We are told that we live in an age of narcissism. Bloggers bemoan the fact that Facebook fosters narcissistic tendencies in the young. Self-help books inform us that parents make narcissists out of their kids because they foster too much attention on them. These are just a few of the negative depictions of narcissism in our society. However, in our rush to criticize narcissism, might we be missing out on some of its benefits?
People who fit the mental health profession's criteria for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder have a number of characterisics that create significant difficulties in their everyday lives. The new psychiatric manual, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, will require that people with this disorder must exhibit a range of behaviors that includes excessive attention-getting, needing others to confirm their identities, wanting excessively to please others, being unable to empathize with others, and having little interest in close relationships, feelings entitled to special treatment. This is hardly a set of desirable qualities, and people with this disorder can struggle in their everyday lives, especially if they have the "vulnerable" form of narcissism based on an underlying low sense of self-esteem.
Given this litany of problems, it seems as though narcissism is a state of mind we should avoid like the plague. However, the disorder of narcissistic personality disorder does not completely characterize the psychological quality of narcissism. Freud himself maintained that narcissism could be positive, especially in early child development, when we need to establish a firm foundation of "self love." Following from this premise, in order to help the child establish a healthy personality, parents can benefit their children by finding the right balance between providing too much admiration and too little positive attention. The parents who lavish an undue amount of praise may lead the child to develop "grandiose" narcissism. The opposite parenting pattern can produce a child with the vulnerable form of narcissism in what is called the psychodynamic mask model of narcissism.
Some children are lucky enough to have parents who find the sweet spot between too little and too much praise. They begin life with a modestly positive self-image which they can then carry over into their adolescence, a time that can challenge even the most robust self-esteem. When they enter their 20s, or what psychologists call emergin adulthood, this healthy foundation to their personality can help young people continue to adapt positively to life. The odds are, too, that even a highly narcissistic adolescent will become a less self-aggrandizing adult according to research on narcissistic personality disorder.
Popular conceptions tend to emphasize the exaggerated version of narcissism, particularly when the narcissism is extreme enough to justify a diagnosis of the personality disorder. However, by focusing on the disorder alone, these depictions fall short of the mark. A moderate amount of the right kind of narcissism can actually be beneficial to well-being. In fact, researchers have identified the quality of adaptive narcissism. People with a good dose of adaptive narcissism can be self-sufficient, able to assume positions of leadership, and self-confident. They seem better able to cope with anxiety, particularly in social situations.
There are reasons to believe that having the right amount of adaptive narcissism may be particularly adaptive in helping people maintain healthy habits. College students with moderate narcissism scores seem less worried about having their bodies on view when they exercise in a group setting (Akehurst & Thatcher, 2010). Even more, a study of adults carried out in the Netherlands found that individuals from 18 to 78 with higher narcissism scores were more likely to engage in physical activity. All other things being equal, it doesn't matter why you exercise as you get older, just that you do. Again, though, it's important to remember that moderation is key. People high in narcissism can become compulsive exercisers and develop eating disorders if they let their bodily preoccupations get out of control.
Having the "right degree" of narcissism may also help people attend to what they wear and how they groom themselves, and therefore present a more professional image. For better or worse, society rewards people seeking jobs or promotions who spend a little more time honing their looks. People high in adaptive narcissism are also more likely to seek those jobs or promotions because their self-confidence leads them to aim high.
How might adaptive narcissism help individuals develop healthier relationships? People with a solid sense of self-esteem will be better able to find the balance between being overly dependent or overly self-reliant. They can be self-sufficient but still capable of intimacy. At the same time, they may be the ones to be better at parenting. Because they don't need to see their children as an extension of themselves, they will be more likely to produce mentally healthier children. The adaptive narcissists will not be helicopter parents, but will give their children greater room to grow on their own terms.
At work or school, the person moderately high in adaptive narcissism would be a great boost to have on your team or class. Not one to shy away from leadership positions, this individual would help make sure that projects get done. Although people high in maladaptive narcissism try to get out of as many duties as they can, those who have a reasonable degree of self-reliance will readily contribute to group efforts. They might get too invested in a project's outcome, or become a bit too assertive, but adaptive narcissists will do everything they can to see that project succeed.
Follow these 5 tips to benefit from strengthening your own adaptive narcissism:
1. Build up some healthy narcissism to protect your own health. Without becoming overly preoccupied with your appearance, include control over your diet and exercise habits in your daily life.
2. Don't worry about how you look when you do work out. The study of adaptive narcissism in college students showed that the benefits of not being afraid to work out in public. Remember that most people in the gym are more preoccupied about their own appearance than they are about yours.
3. Find the right balance between assertiveness and reticence in leadership situations. If you're a natural leader, you'll be likely to try to assume a position of control when no one else seems to be ready to take charge. As long as you're sure you're not crowding others out, go for it. But if you're constantly taking over for your fellow co-workers or students, it might be time to take a step back instead of forward.
4. Turn up your empathy detector. People high in narcissism are less likely to sense what other people are feelings because they are more tuned into their own emotions. Even if you've got a healthy dose of the healthy kind of narcissism, you should watch out for your own blind spots.
5. Try to help the narcissists you know to see the light. People high in the less adaptive form of narcissism may take heart in knowing that they can turn their weaknesses into personal strengths.
Being a narcissist doesn't have to mean being selfish, exploitative, and unfeeling. Look for the ways to turn that mirror toward yourself, just a little, and your own adaptive narcissism might benefit you in unexpected ways.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012
Akehurst, S. and J. Thatcher (2010). "Narcissism, social anxiety and self-presentation in exercise." Personality and Individual Differences 49(2): 130-135.