January 15, 2010

Healthy Narcissism and Self-Admiration

Hide and Seek by James Tissot 

“Healthy narcissism plays a crucial role in the human capacity to manage challenges, successes and changes; to overcome defeats, illnesses, trauma, and losses; to love and be productive and creative; and to experience happiness, satisfaction, and acceptance of the course of one’s life.

“In a broad sense, narcissism refers to feelings and attitudes towards one’s own self and to normal development and self-regulation. It is the core of normal healthy self-esteem, affects, and relationships. In psychoanalytic terms, normal narcissism is defined as a positive investment in a normally functioning self-structure.” ~Elsa Ronningstam

Is narcissism healthy? “Healthy For Whom?”

This is the question Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell ask in their book, The Narcissism Epidemic. For those who have suffered narcissistic abuse and/or life-altering trauma, narcissism is a pejorative. Narcissists hurt people, victimize innocent others, & destroy people’s meaningful beliefs about themselves and the world. Anyone who has dealt with a narcissist might question the idea that narcissism is healthy. We know from first-hand experience that narcissism is a destructive element in all relationships. We know narcissist’s excessive self-admiration develops hubris, arrogance, alienation from others, and as theorized by psychologists: alienation (disconnection) from their True Self.

Healthy Narcissism appears to be an oxymoron if you have been the victim of a narcissist’s aggressive, destructive, malignant envy, and (sad to say) intentional malice. 

A few weeks ago, an anonymous poster left a comment challenging my post on "healthy" narcissism. Our disagreement may be based on confusion between the psychodynamic definition of healthy narcissism and narcissism as a personality trait. Let me try to define the distinction between narcissism as the foundation to stable self-esteem in contrast to narcissism as measured by the NPI (Narcissistic Personality Inventory). 

Healthy Narcissism as a Psychodynamic Process

“In a broad sense, narcissism refers to feelings and attitudes toward one’s own self and to normal development and self-regulation. It is the core of normal healthy self-esteem, affects, and relationships. In psychoanalytic terms, normal narcissism is defined as a positive investment in a normally functioning self-structure.” ~Elsa Ronningstam, (page 31)

Healthy narcissism is the foundation to stable self-esteem that is not subject to extreme fluctuations. Failures, mistakes, stress, or even successes can threaten 'fragile' self-esteem, deflating or inflating one's self-perceptions to an unhealthy degree. Connecting to an inner core of the True Self is essential for establishing healthy narcissism. In other words, connection with the True feeling Self sustains our worth in times of crisis, severe stress, and increases our capacity to grieve significant losses.

Though psychological theories might differ on the etiology of pathological narcissism, psychologists agree that healthy narcissism evolves from a secure attachment to parental figures in childhood. Adoring parents who, if they are doing their job well, slowly frustrate our self-centeredness. This will set limits on selfish behavior and grandiosity. Through consistent mirroring of our ‘specialness’, we come to trust we are lovable, valuable, and worthy. Our self-esteem is less susceptible to extreme fluctuations in reaction to criticism or failure.

Healthy narcissism increases tolerance for shame, guilt, and remorse—fundamental to healthy social integration. Our narcissism is held in check by our capacity to empathize and introspect, by the value we place on community, and our ability to commit to others. These abilities restrain unhealthy narcissism thus deepening bonds to others and to the self.

Using this understanding of ‘healthy narcissism’ as a developmental process, we can say that someone with a Narcissistic Personality may be unhealthy, but not necessarily pathological; i.e.: resistant to treatment, change, or cure. What we define as a Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

A Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Clinical Narcissism

In a clinical description, a person either IS a narcissist, or is NOT a narcissist. Qualified professionals make this determination based on observation of at least five qualifying criteria out of nine listed in the DSM-IV. These nine criteria are subject to change as research clarifies varying manifestations of a narcissistic personality disorder. A person with a suspected NPD will have impaired relationships, a long-term pattern of narcissistic behaviors, rigid defenses, work failures, even depression, and/or suicidal episodes. Anyone diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder manifests unhealthy narcissism.

The narcissistic personality disorder is a clinical diagnosis much like a medical diagnosis. In other words, you either have a broken leg or you don’t. To clinical psychologists, a person has a Narcissistic Personality Disorder or they don’t. If they have a NPD however, the narcissistic traits are pathological because their narcissism is unhealthy. To suggest that someone with a narcissistic personality disorder exhibits ‘healthy narcissism’ is a fallacy.

Unfortunately, many of their character traits are viewed as valuable in a competitive society. Most people who are hurt by narcissists were basing their perceptions of narcissism on faulty knowledge about personality disorders. The pathological Narcissistic Personality Disorder is often mistaken for its look-alike cousin: A Narcissistic Personality.

A Narcissistic Personality
Non-clinical narcissism

"Self-admiration sounds great and is a central tenet of modern American culture. But self-admiration taken too far has a distinct downside: narcissism and all of the negative behaviors that flow from it." ~The Narcissism Epidemic (page 18)

Using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (the NPI), researchers like Twenge and Campbell measure non-clinical narcissism. Discerning narcissism as a personality trait means someone may be labelled A Narcissist if their score on the NPI exceeds social norms. The NPI merely says that someone has high narcissistic traits in comparison to most people.

The degree of their narcissism might be 'unhealthy' even though psychologically, they have healthy-enough narcissism to support the work they must do countering egotistical behaviors causing relational problems with others and with themselves.

Note: If someone has a high score on the NPI, then they may want to consult with a professional psychologist who can diagnose whether or not they have a personality disorder. Also, an excessively low score on the NPI might indicate a lack of healthy narcissism. A low sense of entitlement may or may not be indication of a narcissistic pathology. Sometimes separating from the narcissist is all people have to do to restore their self-esteem. Establishing intimate, successful, and satisfying relationships increases our sense of competence and worth.

To a non-narcissist, community is valuable; arrogant self-sufficiency is a lie; and affective bonds to intimate relationships are a priority. (Get to know people who are not pathologically narcissistic and your self-confidence will be restored.)

Social research measures the degree of narcissistic traits in a 'non-clinical' personality. Someone with a narcissistic personality may be capable of sustaining relationships, forming intimate bonds with others, and excelling in the workplace without being pathological. In other words, they empathize with others, have compassion, suffer guilt and remorse, are loyal, and maintain social values contributing to mental health---values which temper unhealthy narcissism. However, others may perceive them as arrogant, pompous, overly focused on image or ‘self’ and invested in getting whatever they want at other people's expense.

All narcissists are hard to live with requiring empathic partners who will restrict their selfishness by setting boundaries on entitlement and self-serving behaviors. When narcissists are called on their bad behavior, they may be able to resolve or eradicate unhealthy narcissism because they VALUE relationships, experience empathy, and have the capacity to introspect, grieve, mourn and change behaviors that create the problems their self-admiration is causing.

“People with healthy levels of narcissism are also able to step outside their own perspective long enough to assess how their behavior may be affecting others around them. This ability to avoid becoming stuck in narcissistic mode, and to consider the impact of your actions on the feelings of others, is one of the key distinctions between healthy and extreme levels of narcissism.” Drew Pinsky, (page 90)

Normalizing Narcissism: self-admiration

“If you need others to admire you and be the source of your self esteem you are not "healthy".” ~Alice Miller

If self-admiration becomes the 'norm' for human behavior, then an average score on the NPI is not an indication of mental health even if society normalizes narcissistic behavior. The more society views narcissistic traits as healthy (normal), the unhealthier we become. Perceiving narcissistic behavior as healthy in a non-clinical setting is a misnomer for it is never healthy to be selfish, egotistical, self-admiring, superior to others, self-serving, inordinately self-sufficient, or to compensate for mortal weaknesses and vulnerabilities with an inflated ego. And it goes without saying that it is never beneficial to society when individual entitlement justifies using people to meet one's own needs (exploitativeness) without restriction.

Self-admiration may be considered normal these days, but that does not mean it is ‘healthy’. As long as we tolerate self-admiration as normal, we hinder communal values that must be sustained for our society to be healthy, to raise productive children, to counter anti-social behavior and eliminate self-centeredness destroying public safety, trust, and everyone’s freedom.

This is where my concern rests today: the normalization of self-admiration. The more normal or healthy we consider narcissistic traits to be, such as blatant self-promotion and a drive for ‘uniqueness’, the further we get from communal values fostering life satisfaction. Ask any older person what gave their lives meaning and they generally say, “My family. My friends. My relationships.” Rarely will anyone declare that self-admiration brought joy and fulfillment. This perspective may change if fame and fortune are normalized as the measure of human success (I believe we are witnessing this change in our culture today as fame/celebrity becomes a valued goal). If we want our children to be successful in life, then subscribing to the narcissistic standard of self-admiration validated by admiring others is a sure method for thwarting everyone’s happiness.

Narcissism, as defined by excessive self-admiration, is never healthy. It is always destructive to one’s self and most assuredly, to others.

Healthy Narcissism mitigates unhealthy narcissism

“Whoever loves becomes humble. Those who love have, so to speak, pawned a part of their narcissism.” ~Sigmund Freud

Maturation requires a voluntary sacrifice of childish narcissism. Maturation demands relinquishing our preoccupation with the self: omnipotence, superiority to others, arrogance, omniscience, viewing the self as the center of the universe. Our narcissism is whittled away when life challenges mortal hubris.

“The ultimate blow to narcissism is the fact of our own death; coming to terms with death is a mark of maturity and wisdom. For [Heinz] Kohut, narcissism, successfully negotiated, leads to the capacity to accept mortality, to see oneself as one is without over-or-underestimation, to develop a sense of creativity and humour and to trust one’s intuition and empathy. The paradox of this process is that narcissism needs to be healthily established before it can be given up.” Jeremy Holmes (page 43)

If our narcissism has not been surrendered by midlife, a crisis between self-perception and reality results. If we developed healthy-enough narcissism during childhood, an intimate connection to the True Self will cushion adult fragility, increase resiliency, initiate acceptance of our extraordinary ordinariness, and sustain a legitimate grieving of our losses…including the willing sacrifice of our narcissism.



Ideas in Psychoanalysis: Narcissism by Jeremy Holmes

Identifying and Understanding the Narcissistic Personality by Elsa F. Ronningstam

Living in the Age of Entitlement: The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell

The Mirror Effect by Drew Pinsky and S. Mark Young


  1. Outstanding article. What happens when one individual (person A) accuses another (Person B)of being narcissistic with out a pattern of facts to support the accusation. Is Person B unhealthy and self-absorbed OR does Person A lack self-esteem? Of course, each situation will differ, but I have seen too many

  2. Hi anonymous,

    Far too often, the narcissist accuses other people of being self-centered, arrogant, un-empathic, and Disordered to some degree.

    Any trait the narcissist finds hard to bear within him or herself, is automatically projected onto others.

    This is UNCONCIOUS and that's very important to realize. The narcissist appears to be convinced because to him, what he sees is the truth.

    What is so hard for the partner (or scapegoated child, etc.) is separating ourselves enough to realize we are NOT what we're accused of being. Since narcissistic relationships tend to be 'enmeshed', most people aren't quite sure of who they are (or as people write: where they leave off and the narcissist begins).

    Time tells the tale. Narcissistic patterns of behavior don't suddenly change, even if the narcissist changes the actors in the drama. Pathological narcissism is a long-standing pattern of behavior.

    Once the narc-relationship ends, people are freed to discover who they truly are and the narcissist? Well, he or she goes on to repeat the same story over and over again.


  3. Excessive self admiration you say? Hmmmm, where is the grey area? Area in which you can admire your self in healthy measures without becoming conceited or arrogant, just loving yourself and if you are that great admiring your self? Nothing wrong with that! And since there is a grey area it can stay at that, you can admire your self, your looks, your achievements etc. but not letting it cross into arrogance is the key. Humans are intelligent enough to combine self admiration in healthy doses while also being realistic and humble. As I said, grey area is where wonders happen!

    1. If self-admiration crosses over into harming other people, then it's not a grey area. It's unhealthy.

      Narcissism is an escape from reality. If we are spinning reality to cover our "sins", reinventing ourselves and fabricating a story to enhance our self-esteem, that is unhealthy narcissism.

      I might tell myself everyday that my writing is worth people's time. That's enough self-enhancement for me to keep putting my thoughts into words. But if I must tell myself that my writing is superior to all others in order to feel valuable, then that's unhealthy narcissism. Self-enhancement enters dangerous territory when reality is denied, when people hold themselves to standards of perfection. I'm sure everyone reading this blog has encountered someone who saw themselves as morally superior when they were doing things to contradict "The Facts" of their lives.

      Dr. Frank Yeoman offers an example of narcissistic "enhancement" in one of his lectures. He was treating a patient who had inflated her status as an employee to sound as if she were advising the CEO directly, she was that important to the company. This 'grandiose self-enhancement' was not grounded in reality because she had actually been hired as an entry-level telemarketer.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


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