist." Typically, these phrases are used to describe people who are self-centered and whose need for constant admiration becomes incredibly annoying or an incredible bore.
And although these descriptions seem to be heard more in our modern times, I often wonder if people actually know the historical origins of the term.
So where does the word "narcissistic" come from and how did it come to be used so often in our modern vocabulary? We need only look to the chronicles of Greek mythology to find a rich, meaningful and unfortunately, tragic answer.
The words "narcissistic" and "narcissism" are based on the mythological character, Narcissus (pronounced nahr-sis'-uhs). According to legend, Narcissus was a beautiful young man who found his reflection in a still pool of water. He was so taken with his beauty that he would sit and stare at his reflection for hours and hours, days upon end.
And Narcissus was not the only one who was taken with his physical appearance. Narcissus was so beautiful that the nymph Echo also fell in love with his physical perfection.
But Echo's love was unrequited. Distraught over his rejection of her, Echo withdrew into the forest where her physical being dissolved into a soft and mournful whisper.
The goddess Nemesis heard Echo's sorrow filled whispers, however, and granted Echo's prayers for vengeance. Together the women conspired and saw to it that love would come for Narcissus only in his own beautiful, but shallow reflection.
Narcissus became completely self-absorbed and in love with himself. Unable to make a meaningful connection with anyone or anything other than his cold and distant veneer, Narcissus remained stuck in the empty beauty of his own reflection.
With no one to relate to and no one other then his reflection to love, Narcissus soon died a sad and lonely death. In the spot of his death, a narcissus flower grew. This flower serves as a reminder to the world that love is not to be restricted to oneself, but is to be given freely from oneself to another.
As mythology, the tale of Narcissus is tragic. As a description of the way a person interacts in the world, narcissism is perhaps even more disturbing and sad.
By failing to connect with other human beings around them, people who suffer from narcissism live their lives imprisoned by their own inflated egos and empty pride. Through their own self-absorbed puffery, they push people who could heal them further and further away.
If you believe as I do that the purpose of a life is to love and feel useful in the world, such result is tragic indeed. It limits a life that could heal and grow in the power of unlimited love.