Narcissism and Individuation: Exploring the Mystery of Identity
Ovid’s version of the Narcissus and Echo myth has been a rich source for exploration of the human soul for over 2,000 years. Its meaning has never been fully explained or understood because its mystery is central to the most basic question: our identiy.
Historically, Narcissus has been viewed through a largely negative lens. He has been described as pathologically self absorbed, vain and morally deficient. Narcissism was also associated with poor insight and impenetrable defenses. To be narcissistic was to be bad, with little hope of change. This attitude persists today in popular and psychotherapeutic thought. While partly true, this only scratches the surface of a profound and complicated phenomenon.
In recent times however this has begun to change, perhaps reflecting a shift in collective consciousness. Carl Jung’s concept of the Self archetype brings a unique perspective to the narcissistic character. He believed that the foundation and fabric of our identity is the Self, the numinous archetype of wholeness. He said that the Self, the ordering principle of the psyche, wants to live its experiment in life. When this experiment is blocked, or when the relationship between the ego and the Self is disturbed, narcissism can be the result.
Drawing on the work of Schwartz-Salant, Jacoby, Kalsched, West, Dougherty and others, we will explore this relationship and its meaning for individuation. As with any symptom or disorder, the narcissistic structure is found in all personalities, making the story of Narcissus profoundly valuable for each of us, not only for those with the disorder.
This structure is found in any person (or collective culture) in whom a new relationship with the Self is forming. The hope that lies at the center of this phenomenon is profound—it is the hope for a deeper understanding of our individual and collective identity, that we may live into the great experiment of the Self.