Some of us might remember the commercial years ago where a well-dressed character states, “Enough about me, let’s talk about what I’m wearing.” We have all met narcissists either in our personal lives or in media, politics, or business. Their presence can be incredibly annoying to intolerable. But can there be such thing as healthy narcissism?
Narcissism is a range of behavior that is present in all humans meaning we are all narcissistic to a certain degree. Thus narcissism can range from being deficient all the way to pathological, clinically referred to as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Heinz Kohut was the first to suggest that there was such a thing as healthy narcissism. He believed that we all have a need to develop a strong and positive sense of self. Kohut believed this was achieved by primary caregivers being attentive to their children and making them feel admired and worthy of admiration. We all desire approval in order to feel loved, important, valued, significant, capable, confident, courageous and powerful.
Alfred Adler believed it was the pain of criticism or inferiority that motivated us to action, industry, and perfection. However, our psychic structure like all things requires balance. Too little narcissism results in a loss of confidence, low self-esteem, hopelessness, and depression. Just as too much narcissism, particularly narcissism that pits the individual against all others, becomes a disorder.
So what is unhealthy narcissism?
With unhealthy narcissism, the individual is not capable of a reciprocal attachment or relationship. They will function either through putting others down in a negative way or in raising themselves up at the expense of those around them. In the former they need to idealize someone with whom they feel connected; in the later, they require the admiration of others. With both cases, the narcissist uses abused and eventually discard others and moves on to the next victim totally lacking any remorse.
According to DSM-5, The diagnostic criteria for a Narcissistic Personality Disorder are as follows: A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning in early adulthood, and present in a variety of contexts as indicated by five or more of the following:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance.
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believe that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement. Is interpersonally exploitative.
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows arrogant or haughty behaviors or attitudes.
So what is healthy narcissism, what does it look like, and how do we get it?
According to Kohut, the qualities of healthy narcissism include:
- The ability to admire and accept the admiration of others
- A solid sense of self-esteem and self-worth
- A healthy sense of pride in oneself and one’s accomplishments
- An appreciation of the needs of others and the ability to empathize with them
- Emotional resilience
- Self-love and respect
- The ability to approve of ourselves and to tolerate the disapproval of others
- The confidence and epiphany to have hopes, dreams, ambitions, and belief in one’s ability to make a decision that will positively impact one’s life
So how can we build positive narcissism?
You live with yourself longer than with anyone else. Learn self-love, boundaries, and respect for yourself
We are social creatures. Having learned the above, apply them to those around you.
Practice empathy, active empathy (charity) and social empathy (social action).
Affirm yourself. Tell yourself what makes you feel self-assured.
Set out to achieve your aims but also accept your strengths and weaknesses.
Support others. Build them up. Encourage.
Learn to trust. Learn to forgive.
Establish your own identity not what others expect of you.
Focus on how you feel on the inside…….Smile.
Robert Jenkins, LCSW, CSOTS, CCS
Specialized Therapy Associates 201-488-6678
American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders V, (2013). pp: 669-70.