Arnold M. Cooper
FEW CONCEPTS in psychiatry have undergone as many changes in meaning as has narcissism. Perhaps the single consistent element in these changes is the reference to some aspect of concern with the self and its disturbances. The word was introduced into psychiatry by Havelock Ellis.
The myth of Narcissus, as described by Bullfinch, clearly foreshadows many of the psychological descriptions that would come to be associated with the name. Narcissus was a physically perfect young man, the object of desire among the nymphs, for whom he showed no interest. One nymph, Echo, loved him deeply and one day approached him and was rudely rejected. In her shame and grief she perished, fading away, leaving behind only her responsive voice. The gods, in deciding to grant the nymphs' wish for vengeance, contrived that Narcissus would also experience the feelings of an unreciprocated love. One day, looking into a clear mountain pool, Narcissus espied his own image and immediately fell in love, thinking he was looking at a beautiful water spirit. Unable to tear himself away from this mirror image, and unable to evoke any response from the reflection, which disappeared every time he attempted to embrace it, he gradually pined away and died. When the nymphs came to bury him, he too had disappeared, leaving in place a flower.
H. G. Nurnberg 27 has pointed out that many of the features of narcissism are present in the myth: arrogance, self-centeredness, grandiosity, lack of sympathy or empathy, uncertain body image, poorly differentiated self and object boundaries, absence of enduring object ties, and lack of psychological substance.
Attempts to understand the concept of narcissism, the role of the self, and the nature of self-esteem regulation have occupied psychoanalysts and dynamic psychiatrists for three-quarters of a century. More recently, however, the "self," as a supraordinate organizing conception, has taken a more central place in the thinking of many clinicians and theorists, effecting a high yield in knowledge and understanding. This intensified interest in narcissism and the self relates to a