Early Historical Forerunners

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In spite of an apparent dearth of reported clinical cases of narcissistic personality disorder across the globe, this potential for excessive self-regard leading to involuntary self-destructiveness is apparently well recognized across culture and time. Ancient Greek mythology teaches us the perils of excessive hubris (roughly translated as "lack of humility") in the myth of Narcissus, a beautiful young man who, though loved by everyone, will not love anyone in return. His refusal eventually catches the ire of the goddess Aphrodite, who curses him. Ironically, he gazes into a pool and falls desperately in love with his own reflection. Each day is spent alone with his reflection, pining after what he cannot possess. Not knowing that it is his own image that he loves, he proceeds to seek "oneness" with his self-glorified image, and he promptly drowns himself in the pool. The myth thus seems to say that narcissists are unaware both of the intensity of their own self-love and how it affects the lives of others and that the act of unknowingly taking yourself as a lover ultimately leads to desperation and loneliness. If Leonardo were to be dismissed from his residency, a rough equivalent of drowning in an insufferable self-inflation, he could probably be regarded as a contemporary incarnation of this myth.

A variation on the same theme associates narcissism with a need for power (Joubert, 1998). In Christian history, for example, a pathological level of pride is painted as the original source of all evil. Sin enters the world because Satan is caught up in his own fantasies of omnipotence and brilliance, while refusing to humble himself before God. In a slightly different twist, some Eastern religions regard attachment to the self as part of the normal psychopathology of everyday life that must be dispelled before the person can achieve enlightenment. Though the exact nature of their beliefs is different, these traditions seem to agree that a preoccupation with the self is a formidable barrier to growth. Again, there are parallels in our cases. You can imagine, for example, Leonardo arguing with the chief of psychiatry about a diagnosis and refusing to back down. The same can be said for Gerald, our long-suffering Einstein, who has already run afoul of superiors and subordinates alike. The self is their entire life, and giving up a devotion to the self would be tantamount to death.

The following three sections offer a detailed portrayal of the narcissistic personality as expressed in its psychodynamic functioning, interpersonal behavior, and cognitive style and contents. As with the other clinical chapters of this text, history and description are presented side by side. As you read these sections, you will gain a broad-based perspective of the narcissistic prototype. Read not only for history but also for the characteristics that each thinker unearthed and their significance within the total personality pattern.

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