Narcissus and Learning to Swim

Caravaggio. Narcissuss. circa 1600. Oil on canvas, height: 110 cm (43.3 in) ; width: 92 cm (36.2 in) dimensions. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Narcissus-Caravaggio_(1594-96)_edited.jpg.
Caravaggio. Narcissuss. circa 1600. Oil on canvas, height: 110 cm (43.3 in) ; width: 92 cm (36.2 in) dimensions. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Narcissus-Caravaggio_(1594-96)_edited.jpg.

Narcissus enamored by his own reflection he so drowns himself. Such is the muse for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and countless pop psychology and relationship articles, YouTube videos, self-help peer discussion groups, TikTok and a cottage industry of life coaches–and my blog entry is only one more contribution.

We know the story of Echo and Narcissus as this forms most of our popular culture understanding. Echo falls in love with the young, beautiful hunter Narcissus who forsakes her love and leaves her to be nothing more than a lonely echo in the woods. For this, Nemesis seeks revenge upon him and lures him to the water where he sees his own reflection. He becomes so enamored with his own image that he drowns himself, fulfilling the seer’s prophecy told to his mother that he should live a long life so long as he never sees his reflection. This is pretty much the beginning and the end of our popular understanding of Narcissus; someone that forsakes the love of another and becomes so in love with himself and that he drowns himself. However, I want to draw attention to one, what I feel to be an important fact, Narcissus was the son of the river god Cephissus.

I would argue Narcissus drowns because he was never taught to swim, never given the tools and techniques necessary to survive the waters of life. The Talmud speaks of this obligation a father has to his son, “A father is obligated with regard to his son to circumcise him, and to redeem him if he is a firstborn son who must be redeemed by payment to a priest, and to teach him Torah, and to marry him to a woman, and to teach him a trade. And some say: A father is also obligated to teach his son to swim” (Kiddushin 29a). We can think of swimming in more than just the physical action but also the metaphysical, metaphorical, navigating the waters of life, i.e., learning that which is necessary to survive and thrive in the sometimes tumultuous rivers of life. Narcissus was never shown himself for fear he may drown. Narcissus was ill-equipped to navigate the rivers of life and had been handicapped by never learning to swim.

It gets at the root at what we know about Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Narcissists are “arrogant” and “full of themselves” but often in ways that don’t measure up. Famously, the convicted sex-trafficker Keith Raniere claimed to be the world’s smartest man with a 240 IQ but his transcript from RPI revealed a 2.26 GPA and a student that struggled to pass upper level courses (Berman, p. 24-26). I recently answered this question on Quora: Do college dropout narcissists resent people who have post-graduate degrees?

For the narcissist, how they react to others revolves entirely around their ego and their fractured identity; this question really strikes at the dynamics of NPD because that which provides narcissistic supply and validation to the external false self, or “mask”, also sows deep resentment to the internal self because it pokes at those narcissistic injuries and their fragile little egos.

When a child graduates high school and goes off to a college, the more prestigious the better, a narcissistic parent can applaud themselves that they sent off their child to Elite U. When that young adult graduates from Elite U, or even just earns a degree from anywhere, and demonstrates their education as well as their own independent and learned thinking that this parent did not have this child is now “spoiled”, “arrogant”, “cocky”, “a snob”, “brainwashed libtard”, “book smart and street stupid” and, of course, “a narcissist.”

I knew a computer programmer who dropped out of a minimally selective state school. He took great pride of “sitting in meetings with MIT PhDs and Columbia MBAs.” Being in their presence and being at the same table gave this person a source of pride that he was “equal” to them, a validation of their own ego. Here’s the twist, “Of course, I didn’t need an education to get ahead. I’m naturally talented.” Naturally Talented may have been able to code but when he came home he was an absolute terror resulting in two failed marriages, a secret family and children that have no contact with him. There’s the validation that comes from being in the same room but also resentment.

People sometimes ask me about Ivy League snobbery, especially, after they recognize me for being so unassuming. People who are snobs will find something to be snobby about. But, for the most part, we are an unassuming lot. My two favorite American historians teach at Yale but they both have state school PhDs. My grad school advisor at Columbia attended the same state school I attended for undergraduate studies. My thesis advisors also had state school PhDs. Some of my instructors were also Ivy League through and through. We recognize talent, wherever it comes from, and that’s why a college dropout sits at a table with “MIT PhDs and Columbia MBAs.” In my professional life, I was often praised for my intellect and elite education—until I made someone look dumb. Especially if I did so in such a way that I just did my work and carried on. Then I was “arrogant” or a “a snob.” I taught at a school that, after chasing out an Ed.D., hired a college dropout to be the school administrator—if you can imagine that. Anytime my two masters degrees said something she didn’t like or disagreed with, she would just start laughing. She also donated an entire faculty meeting to what the study of my physical features said about my personality—right down to the shape of my earlobes.

I was in a relationship with a narcissistic ex-girlfriend who coincidentally dropped out of the same minimally selective state school as Naturally Talented (they both attended for free courtesy of the GI Bill and served in the same state National Guard), who, ultimately, tried to get me kicked out of grad school. We met at this same school but worked in different departments, and we met by collaborating on a project together. She brought this project to me but it became apparent that I had begun doing most of the work. Narcissists need to feel like they’re in charge—of everything and everyone, always. We actually had very good, dynamic conversations and she would share a lot of “false modesty” recognizing my knowledge and expertise.

BUT, and this is slightly tangential but I will come back, the narcissist always needs to be “naturally talented” and they will always look for something where they can one-up you or one-aside you, and are always changing the narrative. If you’re an expert in 18th century American social history, they claim to focus on one town, or one something that’s really “heady” (that was her word to use). You like music? Your band sucks. The Narc and I actually had the same tastes in music BUT she would refuse to recognize it. I shared a video I liked with this band. Told stories of past shows. I told her about family memories with my cousins and deadhead uncle. I had shown her my old CD collection. I quoted song lyrics. I took her places significant not only to my past but the band’s, and she told her friends about visiting those places like I wasn’t even there. I even softly corrected her about a famous cover often incorrectly attributed to the band. It felt like I was actively being ignored.

When I left the school, I wanted to incorporate our research project into my academic studies. I had many conversations with her about this, and she agreed; she expressed that she even felt “honored.” We got into an argument when I politely asked her not to share my unrelated research with someone we met over the weekend as I was working on a separate project. She exploded, and in her anger suggested that I never really had her permission to continue with our research project. We broke up over this argument. She made a petty comment about me selling a camera I had not been using because I, frankly, needed the extra money to push through completing my studies. I told her I would remember that when I finished this program and reminded her of her younger cousin who famously went to great lengths to be the first in her family (including extended family) to attend college. This didn’t stop her from stalking me. When I confronted her about stalking me, it didn’t stop, it escalated and she solicited “flying monkeys” and the school to try and get me expelled. When I produced the receipts, and it was evident this was nothing more than salty sexual harassment quid pro quo over the end a relationship, this completely backfired on her.

I said I felt I was actively being ignored. When you are in any type of relationship with a narcissist, you are in a relationship with a pathology and they are in a relationship with an object confined to a predetermined box to meet predetermined needs. There is no growth beyond that either for the relationship or yourself. Our shared love for this same type of music, and same bands, did not fit in the box. Our collaboration on this project was how we met but, in her mind, my continuance with this work was conditional upon our relationship.

When I was going through a rough patch, she mocked at me for it. When she was reminded of the great lengths, and hardships, grit and hard work, the people around her endured to complete their educations, this poked at the wound that she dropped out of a minimally selective state to which she had a free ride. Narcissists internalize a deep-seated resentment that is only pacified by validating their own self-image.

Even her usual social media username was based on a mediocre cover and not an original song.

:: eye roll ::

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