Narcissism is bad, right? Google search is flooded with questions: “What is narcissism?” “How can you tell if your partner is a narcissist?” “Am I a narcissist?”
So my patient Adele was surprised and intrigued when I told her that we needed to work on developing some healthy narcissism. “Is there any such thing as healthy narcissism?” she asked in disbelief, “I thought narcissism was negative.”
The diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is indeed very negative and includes characteristics such as arrogance, preoccupation with oneself, a need for constant admiration and, most importantly, a lack of empathy for others. But narcissism itself is not positive or negative–there is a continuum from healthy to pathological.
What does healthy narcissism look like?
Adele is a beautiful, highly intelligent and creative person who does not recognize or appreciate these qualities in herself. She mentioned in passing, that she never looks in the mirror. You may remember that in the Greek myth, Narcissus falls in love with his reflection. Adele is never in love with her reflection and this creates problems for her. When completing a difficult project at work, she experiences no pleasure or satisfaction, just a grim sense of “on to the next problem.” When people comment on her style and grace she is disconcerted. In her romantic life she is surprised and taken aback when someone attractive shows an interest in her.
Healthy narcissism is related to self-esteem and self worth but is not exactly the same. It’s taking pleasure in one’s beauty, in the workings of one’s mind, in the accomplishment of a tough job well done. It is ecstatic joy in oneself. Although the joy of healthy narcissism can be a fleeting sensation, it is powerful and sustaining.
Healthy narcissism is exemplified in the song from West Side Story, I Feel Pretty.
I feel pretty,
Oh, so pretty,
I feel pretty and witty and bright!
And I pity
Any girl who isn’t me tonight.
I feel charming,
Oh, so charming
It’s alarming how charming I feel!
And so pretty
That I hardly can believe I’m real.
Complete preoccupation with oneself is normal and expectable in children at a certain age. The Narcissistic Phase of development begins at around the age of two—the same time children begin to talk. During this time children start to use words like “I”, “mine” and “no”. During this phase, children frequently behave as if the world revolves around them and have little concern for the needs and desires of others.
The eminent child psychologist, Margaret Mahler described this phase as a “love affair with the world.” Picture a two-year old running down the street with a broad smile on her face, Mom frantically chasing after. If development proceeds, as it should, the child learns, through close contact with parents, friends and teachers that those people also have needs and desires. Egocentrism diminishes and the child develops concern for others.
Healthy narcissism or a “love affair with the world” is something that adults can retain, although it no longer depends on being the center of the universe. It is that joyous, euphoric feeling of taking pleasure in oneself and one’s impact on the world.
Why is healthy narcissism important?
Healthy narcissism is important for a variety of reasons: If you can experience ecstatic joy in yourself it can help you through difficult times. For example, if a person can derive narcissistic pleasure from a difficult job well done, it can sustain that person through times of frustration and failure, thus preventing the likelihood of burnout. Likewise, taking joy in one’s beauty and positive impact on others can provide resilience during times of disappointment and heartbreak.
For a variety of reasons, some people don’t retain or develop healthy self-love. Here are some examples:
An extremely self-centered parent may demand all of the attention from the child, not leaving room for the child to revel in herself. When Carina was a child, she believed that her mother knew everything and was perfect. As Carina got older, she learned that to get attention and approval, she needed to bolster her mother’s belief in her own omniscience and perfection. If Carina asserted her needs, she got the cold shoulder—or even worse. This was not an environment in which Carina’s healthy narcissism could flourish.
Some children never develop healthy narcissism because they fear that others will envythem. If a child learns that they will be punished or treated in a hostile manner if they excel, that child will hide or diminish the impact of their excellence, even hiding it from themselves.
Does it feel wrong to accentuate and revel in your good qualities? Think about what it brings to mind: fear of envy or the “evil eye”? Worries of being conceited? If so, reframe your healthy narcissism as gratitude for what you have been given. Being thankful for your natural talents may be a way to appreciate them without feeling too egotistical. Remember that the ability to take joy in yourself is a quality that can sustain you through the rough times in life.
Susan Kolod, Ph.D., is a supervising and training analyst, faculty and co-editor of the blog Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action at the William Alanson White Institute. She is Chair of the Committee on Public Information of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Dr. Kolod has written numerous chapters and articles about the impact of hormones on the psyche. She has chapters in 2 new books: Alike/Different: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Identity and Difference (Routledge) and Unknowable, Unspeakable and Unsprung: Navigating the Thrill and Danger of Living amidst Truth, Fantasy and Privacy(Routledge).