What is Healthy Narcissism?

Narcissism has generated an overwhelmingly negative reputation since its conceptualisation in the field of psychoanalysis. One could be forgiven for thinking that a consensual validation had been reached about its entrenched reputation as a deleterious characteriological trait or considerably more serious psychopathological condition that necessitates psychiatric and psychotherapeutic attention. Some authors have gone so far as to suggest that narcissism is culpable for the degeneration of the moral fibre of western civilisation. Whether it be an overinflated sense of entitlement, or the purported rampant use of social media for the purposes of uploading heavily retouched selfies, narcissism has been unrelentingly maligned as something irredeemably negative. Narcissism is far too complex a state for oversimplifications of this kind and thus a more nuanced approach demands to be applied to help us expand our understanding of the phenomenon.

The truth of the matter is that narcissism is much more interesting and in fact essential for our mental health. Unbeknown to many, there exists a commensurate tradition of narcissism being recognised as contrarily advantageous for a person's psychological health--with narcissism existing on a continuum from healthy to unhealthy. If a person has too much narcissism, say situated at the far end of the spectrum, such a person would indeed conform to the quintessential symptomological picture of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as delineated in the American psychiatric textbook known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). These pathognomonic traits include egocentricity, grandiosity, obsessionality surrounding a hypertrophied self-image and a disconcerting incapacity to empathically understand others.

Conversely, a person on the other end of the continuum would exhibit a measurable deficiency in self-regard entirely and their interpersonal associations are typically characterised as allocentric. This complexus of self-minimisation and exclusive community-mindedness is otherwise known as echoism. Being at the opposite end of the continuum, echosim is the antithesis of psychopathological narcissism in that the afflicted person has a marked retrenchment of the ego. Echoists are unbendingly averse to asserting themselves and express unerring distaste for commendation of any kind. Being the centre of attention is unendurable. In contradistinction to the narcissist, an echoists needs are indistinct and oftentimes unidentifiable as their locus of evaluation, or the source by which experience is appraised with positive or negative valance, has been externalised to others. Though this is applicable to persons on either end of the continuum, it is arguably far more pronounced in those whose interpersonal relationships are typified by submissiveness.

As narcissism is therefore understood to operate on a continuum, with the polarity of echoism and pathological narcissism being situated on far end of the left or right side of the spectrum respectively, healthy narcissism is located somewhere in the middle. A person with a wholesome degree of narcissism embodies psychological qualities concordant with humanistic psychological constructs of psychosaneology. In concrete terms, this means that someone possesses an unshakeable connection with his or her own organismic valuing system and exhibits unyielding confidence in their own self-feeling. They are able to articulate and integrate their experience without undue trepidation about upsetting the equilibrium of the people around them. This capacity to embrace their idiosyncrasies as an integral part of who they are is conducive to being open to all of their sensory and visceral experience and its vicissitudes. Loving other people in the person's life is commensurate with their own unashamed enjoyment and joie de ivre of being who they authentically are.

Whether or not one's narcissism becomes a source of psychological maladjustment is oftentimes contingent on whether our interpersonal relationships were sound or unsound during our formative years. It is during the embryonic or primordial stages of the self-organisations development that a person is particularly susceptible to malformations. A principle element in psychological growth is the manner our needs were received and met by our caregivers. This epoch of infancy and childhood therefore usually holds the key to discerning the critical preconditions that have led to an organism's healthy narcissism to metamorphose into something malevolent. Variations on the continuum are therefore largely based on environmental factors. Briefly examining these contributive factors may be illuminating in helping us to recognise how important narcissism is to our psychological health and how we can go about protecting it from degradation.

An instructive place to start would be the phenomenon of narcissistic elation. A useful concept that elegantly describes the infant's prototypical narcissism can be found in the late Hungarian psychoanalyst Bela Grunberger's 'narcissistic coenaesthetic expansion'. Theoreticians and practitioners have pointed to the unambiguous sense of narcissistic joy that accompanies the infant's autonomous exploration of their bodies and circumambient reality--with his or her movements towards an locomotive, ambulatory state serving a prime example. The triumphant sense of accomplishment ensuing from bringing about autogenic changes in the environment, unfurling untapped potentialities and increasing mastery of their faculties, asseverates the underlying force of what person-centred psychology calls the actualising tendency. Pleasure is derived from an honest love affair with the world.

This narcissistic elation is vulnerable to being curbed through interactions and transactions the organism has with the people in their intrafamilial and extrafamilial proximity. Instead of empathising and reflecting the sense of excitement and gratification that's engendered by following their own organismic values and promptings, whether it be yelling in excitement for conquering a task, or playing rough with a sibling, punitive rebuffs communicate the message that a part of their being is absolutely unacceptable to those they love. During the process of socialisation, our experience is not infrequently met with unvarying disapprobation from the people closest to us that thereby upsets our belief of being someone worthy of love and acceptance. Certain aspects of our attitudes and behaviour are liable to elicit punishment or ridicule and our organic confidence in our own self-feeling can be consequently undermined to the point of relinquishment. We will efface our own organismic predilections to appease and fit in with our environment.

A boy may cry after having fallen off his bicycle. Getting up, he may notice his skin is grazed and lacerations have caused bleeding. He calls attention to his injury and wishes to communicate his distress to his caregivers. Whilst he may anticipate compassionate understanding and commiseration, his mother or father may quickly downplay his pain by assuring the child that there's nothing to cry about; reprimanding him for dramatising his pain in a baseless solicitation of sympathy. He may be commanded to walk it off and affection may be sharply withdrawn. The message he receives is that it is not permissible to express what he feels organismically as that would endanger his nascent feeling of being lovable and worthwhile. Given the child's helplessness vis-a-vis the caregiveing one, he is naturally dependent on their ministrations for his survival. Evoking displeasure can endanger his sense of being loved from the very people whose care he unequivocally needs. If a male child jubilantly talks about his affinity for ballet dancing and aspires to become ballerina one day, only to be told by his caregivers that such ambition is unsuitable for a boy, he will repress his perceptions in order that they become aligned with his caregivers.

Irrespective of whether the need for positive regard is intrinsic to the organism or the product of acculturating conditioning, as some continue to animatedly debate in academic circles, we all appear to be susceptible to becoming estranged from our organism in order that the love we desire from our parents and compeers isn't jeopardised. Those parts of ourselves that risk accruing negative regard become unassimiliable with our evolving self-concept and they're energetically repelled. This experiences cannot be held in a symbolic relationship to the picture we have of ourselves. When experience contradictory to our prevailing concept of self encroaches upon our awareness, especially if it violates an entrenched condition of worth, our psychic equilibrium suffers. Psychological defence mechanisms, or security operations, are usually deployed to either distort experience so that it's compatible with the self or denied in their entirety. These defences are also mobilised when dystonic sensory and visceral experience catalyses the disorganisation of the self-structure and reparations of the disintegrated self-structure subsequently ensue.

Our foundational self-esteem predicated on being harmoniously connected to our inbuilt organismic wisdom can be severely compromised as we're engaged in a sequence of adjustments to preserve our caregivers approbation. Our attention is focalised by a gradient of anxiety that gauges whether our interpersonal associations function in keeping us feeling secure and safe. If maintaining our caregivers love requires that we dissociate fundamental portions of our experience, contorting our unabridged innervation to conform with these extrinsic values we later go on to internalise, we will do so. The impoverishment of our indigenous self-love or primary narcissism is the repercussive eventuality of repudiating this biophilic predisposition. Instead of taking joy in discovering and realising our unparalleled power as a unique, irreproducicble being, with our own agency, we contract and our experience becomes something we fear could destabilise our highly conditional self-regard.

In the absence of healthy narcissism, we can be prevented from truly relishing in the elation that follows unapologetically being ourselves. This systematic repression of our self-love can atrophy our capacity to resolutely face adversity as our underappreciated and innate resilience, what can otherwise be considered an inner sustainment born from the original conviction of specialness, is buried under layers upon layers of encrusted psychological fortifications. Thankfully, these psychological malformations are not immutable. In a suitable therapeutic climate, our experience can be subject to exploration and differentiation so that the allochthonous can be distinguished from what we genuinely experience.

Upon closer inspection, we can truly ascertain whether our values are underlined by our organismic equipment or simply something we've incorporated from the outside. The introjects can be dissolved as we're given the permission to separate the wheat from the chaff. Formally enervated by negative estimations of our organic appetation, as in the example of a boy who wanted to pursue a career in ballet, we can retrieve the passions and vitality that we once sacrificed and betrayed. Our self-love is gradually reclaimed in the therapeutic relationship.

This organic self-love is unimpeachably distinct from the incongruent arrogation of selfhood that's emblematic of psychopathological narcissism. The latter is a product of a false self that has evolved to protect the afflicted individual from a recrudescence of psychological pain associated with the violent persecution and repression of his organismic self. Grandiose personifications are defensive constructions that rely on alloplastic adaptations, or outside changes in the environment, to keep their illusions of superiority afloat. Modifications of the environment can include surrounding themselves with people who provide them with much sought after narcissistic supply that reflects or reinforces their engorged and illusory ego. In its essence, like echoism at the other end of the continuum, it denotes alienation from the true self and its oppression at the hand of a false self comprised of introjects. Pathological narcissists are most certainly not in possession of a healthy self-love and feeling.

With an innocent appreciation and liking of our true self, we can exercise our organismic equipment unencumbered as we're now fully in touch with the whole dimension of our being. We grow more and more into our unlived potentialities--able to immerse ourselves in the rich diversity of sensations and opportunities that life affords us. Greater openness to experience, with information being relayed through the nervous system and conscious awareness unobstructed, maximises our ability to make more informed decisions as we reaffirm our commitment to navigate the terrain before us with unbiased eyes. We can evaluate experience without suppressing or denying the datum received by our interoceptive and exteroceptive sensory modalities and thereby become far more fully functioning. Falling in love with ourselves again is essential to maintaining vibrant mental health.

© 2020 by Dominic Hamilton-Leathart, BA MA MBACP. Proudly created with