Narcissus is the archetype of self- love, a character in mythology unable to merge with another in a loving relationship. In a pool of water Narcissus sees his own reflection and falls in love with this reflection that he thinks is someone else. The narrator of the myth asks: “Why try to grip an image? He does not exist-the one you love and long for” (Ovid, trans.1993, 429-331).
The myth symbolically depicts an image so useful to modern psychoanalysts in their understanding of narcissism. Narcissus can’t tell the difference between “me” (ego) and “not me” (object). Speaking to a blurred reflection in the water, thinking another person is present, not realizing he is talking to himself, he is alone at the pool. If he were a patient we would describe him as alone in the room.
The concept of “one person alone in the room” is difficult to accept for therapists (Semel, 2004, p. 195). In session with a regressed, schizophrenic patient it is easier to see that he is talking to himself in response to voices in his mind that he believes are other people. A patient who arrives at the session on time, has a job, or speaks rationally appears to be functioning on a more advanced level. However when this patient lies on the couch, that patient functioning on an object level outside the room may regress to the level of “alone in the room.” He becomes Narcissus talking to himself, to the images in his mind. In this early stage of development the images of self (ego) and other (object) are confused, overlapped and merged (Spotnitz, 1985).
Phillips (2001) offers an explanation of how the patient in this narcissistic state may affect the analyst. The patient alone in the room may induce the analyst to speak at the wrong time. Sitting with a patient who never asks a question or who never answers one may make the analyst feel that the patient isn’t aware that the analyst even exists, arousing feelings of rejection or inadequacy in the analyst (a narcissistic injury). Instead of following the contact, the analyst may be tempted to talk so the patient will be aware of his presence (a narcissistic countertransference resistance). Perhaps Phillips clarifies why we resist seeing that the seemingly higher functioning patient may also be alone in the room. The analyst wants to be engaged in an emotional relationship but the patient on the couch returns to a narcissistic stage of life, where there are no “people,” only shadowy impressions of the images the mind has not yet separated into ego and object.
The patient is alone in the room. Narcissus is alone at the pool, speaking to the object/ego field reflected in the water. Like Narcissus, the narcissistic patient is talking to part of his mind.
Phillips, A. (2001). Narcissism, for and against. In One way and another: New and selected
essays (pp.129-153). NY: Basic Books.
Semel, V. Understanding the fieldwork experience: How do we know when students “get it”
about narcissism? Modern Psychoanalysis, 9(2), 193-214.
Spotnitz, H. (1985). Modern psychoanalysis of the schizophrenic patient (2nd ed.). NY: Human