Can Narcissism Ever Be a Good Thing?
It depends. Like much of life, we want to know clearly in black or white. So, when is narcissism ever a good thing?
Rather than the black/white or good/bad question, perhaps it’s better to ask: is it maladaptive or adaptive? When does narcissism help an individual and those around them adapt to life’s challenges? When does narcissism cause pain and suffering?
Within this polarity, between these disparate poles, it’s helpful to see narcissism on a spectrum. Much of narcissism lies between the extremes. It’s a gradiation, a variation of degrees along an array of behaviors, attitudes and values. There’s bad and good, but there’s also many shades of grey from one end to the other.
How did you discover narcissism?
Having come this far in your own journey with narcissism, you likely already know a lot about one end of that spectrum: pathological narcissism. Maybe you were born with a narcissist parent or family member, or maybe your boss or a coworker, clearly displays destructive and maladaptive narcissism. Like many, maybe the first place you really discovered this problem was when you married a person with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
To confirm, and perhaps review your first-hand experiences, the broad diagnostic criteria for a person with NPD are as follows: an ongoing pattern of grandiosity, in fantasy or behavior, coupled with unrealistic needs for admiration. That craving for attention is almost always paired with a lack of empathy. These traits manifest in early adulthood, and are present in a variety of contexts as indicated by five or more of the following:
1. Has an over inflated sense of self-importance.
2. Fixation fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believe that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions.
4. Requires excessive adoration.
5. Has an unshakable sense of entitlement and is interpersonally exploitative.
6. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
7. Feigns interest in others to exploit or use others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows self-important behaviors or attitudes.
A little bit helps but a lot can hurt
Dr. Heinz Kohut, born in Austria, trained in Vienna and past president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, first stated that there was such a thing as “healthy narcissism.” In his Analysis of the Self (International Universities Press, 1971) and later in The Restoration of Self (International Universities Press, 1977) Kohut suggests we all have an innate need to develop a strong ego and positive sense of self.
Dr. Kohut postulated this positive sense of self was achieved early in development by primary child-minders. When care givers are attentive to the developing child, by making the child feel admired and worthy of admiration, the child and eventually the grown-up person, develops healthy narcissism. Nurturance develops a sturdy ego that’s not over-inflated.
People need to feel accepting about themselves to thrive. We all desire approval in order to feel loved, important, valued, significant, capable, confident, courageous and powerful. These traits of self-worth are healthy and enable a person adapt to life’s challenges.
What it looks like
What is healthy narcissism? How does it show up in actions, attitudes and values? In Kohut’s psychoanalytic theory, the summarized qualities of healthy narcissism often include:
- Not only accepting the admiration of others but also showing it to others.
- Having a realistic and durable sense of self-esteem and self-worth.
- Displaying an adaptive sense of pride in oneself and one’s accomplishments.
- Showing an appreciation of the needs of others and the ability to empathize with them.
- Drawing upon your own emotional resilience, and realistically bouncing back from adversity.
- Feeling and demonstrating realistic self-love and self-respect.
- Being genuinely authentic in personal conduct—authentic realism with yourself and others.
- Showing an ability to approve of ourselves and to tolerate the disapproval of others.
- Having the realization and confidence to have hopes, dreams, ambitions, and the belief in one’s ability to make decisions that positively impact one’s life and the lives of others.
See yourself on the functional end of the spectrum
Healthy, adaptive narcissism does exist; it can be as simple as flashing your smile in front of a mirror after lunch to make sure there’s no spinach stuck to your teeth. It also means looking into the mirror of introspection and having realistic self-awareness about what you have accomplished and how content you are with these accomplishments. Not like a big head; more like a level head.
Functional narcissism means you have a quiet confidence about yourself. You appreciate your intimate relationships, your family, your work and your community. You think and feel ok-to-good about most aspects of your life. Such personal self-assurance is truly healthy narcissism. And it can indeed be a very a good thing.
Psychotherapist Darden Bynum, M.A., M.S.W, is a licensed clinical social worker. His telehealth work with survivors of narcissistic abuse and domestic violence spans many years in public and private practice settings. He can be reached at [email protected].