Why a Little Narcissism Can Be Healthy

John, a 34-year-old biochemist, had come to me for help with his marriage. “It’s my wife, Lynn,” he said, looking down and inspecting the powder blue shirt he was wearing. “She thinks I’m selfish.”  

John had a habit of getting lost in his hobbies, whether he was reading his chess books, burying himself in blogging, or taking long walks alone. “She says I shut everyone out when I’m focused on the things I enjoy, like nothing else matters but what I want. Nothing else matters but me.” He shifted in his seat as if still unsettled by the words. “Yesterday, she called me a narcissist because she was trying to tell me something and I didn’t hear her.” He sighed. “I was so focused on what I was reading.”

Lynn’s complaints that John was too self-absorbed left him feeling sad, wounded, and at times even resentful because they had an all too familiar ring to them.

“When I was little, my parents used to nag me: ‘You’re spending too much time in your room. Don’t be so cruel—your family misses you.’”

The admonishments didn’t exactly leave him eager to join the family in the den, where they squabbled over news—the President’s gaffes, the plight of the middle class, the latest Super Bowl predictions—in combative ways he never much enjoyed anyway.

Instead, he holed up in his room, playing solitaire or solving crossword puzzles, away from the din, and like many introverts, he emerged feeling invigorated—at least, that is, until his family began laying into him.

And now, years later, it seemed his wife was echoing the exact same complaint.

“Is she right?” he asked tearfully. “Am I really a narcissist?”

***

Confusing introversion and narcissism is a common mistake. The irony of the introvert’s experience in the boisterous, extroverted world, where loud debating and relentless socializing are the norm, is that the least selfish people end up being accused of being narcissists: entitled, aloof, and insensitive. But nothing could be further from the truth: most introverts actually need to feel more, not less, entitled—at least when it comes to enjoying their inner lives. They need more pride, more confidence, and more appreciation of what makes them unique.

As I discuss in my new book, healthy narcissism—feeling a little specialhelps 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. But John felt that his moments of “getting lost in his thoughts” made him a bad person. “I feel like all I do is disappoint the people I love.”

The trouble didn’t lie in John’s interests—his love of reading or writing. It was his way of pursing his passions—tentatively, secretively—that made him seem selfish.

Enjoying flights of fancy and quiet reflection is something introverts often excel at. But when they’re made to feel, as John was, as though it’s wrong of them to simply honor the demands of their nervous systems, they shut down. They feel guilty. They slink away, stealing their quiet moments instead of feeling empowered to ask for them—or at least announce and plan them. And then the people they love mistake their “disappearance” as an act of selfishness.

Lately, John had taken to “disappearing” through cycling. Meandering for hours past brooks and trees along peaceful country roads recharged his batteries. All this was done surreptitiously because, after all, in his mind it was “selfish.” John was ashamed of his need for solitude, and no one openly enjoys anything they feel ashamed of.

And that was just the problem. John never felt special enough to his family, his wife, or his friends to openly ask for or protect any of his needs. But it’s the ability to feel comfortable turning to others—to depend on them to understand, support, love, and care about us, including our need for downtime—that’s crucial to both happy relationships and a happy life.  

In psychological circles, this capacity is known as secure attachment. Despite Lynn’s complaints, it’s that very ability that prevents us from becoming arrogant, insensitive, or selfish. So I encouraged John to boost his healthy narcissism—to feel more confident, more resilient, and more entitled to ask for what he wants. I helped him feel authorized to be an introvert and to approach his wife directly to see if she could actually enjoy that part of him.

“How about telling your wife this,” I proposed. “I love you so much, Lynn. I never want you to feel like I don’t enjoy time with you. But I need quiet time too. My nervous system needs it. I come back refreshed, and I can’t wait to see you again. How can we plan my rides or moments alone in a way that feels better to you? Should we have a candlelight dinner when I return?”  

Lynn brightened at John’s suggestion. In fact, once they started planning his time and protecting time together, she began to soften. The complaints stopped.

But something else happened too. John began opening up more and more about his desires, his loneliness, and his fears of being a disappointment. And the more he did so, the better he felt about himself and his marriage.  

How did John transform himself from a diffident introvert into a confident one?

1) He lovingly asked for time to think. As a child, John had felt terrified with his teachers, and even his family, that he always had to have a quick response at the ready. And now he experienced the same panic with his wife every time she asked what was on his mind. I taught him that telling his wife that he was trying to respond was enough to help her feel he cared: “I wish I could explain what I’m feeling right now because I love you, but it takes me time to share what’s on my mind. I promise, I’ll keep working at it.” Gradually, he and Lynn felt closer even as John grew bolder about asking for more time to reflect.   

2) He broke his silence. John’s experiences growing up had also left him feeling like “a man without permission”—someone who was lucky if he got a few scraps of appreciation or love. He certainly didn’t feel entitled to ask for more. So he fell silent when he felt hurt, angry, or disappointed. I coached him to share his pain in two simple steps: 1) affirm his love for and concern for his wife, and 2) state his most vulnerable feeling: “Lynn, I love you so much, which is why I feel devastated when you call me selfish or criticize me. It’s like the person I love most looks down on me.” In the past, he’d simply withdraw as he had done with his family, but now he had words to help Lynn understand he loved her and he felt distressed by their interactions. Couples who learn to do this form a powerful bond—the kind that fosters healthy narcissism.

3) He celebrated his introversion. Cross-cultural research has shown that describing, in detail, how you express traits—whether you express them more or less compared to people around you—can boost healthy narcissism in the course of just one week, helping you feel happier and more self-confident and even experience a greater sense of well-being. I asked John to list five traits he valued the most. He listed: reflective, hardworking, careful, warm, and agreeable. Then, I asked him to track them each week, rating himself compared to others: “This morning, the people at work were arguing about one of the CEO’s new policies that had suddenly polarized the entire company. It was a free-for-all. I listened for a while and thought about what I’d just seen unfold. Then I added calmly: ‘You all have points I can appreciate. What if we looked at it like this? We’re in transition now. It’s scary; it’s confusing; and the only way out is to try something new. Maybe there’s no one right answer here, and people are afraid because there’s no guarantee anything will work.’” Then he ranked himself, “Compared to my colleagues, I was more reflective in that moment—and it helped everyone.”

As he practiced expressing his feelings more clearly and kept track of how his introversion enriched his life, John’s confidence continued to grow as did the love he felt for Lynn.

“For the first time,” he explained to me months later, “I feel like she gets me. Like she values me. Like I’m not just some wallflower to her.”

Indeed, now when John returns from his time alone—riding, reading, or playing computer chess—Lynn greets him with open arms. And since he no longer worries about being dressed down for disappearing, he too is excited to see her.

When introverts feel special enough to ask for—and value—what they need, they inevitably return from their moments of quiet with precious gifts, not just for themselves, but the people they love.

And everyone wins.

 

 

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