The other day I was riding a bus in San Francisco.  I am a tourist, but I try to fit in and belong in the “big city.”  To do so, I have become hyper-aware of the rules and I try to follow them, all.  Like many public transit systems, younger riders are expected to make way for elder riders, when necessary.  On the SF buses, this rule is posted everywhere, and every few stops there is an automated reminder that repeats over the speaker system.  On this day, an elderly gentleman boarded the bus after me.  He looked at me, and I froze.  Although there was a seat available to my left and to my right, I moved over one seat to allow him to take the seat closest the door through which he was entering.  I don’t know I did this exactly, I was trying to be nice and respectful, I suppose.Girl with mirrors

He took it as an invitation to start talking to me.  He explained how the first time a young woman had done that was fifteen years ago and he yelled at her and wouldn’t take the seat.  “These days,” he said, “I’ll take all the nice things people will do for me.”  Aside from “oh,” “yes,” and “yeah” I wasn’t really able to say much for the ten minutes he talked to me (or was it at me?) until my stop.  Finally, I broke in mid-sentence and wished him a good day as I hopped off the bus.  The smell of his stale breath stayed with me for the two blocks I walked to my destination.

In her book Pyschoanalytic Diagnosis, Nancy McWilliams describes narcissists as, “People whose personalities are organized around maintaining their self-esteem by getting affirmation from outside themselves.”

Was the gentleman who sat next to me displaying narcissism?  Perhaps.  But, I learned so much about him.  He had fought in the war, he was in Germany and had had a secret affair with a German girl in the town where he was stationed.  His voice got uncomfortably loud when he described seeing her school text books report that Hitler was a kind man.  It is amazing how much pain people carry around.  This man was in pain and somehow he seemed to feel better looking into the reflection of my eyes and expressing it.

The term narcissist comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus.  Narcissus spent most of his days staring at his own reflection in a pool, that is when he wasn’t chasing around his girlfriend Echo, a muse with whom he fell in love.  As her name suggests, she echoed back to Narcissus his own words and philosophies.

Narcissism is something that is present in all of us.  Early in our development we start to need another to reflect back to us our states of being, our feelings, emotions, all of it.  Some theorists go so far as to say that humans only exist when in relationship to another.  The way I conceptualize it is this: I have to know what is not me, before I can understand what is me.  And, with the loving gift of a mirror to myself, I can better understand myself.

Sometimes it hurts to be used in this way, to be Echo.  And sometimes it hurts to realize you have been Narcissus.

In coming to awareness of these terms, I idealized and wished to be neither, but instead find some higher state where I was able to be in relationship without feeling as though I was using or being used by another.  But, I’m starting to realize that we all are both, and that that is not only OK, it may just be part of the deal, the deal that is of being in human relationships.

Are you aware of when your friends, loved ones, strangers need you to pull out your pocket mirror?  Are you aware of when you ask them to do so for you?  When are you Narcissus and when are you Echo?

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13 Responses to ““Hello?” He said. “Hello,” she said.”

  1. Yes, coming to terms with the truth abut ourselves, our identity, and what we provide for each other in that process, is complex and fascinating. Stimulating article.

  2. citygirlgvl says:

    Having once been married to a narcissist for fifteen years, I find it hard to ask for validation for myself. It’s taken several years for me to acknowledge my worth after being told for so long that I was “less than”.

  3. Diana says:

    Ah, my favorite subject. Instead of a comment I have a question. Having had a father far older than I (43 yrs older), I was echo. I now grapple with my own fervent need to be the one listened to. My question is this: Do you believe that the man's age in this article makes his behavior any less narcissistic? I mean, children turn sideways in a booth and speak to you without regard to your preference or reaction. My father did the same thing at advanced age. Does the psyche regress at advanced age? Do older people in general feel entitled to be listened to or was it just my father? To this day, I will not interrupt my elders when they tell me stories in the grocery or standing in a line. I almost feel they earned the right to tell their story.

    • Diana, your comments bring a couple of points to mind. It's an obvious fact of aging that people slow down, powers wane, the young take the place of the old. It makes perfect sense that an older person who, understandably, may feel that their best days are behind them, would be searching for validation of a life they hope was well lived. An older person simply has more life experience to reflect over and given their growing awareness of death's approach, the sense of urgency to reflect that process off others is high. Also, there may be a neurological aspect to this. I wish I could remember the term, but in a neurology seminar I heard described the phenomenon of the "clueless" old man – the guy who doesn't seem to notice what's going on around him, like Mr. Magoo. Apparently, an older person's brain, in preparation for death, begins to turn inward, progressively screening out extraneous sensory data so that the person attends more to their inner world. They may come across as person unable to pick up on social cues that would indicate they're boring their listeners. So combine the increased need to process the meaning of their life events with the decreased ability to discern their impact o those around them, and you get behavior that could be called narcissistic. Both you and Brenda showed enormous kindness and grace in the situations you described. Being an echo for an older person is an act of love.

  4. BrendaMurrow says:

    Thanks for reading Jerry!

  5. BrendaMurrow says:

    Hi Diana,
    Interesting that you bring up your experience about not interrupting elders. I agree with you and have that same feeling that somehow elders are in a special category, as it were. As to your question about if age factors into this…the short, honest answer is that I don't know. The longer answer is that I hope not…I hope not because I would like to think I am learning everyday and where I was narcissistic before hopefully now I am more present and able to listen to another while feeling validated myself. But, you can likely see in my response what I wrote in my article which is that I may be a little idealistic still. I think there will always be a need for us to be the mirror for someone else, and ask them to do it for us, no matter what age, perhaps what fluctuates is the intensity and the frequency. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  6. Diana says:

    Dear Brenda,
    After some thought about Jerry's comment re: listening being kind, I've changed my opinion of this. I don't think I am kind. I think it's a reaction formation. I cover for my (mom and) dad's narcissism and it was savage. People who use you as surrogate parents, a placeholder for them if you will, are denying you your existence as a real person. Their unmet need to be listened to by their own mother or father is transferred to you at that moment in an infantile fashion. You really don't exist. I don't exist.

    Now I just need to figure out a way to decide from now on if I am really interested in listening to someone or unconsciously being compliant in their narcissism. I also need to remember to catch myself if I'm doing it to my grown children. It's really hard for me to admit but, at 55, I need to get going on demanding some respect for myself if I am to enjoy the rest of my life. But that means risking not being valued at all. If I am not the listener, I may be completely ignored. "Listening" brings them round, if you get my drift. I'm a narcissist magnet.

  7. BrendaMurrow says:

    Hi Diana,
    You do exist. Its rough coming to awareness of all these things that bring up powerful emotions, at least I know it is for me sometimes. Good for you for being so aware and pursuing knowledge of yourself and your situation. I wish you kindness and luck as you continue your journey.

  8. I guess we as bloggers are all guilty as charged. Especially when we share personal experiences. At least we have control on when to play echo in the online world. I didn't have to read your post. I chose to do so.

    In real life the story is quite a bit different. Sometimes I wish I would be a better listener. Sometimes playing echo is just what you do to friends that need to share. But sometimes the narcissist inside me reverses the roles and I turn things around.

    I guess if I'd be more conscious of that I'd have quite a bit to gain. It is quite obvious to me that most people have a big imbalance in this area. We are either mostly talkers or listeners. 50/50 is rather rare to find.

    It is especially hard to fight the tendency to talk when there is silence and I feel the need to fill it. Because it has been instilled in me that it is wrong for people to be with each other and not talk.

    Since I am not willing to listen to the silence I simply start talking. I some cases it is nothing but environmental pollution;-)

  9. BrendaMurrow says:

    Hi Klaus,
    Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I think you're really smart and honest to have noticed all the things you mentioned. I fill silent spaces sometimes too, as do most people I think. Funny that you say bloggers are guilty, I guess that's true! However, as I mentioned I think it is important to be kind to ourselves and understand this is a natural tendency for us all. I'm beginning to wonder if it is something we actually need too (in other words it isn't necessarily bad), albeit painful to realize.

  10. Michael Grubb says:

    Thank you for posting this, Brenda. It feels like such a relief to me to have someone bring Narcissus and Echo together as a whole. Good depth psychological work has been done with one or the other, but I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone hold the whole symbol together at once as you have done. Brava!

  11. BrendaMurrow says:

    Ciao Michael! Thanks for reading, and thanks very much for your gracious comment :)

  12. Hi, ILLUMINATING article. I am not a psychologist. I am a scientist. My gf and i discussed and dissected this.

    1. you make observations. 2. you draw conclusions. Are you aware of how much stuff happens between #1 and #2? How much of that is objective?
    Lets assume you understood this mans mind… (doubtful considering how much of psychology is debated compared to how much is not compared to physics, chemistry, biology etc) how can you make any conclusion seeing one person for one period of time in one place youve NEVER been before? lol right?

    How much do psychologists try to make quick deductions? Why is that? Are y’all trying to show how assumptive you are?

    You seem to think its helpful to be polite even if it means you are not being honest.

    Is that healthy? Can you tell the difference between knowledge and bias? Is there something you want in general? are you avoiding something? are you sure? are you sure? are you sure? (do you understand?)

    it is amazing how different psychology is from chemistry or physics in terms of applications and progress.

    so, is narcissism unreasonable? do you think it is a useful distinction? saying someone is obsessed with themselves? how is that any different than a person being in it for themselves? isnt nearly everyone their own best friend…and isnt it the norm?

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