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Not All Narcissism Is Unhealthy

The healthy kind of narcissism brings joy and delight.

Key points

  • Road rage is fueled by unhealthy narcissism.
  • A highly competitive mentality—needing to be the best—feeds into unhealthy narcissism.
  • Healthy narcissism enhances self-esteem with positive emotional flavoring that provides some immunity against depression and other mental health ills.

While there are many examples of unhealthy narcissism parading around on the political and entertainment stages, not all narcissism is unhealthy. Unfortunately, however, the unhealthy variety, which is widespread in the United States at this moment, is visible everywhere. The sense of entitlement and demanding behavior can be seen cavorting around unabashedly on most streets and highways.

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Unhealthy Narcissism

What is the unhealthy kind of narcissism? Besides classical narcissistic personalities, who are characterized by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, an excessive need for admiration, and lack of empathy, there are normal-appearing types who feel entitled to special privilege in a variety of venues. These so-called “privileged” people believe they are especially endowed as a result of social class, title, talent, looks, money, or accomplishment. They feel superior to others and are typically boastful about their real or imagined talents.

The entitled believe that they shouldn’t have to wait in long lines, shouldn’t have to be stuck in traffic, and shouldn’t be ignored at social gatherings. They should be given the best seats in the theater, the best food at restaurants, and the most privileged position at the banquet. The entitled feel deserving of the best that life has to offer, and when that isn’t forthcoming, they become loudly demanding.

The people who push their way to the front of lines to catch a cab, to take pictures, or to grab the best shopping bargains are all exhibiting negative narcissistic traits. The lessons from pre-school, kindergarten, and Sunday school about sharing toys or taking turns have long been forgotten and replaced by a me-first mentality, which is dramatically evident in the road rage on U.S. highways. There, entitled drivers have come to expect smooth sailing the minute they set their cars on busy thoroughfares. And when that doesn’t occur, they become enraged.

For the driver consumed with road rage, highways are perceived as war zones filled with enemy combatants lurking behind every billboard. Any slow-moving driver getting in their way or aggressive driver making minor traffic infractions is viewed as a major impediment to their right to run roughshod over their territory. They operate as if they own the streets on which they travel. Clearly, this sense of entitlement is a distortion of our common humanity and the reality that we are social beings created for living with others.

A contributing factor to the widespread, unhealthy narcissism in the U.S. is the message to children that they are better than others and that they need to be the best in order to have value. This competitive mentality—always striving to be at the top of the heap—feeds into unhealthy narcissism. In addition, the grandiose need to be number one can be demoralizing when someone more talented arrives on the scene and takes over that cherished spot. The higher rates of suicide at more prestigious universities, compared to colleges having lower status, attest to the unhealthy aspects of the need to be number one, no matter the cost to emotional and physical well-being.

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Healthy Narcissism

What then is healthy narcissism? It is emotional involvement with our self, a form of self-love that is nurturing and sustaining. It can be found in the joy, delight, and/or enjoyment we experience whenever we succeed at a valued activity, from simple physical attainments to complex intellectual achievements. It appears early on in our development in the smiles and squeals of delight apparent whenever we accomplish something worthwhile, from recognizing our mother’s face at six weeks of age to taking our first wobbly steps at age one. Reaching for and grabbing a toy, sitting up, uttering meaningful sounds, and crawling are just a few of the developmental tasks in the early years that elicit delight and pleasure.

Later we add to this repertoire of successes when we develop language and large motor skills. Talking in full sentences, learning to read, do math, ride a bicycle, develop sports-related skills, and/or play a musical instrument continue the development of our minds and bodies, adding to the experience of healthy narcissism.

As adults, we experience healthy narcissism whenever we feel pleasure playing a good game of golf, preparing or finishing a sumptuous meal, painting a landscape, finishing a crossword puzzle, or fixing a leaky pipe. Feeling good after a workout or a lengthy run can be an adrenaline rush that fuels positive narcissism. Taking pleasure in our reflection in the mirror, dressed up in our Sunday or Saturday evening best, is a positive thing, as is the enjoyment of the many sensual and sexual pleasures our body provides. Healthy narcissism enhances self-esteem with positive emotional flavoring that provides some immunity against depression and other mental health ills.

In disasters, accidents, and catastrophes, healthy narcissism is evident in victims’ determination to overcome any physical diminishment. Many amputees in the military and in civilian life, for example, experience a sense of pride in mastering physical skills necessary to feed themselves, bathe, and/or walk with the aid of a prosthesis. Even though the loss of a limb is initially devastating, the pleasure involved in overcoming some aspects of the loss is evident in the broad smiles of amputees when a particular milestone has been reached, such as standing on one leg or walking a desired distance with a prosthetic device.

Healthy narcissism can also be found in the spontaneity and playfulness that add excitement to romantic relationships and joy to interactions with children. With romantic partners, healthy narcissism provides sexual energy that prevents sex from being routine and boring. With children, reading bedtime stories with dramatic effect and playing make-believe games with exuberance go a long way, not only in providing enjoyment, but in strengthening parent-child bonds.

Healthy narcissism is a positive self-love that provides joy and delight in life. It is the loud “Hooray” shouted from the rooftops when fortune smiles on us. It is the kind of pleasure, the joie de vivre, that makes life worth living. It is an affirmation that we have inherent value as human beings and that it is good to be alive.

This article is adapted from an essay, “A Smidgen of Narcissism Adds Joy and Spice to Life,” published in BEYOND PIPE DREAMS AND PLATITUDES: Insights on Love, Luck, and Narcissism from a Longtime Psychologist, Outskirts Press, 2021.

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