There’s no shortage of people on this earth who suffer from a dangerously inflated sense of ego. Sometimes our ego tells us that we are better than others. Strangely, however, our ego sometimes manifests itself in negative ways. For instance, ego is what causes many addicts and alcoholics to feel as if we are alone in our struggles. We convince ourselves that our problems are unique, no matter how many other addicts and alcoholics share our suffering. This is nothing but pure narcissism, plain and simple. If we wish to achieve spiritual growth in recovery, we must learn to overcome this way of thinking.
Many people argue the notion that they exhibit narcissism, especially those whose argument is that they’ve always more or less hated themselves. But narcissism and self-loathing are not mutually exclusive. Many narcissists look down on themselves quite frequently. It’s also quite common for narcissists to judge others. We might judge a person’s behaviors despite exhibiting those same behaviors ourselves. At the same time, those who judge others might once again critique themselves quite harshly. We find ourselves in a strange state of affairs when we punish ourselves constantly yet still give ourselves more leeway than we give others.
At some point, we must learn to cast narcissism aside and begin thinking of those around us. To do this, we must explore the roots of our narcissism and determine how we became so self-centered in the first place. There are a few ways in which we might do this. Most of this process revolves around sheer self-reflection, but we might also learn from the true root of narcissism—the ancient myth of Narcissus himself. We would therefore like to discuss this myth before continuing.
The Myth of Narcissus
There are two versions of this myth, each of which is similar in theme. The first is the traditional Greek version, in which Narcissus spurns a young man named Aminias. Not only does Narcissus make it clear that Aminias’ love for him is unrequited, but he gives the young man a sword with which to end his own life. As Aminias dies on Narcissus’ doorstep, he prays that Narcissus will learn the pain of unrequited love. Some time passes after this, until Narcissus catches a glimpse of his own reflection while drinking from the river. In awe of his own beauty, he soon realizes that he cannot truly pursue a relationship with the reflection in the water. The pain of this realization hits him so hard that he dies from the power of his own sorrow.
Roman poet Ovid penned another version, in which Narcissus’ parents are told that he will not grow old if he comes to “know himself.” During his teenage years, he encounters a wood nymph named Echo who becomes entranced by his beauty and begins to follow him. He asks who is following him, but she only responds by repeating his words. When she finally reveals herself, he rejects her offers of affection. Echo wastes away, until nothing but the sound of her voice remains. To punish him for Echo’s fate, Nemesis—the goddess of revenge—ensures that Narcissus will see his own reflection in a pond. Once again, it pains him to realize that he cannot obtain the love of the figure in the water. Saddened, he decides to kill himself.
At this point, we may notice two striking similarities between each version of this myth. First, Narcissus rejects the love of others prior to meeting his fate. Second, his fate is always the result of the realization that his image in the water is little more than an illusion. We may think of this story as fiction, but these two recurring themes tell us a lot about the manner in which we exhibit narcissism in the real world. In short, narcissism causes us to snub those around us while putting ourselves first. But when we look deeper than our own reflection, we find that many aspects of our self-image are mere illusions.
Upon realizing this, we can begin identifying the illusions that drive our narcissism. Doing this will allow us to begin casting aside our self-centered nature and giving others the love and attention they deserve. If we can do this, then perhaps our reflection may one day depict our true nature. And after casting our egos aside, we often find that our true nature is far better than the illusory self-image we once worshipped without question.
Our Illusions of Self
Narcissism makes it easy to fall in love with our own reflections, but the images we see don’t always reflect our true reality. For instance, we know an alcoholic patient who thought himself to be a great driver because he drove drunk yet never received a DUI. This same patient recalled at least two stories in which he was pulled over by the cops for driving on a flat tire. He assumed that, on top of being a great driver, he must also be a great liar. But great drivers don’t often find themselves driving on flats. And perhaps he was a great liar, but lying to the cops shouldn’t really be a point of pride for an alcoholic who wishes to recover.
We could talk about how we helped this patient come to realize his folly, but our primary goal was to help him do it himself. It was when telling us these stories in group therapy that he began to see the error in his thinking. If Narcissus were to reach down and try to touch his reflection, his hand would naturally disrupt and penetrate the empty visage. In similar fashion, discussing our self-image out loud makes it real. Sometimes, this is enough to let us see that perhaps there wasn’t as much behind the reflection as we thought. This sounds upsetting, but the good news is that we can begin to build something real once the illusion has been shattered.
Unlike Narcissus, some of us don’t like the reflection that we see. We look in the mirror and see not the reflection of Narcissus, but rather the portrait of Dorian Gray. Present in the image is every bad thing we’ve ever done. But alongside our misdeeds, we also see a few nasty illusions. We see ourselves as ugly, stupid, or perhaps downright evil. This type of narcissism leads us to punish ourselves as we become convinced that we do not deserve a happy life. We embrace our addictions, ceasing to care about their consequences. Needless to say, this is a dangerous way of living.
Finally, the illusions of narcissism may lie somewhere between the positive and the negative. Perhaps we see something great in our reflection, yet feel as if we don’t know how to achieve it. This bears quite a few thematic similarities to the myth of Narcissus himself. Remember how that myth ended. We must learn that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Our ego may tell us at times that we are the best in the world. At other times, it tells us that we are the worst. The only way to break this cycle of irrational narcissism is to get out of our own head and start focusing on the bigger picture. Some narcissists will have a more difficult time with this than others.
Casting Narcissism Aside
When we say that casting our narcissism aside requires some earnest self-reflection, we primarily mean that we must take a step back and try to see ourselves more objectively. Instead of feeling down on ourselves, we should see that our problems aren’t unique. We don’t have to face them in isolation, because numerous others know exactly what we’re going through. And when our ego causes us to become arrogant or judgmental, we must realize that our strengths are not unique, either. Perhaps they’re imagined and perhaps they’re not. But unless we’re using our strengths to do something worthwhile, we have no great reason to be proud of them.
Unfortunately, the illusions that create our narcissism are largely forged of denial. This means that we won’t always be able to reach objective conclusions on our own. Addicts and alcoholics who enter our programs often find that therapy helps them to achieve greater humility by requiring them to face a more objective view of the past. Therapy won’t completely annihilate our narcissistic tendencies, but it will ensure that we can more easily recognize them. From there, self-reflection becomes much easier.
One of the best ways to overcome our narcissism is by performing service work. A little bit of charity goes a long way toward opening our eyes to others instead of focusing only on ourselves. But caring for others doesn’t even have to mean performing huge acts of charity. Even smaller acts of kindness, such as calling a friend to tell them that they’re in our thoughts, can free our minds of selfishness quite a bit. Start by doing one thing each day that puts others first. After a while, it will begin to feel natural. Narcissism will begin to subside, and we’ll find ourselves much happier as our isolation subsides along with it.
Narcissism often goes hand in hand with loneliness. By putting ourselves before all others, we sever our connections to the world around us. When we let go of narcissism, it’s easier to become part of a true fellowship. This is the point at which our sobriety grants us true freedom from the bondage of our own ego.