Whenever I bring up the term “narcissism” when satirizing self-appointed spiritual gurus I tend to get some pushback regarding the overuse of this word in our current cultural zeitgeist. True, the word “narcissism” does get tossed around in conversations about health & wellness similar to other terms like “recovery,” “mindfulness” and “energies.”
But as Jill Leigh, founder of the Energy Healing Institute notes, “Language and labels help us understand group experiences and behaviors. So she generally defines people who display these behaviors as narcissists.
Having said this, not all forms of narcissism are inherently “bad.” As Dr. Craig Malkin discusses in his new book Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad—and Surprising Good—About Feeling Special, “healthy narcissism—feeling a little special—helps us to see ourselves and those we love through slightly rose-colored glasses, remain resilient when we fail, feel passionate about what we love, and pursue our dreams even when they seem a bit beyond our reach. Regarding our interests and needs as important enough to let the world fall away and see where our desires take us is an important aspect of healthy narcissism.”
The behaviors clinicians recognize in someone who possesses a healthy narcissism is what many of us liken to a strong sense of self-esteem.
Classic vs. healthy narcissism
According to psychiatrist Gauri Khurana, the difference between the kind of narcissism we associate with selfish disregard and a more healthy narcissism is a matter of perspective and thinking about other people. “Those with narcissism tend to only think about themselves and not think about how their actions and words affect others,” she says. “Narcissists tend to push forward without much or any self-evaluation and are competitive and disregard others. Conversely, people with healthy self-esteem may have similar big plans and visions for themselves but they also think about how it will affect those close to them and others.”
In her practice, Leigh distinguishes between a client who has a healthy self-esteem versus one who with classic narcissistic traits based on the quality of the information they share. “If they’re bragging, putting others beneath them, using language that indicates that they’re denigrating or using others to get their needs met based on their self-assessment of their worthiness, it’s classic narcissism.”
Building up healthy narcissism
Leigh believes that establishing a sense of self-worth comes from a clear observation of self and commitment to growth and evolution. “Self-acceptance requires seeing both assets and flaws as human, committing to work on the flaws, and build on the assets. Through self-acceptance, esteem can be built and owned.”
Dr. Khurana adds that it can be difficult for someone to have a balanced perspective on themselves because that requires objectivity. “Often we are not able to be objective with our strengths and weaknesses.”
To build up self-esteem without becoming classically narcissistic, she will often recommend that patients try to objectively focus on their strengths as much as they can so they start to like themselves. “That helps spur them to develop and invest in themselves so that they feel better about themselves and their place in the world. It sounds very simple, but liking oneself is one of the hardest developmental tasks that people often face.”
Leigh likes asking her clients to observe their inner dialogue and make notes on what they say to themselves. Then she asks them to think back to the source of those comments.
“Who first told you that you weren’t smart enough, pretty enough, thin enough, and so on?” Leigh asks. As her clients start to realize that the voice in their head isn’t their own, they can reframe the comments with their own voice and quiet the inner critic. She adds that it takes time to vanquish the inner critic and build a grounded, healthy narcissism. “It’s a process, not an event,” she summarizes.
To help clients build up their self-esteem and achieve a state of healthy narcissism, Khurana likes to go back to the idea of working on simply liking yourself. Identify hobbies, strengths, good qualities your friends and family have attributed to you, or things that are unique about you and really start to believe them. She also encourages her clients to work on daily affirmations to help them feel more positive.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Spirituality & Health.