The Origin of the Word “Narcissism”

Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse

Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse

The word narcissism originates from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a handsome young hunter known for his beauty. One day while in the woods he stops to take a drink of cool water from a completely still, silver pond. As he kneels down at the edge he sees his own reflection and falls in love with it. He tells the image, “I love you.” Unable to pull himself away from the beauty of his own image, he disregards eating or drinking. Pining away for the image he has fallen in love with, he dies, eventually turning into the beautiful flower that now bears his name.

Echo, the Woodland Nymph—Narcissus Is Not the Whole Story

The myth of Narcissus does not end with our self-enamored hunter.

A beautiful woodland nymph named Echo has been punished by a god who has taken away her voice and only lets her repeat what someone else says. One day in the woods she sees handsome Narcissus and is immediately smitten with his beauty. She follows him and hopes he will say something kind and loving that she can then repeat back to him. So when she hears him say to his reflection, “I love you,” she dreams that when he hears her repeat the words he will love her too. She repeats, “I love you,” but to her disappointment he is so absorbed in his own reflection that he cannot hear her… or see her. She is devastated. Try as Echo might, she has no effect on the object of her affection, and Narcissus never loves her. She withers away, waiting for his response, and eventually dies of unrequited love.

The story of Narcissus and Echo reflects the dynamic of today’s narcissistic relationship. Narcissus is too self-absorbed to notice someone trying to love him; Echo keeps trying to be heard, only to be shut out. In another version of the story, Narcissus has so much pride that he is disgusted when someone tries to love him. He does hear Echo but shouts at her to be silent, just as in a modern-day relationship with a narcissist a woman will often provoke her partner’s wrath when she says or does something he disagrees with. As in this mythological story, a person who has narcissistic self-love becomes destructive to himself and to others who try to love him.

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