Narcissism exists on a spectrum, and sometimes a little of it can be a good thing. Here’s how to tell if you’ve got the right kind.
The word narcissism isn’t usually associated with anything positive. Thoughts of a friend who never asks about your life or a parent who puts their needs before yours probably come to mind.
But there is a form of narcissism that is actually beneficial to your day-to-day life, experts say — and it’s known simply as “healthy narcissism.”
“Narcissism runs on a spectrum, and that means one can either have too much narcissism, as seen in narcissistic personality disorder, or not enough narcissism, which can lead to depression and low self-esteem,” said Hannah Alderete, a licensed mental health counselor based in Washington state and the author of “Break Free From Narcissistic Mothers: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Ending Toxic Behavior, Setting Boundaries, and Reclaiming Your Life.”
Over time, the idea of any kind of narcissism has morphed into a bad thing, said Sarah Graham, a counselor based in Bournemouth, England, who specializes in working with adults who have narcissistic parents or partners. And for many, it can be an issue.
When someone has narcissistic personality disorder it’s all about their own needs, Graham said, which can immensely damage children and partners of a narcissist.
Graham noted that when the word narcissism comes up, it tends to be linked with pathological narcissism, which is the extreme side of the spectrum mentioned above. “The definition of pathological actually … is people who are unable to control part of their behavior or they’re unreasonable,” Graham said.
It’s important to understand that healthy narcissism is very different from narcissistic personality disorder and does not excuse any narcissistic abuse that people face. Narcissistic personality disorder can cause issues and deserves mental health treatment — both for the person who lives with narcissism and the people suffering from narcissistic abuse. But Graham said there is also a level of healthy narcissism that isn’t negative.
Healthy narcissism occurs when you’re on the middle of the spectrum, Alderete said — “enough to get us to accomplish our goals, but not so much that we trample over others and become rigidly self-focused.”
That healthy amount of narcissism is what is pushing us to reach our goals, she said. “In fact, you could argue it’s the thing getting us out of bed in the morning,” Alderete added.
“If we all try to be the opposite of narcissistic, then we’re all going to end up in that echoism kind of mentality, aren’t we?” Graham added. (Echoism is the opposite of narcissism; it’s when one doesn’t like attention and has a fear of being viewed as narcissistic.) “Actually, we need healthy narcissism to be able to function properly and be happy.”
So, do you possess a healthy amount of narcissism? Here are the signs to look for, according to experts.
You’re able to be alone.
Graham pointed to the research of the late Dr. James F. Masterson, a psychiatrist who focused on narcissism. Masterson found that people who demonstrate healthy narcissism are able to be alone. For example, they don’t jump from relationship to relationship just to fill the space around them.
Someone who is narcissistic may feel abandoned when they’re alone; someone with healthy narcissism understands that there is a difference between the two, Graham said. Someone who is able to be alone understands that being alone is better than dead-end relationships or being around people who don’t really care about them, she added.
You can regulate your self-esteem.
“Being able to regulate one’s self-esteem essentially means that a person is able to work through the normal challenges of life without attaching their self-worth to the outcome,” Alderete said.
“For instance, those with healthy narcissism could be defined as having an internal locus of control,” she noted. In other words, your sense of control comes from within and is not dictated by things happening around you.
“A person who’s able to regulate their self-esteem has an internal locus of control, which allows them to take responsibility and accountability for their behavior and helps them take ownership over their feelings,” she said.
You’re able to cope when you don’t get your way.
Adulthood is full of surprises and situations that don’t always work in your favor — or full of moments that require you to put others’ needs before yours ― and that’s OK.
For a narcissist, this is hard to handle. “An individual with narcissistic personality disorder may become indignant, outraged and obsessive when they do not get what they want,” Alderete said.
Comparatively, someone with traits of healthy narcissism will be able to bend to these changes. “An individual with healthy narcissism … can cope well when they don’t get their way or are unable to meet a specific need. They can be flexible with the outcome, and this allows them to face life’s challenges with grace,” she said.
You don’t need to be admired.
When someone is giving a speech or lecture, they want the audience to learn and be interested in what they’re saying — this is healthy narcissism, Graham explained. A narcissist, on the other hand, wants to be admired during the speech and wants the audience to tell them how well they did during the lecture.
“[The difference is] in the motivation of our behaviors, actually. So it can be the same behavior, but whatever’s going on inside their mind is the important thing,” Graham said.
A need for admiration is a hallmark sign of narcissism, and that is evident in many different situations — from work settings to family settings.
According to Alderete, demonstrating self-caring behaviors is another sign of healthy narcissism. This means you have the desire to take care of yourself and meet your needs.
This could look like signing up for your favorite yoga class or treating yourself to your favorite meal when you need it. Additionally, this self-care also means you aren’t afraid to stick up for yourself.
“You have the ability to set boundaries with others and to communicate more assertively,” Graham said.
You can truly experience your feelings.
Pointing again to Masterson’s research, Graham said people who have a healthy amount of narcissism can experience feelings deeply.
When it comes to narcissists, “there’s underlying shame and feelings of inadequacy,” Graham said, which inhibits the true feeling of feelings mentioned above. Instead, life may feel like a running list of jobs or tasks.
Folks should be able to deeply feel emotions like excitement, happiness and spontaneity.
Whether they’re based around work, travel or family, goals are something a person with healthy narcissism has. Graham noted that even with setbacks, you’ll find yourself striving for a goal when it’s something you’re passionate about and in your best interest.
For echoists (people on the opposite side of the narcissism spectrum), it’s hard to state your goals and needs because you are so used to being of service to those around you, Graham said.
You know you deserve respect and that others do, too.
Graham said someone with healthy narcissism is going to want and expect to be treated well, and will treat those around them with respect, too. That could look like checking in on loved ones or not being afraid to stick up for yourself when a colleague tries to take credit for your work.
“They have a really healthy relationship with themselves and with other people,” she said.
The hallmark signs of a narcissist are very different from what’s mentioned above.
By comparison, someone who has narcissistic personality disorder may believe they are better than those around them, need constant validation, and lack empathy, Alderete said.
As mentioned above, healthy narcissism is necessary for goal-setting, understanding your feelings and living a life that is meaningful. In other words, it’s an ideal state of being.
If you struggle to feel this way — or if you feel you’re on a far side of the spectrum — there are therapists you can reach out to for support. You can use the Psychology Today database to find a provider near you or look at other online databases like Inclusive Therapists.
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