Seth M. Spain Ph.D.

The Dark Side of Work

Healthy Self-Esteem versus Healthy Narcissism

Subclinical personality characteristics aren't necessarily "good" or "bad"

Posted Sep 10, 2014

A comment on my last post discussed how the commenter, Annie, prefers to use “healthy self-esteem” to describe a normal, functional level of self-confidence, rather than to use something like “healthy narcissism”, likening that to “healthy illness”, an oxymoron. Today, I’d like to explore in a little more depth what we mean by the dark side, focusing on the somewhat weird interstitial realm of sub-clinical personality.

First, I’d like to thank Annie for her thoughtful comment. Her point is important: if we’re talking about good outcomes, we can’t really be talking about narcissism as we usually think of it, as a disorder. That’s true! Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a psychopathology, and by definition, dysfunctional. But, what we’re talking about with subclinical characteristics isn’t just a healthy self-esteem, either.

Subclinical narcissism has all of the facets of its clinical variant. How we tend to think of subclinical characteristics, like subclinical narcissism, is as being far less extreme than their clinical variants. So, subclinical narcissism, unlike NPD, doesn’t necessarily hinder the person’s day-to-day functioning. He or she may get along fine, most of the time. However, their self-aggrandizing, grandiose, entitled behavior tends to poison the well over time. Acquaintances will generally come to view these individuals negatively. I’ve mentioned before how subclinical narcissists typically come to be seen as arrogant or hostile.

The most important thing to see here is the time horizon. Subclinical narcissism is likely to convey short-term advantages: job opportunities, mating opportunities, and so forth. However, the behavior is generally seen as socially noxious, and therefore confers long-term disadvantages. So, the narcissist is essentially taking a big win today over a potentially larger win down the road. It’s hard to see this as healthy, but it’s far from pathological. For people in the right social/economic circumstances, it might even be the most rational use of their personal resources.

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