Is It Wrong to Want to Be Admired?
What research into healthy and unhealthy narcissism tells us about our egos.
Posted July 2, 2016
Lisbeth had a new boyfriend. She was giddy with excitement and wanted to share the news with someone. But she knew that if she told her parents, they would be all over her, wanting to know everything about him and closely observing the relationship. Who could she tell? Her best friend Pam was the perfect choice, except that Pam was without a partner right now. She might not be able to share Lisbeth’s excitement, and worse, the news might make her feel bad. Lisbeth did not want to make her friend unhappy, so what could she do?
You might ask: Why did Lisbeth needed to share the information with anyone. Why couldn’t she just enjoy it herself?
The answers to these questions are a bit complicated. We know from both attachment theory and self psychology that we need other people to share our feelings in order to feel them fully. We humans are, to a great extent, relationally-oriented. Our need for mirroring or affirmation is part of who we are. There is a basic human need for others to help us know and process what we think and feel. Recognition is part of how we connect to others and know ourselves.
This is a lifetime requirement that's necessary for healthy psychological functioning, just like we need to breathe oxygen for healthy physical functioning. It’s also what drives sometimes painful-to-watch social media darlings like Taylor Swift and her “girl squad.”
But there is often a hidden undercurrent of other feelings that go along with our need to have someone else reflect us back to ourselves. It's the childlike demand that everyone pay attention to us, the requirement that other people see how important or special or better than everyone else we are.
Behavior related to these feelings looks self-centered and is frequently labeled narcissistic. It turns us off when we see it in someone else, and we definitely do not like to think that it is part of our own emotional makeup.
Most of us would do almost anything to avoid being labeled a narcissist. Yet, according to Heinz Kohut, who developed self psychology, narcissistic needs are normal, and even healthy—when they're not taken to an extreme.
How do you know whether your desire to be seen and admired is healthy or unhealthy narcissism? In one of many terrific posts on her blog, my Psychology Today colleague Susan Krauss Whitbourne notes that healthy narcissism is related to a healthy foundation of “self love.” Neither totally self-centered nor completely selfless, healthy self-love allows us to balance meeting our own needs with meeting the needs of others.
Lisbeth realized that there were two ways that she could deal with her desire to share her excitement about her new boyfriend. First, she could make sure that she talked about it with friends who were also in relatively new or exciting relationships. Psychologists have found that sharing with other people who are going through something similar to our own experience can enhance our pleasure in the moment.
In a study published in Psychological Science, Gus Cooney, a social psychologist at Harvard University, and his co-authors, Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert and University of Virginia’s Timothy Wilson, found that while extraordinary experiences can make us feel good, they can also interfere with our ability to connect with friends who have not shared such moments.
Rather than admiring our specialness, friends may feel left out or simply disconnected from the experience. As a result, seeking to have your back patted for something that makes you stand out can leave you feeling worse than you would have if you had shared an ordinary experience with your friends.
Does this mean giving up on sharing extra-special moments in your life? If you have something wonderful going on, should you share it with anyone? And if you do, are you a narcissist?
The answer to these questions is no. Narcissistic needs are normal and having them does not define you as a narcissist. According to the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM-5), a clinical diagnosis of narcissism includes a “pervasive grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy.” Narcissistic needs do not make you a narcissist if you remember that other people also have needs. Finding a good balance between your needs and your friends’ needs is part of the definition of friendship.
Lisbeth found a solution to her problem. She still wanted to share her excitement with Pam, her best friend. She realized that she simply needed to find a way to frame the feelings so that Pam did not feel left out, unhappy, or inferior. Lisbeth thought about the ways that she and Pam had been and would continue to be connected. She also recognized the reality of some of the unpleasant feelings that Pam might feel, which would be normal responses to her excitement, such as jealousy, sadness, hopelessness and longing.
In Lisbeth's conversations with Pam, she did not bring up any of these feelings, but tamped down her own excitement as she told her friend about her new boyfriend. Without putting it into words, she was sharing some of Pam's discomfort and pain, even as she asked her friend to share her pleasure and excitement. And interestingly, in recognizing that this balance needed to be finely maintained, Lisbeth found that she did not need to go on and on about her new relationship. Pam was pleased for her. And then they talked about other things.
It is this capacity—to share your experience and move on, to pay attention to things that are meaningful to your friends as well, and to take the focus off yourself—that keeps you from being a narcissist. And perhaps more important, it appears that the capacity to share their experiences will bring you greater pleasure than insisting that your friends admire yours.
As always, please let me know what you think.
- Shapiro, Shauna L. and Carlson, Linda E. (2009). The art and science of mindfulness: Integrating mindfulness into psychology and the helping professions. American Psychological Association. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/11885-000
- Kohut, H. (2009). The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders. University Of Chicago Press.
- Bowlby, J. (1988 Reprint). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. Basic Books.
- Cooney, Gus, Gilber, Daniel T. and Wilson, Timothy D. (2014). The Unforeseen Costs of Extraordinary Experience. Psychological Science.
- Kumar, Amit, Killingsworth, Matthew A. and Gilovich, Thomas. (2014). Waiting for Merlot: Anticipatory Consumption of Experiential and Material Purchases. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797614546556
- Susan Krauss Whitbourne, The Healthy Side of Narcissism.
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