“The self-preservation or desire and energy that drives one’s instinct to survive is a healthy trait termed primary narcissism” -Sigmund Freud

Can narcissism be healthy?

There is this saying that; “too much of everything is not good” does that suffice to say that if a thing is done in moderate amounts – in a sort of balanced level – then it is ok and acceptable? That would also potentially mean a “bad” trait can possibly be good if it is characterized in moderation?

When we hear of people who are labeled “narcissists” we automatically think of the bad there is to it – as is peculiar to humans, we are more likely to focus on the bad of a thing than we are of its positives – We think of an egotistic individual so self-absorbed and unfit to be associated with. We see it as a plague to be kept at arm’s length.

What if I told you that narcissism can be healthy?

Healthy narcissism was first introduced by Paul Federn, a psychologist known for his theoretical studies of the therapeutic treatment of psychosis and ego psychology. According to this theory, healthy narcissism is posited to be thought of “as a continuum of narcissism, from normal narcissism, healthy narcissism or having a modicum of narcissistic characteristics, to a full-blown Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) – which is a paradox by the way – on the other end.

There are multiple variations of narcissism, and according to Sigmund Freud, narcissism is natural to every human which helps us but can also serve as hubris. He described narcissism as “the libidinal complement to the egoism of the instinct of self-preservation“. This means it is a powerful tool that propels humans to assert themselves in the face of competition for survival and success.

Freud believed that narcissism is a natural component of human nature that can actually be instrumental in the psychological development of infants and only causes dysfunctional relationships and behavior when taken to an extreme.

When a child has imbibed the traits of self-confidence and self-love he becomes an individual who has realistic self-esteem and if balanced, does not lead to them becoming emotionally isolated from others, as is evident in unhealthy narcissism. As opposed to one who was never given the opportunity to develop his love/appreciation/assurance for self

People who are termed narcissistic are often alluring to others because of how charming they can be, making you feel special and letting down your guard around them. They are always highly motivated with the level of confidence they have in their abilities.

But then again, a person can hardly attain success without a level of narcissism in his character design to propel him forward and shield him from the man-eat-man world we live in. Their heightened self-worth can serve as a propellant; making them seek out challenges that thrust them into the limelight as successful individuals in the eye of society. They are more likely to aim high and in turn; cut off things that are substandard.

Now how do we distinguish the differences between healthy narcissism and an unhealthy one which borders on a Narcissistic personality disorder?

American psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut listed the features of healthy narcissism as:

  • Strong self-regard.
  • Empathy for others and recognition of their needs.
  • Authentic self-concept.
  • Self-respect and self-love.
  • Courage to abide criticism from others while maintaining positive self-regard.
  • Confidence to set and pursue goals and realize one’s hopes and dreams.
  • Emotional resilience.
  • Healthy pride in self and one’s accomplishments.
  • The ability to admire and be admired.

And on the other hand, an unhealthy narcissist can be easily spotted from these features:

  •  A grandiose sense of self-importance.
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  • A belief that they are ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  • An intense need for excessive admiration.
  • A sense of entitlement – that they should get and have whatever they want.
  • A tendency to be interpersonally exploitative – in that they use others to achieve their own ends.
  • A lack of empathy, demonstrated through an unwillingness to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  • Envy of others, or the belief that others are envious of them.
  • Arrogant, haughty or supercilious behavior and attitudes.

Unhealthy narcissists may act superior and confident, but more often than not, they are actually fragile and struggle with self-esteem issues. This is why they try to cover up with arrogance and superciliousness. They possess intense cravings for attention and praise yet are unable to form close relationships. NPD (Narcissistic personality disorder) causes great distress to both the person with the character trait and those around them. They create and project a false sense of self to others around them when in the true sense, they are critically insecure and constantly battle the loathing of self. It is one of the “dark traits” that have been identified and labeled by psychologists, along with psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and sadism.

So perhaps we should be less hasty when we tag people narcissists with disdain, and first, identify if they exhibit a healthy or unhealthy level of this character trait.  Because the truth is; we all at some point need a modicum of self-aggrandization and there is nothing wrong with that so long we understand the extremes and the balance of the continuum.

With healthy narcissism, we are more likely to have lower levels of stress when we have confidence in ourselves and are less likely to see life as stressful. It is safe then to say; potentially, narcissism can be good if it is characterized in moderation?

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