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'Some psychoanalysts and writers make a distinction between "healthy narcissism" and "unhealthy narcissism"...the healthy narcissist being someone who has a real sense of self-esteem that can enable them to leave their imprint on the world, but who can also share in the emotional life of others'.[1]

Freud and normal narcissism

'Freud said that narcissism was a natural part of the human makeup, but also a characteristic that if taken to extremes can prevent us from having meaningful relationships'.[2] He considered that 'the self-regarding attitude in normal people...has a specially intimate dependence on narcissistic libido',[3] and thought that 'one part of self-regard is primary - the residue of infantile narcissism; another part arises out of the omnipotence that is corroborated by experience (the fulfilment of the ego ideal)'.[4] Freud explored the contrasting situation when the normal sense of narcissistic satisfaction went awry in "Mourning and Melancholia": 'the patient represents his ego to us as worthless, incapable of any achievement and morally extraordinary diminution in his self-regard...[a] narcissistic blow to the ego'.[5]

Otto Fenichel summed up the first psychoanalytic half-century by seeing the normality as marked by the post-Oedipal internalisation of 'conscience (regulating inner narcissistic supplies)', although conceding that 'even normal people need a certain amount of external narcissistic supplies';[6] only in the immature or regressed character 'pervaded by narcissistic needs' and dominated by narcissistic injury did he find the abnormal narcissism wherein 'the striving for sexual satisfaction is still condensed with the striving for getting narcissistic supplies in order to maintain self-esteem'.[7]

Kohut: narcissistic entitlement

The later twentieth century saw a process whereby 'Kohut, aided by infant development and child-abuse research, enfranchised the infant and child in a way that had been unprecedented in human history. The age of "normal narcissism" and normal narcissistic entitlement had arrived'.[8] In 'trying to account for what had happened to narcissistic patients to make them so, he generalised about what happened in everybody's development, and...went on to inventing a whole "psychology of the self"'.[9]

Kohut considered of what he termed 'archaic narcissism...[that] these positions constitute necessary and healthy maturational steps'; if early narcissistic needs could be adequately met, the individual would move on to a 'mature form of positive self-esteem; self-confidence'.[10]

Positive narcissism/healthy selfishness

Neville Symington challenged Kohut's belief in positive narcissism, arguing that 'we do not get positive narcissism without self-hatred'.[11] He concluded that 'Kohut does not seem to be aware of this because he defines narcissism without this inner negative critic. I think this is why in some recent literature a distinction is made between negative narcissism and positive narcissism. As I said earlier, I do not think they ever exist dissociated from one another'.[12]

However he conceded that it 'may be just a semantic issue, in that someone talking of positive narcissism, for instance, may be talking about self-esteem or makes some sort of sense to talk of "healthy selfishness". On the other hand, it is meaningless to talk about healthy self-centredness...a tremendous confusion of tongues'.[13]

Solan's healthy narcissism

Ronnie Solan uses the metaphor of narcissism as an emotional-immune system for safeguarding the familiarity and the well-being of the individual against invasion by foreign sensations (1998) and small differences (Freud 1929-1930) was possible.

The innate immunization vacillates between well-being, in the presence of the familiar, and alertness as well as vulnerability, facing the stranger. From childhood, the familiar is tempting and the strangeness is intolerable from within (illness) or from outside (otherness). Hence, narcissistic immunization might be compared to the activity of the biological immunological system that identifies the familiar protein of the cell and rejects the foreign protein (bacteria, virus).

Thus, from infancy to adulthood, getting hurt emotionally is inevitable because the other, even if he or she is a familiar person and dear to us, is still a separate individual that asserts his otherness. The healthy narcissist succeeds in updating narcissistic data (such as acquaintance with the unfamiliar) and in enabling the recovery of self-familiarity from injury and psychic pains. Healthy narcissism activates immunologic process of restoring the stabilization of cohesiveness, integrity and vigorousness of the self and the restoration of the relationship with the other, despite its otherness. Impaired functioning of narcissism fails to activate these narcissistic processes and arouses destructive reactions. Thus, the individual steadfastly maintains his anger toward the other that offended him, and might sever contact with him, even to the extent of exacting violent revenge, although this other might be dear to him, possibly leading through impaired narcissism to fragility and vulnerability of the self, to immature individuation, narcissistic disorders and pathological phenomena. The healthy narcissism contributes to improving emotional intelligence as part of the process of adapting to changes; to intensifying curiosity and investigating the environment; to relating to otherness, and for enhancing 'joie de vivre'.* [14][15][16][17][18][19][20]

Impact of healthy v destructive narcissistic managers

Lubit compared healthily narcissistic managers versus destructively narcissistic managers for their long-term impact on organizations.[21]

Characteristic Healthy Narcissism Destructive Narcissism
Self-confidence High outward self-confidence in line with reality Grandiose
Desire for power, wealth and admiration May enjoy power Pursues power at all costs, lacks normal inhibitions in its pursuit
Relationships Real concern for others and their ideas; does not exploit or devalue others Concerns limited to expressing socially appropriate response when convenient; devalues and exploits others without remorse
Ability to follow a consistent path Has values; follows through on plans Lacks values; easily bored; often changes course
Foundation Healthy childhood with support for self-esteem and appropriate limits on behaviour towards others Traumatic childhood undercutting true sense of self-esteem and/or learning that he/she doesn't need to be considerate of others

In a separate but related distinction, 'Michael Maccoby, in his fascinating book The Productive Narcissist, makes a strong case for the positive side of a narcissistic character...[&] believes that the natural energy and individuality of narcissists is the key to much industrial progress and innovation'.[22]

Pleasure in being one's self

Narcissism has become something of a postmodern bugbear, almost demonised in what has become known as the culture of narcissism. In reaction, there has been a growing emphasis upon the fact that 'we all need a bit of narcissism - a bit of self-centredness, a bit of overwhelming self-regard - to be able to do anything, to feel good about ourselves, to impose ourselves a little'.[23]

According to Wendy T. Behary, such 'healthy narcissism contains the seeds of assertiveness and self-respect'.[24] It is clear that 'narcissism has robust value for children', and that 'many successful people exist within the domain of well-adjusted, or healthy, narcissism'.[25] One result of successful therapy may be the regaining of 'a quiet pleasure in being one's self...a sort of pleased feeling, nothing superior...a spontaneous relaxed enjoyment, a primitive joie de vivre native to the organism'.[26]

The undoubted abuses of pernicious narcissism should not blind us to the necessity of healthy narcissism; and it has been suggested indeed that we learn to think in terms of a narcissistic 'continuum, with stable narcissism closest to healthy narcissism and the destructive narcissistic pattern closest to pathological narcissism'.[27]

See also


  1. Simon Crompton, All about me (London 2007) p. 37
  2. Crompton, p. 21
  3. Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11) p. 92-3
  4. Freud, p. 95
  5. Freud, p. 254 and p. 262
  6. Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of the Neurosis (London 1946) p. 137 and p. 389
  7. Fenichel, p. 243
  8. James Grotstein, "Foreword", Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 1993) p. xiii
  9. Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (London 1988) p. 117-8
  10. Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self(Madison 1971) p. 215 and p. 9
  11. Symington, p. 58
  12. Symington, p. 108
  13. Symington, p. 8-9
  14. Solan, Ronnie (1991). Jointness as integration of merging and separateness in object relations and narcissism..
  15. Solan, Ronnie (1998) Narcissistic Fragility in the Process of Befriending the Unfamiliar. Psychoanal. Amer. J. Psycho-Anal., Vol. 58:(2)163-186.
  16. Solan, Ronnie (1998b). The Narcissitic Vulnerability to Change in Object Relation. In Psychoan. In Israel (Theoriebildung und therapeutische Praxis). BlatteR Band 9. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Göttingen.
  17. Solan, Ronnie (1999). The Interaction Between Self and Other: A Different Perspective on Narcissism. Psychoanal. Study of the Child, 54: 193-215.
  18. Solan, Ronnie (2007). Enigma of Childhood (in Hebrew). Modan Publishing House.
  20. Solan, R.(2015). The Enigma of Childhood - The Profound Impact of the First Years of Life on Adults as Couples and Parents. Karnac Book Ltd.
  21. Lubit, R. (2002). The long-term organizational impact of destructively narcissistic managers. Academy of Management Executive, 16(1), 127-138.
  22. Crompton, p. 123 and p. 61
  23. Crompton, p. 2
  24. Wendy T. Behary, Disarming the narcissist (2009) p. 26
  25. Behary, p. 27-9
  26. Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person (1961) p. 87-8
  27. Nina W. Brown, Children of the Self-Absorbed (2008) p. 7