What Is Healthy Narcissism?
The ability to experience joy in yourself can get you through difficult times.
Posted Sep 26, 2016
Narcissism is bad, right? If you conduct a Google search for narcissism you'll find numerous questions on the subject: “What is narcissism?” “How can you tell if your partner is a narcissist?” “Am I a narcissist?” So you can understand why my patient, "Adele," was surprised and intrigued when I told her that we needed to work on developing some healthy narcissism. “Is there such a thing as healthy narcissism?” she asked in disbelief. “I thought narcissism was negative.”
The diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is indeed very negative and includes characteristics such as arrogance, preoccupation with oneself, a need for constant admiration, and, most important, a lack of empathy for others. But narcissism itself is not positive or negative—there is a continuum from healthy to pathological.
What Does Healthy Narcissism Look Like?
Adele is a beautiful, highly intelligent, and creative person who does not recognize or appreciate these qualities in herself. She mentioned in passing that she never looks in the mirror. You may remember that in the Greek myth, Narcissus falls in love with his reflection. Adele is not in love with her reflection and this creates problems for her. When completing a difficult project at work, she experiences no pleasure or satisfaction, just a grim sense of “on to the next problem.” When people comment on her style and grace she is disconcerted. In her romantic life, she is surprised and taken aback when someone attractive shows interest in her.
Healthy narcissism is related to self-esteem and self-worth but it is not exactly the same. It’s taking pleasure in one’s beauty, in the workings of one’s mind, in the accomplishment of a tough job well done. It is ecstatic joy in oneself. Although the joy of healthy narcissism can fleeting, it is powerful and sustaining sensation.
Healthy narcissism is exemplified in the song, "I Feel Pretty," from West Side Story:
I feel pretty,
Oh, so pretty,
I feel pretty and witty and bright!
And I pity
Any girl who isn't me tonight.
I feel charming,
Oh, so charming
It's alarming how charming I feel!
And so pretty
That I hardly can believe I'm real.
A complete preoccupation with oneself is normal and expected in children at a certain age. The narcissistic phase of development begins at around age 2—the same time children begin to talk. During this time, children start to use words like "I," "mine, " and "no." They frequently behave as if the world revolves around them, and have little concern for the needs and desires of others.
Margaret Mahler, an eminent child psychologist, described this phase as a “love affair with the world.” Picture a two-year-old running down the street with a broad smile on her face and a parent frantically chasing after her. If development proceeds as it should, the child learns, through close contact with parents, friends, and teachers, that those people also have needs and desires. Egocentrism diminishes and the child develops concern for others.
Healthy narcissism, or a “love affair with the world,” is something that adults can retain, although it no longer depends on being the center of the universe. It is that joyous, euphoric feeling of taking pleasure in oneself and one’s impact on the world.
Why Is Healthy Narcissism Important?
Healthy narcissism is important for a variety of reasons: If you can experience ecstatic joy in yourself, it will help you through difficult times. For example, if a person is able to derive narcissistic pleasure from a difficult job well done, it can sustain that person through times of frustration and failure, thus preventing the likelihood of burnout. Likewise, taking joy in one's beauty and positive impact on others can provide resilience during times of disappointment and heartbreak.
Some people don't retain or develop healthy self-love. This can occur for a number of reasons: An extremely self-centered parent may demand all of their child's attention, not leaving room for the child to revel in herself. When "Carina" was a child, she believed that her mother knew everything and was perfect. As Carina got older, she learned that to get attention and approval, she needed to bolster her mother’s belief in her own omniscience and perfection. If Carina asserted her own needs, she got the cold shoulder—or worse. This was not an environment in which Carina’s healthy narcissism could flourish.
Some children never develop healthy narcissism because they fear that others will envy them. When a child learns that they will be punished or treated in a hostile manner if they excel, that child will hide or diminish their excellence, perhaps even hiding it from themselves.
Does it feel wrong to accentuate and revel in your good qualities? Think about the concerns it brings to mind, such as fear of envy or "the evil eye"; or worries that you might be conceited. If this is the case for you, reframe your healthy narcissism as gratitude for what you have been given. Being thankful for your natural talents may be a way to appreciate them without feeling too egotistical.
Remember: The ability to take joy in yourself is a quality that can sustain you through the rough times in life.
Susan Kolod, Ph.D., is a supervising and training analyst, faculty and co-editor of the blog Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action at the William Alanson White Institute. She is Chair of the Committee on Public Information of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Dr. Kolod has written numerous chapters and articles about the impact of hormones on the psyche. She has chapters in two new books: Alike/Different: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Identity and Difference (Routledge) and Unknowable, Unspeakable and Unsprung: Navigating the Thrill and Danger of Living amidst Truth, Fantasy and Privacy (Routledge).