Narcissism. What do you picture when you hear that word? Most of us envision vain, preening, primping reality TV stars and arrogant, loud-mouthed politicians.
But we need to revise these images.
The Donald Trumps of the world, who hurl insults left and right and raise their noses in cartoonish conceit, are easy to spot. But not all narcissists are so blatant. Some couldn't care less about looks or fame or money. Instead, they see themselves as the most misunderstood people in the room or even the most giving. To see all narcissists, and recognise trouble when it comes along, you need to know what they have in common.
No matter how loud or quiet they are, all extreme narcissists are addicted to feeling special; much the way alcoholics soothe themselves with liquor instead of asking for care or comfort, highly narcissistic people choose their own drug, feeling special, over happiness, honour, truth—even love. Whether they pursue their high through arrogance or self-sacrifice, their terror of truly depending on others gives them away; they’ll do anything to hide feeling scared or lonely or ashamed because they don’t trust people to support them. When narcissism becomes our sole means of feeling good, it becomes deeply unhealthy.
But narcissism—the drive to feel special—can be good for us, too. You can feel exceptional without becoming obnoxious. Some people, in fact, consider themselves extremely special, but they don’t exploit, manipulate, lie, cheat, or beat others down. They just brighten the room.
One of my clients, Karen, loved rallying crowds to her cause of protecting wild life preserves. “I eat it up—all those people hanging on my every word,” she confessed. But she never let either the delight she took in public speaking or her ambition to found her own company hurt other people; she enjoyed a loving mutually supportive relationship with her husband. She—and others like her—are healthy narcissists, who display all the benefits of narcissism and none of its dangers.
A little narcissism comes with a host of rewards. Feeling somewhat special and unique helps us persist in the face of failure, enjoy giving and receiving in relationships, and press on in pursuit of our grand dreams. It also helps us feel stronger, more resilient, and perhaps even extends our lives—when we feel great about ourselves, we tend to practice better self-care, too, including exercising more and eating well. Healthy narcissism lowers levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, making us less prone to the ravages of a frenzied life, including high blood pressure and heart disease.
The gifts of healthy narcissism extend to our romantic lives as well. People who feel a little special enjoy longer relationships. When we view ourselves through rose-colored glasses, we’re likely to think that the people we’re with are special or extraordinary, too. And that feeds back to us—we feel special by association. The benefits of placing our lovers on a pedestal can’t be overstated. One study of nearly 40,000 people found it to be a stronger predictor of relationship longevity than either partner’s personality, self-esteem, or feelings of closeness.
A little dose of narcissism is beneficial in the workplace, too. It gives us confidence to succeed, by helping us push harder when we hit a setback. And don’t worry if the boss has a bit of a swagger; it might benefit the whole company. In one study, bosses took a narcissism test, after which their employees rated them on their leadership skills. Leaders with low and high narcissism received the worst ratings. Employees of moderately narcissistic bosses, however, saw them as people who lead with courage, conviction, and compassion. These were CEOs and supervisors who inspired instead of undermining, who brought out the best in everyone around them.
How can you harness this magic? Keep a daily diary of how you compare to people around you—better or worse—on the traits you value most. Describe the times, dates, places, actions, and reasons your behavior felt like an example, say, of how you’re especially honest, compassionate or patient. According to research, you could enjoy a boost in your ego and sense of wellbeing in just one week.
Another way: Take more emotional risks with your loved ones. Open up to them when you feel hurt or sad or worried—and ask them for comfort and support. A wealth of studies show that depending on people this way helps you feel special while keeping your arrogance in check.
In the end, that’s the greatest benefit of rethinking narcissism: when we recognise and enjoy the gifts of healthy narcissism, we empower ourselves to live happier, healthier, more fulfilling lives.
Dr. Craig Malkin is a clinical psychologist and author of The Narcissist Test: How to Spot Outsized Egos…and the Surprising Things We Can Learn from Them (£10.99, Harper Thorsons)Reuse content