For Success, Embrace Your "Healthy" Narcissism

Not all narcissism is pathological -- "healthy" narcissism can help you to accept and love yourself, and work to make yourself the best possible you.
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In today's celebrity culture, narcissism has gotten a bad rap. Images of the pathologically self-obsessed and fame addicted have become synonymous with "narcissism" -- and we've all been chided to be on the lookout for "narcissistic traits" in our own personalities that can make us poster children for scandal sheets and bad plastic surgery websites. But, not all narcissism is pathological -- "healthy" narcissism can help you accept and love yourself, and work to make yourself the "best possible you."

Imagine if we had no self-love or self-esteem at all. Would we get out of bed in the morning, bathe, brush our hair and teeth, shave or fix our make-up, put on a nice outfit and shoes, and set out to face the world with a smile? Pathological narcissists might exaggerate their daily launch preps to invite praise and attention; the healthy narcissist wants to look good for himself or herself, and that modest confidence is contagiously attractive in both professional and personal spheres.

The Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) identifies some of the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that can accumulate into a picture of pathology. But looking at some of the items in the inventory individually could yield a different interpretation -- the 'narcissistic choice' is a healthy response. For example, in the NPI, leadership skills are targeted in an either-or fashion in several questions such as:

A.I have a natural talent for influencing people.
B.I am not good at influencing people.

A. I am not sure if I would make a good leader.
B. I see myself as a good leader.

A. I am assertive.
B. I wish I were more assertive.

A.If I feel competent I am willing to take responsibility for making decisions.
B.I like to take responsibility for making decisions.

A. I will be a success.
B. I am not too concerned about success.

Choosing the options that address confidence, skills, assertiveness, and empowerment, can raise one's score in this test, and imply grandiosity and an unhealthy narcissism (which can develop in some individuals to compensate for a deep-seated negative self-image). But, in reality, to promote progress professionally and personally, dynamic assertiveness, self-confidence, and even risk-taking are positive traits that promote achievement of personal and professional outcomes.

Again, think of the example of an employee who seeks new challenges, learns new skills, and takes on the mantle of team or unit leadership, motivated by the objective of career advancement, and secure in the confidence that, with hard-work and practice, he or she can and will succeed in reaching reasonable goals. Or the person re-entering the dating scene, maximizing his or her appearance with healthy lifestyle and affordable fashion choices, reaching out to others with calm confidence and independence. Surely more likely to get the desired promotion or second date than the ill-attired or unkempt, over-cautious, easily embarrassed, hesitant "toe dipper" who meets life's opportunities with a shrug.

The key to healthy narcissism is to accept and love yourself as you are, and then "do your best." Some tips to help include:
  • Don't be afraid to seek out your dreams and aim for success. Just try to be realistic about your skills, abilities, temperament, and interests, and to set reasonable and revisable goals. Work hard, be a lifelong learner, and, when appropriate, consider taking responsible chances. If one direction you've pursued doesn't pan out, think creatively and flexibly about other avenues for achieving your goals--and a rewarding personal and professional life.
  • Try to maximize your natural appearance and your good health and fitness. Then, relax. Studies have shown that others respond positively above all to a warm, friendly demeanor. Feeling good about you usually radiates an inviting glow that improves personal and professional relationships and communications.
  • Recognize that 'nobody's perfect', and that, though, we're all unique and special in our own way, we're also like each other as fellow humans, colleagues, and friends. Our weaknesses should be fodder for our ongoing self-improvement efforts, not shameful secrets that we hide and cover with exaggerated grandiosity. Be kind to yourself and to others as we walk together along life's journey, and remember: It's okay to be okay.

Finally, if you find yourself stuck, unhappy or distressed, I encourage you to seek counseling. The roots of unhealthy narcissism may be long-standing and deep, and counseling can help you find a needed balance of self-acceptance and self-love.