“Healthy narcissism plays a crucial role in the human capacity to manage challenges, successes and changes; to overcome defeats, illnesses, trauma, and losses; to love and be productive and creative; and to experience happiness, satisfaction, and acceptance of the course of one’s life. In a broad sense, narcissism refers to feelings and attitudes towards one’s own self and to normal development and self-regulation. It is the core of normal healthy self-esteem, affects, and relationships. In psychoanalytic terms, normal narcissism is defined as a positive investment in a normally functioning self-structure.”~Elsa Ronningstam
Is narcissism healthy?
“Healthy For Whom?”
This is the question Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell ask in their book, The Narcissism Epidemic. For those who have suffered narcissistic abuse and/or life-altering trauma, narcissism is a pejorative. Narcissists hurt people, victimize innocent others, & destroy people’s meaningful beliefs about themselves and the world. Anyone who has dealt with a narcissist might question the idea that narcissism is healthy. We know from first-hand experience that narcissism is a destructive element in all relationships. We know narcissist’s excessive self-admiration develops hubris, arrogance, alienation from others, and as theorized by psychologists: alienation (disconnection) from their True Self.
Healthy Narcissism appears to be an oxymoron if you have been the victim of a narcissist’s aggressive, destructive, malignant envy, and intentional malice. People disagree about narcissism as healthy. Disagreement may be based on confusion between the 'psychodynamic definition of healthy narcissism', and narcissism as 'a personality trait'. Let me try to define the distinction between narcissism as the foundation to stable self-esteem in contrast to narcissism as measured by the NPI (Narcissistic Personality Inventory).
Healthy Narcissism as a Psychodynamic Process
“In a broad sense, narcissism refers to feelings and attitudes toward one’s own self and to normal development and self-regulation. It is the core of normal healthy self-esteem, affects, and relationships. In psychoanalytic terms, normal narcissism is defined as a positive investment in a normally functioning self-structure.” ~Elsa Ronningstam, (page 31)
Healthy narcissism is the foundation to stable self-esteem that is not subject to extreme fluctuations. Failures, mistakes, stress, or even successes threaten 'fragile' self-esteem, deflating or inflating one's self-perceptions to an unhealthy degree. Connecting to an inner core of the True Self is essential for establishing healthy narcissism. In other words, connection with the True feeling Self sustains our worth in times of crisis, severe stress, and increases our capacity to grieve significant losses.
Though psychological theories might differ on the etiology of pathological narcissism, psychologists agree that healthy narcissism evolves from a secure attachment to parental figures in childhood. Adoring parents who, if they are doing their job well, slowly frustrate a child's self-centeredness. This sets limits on their selfish behavior and grandiosity. When parents consistently mirror our ‘specialness’, we believe we are lovable, valuable, and worthy. Our self-esteem will be less susceptible to extreme fluctuations in reaction to criticism or failure. Healthy narcissism increases tolerance for shame, guilt, and remorse—fundamental to social integration. Our narcissism is held in check by:
1-our capacity to empathize and introspect
2-the value we place on community
3-our ability to commit to others
These abilities restrain unhealthy narcissism thus deepening bonds to others and to the self. Using this understanding of ‘healthy narcissism’ as a developmental process, we can say that someone with a Narcissistic Personality may be unhealthy, but not necessarily pathological; i.e.: resistant to treatment, change, or cure. What we define as a Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
A Narcissistic Personality Disorder
In a clinical description, a person either IS a narcissist, or is NOT a narcissist. Qualified professionals make this determination based on observation of at least five qualifying criteria out of nine listed in the DSM-IV. These nine criteria are subject to change as research clarifies criteria for pathological narcissism. A person with a suspected NPD will likely have:
1-impaired personal relationships
2-long-term patterns of narcissistic behaviors
3-ego defenses becoming increasingly rigid overtime
4-work failures (inability to accept limitations; difficulties with coworkers and bosses)
5-depression and/or suicidal episodes; addictive behaviors
6-extreme reactions to criticism and failure
Anyone diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder manifests unhealthy narcissism. The narcissistic personality disorder is a clinical diagnosis much like a medical diagnosis. In other words, you either have a broken leg or you don’t. To clinical psychologists, a person has a Narcissistic Personality Disorder or they don’t. If they have a NPD however, the narcissistic traits are pathological because their narcissism is unhealthy. To suggest that someone with a narcissistic personality disorder exhibits ‘healthy narcissism’ is a fallacy.Unfortunately, narcissist's character traits are viewed as valuable in a competitive and self-admiring society. This makes it even more difficult to ascertain the degree of someone's narcissism.
Most people who are hurt by narcissists based their perceptions of unhealthy narcissism on an inadequate knowledge of personality disorders. The pathological Narcissistic Personality Disorder is often mistaken for its look-alike cousin: A Narcissistic Personality.
A Narcissistic Personality
"Self-admiration sounds great and is a central tenet of modern American culture. But self-admiration taken too far has a distinct downside: narcissism and all of the negative behaviors that flow from it."~The Narcissistic Epidemic, page 18
Using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (the NPI), researchers like Twenge and Campbell measure non-clinical narcissism. Discerning narcissism as a personality trait means someone may be labelled A Narcissist if their score on the NPI exceeds social norms. The NPI only suggests that someone has high narcissistic traits in comparison to most people. The degree of their narcissism might be 'unhealthy' even though psychologically, they have healthy-enough narcissism to support the work they must do countering egotistical behaviors causing relational problems.
Note: If someone has a high score on the NPI, then they may want to consult with a professional psychologist who can diagnose whether or not they have a personality disorder. Also, an excessively low score on the NPI might indicate a lack of healthy narcissism. A low sense of entitlement may or may not be indication of a narcissistic pathology. Sometimes separating from the narcissist restores people's self-esteem.
Establishing intimate, successful, and satisfying relationships increases our sense of competence and worth. This is because to a non-narcissist, community is valuable; arrogant self-sufficiency is a lie; and affective,, intimate bonds are a priority. (Get to know people who are not pathologically narcissistic and your self-confidence will be restored.)
Social research measures the degree of narcissistic traits in a 'non-clinical' personality. Someone with a narcissistic personality may be capable of sustaining relationships, forming intimate bonds with others, and excelling in the workplace without being pathological. In other words, they empathize with others, have compassion, suffer guilt and remorse, are loyal, and maintain social values contributing to mental health---values which temper unhealthy narcissism. However, others may perceive them as arrogant, pompous, overly focused on image or ‘self’ and invested in getting whatever they want at other people's expense.
All narcissists are hard to live with requiring empathic partners who restrict their selfishness by setting boundaries on entitlement and self-serving behaviors. When narcissists are called on their bad behavior, they may be able to resolve or eradicate unhealthy narcissism because they VALUE relationships, experience empathy, and have the capacity to introspect, grieve, mourn and change behaviors that create the problems their self-admiration is causing.
“People with healthy levels of narcissism are also able to step outside their own perspective long enough to assess how their behavior may be affecting others around them. This ability to avoid becoming stuck in narcissistic mode, and to consider the impact of your actions on the feelings of others, is one of the key distinctions between healthy and extreme levels of narcissism.” Drew Pinsky, (page 90)
Normalizing Narcissism: self-admiration
“If you need others to admire you and be the source of your self esteem you are not "healthy".”~Alice Miller
If self-admiration becomes the 'norm' for human behavior, then an average score on the NPI is not an indication of mental health even if society normalizes narcissistic behavior. The more society views self-admiration as normal, the unhealthier we become. Perceiving narcissistic behavior as healthy in a non-clinical setting is a misnomer for it is never healthy to be selfish, egotistical, self-admiring, superior to others, self-serving, inordinately self-sufficient, or to compensate for human weaknesses and vulnerabilities with an inflated ego.
And it goes without saying that it is never beneficial to society when individual entitlement justifies using people to meet one's own needs (exploitativeness) without restriction.
Self-admiration may be considered normal, but that does not mean it is ‘healthy’. As long as we tolerate self-admiration as normal, we hinder communal values that must be sustained for our society to be healthy, to raise productive children, to counter anti-social behavior and eliminate self-centeredness destroying public safety, trust, and everyone’s freedom.
This is where many people's concern rests today: the normalization of self-admiration. The more normal or healthy we consider narcissistic traits to be, such as blatant self-promotion and a drive for ‘uniqueness’, the further we get from communal values fostering life satisfaction. Ask any older person what gave their lives meaning and they generally say, “My family. My friends. My relationships.” Rarely will anyone declare that self-admiration brought joy and fulfillment. This perspective may change if fame and fortune are normalized as the measure of human success (I believe we are witnessing this change in our culture today as fame/celebrity becomes a valued goal). If we want our children to be successful in life, then subscribing to the narcissistic standard of self-admiration validated by admiring others is a sure method for thwarting everyone’s happiness.
Narcissism, as defined by excessive self-admiration, is never healthy. It is always destructive to one’s self and most assuredly, to others.
Healthy Narcissism mitigates unhealthy narcissism
“Whoever loves becomes humble. Those who love have, so to speak, pawned a part of their narcissism." ~Sigmund Freud
Maturation requires a voluntary sacrifice of childish narcissism. Maturation demands relinquishing self-preoccupation: omnipotence, superiority to others, arrogance, omniscience, viewing the self as the center of the universe. Our narcissism is whittled away when life challenges our hubris. “The ultimate blow to narcissism is the fact of our own death; coming to terms with death is a mark of maturity and wisdom. For [Heinz] Kohut, narcissism, successfully negotiated, leads to the capacity to accept mortality, to see oneself as one is without over-or-underestimation, to develop a sense of creativity and humour and to trust one’s intuition and empathy. The paradox of this process is that narcissism needs to be healthily established before it can be given up.”Jeremy Holmes (page 43)
If our narcissism has not been surrendered by midlife, a crisis between self-perception and reality results. If we developed healthy-enough narcissism during childhood, an intimate connection to the True Self will cushion adult fragility, increase resiliency, initiate acceptance of our extraordinary ordinariness, and sustain a legitimate grieving process of our losses…including the willing sacrifice of our narcissism.
Ideas in Psychoanalysis: Narcissism by Jeremy Holmes
Identifying and Understanding the Narcissistic Personality by Elsa F. Ronningstam
Living in the Age of Entitlement: The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell
The Mirror Effect by Drew Pinsky and S. Mark Young
Article originally published on The Narcissistic Continuum, January 2010