Labelling anybody who displays even a small degree of self-confidence as narcissistic seems to be common practice these days. Narcissistic personality disorder is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) as an over concern with self-love and an idealised self-image, a persistent and pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a constant need for admiration and attention, a lack of empathy, a strong sense of entitlement and constant feelings of self-loathing, emptiness and boredom. NPD can only be diagnosed by a licensed and accredited mental health professional and only after a comprehensive psychological evaluation with questionnaires and assessment tools such as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory for example. Even then, the assessed individual must display a certain percentage of the traits outlined in the DSM-5 to meet the criteria for NPD. It is crucial to note that it is only the treating mental health professional who has the capacity to administer the questionnaire and assessment tools and make a subsequent formal diagnosis. An individual cannot be formally diagnosed as suffering from NPD by any mental health professional who has not personally evaluated and spent time with the individual in question.
Contrary to popular belief, there is a very big difference between someone who displays healthy narcissism, someone who, from time to time, displays unhealthy narcissistic traits and somebody that suffers from full blown narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). What most people don’t understand however is that narcissism, in its healthy form, is a core component of healthy personality development. Without narcissism, one cannot adequately develop self-esteem or a sense of self-worth.
Lets look at the healthy side of some of the narcissistic traits as defined by the DSM-5. We all need to have the ability to love and appreciate ourselves when we look in the mirror or when we think of ourselves. This is normal and healthy. It is only when our sense of self-worth and self-esteem becomes persistently over and hyper inflated, and not representative of reality that narcissism becomes unhealthy. Additionally, it is by looking into a mirror as a child that we, in part, develop a sense of self and identity. How else do we learn what we physically look like? How else do we learn about our physical image and realise that we are a separate entity to others? It is only when you start spending hours in front of the mirror admiring yourself and telling yourself how fantastic you look does this narcissistic tendency become unhealthy.
So what about healthy grandiosity? Well to begin with, grandiosity in relation to narcissism refers to a sense of being better than others among other things. Believing that you are better than another, in its healthy form, can foster competition and motivate and empower oneself before a sporting event for example. It becomes unhealthy however if this belief of being better than others extends beyond the specific competition or without recognition that we are randomly born with physical or mental capacities which naturally, due to no conscious input of our own, makes us ‘better’ than others at certain things and that we should be appreciative and humble of that. Or maybe we just put in longer training time than our competitors which gives us the capacity to perform better in that specific event and thus ‘makes us better’.
We can all have a sense of entitlement at times. This can be healthy. We are entitled to be loved by others, to request that we are treated a certain way by others, to request that our needs, wants and desires are met. We are entitled to request that we receive a certain income based on our skills, service, knowledge etc. It becomes unhealthy however when we disregard other peoples feelings and individuality and thus impose ourselves upon others. For example, your entitled beliefs to be loved or treated in a certain way does not entitle you to physically, mentally or emotionally force someone into loving you or treating you a special way. If the other chooses not to cooperate with your requests, then you have the choice to respect their free will and individuality by finding someone who will happily and willingly treat you the way you feel entitled to. Unhealthy entitlement would be feeling entitled to a higher income because you perceive yourself as an amazing worker and then trying to force your boss to give you a pay rise, or perhaps stealing employer resources to close the gap between actual income and entitled belief income, rather than accepting that a pay rise is not possible right now, adjusting your self-beliefs or choosing to find employment that comes with a higher income elsewhere.
It is important to remember that narcissism, when not formally diagnosed as NPD, and not persistently and pervasively displayed in its unhealthy form, is not evil, toxic, dangerous and all-consuming. Healthy narcissism is critical for personality development and can enhance and empower us in our daily lives and help us to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. Healthy narcissism can provide us with the love and respect we desire independent of what others may think of us. Finally, healthy narcissism can help us to not become too dependent upon the amount of likes our social media posts receive in order for us to feel that we are loved and that we matter in the world. Just remember, self-respect and self-love is measured by only one thing.....YOU.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.
Falkenbach, D. M., Howe, J. R., & Falki, M. (2013). Using self-esteem to disaggregate psychopathy, narcissism, and aggression. Personality and Individual Differences, 54(7), 815-820.
Pincus, A. L., & Lukowitsky, M. R. (2010). Pathological narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder. Annual review of clinical psychology, 6, 421-446.
Vaknin, S. (2001). Malignant self love: Narcissism revisited. Narcissus Publishing.