Healthy Narcissism

"If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?" - Rabbi Hillel, First Century CE.

Narcissism or self-centeredness has been on the mind of great thinkers since antiquity. Unfortunately, in today's popular culture it is the very skewed tabloid, reality show, and clinically pathological kind of narcissism that is most prominent. But in fact, narcissism is a normal part of human development and it is important to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy narcissism.

What is healthy narcissism? Useful descriptions include self-confidence rooted in genuine competence; self-esteem that is linked to meeting reasonable goals; wholehearted altruism; giving others the benefit of the doubt when there is circumstantial evidence to the contrary, and discovering the value in different points of view rather than quickly dismissing them.

What is unhealthy narcissism? Behaviors like excessive selfishness; making hurtfully blunt and clueless comments; being grandiose and vain; hearing others' feedback as personal attacks; or constantly putting yourself down.

We all struggle with unhealthy narcissism particularly when our limitations and imperfections surface. The most common reactions are to become insulted and defensive. Consequently, we can become frustrated, resentful, overwhelmed, or judgmental. The ability to cultivate greater compassion for our own mistakes, shortcomings and setbacks, and those of others, is essential for healthy narcissism to develop.

Healthy narcissism enables us to be curious, learn from experiences, steady ourselves, and pursue our goals. Everyone understands that a toddler will bump her head or fall down while learning to become competent at standing and walking. Unfortunately, we forget this process when it applies to skill building around healthy narcissism and acceptance needed for practice and making mistakes.

An effective strategy for building healthy narcissism is to pay attention to defensive behaviors and use them as cues to recognize when your narcissism is becoming lopsided and unhealthy. Lopsidedness means either paying too much attention to yourself at the expense of others or conversely focusing too much attention on others at the expense of yourself. Reinterpreting common defensive behaviors and using them as signals to do something else will allow you to flip that negative reaction into a productive response and steady yourself. Just like learning to walk - practice makes permanent.

Cue: Frustration

Frustration can happen when others don't agree with your perspective and can result in your becoming cynical and close-minded about their ideas. Ask yourself: do you feel you are right and the other person is wrong? To gain perspective and steady yourself: put yourself on the spot and ask a skeptical question about your own logic, then act as if there is more than one problem to solve. See if this strategy results in others opening up their minds.

Cue: Resentment

Resentment can happen when others show a lack of appreciation towards you and can result in your becoming disappointed and easily offended. Ask yourself: do you feel taken advantage of or taken for granted? To gain perspective and steady yourself: think of something you are proud of at home or work, then act as if you are proud of others' contributions and tell them. See if modeling appreciation of others results in others appreciating you more.

Cue: Overwhelmed

Being overwhelmed can happen when other people's problems continually take precedence over your own. This can result in your feeling guilty if you don't help others, yet overwhelmed if you do. Ask yourself: are you overwhelmed because by meeting someone else's needs your needs are not being met? To gain perspective and steady yourself: give yourself permission to act as if taking care of yourself first will make it easier to help someone else. See if modeling the airplane safety tip of giving yourself oxygen first results in you being able to help others and not get depleted.

Cue: Judgmental

Being judgmental can happen when you perceive a situation to be unfair and results in your labeling people "good guys" or "bad guys". Ask yourself: do you know the whole story? To gain perspective and steady yourself: imagine a scenario where there is more than one solution, then act as if both the "bad guys" and the "good guys" will contribute to solving the problem. Encourage a win/win way of resolving the problem.

Narcissism is a complex developmental stage that impacts professional and personal success. Like other aspects of a healthy lifestyle, healthy narcissism requires that we make mindful choices. Monitoring your behavior, and using the information as cues to modify defensive tactics, will further your progress in dealing with the inherent tension between healthy and unhealthy narcissism. By making a conscious choice to increase your capacity for healthy narcissism, you will build interpersonal strength and flexibility that lasts a lifetime.