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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  • Lorelle Shea

    I respect your work on narcissism, but I am simply responding to your article, where you encourage an introvert to better communicate with his partner so that he doesn’t feel selfish for recharging his batteries. Correct? This has nothing to do with narcissism. Taking note of, respecting, and feeling others’ feelings and perspectives is simply not narcissism, in any form. This article is about healthy open communication in relationships, partnered with healthy self-esteem and self-care. Honestly, this article is more about introversion than narcissism, so to use narcissism in the title is a misnomer. That is truly my only criticism!

    • I’m so glad the piece resonated for you. There’s a lot more I could have said, but too much for one article.

      There’s a lot of confusion about narcissism, even in the field of mental health; it’s not a disorder (that distinction belongs to Narcissistic Personality Disorder). Nor is narcissist a diagnosis (narcissists may or may not be disordered).

      At this point there are three measures (including my own, the NSS) for healthy narcissism, which is what John struggles to hold onto. It’s not simply self-esteem or self-care, but a cross cultural tendency for happy, healthy people to seem themselves through *slightly* rose-colored glasses. It’s also called self-enhancement in the research. Most people around the world engage in this form of healthy narcissism.

      People who never or rarely self-enhance appear to suffer. The exercise encouraging John to compare himself to others and track his strengths encourages self-enhancement. Interestingly enough, so does coaching people to take more emotional risks. It fosters secure attachment, also linked to healthy narcissism; securely attached people don’t see themselves realistically, but as slightly exceptional or unique compared to others. There are research links in the article, but for more see my book, Rethinking Narcissism. http://tinyurl.com/o9qz345

      Hope that helps!

      • Lorelle Shea

        The more you present about your theories, the more I don’t agree with them. Unfortunately, the piece clearly did not resonate with me. As someone who has studied psychology, and been intimately involved with narcissists, I am very knowledgeable about this topic. If anyone working on narcissism insists on devaluing the experiences of
        those who have come through narcissistic partner abuse, then it is a losing game. A survivor of narcissistic abuse is not coming from a place of
        bitterness, they are coming from a place of valuable knowledge and insight
        learned the hard way. With narcissists, that is unfortunately the only
        way to learn the real story of this condition.

        It is not easy to boil down this issue, so no one should operate with the idea that is simply about self-love or specialness. It is a extremely complex topic, and often grossly misrepresented in the public consciousness as well as in psychology texts.

        Narcissists don’t really love themselves and see themselves as special– they think they are garbage and have complex ways of manifesting their self-perceived inferiority. In most cases the spark for narcissistic tendencies is lit through unusual family dynamics, abuse, separation, or a narcissistic parent who can’t help but influence their child. Also, anyone who validates themselves from primarily external sources has a weak sense of self-esteem. Period.

        Most psychologists simply do not have a full understanding of this issue. With all due respect, you may present your theories, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with them.

        • Not sure where I lost you, but we agree on a great many things. I’m a trauma and abuse expert. I’m truly sorry if anything I said undermined your faith in my expertise in that area or–worse–the validity of your experience.

          I think we’re talking about the difference between narcissism (as defined in the field) and malignant narcissism.

          • Lorelle Shea

            You didn’t lose me. I understand what you are saying, and I am disagreeing. Somehow I get the feeling I am trying to communicate with someone who is more narcissistic than not. I’m just going to leave it at that.

          • I meant lost your trust because originally you said you only took issue with one aspect of the article. And Ok–ouch.
            But I agree, this conversation has lost it’s collaborative tone. All I did in the previous response was validate you and express concern.
            I’m bowing out now.

  • country club

    Love this article. How it resonates.

  • Carol Shetler

    I think this might be an issue for my new friend and me. I will reflect on it some more. We are both introverts and our communication lately has shrunk to nothing, partly because of some mistakes I made a few weeks ago.

  • Lorelle Shea

    “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.” Truly, narcissism is not about “feeling a little special” or “seeing the world through rose-colored glasses” (they don’t), it’s about believing 100% that you are the most special person, and expecting everyone to recognize it. There’s a HUGE difference between healthy self-care and self-expression, and narcissism. Narcissism only leads to bad things in relationships and otherwise because there is a complete lack of respect and understanding of the personal feelings of others. A respectful, open discussion, as highlighted in this article, is truly the exact opposite of any type of narcissism.

    • I totally agree with Lorelle. There are many good points in this article, however the link to ‘healthy narcissism’ is irresponsible in my view. Narcissism within a relationship is abuse. Would you entitle this article ‘ Why a little abuse can be healthy’? or ‘Why a little sociopathy can be healthy’? Having lived with the abuse of a narcissistic husband I know that a narcissist can and will destroy you if you don’t get out. As Lorelle says, the many good points highlighted in this article are the things that a narcissist truly despises and will run a mile from.

    • Jake R
      • Lorelle Shea

        Correct! Narcissism exists on a spectrum, the most extreme end being
        NPD. But caring for your partner as well as yourself is in no way
        “narcissism”.

  • David Maus

    I think that Dr. Malkin makes excellent points. I see this continually in my own behavior. I feel that the difficulty that I have is how to summons the courage to express my feelings. It seems, as an introvert, easier to just hide and let the difficulty pass than stand up and be accountable.

  • Margdalena

    A really heartwarming article. I like to read stories like this.