‘Healthy’ Versus ‘Unhealthy’ Narcissism :
We have seen from other articles that I have published on this site that being brought up by a parent or primary caregiver who suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) can result in us developing serious psychological difficulties in later life; indeed, this includes increasing our own risk of developing narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) ourselves.
Whilst extreme, destructive narcissistic personality traits are clearly undesirable, the psychotherapist Heinz Kohut (1913-1981) suggested that there is also such a phenomenon as ‘healthy narcissism.’ I briefly explain what he meant by this below :
‘Healthy’ Narcissism :
Kohut was of the view that we have a primary need to develop a strong, solid and stable sense of self if we are to live a contented and fulfilling life.
He also believed that, in the case of young children, it was particularly important that their parents made them feel special and gave them a sense of being admired (and, therefore, as being admirable) and that this would lead such children to develop a healthy sense of self and general, emotional resilience.
Kohut also believed that as these children got older, and assuming their parents were psychologically healthy role-models, they would learn that nobody’s perfect, that this is OK and that it was not necessary to constantly ‘outshine’ others in every aspect of life.
As such, Kohut suggested, such children would, as adults, develop what he termed ‘healthy narcissism.’
Qualities Of The ‘Healthy’ Narcissist :
Kohut suggested that qualities of the ‘healthy’ narcissist included the following :
- the ability to accept the admiration of others
- the ability to admire others
- a solid sense of self-worth/self-esteem
- a healthy sense of pride
- an appreciation of the needs of others
- the ability to empathize with others
- the capacity to feel self-love as a means of self-protection / obtaining emotional resilience
- the ability to connect to our ‘authentic selves’
- the confidence and self-belief to have hopes, dreams and ambitions (and the capacity to cope with, and to accept, failure to achieve them)
- the ability to approve of ourselves and to withstand the disapproval of others
Unhealthy Narcissism :
Kohut contrasted children who were brought up in such a way that they were able to develop ‘healthy’ narcissism with children who are brought up by parents who were abusive and /or neglectful; these abused/neglected children are at risk of developing unhealthy narcissism.
The unhealthy narcissist feels, deep inside, a profound and pervasive sense of inadequacy, inferiority, worthlessness, emptiness and vulnerability (as a result of his/her parents’ deeply psychologically damaging treatment of him/her when s/he was growing up) and, as a form of psychological defence (manifesting as overcompensation), develops a dysfunctional personality marked by intense hostility towards others, extreme arrogance, a condescending attitude and an insatiable need to feel superior to others at all times.
Furthermore, the unhealthy narcissist does not view others with empathy but views them as ‘servants’ and ‘playthings’ to feed his/her own ego.
On an unconscious level, the unhealthy narcissist strongly needs to avoid meaningful, emotional connection with others lest s/he becomes dependent upon such a connection which would make him/her vulnerable to being hurt emotionally in the way s/he was hurt by his/her parents as a child. As such, the unhealthy narcissist’s subconscious reasoning goes, a mutually loving bond with others is to be avoided at all costs; by desperately trying to convince him/herself that s/he is better than, ‘above’ and superior to others, s/he is simultaneously, frantically attempting to convince him/herself that s/he is emotionally self-sufficient and, therefore, emotionally invulnerable.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).