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Bitter narcissism distorts the present and stops the future

The well-known myth of Narcissus –told, among others, by Ovid in his Metamorphosis– says that Narcissus, seeing his own image reflected on the still waters of a pond, decided to die thirsty to avoid distorting the image, his image, on the water. As it happens will all myths, Narcissus reveals psychological truths relevant even today.

In fact, it is safe to say that many of us, like Narcissus, are unable to see reality and we only see our own image projected unto reality. Then, we are so attached to that image that we reject anything that could distorted. At that moment, we begin to play our own mental games to keep intact our self-image.

In the renowned masterwork of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843), when the main character, Scrooge, is about to meet the second of the three ghosts visiting him, he assumes, in spite of seeing darkness all around him, that it is still noon, not midnight, and that there is something wrong with the sun.

That’s what we do: we create our own stories to validate our own reality. Even more, we believe and accept those stories, even if they are fantastically absurd, as the best explanation to whatever is happening.

In the case of Scrooge, he decided the sun was no longer shining. But we can forgive him, because he is just a character in a book. Yet, the so-called Scrooge disorder, also known as bitter narcissism, probably affects a higher percentage of the population today than whatever that percentage was during the 19th century.

For example, a few days ago, several hours after normal business hours, a woman called me and, almost in desperation, asked me to talk with his teenage son “as soon as possible” because the son was “causing problems”.

A short conversation with the mother revealed that the “problems” his son had were his desire of going to college in another state and to study a career his mother thought was not prestigious or lucrative enough for his son.

For her, his son was wrong. In reality, in making his own decisions, the son was agitating the waters of the pond, thus dissipating the image of the “controlling mother” the mother wanted desperately to keep, instead of accepting she was entering a new time of her life.

And then there is the case of somebody who, after learning of new research about how expectations about pain activate different parts of the brain, he simply said, “My grandmother already knew that.” No, she didn’t.

That’s an answer I frequently receive from those who use they “grandmother” (or the “church”, or whatever else they decide to use) as a shield to protect themselves from reality.

But we pay the price for clinching to our narcissistic self-image: we stop our future. As Scrooge said, “Ghost of the Future! I fear you more than any specter I have seen”. He was right: you can’t be a bitter narcissistic and at the same time build a future.  

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