Do You Love Yourself Too Much? The Story of Narcissus

Greek mythology NarcissusBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Maybe we need to focus less on loving ourselves and more on loving others.

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was the son of a river god and a nymph. When Narcissus was young, a blind soothsayer prophesied Narcissus “would live to an old age if he did not look at himself.”

The soothsayer based his prediction on Narcissus’ beauty. All the women he met, human and nymph, fell in love with him. And he rejected them all, feeling he was better than any who sought him.

After his pride and cruel treatment broke the heart of the nymph Echo, Nemesis (the goddess of revenge) tricked him into looking down at a pool of water. Narcissus fell hopelessly in love with his reflection.

In one version, Narcissus fell into the water and drowned while trying to embrace his reflection. In another, he couldn’t bear to leave his reflection and finally starved to death.

Pride and excessive self-love killed him.

Narcissus’ story gives us the name for narcissistic personality disorder. A narcissist is preoccupied with himself and has a sense of self-importance that’s out of kilter with reality. You can see why psychologists chose Narcissus to give the disorder its name.

While most of us aren’t narcissists, we can still fall into the trap of being too absorbed with ourselves and too enamored with our own strengths.

And the longer we look only at ourselves, the more in love we fall with our own virtues. The more in love we fall with our own virtues, the easier it is to look down on other people and get angry when someone suggests we might have room to improve.

Amber West talked about this phenomenon in her thoughtful post on Confidence versus Doubt: Becoming a Better You. “People don’t try to be better,” she wrote, “they just become self-involved. Why look externally if what’s internal is so amazing?” She concluded that it’s not enough to “just be you.” We all need to work toward being “the best you.”

In many ways, our society now values self-esteem over self-improvement. We don’t want anyone to feel like they’re imperfect, as if the knowledge of imperfection will destroy us.

But the opposite is true. When we start focusing on how great we already are, when we’re afraid of offending anyone by telling them they need to change, we stop growing.

I believe in the value of accepting ourselves for who we are and finding people who love us for who we are. I was born with a personality that won’t change, and I developed likes and dislikes that are at the core of my personality and make me happy. I’m learning to be comfortable in my own skin. But I also have weaknesses and faults and bad traits I need to fix. I’m far from perfect, and I will never be perfect. If I start to think I’m perfect, that I have all the answers, I risk becoming mean, critical, and self-righteous.

Recently, I was on the receiving end of a “perfect” person’s well-meaning opinions. I tried to shrug it off, but the comments still stung days later. It reminded me how much I don’t want to be that person, and I started thinking about what I could do to protect myself, and by extension, protect everyone around me from me.

When I look at someone else, instead of looking at the areas where they’ve failed or picking on them to make myself feel better (writers are particularly at risk for criticizing successful authors), I’m going to look at what I can learn from them. I’m going to look for their strengths.

Instead of focusing on myself, I’m going to figure out ways I can make someone else’s life a little better.

And when I’m tempted to look at someone else and judge them, I’m going to remember that everything looks easier from the outside.

“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection—or compassionate action.” ― Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships

Do you think our society is becoming too focused on self-esteem and not focused enough on improving ourselves? How can we walk the balance between liking ourselves without becoming too proud?

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Image Credit: Alex Bramwell (obtained from Stock.xchng)

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