Early in my depth-psychological studies, I was drawn to the artwork of John William Waterhouse. His paintings capture the great drama of many mythic and fairytale images. I’d sit in a sort of meditation looking at the orchestra of expression. This amplification practice helped me experience vivid psychological structures both universal and personal. These were the archetypes personified after all. During this time, I started to collect reprints of some of his more popular paintings. My home and office displayed radical instincts and narratives of psychological life that felt quite charged. My home and office had become an external display of the process of individuation where unconscious contents could be contained and expressed through these images. Well, let’s just say that this got out of hand. in fact, with time my own restless existential occurrence paralleled and was exacerbated by my home and work environments. Spaces became psychoactive!
The Externalized Object and the Psychoactive Image
I start our theme this week on the subject of the externalized object and psychoactive image because, as we look to the myth of Narcissus, I think it an interesting consideration how we decorate our worlds around us with the familiar, the provocative and the taboo. What world do we create around us through others, art, and more? If you take a look at the clothing we wear, the symbols we gather, we begin to see where we find our reflection. Does this not say significant things about ourselves? Our fantasies? And our desires? When, for me, the desire for individuation and reconciliation of scattered parts dominated my life, Waterhouse brought some formations to light.
Synchronistic Trickster Experiences
The unconscious often comes through as synchronistic and as trickster experiences we can find frustrating or even humorous. The last reprint I ordered of Waterhouse’s work was Echo and Narcissus. I intended to order a small reprint, roughly 2 feet by 1 foot. When the painting arrived, to my utmost surprise, it was huge! Here I wanted a small example of the narcissistic drive and I end up with the largest canvas of them all! I laughed hysterically as I hung giant Narcissus himself above my mantle. A fun topic between friends and my partner! He stayed with me for over a year!
Echo and Narcissus
Waterhouse illustrates the Greek story of a young male possessed by his fascination with his own reflection. On the other end of the painting, his counterpart (often the other aspect of the archetypical whole figure) gazes in longing toward him. She is desperate, her breast exposed. It’s an available and nurturing compassion paired with great longing and despair. Our arrested obsession with our image can introduce great insight, understanding, appreciation, and even love of our own features. However, in compensation, relationships feel estranged, emotional life, comfort, and nourishment often unattended. Who is this other figure? She is the nymph Echo, heartbroken that all Narcissus can hear and see is himself. Rumor has it she dies of heartbreak and loneliness in nearby caves. Today we hear our own Echo and remember her ghost.
The Experience of the Narcissistic Psyche
This divide captures the experience of the narcissistic psyche. On one hand, healthy narcissism lets us see ourselves. For example, attempts at finding the positive and studying our personhood can bring us insight and confidence. In contrast, when in excess or possession we lose intimacy. Indeed, like the sun at the center of the universe, our own subjective perspective dominates all. Things, others, and ideas are no longer real to the narcissistic. Instead, all falls to personal preservation and must be controlled. In narcissism, the fragile parts cannot be soothed therefore must be rejected. In fact, to feel vulnerable is to bounce the ideal image back into view as compensation. To be ordinary, unknowing and a part of the human experience, in exchange with the existential crisis of life proves overwhelming. Echoes are safe, predictable, and controllable. In a full-blown diagnosis, one cannot live outside this terror.
The Inflated Presentation of Rightness
I think it important to look at narcissism from the perspective of disorder. We can benefit greatly both for ourselves and our work with clients when we consider the severe fragility of the ego that lies behind the inflated presentation of rightness. Like all personality disorders, the defenses are inherently necessary to maintain any sense of self at all. Just like emotional deregulation and the Medusa-defenses of borderline personality disorder, we cannot confront, bring this down, and expect a catharsis. One must confront the narrative entrapment and recognize there is need for dissolution and reformation of ego identity. In many ways, that giant painting on display personifies the need to hold the image close and in eyeshot of our daily life.
The Vulnerable Behind the Inflated
In short, narcissism hides the vulnerable behind the inflated. Narcissism looks like strength but masks a Gollum-like soul, often starved, mistrusting, and neurotic. Cliché as this may sound, love is our best medicine. The reformation of ego identity comes only through the dissolution of the illusion. In therapy, we have to tread softly while strengthening our own sense of boundary. Agree where we can and come to the narrow bridge, walk the tight rope. The way through is by the subtle confessions that presenting veneers are not the whole expression of a person.
This week, let’s work with the following questions:
1. Who do I present myself to be?
2. Who do I want to convince myself I am? (My best)
3. Who am I afraid to admit that I am?
4. What does the voice of the inferior in me want to say to me?