During a radio show I had the pleasure of interviewing Psychologist Ernie Vecchio who told the story of the Narcissus Myth. Later in the interview Ernie also shared the story of The Swan and The Scorpion. Many of us have heard this story or some version of it but it goes something like this.
There was a Swan at the edge of a river and a scorpion approached asking the swan if she would kindly give him a ride to the other side of the river on her back. The swan said “no, you are a scorpion, you will sting me and I will die.” The scorpion assured the swan that he wouldn’t do that, all he wanted was a ride to the other side and he promised she was safe with him. So the swan gave in and allowed the scorpion to climb upon her back. She swam to the other side and just before reaching the shore the scorpion stung her and jumped to safety. As the swan was sinking, slowly dying from the poisons she asked the scorpion why he broke his promise and stung her. The scorpion said “I’m a scorpion, that is what I do.”
Ernie asked me why I believed that the swan allowed the scorpion on her back. I said it was because she was denying her instincts. He said it went deeper than that. So I asked Ernie to explain. He said the swan was projecting her swan like qualities upon the scorpion.
There is that word “projection” again. When we come to understand narcissism we find that narcissists are masters at projection. They take the dark qualities within themselves and project them onto those who love them. But we don’t often think about our own projections. We just as easily project our goodness upon the narcissist in our lives and then we fall in love with the good qualities in ourselves projected upon the other. You might see the narcissist (scorpion) as someone who is empathetic, caring, loving, concerned, compassionate and honest, because this is who you are. The narcissist gladly owns our projections and gives us his dirt. You get accused of being the very thing you eventually come to see in him.
Iremember being accused of being selfish, greedy, uncommitted, angry, bi-polar and a host of other things that left me questioning whether or not this was really true. The most difficult thing was that he really seemed to believe it. He believed he was the pure one and I was the one poisoning his reality with my impurities. But once the veil was lifted and I could see through the narcissistic Web of Illusion I could see that who he accused me of being was never the truth about me.
One thing I notice with many of my clients is that they just can’t believe the narcissist in their lives was capable of doing the things he/she did. It is so out of character from the person they believed him or her to be. The ending of the relationship is almost always traumatic because the “swan” learns she has been deceived. She trusted the narcissist and believed in him and is shocked at his sudden change in behavior. She is shocked that he has no feeling about her sinking and drowning and just hops off as if nothing ever happened. She gave him her life! She believed him when he said he would never sting her. And now he laughs in the face of her pain and disbelief. “Stupid swan!” He says as he hops off! “I can always count on their goodness to get what I want.”
If I were to imagine the rest of the story I would say the swan sunk down to the bottom of the river only to find the bodies of all those beautiful swans that came before her. She was not the first, nor would she be the last. Because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting.
Ernie said that the swan could clearly see that the scorpion was a scorpion. He wasn’t wearing a disgiuse. In this myth he didn’t pretend to be anything else, except he did make a promise that he would not hurt the swan.
The problem we often run into is that narcissists are not so blatantly obvious. When they arrive at the river bank asking for a ride, we see prince charming or a fair maiden in distress. Yet often within the first couple months or even the first couple dates we might see something very scorpion like about the new love interest in our lives. This is where my suggestion that the swan was denying her own instincts was accurate. We may have a knowing but then not trust it. The deeper part is when we paint over our instincts with the projection of our swan like qualities. Instead of listening to the voice of intuition we see in the new love interest all the goodness that lies deep within our own being. We are caring creatures and would never hurt a fly, so how would it be possible that this amazing new person in our life could even conceive of hurting us?
I remember when my ex and I were breaking up he failed to deposit his portion of the mortgage into the bank account as he did for the prior two years. Now this was his house too, only I was the only one on the mortgage. He was on the title and entitled to the house every bit as much as I was, only I was the one who was financially responsible. When we entered into the agreement that I would carry the mortgage, since I had the good credit at the time, I never conceived that he would be capable of putting me in financial jeopardy like he did. He never told me he wasn’t going to deposit the money into the account. He just didn’t do it! I found out when the bank notified me that they attempted to take out the money and it wasn’t there so they were penalizing me with late charges and NSF fees.
In my mind I couldn’t see how he could do such a thing. He had been very responsible for years, but now because our relationship is coming apart he suddenly becomes irresponsbile? It didn’t make sense to me. I believed that even though we were having problems and breaking up that he still had goodness in him. He would still be considerate and still honor the agreements we made around the house. When I tried to approach him and talk to him about it he wouldn’t talk to me. He closed the door in my face and didn’t respond. I couldn’t get an answer as to why he stung me. We still lived together! We still owned a house together. And he would not give me the satisfaction of knowing why he didn’t pay his share of the mortgage or even if he had any intention of ever paying it again. Suddenly I found myself burdened, not only with the failure of the relationship but the sudden financial burden of having to be responsible for 100% of the bills why he was slamming doors in my face as if I was somehow the bad guy for seeking answers.
Up until this point I believed he was a sensible person. But the truth was I was a sensible person! I would have never done that to him! So I projected this quality onto him. In his narcissistic mind, he was punishing me for ending the relationship by withdrawing all support of the household he still lived in. He had no intention of moving out as he still believed the house was his. But he didn’t care about my credit or the trouble I found myself in at the bank. Even after I put him on my credit cards and helped to build his credit over the last several years, there was no appreciation. He was entitled to the help! It was not reciprocated by a concern for the very credit rating that helped him to get to where he wanted to go. No! Like th scorpion he stung me when my usefulness had been served.
Narcissistic people have no issue with breaking agreements! It is their nature to do so. It is their nature to exploit people for their own advantage. With our swan like nature it is difficult to comprehend such a reality. How could someone be so cold and heartless? How could someone suddenly care so little when he appeared to care in the beginning. Was it just so he could get what he wanted? A way to get to the other side of the river? And my life is so invaluable to him, so expendable! How could that be?
Perhaps it is enough to know that some realities we simply cannot comprehend. Could we even begin to conceive the inner workings of a serial killer? Could we understand the mind of a terrorist, a rapist, a con artist or thief? If we are someone who could never do such a thing, then no! We simply can’t put ourselves in their shoes. We can’t even begin to imagine what goes on inside of a mind that would intentionally set out to destroy another because we place too much value in a human life. We value human life and welfare over our own selfish needs. Although we know it is important to take care of ourselves and put ourselves first sometimes, if we live by the Golden rule we do unto others as we would want them to do unto us. We care about others as we care about ourselves. We don’t want to see people get hurt!
If we come to a strong understanding that there are scorpions in the world and they do sting, we can perhaps be more aware and trust our instincts more when something just doesn’t feel right. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck it probably is one. So projecting our beautiful swans upon the ugly duckling does not make it a swan. It is still a duck! And in the end, next to that duck we will feel like the ugly duckling instead of recognizing the beautiful swans that we are.