Echo and Narcissus: Towards an Ecological Understanding of the Narcissism and Healthy Ego Development

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. (Carl Gustav Jung)

Narcissism has recently become a booming topic of discussion both amongst professionals in the psychological community and the public at large. The well known psychological publication, Psychology Today, offers a myriad of information, advice, and even tests to find out if you are dating a “narcissist.” However, what is missing from the hodgepodge of professional, semi-professional, non professional, and absurd advice is a root understanding of the paradoxical nature of this personality phenomenon.

Narcissism is not a completely negative psychological phenomenon. Nor is it, for that matter entirely symptomatic as modern day pop-psychology suggests. In fact, outside of its symptomatic presentation, narcissism is a constellation of personality that carries with it the potential for dynamic Self-growth. As with any mental-health complex, the capacity of psychological development lies at the root of narcissism. When an individual learns to work within the normal and abnormal constructs of a presenting psychological problem, they can gain deeper levels of Self-understanding as a means to foster exponential individuated growth. In order to understand Narcissism as a psychological phenomenon, we must first turn to its origins.

The story of Narcissus and Echo is timeless. While set in ancient Greece, in a time when nymphs, seers, God’s, and Goddesses wandered the Earth, the themes of this mythological study of human potential remain pertinent to modern day relationships, family dynamics, and even individuated growth. Echo and Narcissus tells a story of unreciprocated love between two broken individuals. The conflict that exists between the protagonist and antagonist shows the complex dynamics that occur when love blossoms and is not returned to the sender. This story shows the shadow side of love, exploring the all so common game of cat and mouse that initiates any form of intimate relationship.

The myth of Narcissus and Echo is a classic Greek tragedy. The themes of the story are complexly interwoven, and show the diabolical transition that exists when one sided love turns to jealousy, paralysis, depression, psychological and physiological deterioration, and even death. Archetypal symbols such as the Mother, Lover, Son, Nymph, Self, Love, Absence, Abandonment, Death, Transfiguration, and Transcendence are all present within the context of the story. As with any myth, or for that matter life itself, these themes drive the outcome of the story, even when the moral of the story focuses on tragic consequences versus one’s “happily ever after.” While tragic in nature, the themes of Echo and Narcissus offer us valuable lessons in how to develop self-awareness, self-meaning, and self-esteem when worked correctly within the context of psychological growth.

Echo and Narcissus is more than just a mythological story of conceitedness, which sadly is the position this now classified mental health disorder promotes. Instead, the story’s themes are representations of the quest humanity must undertake to find, develop, and foster Self-love and inner peace. By Self-love, I am not promoting an egoistic ideal of conceitedness, which inhabits the realm of the ego and not the arcane realm of the Gods and Goddesses which this myth exists. Instead, Self-love as defined here simply alludes to a deeper understanding of a pure Self; that Self we can willingly give to another that we choose to love.

The subject matter of this myth may remind us of the many social ills our society faces when aspects of love turn inward, go unreciprocated, split, and transition towards hatred, jealousy, and the need to take vengeance on those who would not reciprocate the love we seek, in this and upcoming articles, I will explore the lessons this invaluable story offers. While Echo and Narcissus is a timeless tale of the dangers conceitedness, unreciprocated love, and the dangers Self-absorption can have on loving relationships, it also presents as a guidepost for ways we can learn to overcome the ego, develop a truly deep meaning of Self-reflection, and find a path towards our “Happily Ever After.”

In this research, I will explore the parental undertones that precede the narcissistic complex. While the point of this study is to develop understanding of the complex dynamics that underlie narcissism, I will also show ways that this constellation of personality can lead to intense psychological growth for a person that develops understanding of its positive and negative dynamics. By analyzing the archetypal themes present in the story itself, a complex personality constellation will be shown as being guideposts the psyche can undertake to reach a realized state of Self-awareness. In particular, I will focus my attention on:

  1. What symbolic (archetypal) themes underlie the complex dynamics of the narcissistic personality constellation.
  2. How can these dynamics affect relationship development both within one’s primary object relationships (parents) and secondary object relationships (friendships / romantic love).
  3. How the roots of narcissistic inflation exist a-priori, but are amplified by the parental dynamics of the home and child-rearing practices.
  4. How the archetypal themes present in the story of Echo and Narcissus can lead to levels of Self-Awareness, Self-Understanding, Self-Esteem, and ultimately lead to areas of individuated growth.
  5. Normalize this personality constellation, not as a means to deny the effects narcissism can have on an individual and/or family’s existence, but to show paths by which families and people can grow towards a more innate understanding of their inner beauty, by tending the soul’s garden that Self-Awareness and Love can foster.

While this research will explore the initial archetypal constellations present in the narcissistic complex, it is imperative to note that the context of this study is not to pin blame on mothers or fathers, for they have enough on their plates just attempting to raise a psychologically healthy child. While hindsight is always 20/20, and we can always look back on our parenting behaviors and see areas that we could have done things different, it is our job as parents to assure that our children have a healthy start at life, develop an intact and healthy ego from which to relate with others, and eventually move on to initiate their own lives and parental journey. In this article, I will specifically tackle the initial archetype that drives the formation of the narcissistic complex, exploring ways we can use this constellation of personality to form deeper meaning of Self-realized and individuated awareness.

Challenging the Fates: Engaging A Mother’s Love

There was once a young man called Narcissus. His mother, anxious to know her son’s fate, consulted the blind prophet Tiresias. ‘Will he live to old age?’ she demanded’As long as he does not know himself,’ he replied.

So she ensured that the child never saw his own reflection in the mirror. (Greene & Sharman – Burke, 2000)

The initial images of the story of Echo and Narcissus are steeped in mother imagery. This leads to a general question of interest. Is the roots of Narcissism to be found within the context of the personal mother. While this would amount to a easy scapegoat, the answer is not that simple. Our journey towards healthy ego integration begins within the context of our mother and father. But these titans of our personal development do not exist independently from the collective themes of the unconscious that form the building blocks of our psychological foundation. Instead, the personal mother and father are built on the idea of collective symbols, the Mother and Father of old, those archetypal themes found within the stories of the Gods and Goddesses themselves, which we will begin to analyze as a means to understand the complexly interwoven psychological themes that make up the narcissistic personality constellation.

Every journey begins with a dream. Unfortunately, that dream, in almost all circumstances, is not necessarily our own. Robert Bly (1990) spoke of the need a young boy has to steal the key from under their mother’s pillow. The key to our story here is also found under the mother’s pillow, for the mother of Narcissus harbors clear dreams, aspirations, and goals for her son. While the story focuses on a mother who keeps her son from getting to know himself, the themes of the story are also collective in nature and intertwined with the parental journey mothers and fathers undertake to assure the longevity and success of their children.

The opening scene imparts a story of a concerned and overprotective mother who wants what is best for her son. Whether it be the progeny he creates, the vocation and power he will assume, or the inner need this mother has to see him become a potent example of the man she was responsible for creating, the ramifications of a mother’s dream for her son is a powerful archetype that men must confront in order to develop Self-understanding. In the above example, the mother of Narcissus seeks to understand her son’s fait, a decision that ultimately denies the main character personal capacity to pursue his fait independently from the overbearing mother’s control.

Does this sound familiar? It is a telling of a psychological drama that plays out in every family. The life of a child plays out in the dreams of parents well before a child will ever take their first breath. Professions, family, and dreams about future greatness from the subject matter of the dreams housed within eagerly awaiting mothers and fathers the world abound. These dreams occur unbeknownst to the developing fetus, presenting initial barriers if you will to the child to become independently exposed to and knowledgeable of their inner passion. My son the doctor, my daughter the ballerina, my son the art-loving Jungian analyst, or my daughter the Supreme Court Justice form the subject matter of dreams parents develop for their children, well before they are even born. While parent’s may consciously or unconsciously formulate plans for their children’s life during gestation, a child is ultimately subjected to them as a litmus by which a parent can measure their effective success based upon the child’s capacity to engage the visions the parent’s foretold. Whether initiated by one’s mother or father, the need parents have to dream their child’s life forward is part of the developmental journey parents undergo to realize their individuated potential.

Parent’s formed their own identities during childhood. As an adult, they test these identities in the game of love with others, which in turn forms the foundation for the family unit. It is our responsibility as adults to raise the next generation. We must raise a healthy and productive generation that is capable of the many challenges society will place in their way. This process begins from the dreams established by parents, and finds finality in the value systems we impart upon our child.

Within the tides of psychological maturation, parent’s and children undertake parallel paths, albeit with very different timelines as it relates to the psychological crisis each developmental stage entails. Children must form a working identity and healthy ego from which to deal with the outside world. Parent’s must tend to their own developmental tasks, which includes at its basis rearing the next generation. A parent’s journey consists of such Psychosocial crises as learning to operate lovingly within intimate relationships, generate with enough capacity to support their growing family, and develop the capacity to reflect upon and overcome the personal trauma’s that made up their early life. Parent’s must do this concurrently while adapting to their children’s developmental needs.

Psychological growth occurs through a process of reflection. This is why our development as adults occurs through the lessons our children teach us in how to be good parents. No parent worth that title would ever view success as being anything less than having raised a successful child. A parent must nurture their child’s psychological growth forward and away from the comfort of the nuclear family. It is our duty to assist our children to become functionally independent from us, so that they may pursue their own dreams. This is the plight of the Westernized family structure, and often can present a paradox for a parent, who must show love by learning to say goodbye, and must relinquish control in order to re-assume an independent life of their own.

A child’s journey of psychological development begins from a perspective of complete dependence. This dependence is present pre-birth, and occurs during the 9 month gestational relationship a child will share with his or her mother. It is from this initial symbiotic relationship developed in the womb that a child begins to either trust or mistrust their environment. If exposed to chaos, the child’s world will develop in a disjointed, fragmented, and non-cohesive manner; this may cause the development of easy startle response to environmental stress, can expose the psyche to potential issues of mistrust, which forms the foundation for multiple mental health concerns to arise (Maples, 2011; Erikson, 1963). If exposed to the nature of love during gestation, the child’s beginnings are formulated in a harmonious manner, which in turn effects their capacity to engage the environment in a trusting and autonomous fashion. One’s capacity to formulate trust and an autonomous identity forms the cornerstone of Self-love, which in turn forms the foundation of our capacity to form and show love for others.

The developmental journey humanity undertakes begins in symbiosis with the mother. This story is predetermined to our development, exists a-priori, and is archetypal in nature. While each individual has a personal mother with whom they can tie their personal existence, it is the archetypal characteristics of the Mother that must be examined to make sense of the ways we develop trust and mistrust of the external and internal environment. The personal mother is the first conduit of love we are exposed too. This links to the archetypal themes of nurturing and devouring which are common paradoxical pulls that Jung (1954/1969) associated with the mother archetype. Our capacity to form trust and autonomy is in direct relationship with the womb experience, forming in direct relationship to the love the personal mother has, has not, is, or is not developing for the developing child.

Within this context, it is no wonder that the mother of Narcissus wished to know his fate. She has a 9 month investment placed into his very existence before he was born. While  this is imperative for the early developmental process, linking a mother’s love to the image of the man she wishes to create, ultimately these dreams, and images must give way to the child’s need to become independent from, and find their own dreams to realize. As Bly (1989) had stated, it is the job of the boy to “steal the key from under his mother’s pillow” so that he could formulate his own dreams, and realize the man he wishes to become.

 In earnest, the story of Narcissus and Echo is not only a mythological tale, but is a  psychological testimony to the age old adage, “you can’t love another, until you love yourself.” Narcissus’ mother was overbearing in this initial passage. She foretold, and sought to influence his future as a means to assure the fait she saw fit for his development. This did not allow his personality to flourish, which ultimately lead to his incapacity to develop an ego-integrated form of Self-love.

It is a mother’s job to nurture us. There is no evidence in the passage above that Narcissus’ mother meant him harm by shielding him from the fate she so desperately sought to avoid. Instead, she was being a good mother, sheltering her son from harm, and helping him to reach old-age. This is part of our parental job, is it not? However, this form of nurturing took on a devouring nature, and ultimately set the stage for the protagonists demise.

The initial archetypal theme present in this story centers on the mother. However, the dynamics of narcissism do not lie solely in the ream of the feminine or the mother. Instead, there is an absence present within the context of the story. In the above passage, the father’s presence is sorely absent, leading us to determine that there is one half of the family dynamic missing. The protagonist is not exposed to the father, only a seer that foretells his future to the one that cares most for her son. While this part of the study examined the initial role the mother has on the development of a narcissistic personality constellation, in the next article, I will examine the key roles the father archetype plays on the development of narcissism and healthy ego formation.

References:

Bly, R. (1990). Iron John: A book about men.Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Erikson, E. (1963). Childhood and society(2nd ed.). New York, NY:

Norton.Greene, L. & Sharman-Burke, J. (2000) The Mythic Journey: The Meaning of Myth as a Guide for Life. Simon & ShusterJung,

C. G. (1969). Psychological aspects of the mother archetypes. In H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler, & W. McGuire (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung(R. F. Hull, Trans., Vols. 9-1, pp. 75-110). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1954)

Maples, T. (2011). Siddhartha: A hermeneutic analysis of the individuation process.

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