Toward authentic self-esteem

Is There Such a Thing as Acceptable Narcissism?

Wanting respect and sometimes admiration is natural...isn't it?

I want to talk about everyday narcissism, but first a little background. 

The term narcissism was coined by Paul Nacke in 1899 to describe someone who treated his or her own body as if it were a sexual object, in lieu of having sexual desires for other people. Freud took up the term and eventually made a distinction between primary (normal) and secondary (pathological) narcissism. Primary narcissism is the normal desire to protect ourselves from danger and to preserve our own lives; it has a sexual component that doesn't preclude desire for others. People who suffer from secondary narcissism, on the other hand, "display two fundamental characteristics: megalomania and diversion of their interest from the external world -- from people and things" (On Narcissism, p. 74).

Since then, the concept of narcissism has expanded beyond Freud's original view, enlarging on the elements of megalomania and giving only secondary emphasis to the element of sexuality. Merriam-Webster's primary definition for narcissism is "egoism, egocentrism", relegating "love of or sexual desire for one's own body" to the secondary meaning. When most people use the word today to describe someone else, they usually mean he or she has megalomaniacal tendencies: "feelings of personal omnipotence or grandeur" (Merriam-Webster again). Our use of the word may imply personal vanity, which suggests a sexual desire for one's own body, but it's not the primary meaning for most of us. In general, what is written today about narcissism concerns the secondary type, focusing on a grandiose self-image and an excessive need for admiration to sustain it.

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As with most psychological phenomena, I believe it makes sense to talk about narcissism along a spectrum: in other words, the grandiosity and need for admiration characteristic of pathological narcissism form a milder, less dominant part of primary narcissism (Heinz Kohut has a lot to say about this subject, in case you're interested). To a certain extent, the desire to be noticed, admired and respected by others is a type of narcissism, an everyday narcissism that doesn't interfere with our ability to notice, admire and respect other people or to have meaningful relationships with them. Only when that desire eclipses everything else do we enter the territory of pathological narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder.

Which brings me to blogging.

In response to a post I wrote a while back on After Psychotherapy, discussing when it was appropriate to feel shame, "A Reader" commented that to publish your work, either in book form or online, involves a degree of narcissism and an effort to nurture your ego. I completely agree. It's an issue I often mull over with some discomfort. There's an ongoing argument in my head that goes something like this:

Voice No. 1: Who the hell do you think you are, writing your blog and putting up all these posts? What makes you think anyone would be interested?

Voice No. 2: I've worked for more than 30 years as a therapist and I've been writing since I was 12. What's wrong with making use of my experience to write something other people might find useful?

Voice No. 1: But don't you think it's kind of narcissistic to reveal things about yourself and use them to illustrate your points?

Voice No. 2: First of all, I'm most familiar with my own experience and can write convincingly about it. Besides, I'm trying to show people how to deal with enduring psychological difficulties on a daily basis, rather than believing you'll simply change into another person entirely.

Voice No. 1: That's what you say, but underneath it all, aren't you really a rank narcissist, telling you're readers, "Hey, look at me! Aren't I wonderful?"

Voice No. 2: There's no doubt I want to be respected. What's wrong with that? If you don't want to be appreciated by an audience, why bother to write anything?

This is the conclusion I always draw: if a writer didn't have an audience in mind—be it a professional audience that reads scholarly journals, or online readers interested in psychotherapy—why would he or she ever put words down on paper (or hard drive)? I believe there are a few people who write only for their own personal enjoyment and never show their work to another living soul, but most writers write for the public in one way or another, even if it's the future audience they hope one day to have. Most writers want their work to be respected and admired. Does that make us all narcissists? Yes, I would say—but everyday (not pathological) ones.

In their jobs, most people want to be valued and appreciated by their co-workers. That seems normal to me. It pleases me that my colleagues respect me and my clients think I'm good at what I do. I enjoy it when a visitor here on Psychology Today sends me a comment or an email expressing appreciation. I like it a lot. I believe that's why do I feel this discomfort as I admit it? Voice No. 1 seems to imply that I ought to be selfless, and have no narcissistic needs whatsoever. Voice No. 2 insists this is an unrealistic ideal, adding (irrelevantly) that many acts of apparent altruism serve egoistic needs.

As much as I consciously agree with Voice No. 2, it's usually Voice No. 1 that has the last word. Right now it's saying, "This whole post is just an extended exercise in narcissistic self-indulgence. What makes you think anyone cares?"

Voice No. 2: "But ... but ..."

Voice No. 1: "And isn't the role of shame in narcissistic behavior one of your big themes? Looks to me like you're just trying to take all that core shame you feel and turn it into some grandiose display that's going to win you kudos; that way you can feel you actually have no lasting damage, and no reason for that burning shame you sometimes feel."


What about you? In what ways are you an everyday narcissist?

Think of times you may actively have sought approval or implicitly asked for a compliment. Do you think there's anything wrong with that? Some people may feel it's okay to receive compliments but never to ask for them, not even subtly. I'm reminded of a client who recalled as a child asking her mother if she could have an ice cream from the street vendor. Her mother replied, "I was thinking about buying you one, but now, since you asked, you can't have it." Are narcissistic needs like that—it's acceptable to have them gratified, but not to ask for gratification?

How much are you motivated by the desire for attention or admiration? If you have creative hobbies, do you like hearing that people think you paint well, or excel at the violin? Do you like visitors to appreciate the decore in your apartment or house, complimenting you on your taste? To what degree do you consider that natural? 

Joseph Burgo, Ph.D., is a Clinical Psychologist, Psychoanalyst and Author of the Popular Blog "After Psychotherapy."


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