In the previous post, the concept of grandiose narcissism was discussed. It is considered to be an appropriate developmental stage that all children must experience. As I explained, it is a normal stage of life through which we must transit successfully in order to mature into adults who are capable of having healthy adult relationships and a positive self-image.
In this post, I will talk about the distinction between healthy narcissism and an unhealthy narcissistic personality disorder. I believe strongly in the concept of healthy narcissism. It is not a negative term. This term represents the idea of good, or healthy, self-interest. All of our actions are in service of our “self.” Many if not most of our actions (or choices) are unconscious. We generally do not think about what is in my best interest, or my self-interest, as we make hundreds of choices throughout the day. Most of what we chose and how we behave is safely on auto pilot, with the choices being made in and by our unconscious. That part of our self runs quietly in the back ground and is the operative engine that runs most of our days.
Our conscious self, on the other hand, makes rational, planned, and aware choices. These choices are often part of a larger, usually conscious, chosen plan of action that helps us move in the direction of choice for our life. Such a pattern would be saving money to buy a new car, or going to school in order to get a degree in a field of interest, or planning a vacation to Europe. When we teach ourselves to set goals and take the steps to accomplish them we are practicing another developmentally appropriate skill. This becomes possible when we learn how to think rationally and evaluate choices and costs. Ideally, transitioning to the developmentally appropriate skill of rational thinking and inductive and deductive logic is, according to Jean Piaget, a developmental stage of growth for all of us. However, some of us are able to better develop this skill because we study it and try to develop it in a more conscious way.
Narcissism in our culture is generally perceived negatively. I say that we need a healthy dose of narcissism to feel confident and sure of ourselves. Our sense-of-self as independent, sentient beings IS our sense of narcissism; “I know me, I like me, I want to behave in ways that promote, reward, and please me.” This is our script, albeit an unconscious one, most of the time. I believe that as we mature and grow, we learn to attempt to satisfy our sense-of-self in ways that are appropriate to our culture, our philosophy, and our moral teachings. There are certainly ways to satisfy ourselves that we reject because they are not acceptable behavioral choices. The cost of making these “negative” choices is too high, and we are not willing to pay them if we are thinking, rational, and aware.
Choices made under this direction are the choices I consider healthy narcissism. They are choices that promote our goals, provide us with pleasure and satisfaction, and the good things that are acceptable within our cultural, moral, and philosophical framework. These choices are worth the cost, because the rewards are worth the effort and are not destructive to the individual or to others.
Therefore, I would advocate the idea that everyone is possessed of narcissistic traits, or tendencies which promote self-establishment and self-interest. We are built to pursue these goals, consciously and unconsciously. Everyone has narcissistic (self- interested and self-loving) traits. Some people do not have a governor, or regulator, on these character traits. They do not set limits and do not count costs to themselves or others. Those who are structured thusly have what is often called Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or, in extreme cases, Antisocial Personality Disorder. This disorder is characterized by the inability to feel empathy for someone else, or put the interest of others ahead of their own self-interests. They are not altruistic and do not see themselves as part of a larger whole. They are entirely self-focused and all their patterns of choice-making are in the service of their self-satisfaction without regard to potential costs to themselves and others. The pervasiveness and intensity of this pattern of self-aggrandizement is what is called the Personality Disorder of Narcissism.
Good therapy is designed to help individuals identify and claim their healthy narcissism which is dedicated to the achievement of goals, show concern for the importance of others (members of our family, community, and nation) in ways which are acceptable to the whole and bring positive rewards to us as individuals. Healthy individuals seek to develop lives with self-ownership and self-esteem which is balanced against the larger needs of our community. We can and often do, choose self-interest as part of a larger whole and still choose self-interest as a unique individual. The importance lies in the balance. Good therapy will help you learn to identify and find the balance that will work for you.