ARL Archive · Know Your Words

What is Narcissism?

477px-le_beau_narcisse_lacma_54-71-78
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The word narcissist is getting a lot of play lately, largely because more than a few folks have said the word applies to our commander-in-chief. Is D.J.T. a narcissist? I dunno. To be honest, I don’t even know what the word means. I think it has something do with being rather self-centered and in love with one’s self, but I’m not sure.

Let’s change that….

The Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language defines a narcissist as “one who displays the traits of narcissism,” so I guess we’ll look up that word.

Narcissism, then, is defined as 1) self-love; excessive interest in one’s own appearance, comfort, importance, abilities, etc.

Okay, already this is getting interesting because, as you can see, this definition gets into things beyond self-love; namely, an intense focus on one’s appearance, comfort, importance, and abilities, which don’t really rear their heads in the myth that’s oh so related to this word.

According to the Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology, the (Greek) myth of Narcissus goes like this:

Narcissus was a handsome young man who despised love. When he was his a boy, the seer Tiresias told his parents that he would live to an old age if he did not look at himself. Nevertheless, as he grew up, Narcissus became the object of the passions of many girls and Nymphs, but was indifferent to all of it. The nymph Echo fell in love with him, but she could get no more from him than the others. In despair, she withdrew into a lonely spot where she faded away until all that was left of her was a plaintive voice. The girls rejected by Narcissus asked the heavens for vengeance. Nemisis heard them and arranged that one very hot day Narcissus bend over a stream to take a drink and saw his own face, which was so handsome that he immediately fell in love with himself. Thenceforward he stayed watching his own reflection and let himself die…. On the spot where he died there later grew a flower which was given his name.

Yet, while rooted in this myth, the words narcissist and narcissism don’t come directly from it. As is so happens, the name Narcissus comes from Latin and Greek narkissos < narke, meaning stupor, in reference to the sedative effect caused by several bulb plants with smooth leaves and clusters of white or orange petals.

You mean the plant that grew in the spot where Narcissus died? That’s the one. (Don’t you just love it when this shit comes full-circle?)

But wait! As that first definition from the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language implies, there’s more to it than just the guy in the myth and the plant that puts people into stupors. Hence the second part of the Webster’s definition that I’m keeping unrevealed into right now:

2) in psychoanalysis, arrest at or regression to the first stage of sexual development, in which the self is an object of sexual pleasure.

Right, there’s a psychological angle here (which as you may recall is what started all of this), but it goes beyond psychoanalysis.

The Oxford Dictionary of Psychology defines narcissism as, “self-love, or sexual gratification obtained by contemplating oneself.” The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychology goes a little deeper, offering up a definition that includes:

1) a sexual perversion in which a person treats his or her own body as the prefered sex-object, and 2) In Freudian theory, any investment of libido in aspects of the self as opposed to external objects.

The Psychiatric Dictionary (PD) offers much of the same, but it seems that entry in the PD that best applies to what we’re talking about here is something called narcissistic personality disorder, which the PD defines as:

An exaggerated sense of self-importance, belief that one’s problems are unique and comprehensible only by “special” people, exhibitionistic need for attention and admiration, fantasies of unlimited power or brilliance, feelings of entitlement to special favors with no reciprocal responsibilities, lack of empathy and inability to recognize how others feel, exploitation of others while disregarding their rights and feelings, preoccupation with feelings of envy.

Clearly then, narcissistic personality disorder is what those who say the President is a narcissist are referring to. This is also what the first part of the Webster’s definition is referring to. Thus, it seems narcissism has become shorthand not for “self-love” or even the root of narcissism, “stupor,” but for wildly self-centered.

So I guess my initial, haphazard definition was somewhat correct after all.

I am soooooo AWESOME! (heh, heh, heh ….)

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