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Narcissus and echo: the anguish of relationships with narcissists

The poignant myth of Narcissus and Echo crystallizes the tragic problem of relationships with narcissists. They were tragic Greek characters in a story told by the Roman poet Ovid in Metamorphosis. Sadly, both members of the couple are caught up in a painful drama, in which neither feels satisfied or loved enough. Although it is heartbreak for both, the narcissist blames his partner for the cause and sees himself as blameless, and all too often his partner agrees.

The myth of Narcissus and echo

Narcissus was a handsome hunter who broke the hearts of many women. Despite his love, he remained aloof and arrogant. Proud, he held them in disdain.

Meanwhile, the beautiful forest nymph Echo had drawn the wrath of the goddess Juno, who punished Echo for talking too much by depriving her of freedom of expression. From that moment on, he could only repeat the last words of the others. Echo saw Narcissus and became infatuated. She longed for his attention, but he was obsessed with himself. She tried to call him, but couldn’t.

One day, Narcissus broke away from his hunting companions and yelled, “Is anyone there?” Echo could only repeat his words. Startled, he said, “Come here,” which Echo repeated. Echo ran gleefully towards Narcissus, but he pushed her away, saying, “Hands off! Can I die before you enjoy my body?” Humiliated and rejected, Echo fled in shame. However, his love for Narcissus grew.

To punish Narcissus for his arrogance, Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, put a spell on him. When Narcissus noticed his reflection again in a pool of water, love took hold of him. He believed that he had finally found someone worthy of his love and became completely absorbed in his own beautiful image, not realizing that it was actually himself.

Unable to get Narcissus’s attention, Echo’s obsession and depression grew. As the years passed, he lost his youth and beauty by pining for the unreachable Narcissus until he wasted away, leaving only his booming voice. He finally committed suicide, consumed by his impossible love, leaving a flower in its place.

Understanding narcissists

Despite their seemingly strong personalities, narcissists are actually very vulnerable under their protective armor. Mastering their feelings and other people is very important, because without control they feel weak and humiliated. They are attracted to someone who is emotionally expressive and caring, qualities they lack. Vulnerable feelings, especially shame, sadness, and fear, are relegated to your unconscious. They have disdain for them or any sign of weakness, raising the fear of being controlled or humiliated. Therefore, feeling sad or just evokes their need for someone, which would expose them to pain, rejection, and a feeling of inferiority. They try to eliminate these uncomfortable feelings by demonstrating independence, courage, and ideals of strength with which they identify.

Like the myth, narcissists feel superior to others, but depend on them to reflect a positive image of themselves. Surprisingly, most narcissists are also codependent. They are hypersensitive to any perceived challenge to their illusion of being the best and often perceive slights where there are none. They fear that they will be considered a fraud, that their flaws will be revealed, that their opinions or authority will be questioned, or that their self-esteem or pride will be tarnished. They will do whatever it takes to prop up your image and block negative comments. In their arrogance, they can be dismissive and rude, even projecting their flaws onto others, criticizing and belittling them, or unleashing their narcissistic rage. Trying to please them feels thankless, like trying to fill a bottomless pit – their inner emptiness – that they expect others to fill, but of course, it’s impossible.

They can embarrass family and friends with their boastful or unpleasant sense of entitlement, such as monopolizing the conversation and interrupting. To get what they want, they can exploit others, regardless of the consequences. Their attitude compensates for unconscious feelings of deprivation and inferiority, which become intolerable when their special needs or privileges are not met.

Understanding the echo

Not everyone who falls in love with a narcissist is like Echo, but those who stay look like her: a stereotypical codependent who sacrifices his own needs to adapt to others. While Narcissus is too absorbed in himself, Echo is too absorbed in others. Like Echo, narcissists’ partners idealize them. They like and admire your bold and responsible attitude. They, unlike narcissists, do not advocate for themselves and feel unnecessary or guilty stating their needs and wants.

Caring for and indulging them gives them a sense of purpose and worth. Because they feel unworthy of receiving love, they do not expect to be loved for who they are, only for what they give or do. Without an independent voice, they are generally passive, docile, and modest and believe that what they are told is true. They long to be wanted, accepted, supported, approved, needed, and loved. They may not believe they have any rights and naturally accept or put the needs and feelings of others first, sometimes sacrificing a lot to please. Like, Echo, this makes them dependent on the narcissist, even when their needs are not being met. It also allows a narcissist to easily manipulate, abuse and exploit them. Narcissists need partners who can control, who do not challenge them or make them feel weak. Usually their partners accept the blame and try to be more understanding. They stick around to avoid their greatest fear, abandonment and rejection and loss of hope of finding lasting love, and because the charm, excitement, and loving gestures that first enchanted them return periodically, especially if the breakup is imminent.

In vain attempts to win approval and stay connected, they become entangled in eggshells, fearful of upsetting their partner. They worry about what he will think or do and they worry about the relationship. They have to fit into the cold world of narcissists and get used to living in an emotional desert.

The narcissistic relationship

It is easy to fall in love with narcissists. Don’t judge yourself for succumbing, because research showed strangers’ initial impressions of narcissists during the first seven meetings are positive. They are seen as charming, personable, confident, open, well-adjusted, and entertaining. Her engaging performance is designed to earn trust and love, implicitly promising that your attention will continue. Only later did the research subjects see through the nice facade of narcissists.

At home, narcissists may privately denigrate the person they were publicly entertaining, and after a romantic prelude, they act totally differently. Once you’re hooked, they lack the motivation to maintain a charismatic facade. As the excitement of romance fades, narcissists become disappointed in their partner. Their criticism increases and they can act distant and dismissive. The relationship revolves around the narcissist, while others are viewed simply as objects to use in order to manage the narcissist’s needs and fragile self-esteem. Embarrassed partners see their partner flirt with a cashier, come to the front of the line, or punish an employee or waitress. They must deal with lawsuits, judgments, and self-centeredness. They are expected to appreciate the narcissist’s specialty, meet their needs for admiration, service, love, or shopping when necessary, and are discarded when they don’t.

Narcissists put themselves first, and their codependent partners put themselves first. They both agree that the narcissist is cool and that their partner is not and should sacrifice himself! This makes their relationship work … at first. Eventually, the couple feels exhausted, hurt, resentful, disrespected, and alone.

Children and partners of narcissists share Echo’s experience of feeling rejected, invisible, and unheard. They long to be seen, their needs met, and their love returned. Many partners of narcissists grieve for years and yearn to feel respected, important, appreciated, and cared for. Your self-esteem suffers over time. They run the risk of becoming empty shells of what they once were. Narcissists also suffer because they are never satisfied. Although Narcissus and Echo long for love, Narcissus cannot give love or receive the love that Echo offers.

You have more power than you think. Find out how to raise your self-esteem, find your voice, and how to determine if your relationship can improve. There are many things you can do to significantly improve your relationship with anyone who becomes defensive or abusive. You can take the Narcissism Quiz and also set criteria that can help you decide if you are considering ending a relationship with a narcissist.

© DarleneLancer 2017

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