Narcissism gets a bad rap. We hurl the word narcissist as insult at people we perceive as too selfish, self-indulgent or self-focused. We call behaviors we see as self-centered narcissistic. It would seem by our language use that narcissism is inherently bad. This poses quite a problem since sufficient narcissism is a requirement of basic self-care.
Some of us sort-of know this, even if we don't link it to the term narcissism. Pop-psychology is rampant with support and encouragement for self-love. We rally around programs that help build self-esteem in young people and declare good self-esteem as crucial to well-being. Self-love and self-esteem are just narcissism by other names.
Narcissism is Self-Love
My 9 year old son and his 7 year old ‘brother by another mother” were hanging out playing a game app on their iPads. As the little guy crushed his fantasy land opponent to move up to another level he said “I am really good at this game”. My son then tried to shame him, or educate him, or diminish him by saying “that’s bragging”.
But actually he was just appropriately building his narcissistic capital; his reserve of self love and positive self-regard. From infancy through childhood, and well into our children’s teens, in a good enough environment, we are filling kids with positivity about themselves. We are naming and reflecting back to them every good thing we see. We are telling them how smart and strong and good they are, how proud we are of their efforts and what a good job they are doing. We shower them with praise.
The Development of Narcissistic Capital
We hold infants in our arms and with huge grins on our faces say things like “you are such a good baby, look at the big smile, wow you are so strong gripping my finger, aren't you the best little sleeper”. We endlessly reflect positivity back to our toddlers saying excitedly “look at you walking, such a big kid, good job building that tower, look at that happy face, aren't you a good little helper”. With our school age kids we compliment them on cleaning their rooms, getting dressed by themselves, putting away their dishes, and finishing their homework; basically everything they do that we see as positive. With our teens we work hard to help them notice their accomplishments, their unique qualities and characteristics, and the evidence in their behaviors of their goodness.
The reason we do this, the reason we try to fill our children with a sense of their own goodness, is that life requires a reserve of self-love. If they don't have a positive self image to rely on, how will they manage the fortitude required to learn how to tie their shoes? What will they do when someone at pre-school is mean to them? How will they keep their ego from collapsing if they end up struggling with math? How will they combat struggle and failure? How will their self-esteem stay intact in the face of teasing, shaming, and mockery?
I have been gutted as a parent of a grade school child to hear of suicides by young children who were reportedly bullied at school. There are painful stories about kids being repeatedly picked on, or shamed, or mocked at levels that overwhelm their systems. Surely these incidences are extreme, complicated and somewhat isolated, but regardless of how the reporting of the news incident begins, the beginning of the story does not start with the bullying at school. When a child, or adult, has a reserve of self-love and positive self-regard to draw on, and they are faced with failure or negativity, that have something in their system to counter or at least mediate the negative.
In the earlier years of life our job is to help our kids take in lots of goodness about themselves to absorb all the negativity and failure they will face. Life is rough. It hits us hard, starting at a young age. Development itself is strenuous and challenging and we need enough self-love to hang in there. Social relationships are dang near gruesome, and if kids don't have a reserve of narcissistic capital, they crumble in the face of it.
And this is hardly an issue limited to childhood. As adults, when our ego strength is threatened, by an interaction or relationship with someone who is mean or hostile to us, or a failure in business or love, we must have a reserve of positive self regard to balance out the injury. Sometimes the blows to our self-esteem and sense of our own goodness are nearly debilitating, and it is belief in our own goodness that serves to soften that blow and offers us the needed fuel to recover and rebuild.
Self-Love is the Basis of Self-Care
Having ones self as at least one of our central foci in life is a necessity. We have a ton of sayings that promote the importance of self-care. We say that you cant love another until you love yourself. Or you cant take care of another until you take care of yourself. We judge people we see as failing to take good care of themselves. Pop-psychology has all kinds of terms for people who place themselves second to another needs, like co-dependents and enablers.
To tend to the multitude of our daily needs, from taking care of our body’s hygiene, to eating foods that feed our hunger and soul, taking needed breaks at work, reaching out to friends when we long for connection…all of these require a love of self. There is plenty of evidence that most of us could use and increase in our own self-regard.
Narcissists See Only Themselves
The problem with actual Narcissist isn’t that they love themselves. It is that they are their only concern.
Some narcissist are people who see themselves, their accomplishments, and their talents in inaccurate and overly positive ways. Others can actually be quite self-deprecating and self-repudiating. The thing they share in common is that they are the only person they are able to see. They are self-consumed with their own needs, or greatness, or their own injuries and suffering, and oblivious to the needs and realities of people around them. In relationship they are oblivious to the personhood of the other and operate only for their themselves. It can be confusing, because they may think they are taking the other person into account but not actually know how to see another person, or they may be invested in being seen as a good person, so may do good deeds, but with only their own ego needs in mind.
Clinical narcissism is a serious condition, that is typically quite entrenched, requiring rigorous treatment if one is to attempt to get better. It is unfortunately unusual for narcissists to seek meaningful treatment, unless they are at risk for losing their primary relationships due to their disposition.
I say this because it is quite unusual for the narcissist to worry if they are a narcissist. If you are worried you might be one, it is likely because you care about the impact that would have one the people around you, and….there is your evidence that you aren’t :)
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
If you are interested in therapy and live in Philadelphia or the Greater Philadelphia Area, please let Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice match you with a skilled, experienced psychotherapist based on your needs and issues as well as your and own therapists' personalities and styles. All of our therapists are available for telehealth conferencing by phone or video in response to our current need for social distancing.
For more or related topics in blog and video blog, follow the links below:
The Epitome of Psychological Health: Sabrina the Teenage Witch
Sometime I Give into my Kid and I am OK with That
"But I dont want to Talk about Rwanda"