When does the love of the self crest the mountain of positive habit and tumble over the far side—into the valley of disorder? There are two very different answers to this question, one embraced by popular American culture, and the other, embraced by the psychiatric community. Clinically speaking, and according to Mayoclinic.org, narcissistic personality disorder is “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others.” It is when this pattern of thought and behavior actively and continually causes distress and impairment, that Narcissism can be called a personality disorder. Popular American culture, however, is not skilled at making this distinction. We’re taught that we’re valuable, that our stories matter, and that no one has the right to tell us otherwise, but the moment those directives take root and we begin to display true self-love, our culture is ready to slap the pejorative, “Narcissist” upon us. It has become trendy to list a set of behaviors—enjoying looking at oneself in the mirror, dressing nicely, enjoying adoration, etc.—and place them into tidy little box of personality disorders.
But the assumption that narcissism is wholly destructive is wrong.
Let’s begin with a distinction. We’re not talking about a personality disorder, as we’ve defined it above. We’re talking about some of the individual traits of narcissism, and how they can be strengths rather than weaknesses. It is never acceptable or commendable to harm the self, or to harm others.
Dr. Craig Malkin, in his book, “Rethinking Narcissism,” writes that “Narcissism is more than a stubborn character flaw or a severe mental illness or a rapidly spreading cultural disease, transmitted by social media. It makes no more sense to assume it’s a problem than it would if we were speaking of heart rate, body temperature, or blood pressure. Because what is, in fact, is a normal, pervasive human tendency: the drive to feel special.” He goes on to write about the results of a research tool called the “How I See Myself Scale,” a questionnaire that asks participants to rate themselves on various traits. In “study after study in country after country, the vast majority of participants report having more admirable qualities and fewer repugnant ones than their peers.” Most people, then, think themselves exceptional.
There are benefits to this outlook. Most people who see themselves as better than average, Dr. Malkin writes, “are happier, more sociable, and are often more physically healthy than their humbler peers.” Confidence gives us the strength to persevere through hardship. Not only that, but people who think less of themselves are also “less likely to admire their partners”. Confidence and self-love, then, are beneficial to both the individual, and their peers.
Narcissism exists on a spectrum. Rather than being a light switch, it’s a dimmer knob, and it’s when the bulb is turned to its hottest that real problems arise. Narcissism becomes a disorder when it begins to grow harmful, when we become dependent on feeling special, when we stop giving others any credit because we need all of the attention. Worst of all, the extremes of narcissism cause us to lose the ability to see any point of view but our own, leading to a loss of empathy—the loss of the soul, some might say.
The opposite end of the spectrum—the bulb being turned all the way off—is just as destructive, rendering us invisible, rife with feelings of worthlessness, unable to act. We lose our agency. When we lump attributes like confidence, vanity, self-importance, and self-reliance into narcissism, and are then quick to use the term “narcissist” as a pejorative—an insult—we vilify good behavioral qualities. We drive them underground so far that we’re terrified of someone seeing us look in the mirror.
The extremity of this vilification is a fairly new phenomenon. In 2009, writes Dr. Malkin, “psychologist Jean Twenge, of the University of Texas…proclaimed that a ‘narcissism epidemic’ is raging among millennials.” She later came out with a book titled with that same shock phrase. This struck a nerve with a culture that was already saturated with reports of lazy, entitled millennials who, allegedly, were consumed with the worst traits of clinical narcissism. Narcissism, then, became more an insult than a medical condition.
The research that Twenge based her book on, however, was flawed. Malkin writes that, under the system of testing Twenge used, “agreeing with statements that reflect even admirable traits can inch people higher up the narcissism scale.” Confident, happy people would test positive for narcissism. There was no differentiating between “People who simply enjoy speaking their mind or being in charge,” and “narcissists who enjoy manipulations and lies.” In addition to this, other large studies found no difference in the level of narcissism in students between 1976 and 2006. The effect, though, was immediate and culturally pervasive. Narcissism, and all of the individual traits that “common sense” bundles with the disorder, had entered the public’s mind. And it’s still there.
Why haven’t the facts prevailed? Because, perhaps, it’s easier to believe that that beautiful man who loves the way he looks has a disorder, is flawed in some way, that the confident executive who loves being in charge has something wrong with her brain. It’s the same reason we sometimes identify the intelligent, in a purposefully insulting way, as a nerd or geek. It’s easier see these people as the "other" that than to admit to ourselves that they might have something we have not. They love themselves, and it scares us.
Understanding the spectrum of narcissism is vital to praising those attributes which benefit the individual and society, and properly vilifying those traits which cause harm. Remember the dimmer knob. It’s only an emergency if that knob gets stuck at one pole or the other—in one situation, you have no light, in the other, you may have a fire on your hands. Dr. Malkin sums it up well when he writes that “it’s quite possible to have a strong drive to feel special and still remain healthy.”
If you’ve ever felt a subtle sort of shame when you talked about an accomplishment or liked the way you looked, or simply desired praise—know that you don’t have to. It’s not wrong. Look in the mirror in public. Stare, even. Maintain the balance between self-absorption and empathy for others—that’s where happiness lies. Doing so will add just that much more momentum to a cultural shift away from the vilification of the self, and toward an era where it’s safe to absolutely love yourself.