Rethinking Narcissism (2015) provides fresh perspectives on what we typically understand as arrogance or vanity. These blinks situate narcissism both historically and culturally, explaining the spectrum of narcissism and its different forms; they also provide helpful strategies for recognizing and dealing with the narcissists you might know.
You’re probably familiar with the myth of Narcissus – the extraordinarily handsome hunter, who, after shunning the mountain nymph Echo, fell in love with his own reflection in a lake and, unable to draw himself away, perished at water’s edge. Clearly, self-love has been a controversial topic since ancient times.
Back in 350 BC, Aristotle asked whom the good man should love more: himself or others. Ultimately, Aristotle decided that the good man is he who loves himself most. If, a few centuries earlier, you’d asked Buddha the same question, you’d have gotten a very different response. He claimed that the self is nothing more than an illusion, and that it was best to love others.
But it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that the word narcissism appeared for the first time, courtesy of Sigmund Freud. Freud claimed that, in order to establish meaningful relationships with others, a person must first fall in love with themselves. In a famous paper, On Narcissism: An Introduction, published in 1914, Freud theorized that infancy is the stage at which we fall in love with ourselves.
As young children, we develop self-love after witnessing all the things we are capable of. According to Freud, this is a healthy and necessary step in our development. Without it, we’d fail to discover our own importance and would subsequently struggle to reach out to others. In this sense, self-love was a positive thing for Freud. But when it came to his view of human nature overall, he was decidedly pessimistic.
Freud argued that humans are driven by aggressive and sexual instincts. Decades later, Heinz Kohut, an Austrian psychoanalyst, opposed this idea. Kohut believed that humans are driven by the need to develop a healthy self-image. So narcissism is central to Kohut’s theory. The love, admiration and consolation of those around us is what makes us feel special, allowing us to grow into confident, self-loving individuals.