Popular culture seems to think it has a decent grasp of what narcissism looks like: being completely self-centered, self-aggrandizing, arrogant, conceited, selfish, totally self-absorbed, etc. People can conjure up examples of narcissism across an array of celebrities and political figures.
These images frequently do reflect narcissistic traits. However, this is only one depiction of narcissism. Narcissism takes many forms. And in my experience, more often it seems to present in much sneakier ways.
So what is narcissism?
Our misunderstanding of what narcissism looks like has the unfortunate side effect of making it difficult to accurately identify it when it is present.
I love Dr. Craig Malkin’s work on the subject. His research on narcissism has completely reshaped my understanding of the topic, and I find myself recommending his book, Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists, to many of my clients. Here are two defining characteristics of his research on this topic:
Narcissism exists on a spectrum. Narcissism isn’t a disordered trait that someone either embodies or doesn’t. Rather, we all fall somewhere along the spectrum between extreme narcissism and what Dr. Malkin calls echoism. Both of these extremes are unhealthy, and most of us tend to fall somewhere in the middle.
Narcissism is healthy. Yep, you heard me. There is a “sweet spot” on the narcissistic spectrum of feeling just special enough that we believe in our capacity to succeed in the world, but not so special that we completely disconnect from reality and from others. Just think about it: without any narcissism, how could you ever get yourself motivated to take risks and succeed, potentially even against the odds?
Are you narcissistic?
Dr. Malkin created a test available online to help you determine how much unhealthy narcissism, unhealthy echoism, and healthy narcissism you may embody. I encourage everyone to participate as this helps us identify areas that we can move towards health. Click here to access Dr. Malkin’s narcissism test.
How to foster healthy narcissism
According to Dr. Malkin, the key to a balanced level of narcissism is a combination of high warmth and high standards. Too little of each of these can lead to unhealthy dynamics. This is helpful information both for how we see ourselves as well as how we treat our loved ones.
If your loved one is narcissistic
When it comes to seeking professional help for narcissism, family members and loved ones of narcissists are far more likely to reach out than the narcissists themselves. This dynamic plays out because unhealthy narcissism fosters a disconnectedness from relationships and from reality, making it extremely difficult for someone to see how their narcissism may be negatively affecting their loved ones. This leaves their loved ones looking to find ways to deal with their pain on their own.
A majority of my clients are adult children of a narcissistic parent. Most of the time, these individuals have felt belittled and minimized by their parents, and often have difficulty finding their sense of self and feeling grounded in who they are due to constantly being expected to tend to the needs of someone else.
For those whose loved one or family member demonstrates unhealthy narcissism, the road ahead is often trying and requires patience. As an individual puts in the work of getting to know who they are and welcoming more warmth in their self-perception, their narcissistic loved one can often feel threatened and even lash out. This dynamic, in turn, often triggers depression or anxiety in one or both parties, and the work of setting healthy boundaries can be a long and tumultuous journey.
For those who have embarked on that journey, kudos to you! The work is incredibly difficult. If you have not yet embarked on that journey, I encourage you to have supports in place, and consider seeking a professional therapist to join you for the long road ahead. This is not a journey to go alone.
To explore further
For more details about Dr. Malkin’s work, Brian Johnson does a great job elaborating on his concepts:
As always, I’d like to be clear that this blog post isn’t intended as professional counseling or clinical advice. If you’re in need of support, please consider speaking to a professional to be evaluated.