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de Waal, J. (2017). Stiffell, G. & Holtam, R. (2016). ‘Beware the song of the sirens: reflections on the seductive face of narcissism’. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 32, 1, 37-52.. J. Anal. Psychol., 62(4):614-616.

(2017). Journal of Analytical Psychology, 62(4):614-616

Stiffell, G. & Holtam, R. (2016). ‘Beware the song of the sirens: reflections on the seductive face of narcissism’. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 32, 1, 37-52.

Review by:
Joanna de Waal

This paper ventures into the rich and complex territory of the narcissistic personality, drawing the myth of that name together with that of the siren in Homer's Odyssey, whose song lures sailors to shipwreck and death. The authors propose a two-dimensional narcissistic space as a way to think about this, one axis being Rosenfeld's formulation of the thin- and thick-skinned narcissist, with self-abasement and grandiosity as the polarities. The authors understand this axis as being one of defensive evasion of interaction with the object using either destruction or denial. The second axis is conceived as being one of control rather than destruction of the object, with bullying and coercion at one end (Shaw's traumatizing narcissist) to seductive enslavement at the other - the siren. Pulled by the song into the orbit of the siren, the object loses any separate identity, becoming merely a satellite to the narcissist, a disembodied, unheard voice, likened to Echo in the Narcissus myth. The possibility of a relationship is shipwrecked on the perilous rocks from whence the siren sings.

In trying to understand this defensive strategy, the authors consider the actual and extraordinarily effective appeal of the song to certain listeners, asking to whom and of what is the song singing? Are the sailors as hapless as the myth suggests? They argue that the siren calls to the unprocessed and unconscious narcissistic needs of the other, termed by the authors ‘receptor’, and show through examples how this can work to devastating effect in therapeutic and organizational settings.

Once ensnared, the apparent relationship becomes what they describe as a ‘folie à deux’ (p. 43). The siren, in order to maintain control and thus avoid any real impingement from a separate other, must remain endlessly vigilant, altering the song to fit the ears of the receptor, tuning it to the receptor's unconscious needs. It is indeed a madness of two: mad because it appears to be about two and requires two to be effective, but is essentially only about one.

Following the thinking that those who later present with this pathology have endured some very early relational failure or betrayal, the authors suggest that, unlike in the schizoid presentation, the narcissist has not given up on the idea of external goodness.

[This is a summary excerpt from the full text of the journal article. The full text of the document is available to journal subscribers on the publisher's website here.]

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