Have you ever had a creeping suspicion that it's you who is the narcissist?
By very definition, if you are asking this question you are self reflective in a way that someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder is likely not. However, the story isn't that simple. First off, we're all narcissistic, so the secret is to learn how to be happy with yourself anyway. And second, that's healthy! What do I mean? Well, we all need a solid sense of ourselves, confidence, a sense of our talents and capacities, the courage to try new things, all of which come from a healthy narcissistic development. Our narcissistic development powerfully impacts how we feel in relationships—whether we feel safe, loveable, able to handle conflict and especially whether we have good boundaries.
Psychologists talk about a "narcissistic line of development," which is a fancy way of saying that we all start off feeling, necessarily so, that we are the center of the world (by the way, this is to compensate for how terrifying it is to be a little child and depend so entirely on the adults in our life to keep us alive. I mean really, think about it—it's a healthy defense!), and that we slowly develop this narcissistic view into something adaptable to adulthood.
As children we have a self centered view of the world. When good things happen, we implicitly feel that we've done good! And when bad things happen, well, we feel we've failed or are not loveable. We feel basically omnipotent and all powerful—which is both great and scary. Feeling good is great, but our bad feelings could destroy us or someone we love! We also feel that our parents are essentially omnipotent—like gods!
As time goes on, this "narcissistic line of development" shifts and grows. We gradually come to terms with our own vulnerability, our own skills, talents, hopes and dreams. We realize that we can't do everything, we might fail sometimes, we can't and don't control everything, but we have a reasonable sense of hope that we can dream and strive and accomplish. We develop a healthy way of assessing risks, success, and failure, and the confidence to experiment. Likewise, we gradually reckon with our parents' humanness. Yep, they say stupid things, they make mistakes, they are late sometimes. But if all goes well they are "good enough"—not godlike and infallible, but still pretty respectable and great. We still strive to be like them in some ways, and yet differentiate our own values and individuality.
If all goes well, we end up with a fairly balanced sense of ourselves. We have a "healthy level of narcissism": we, too, feel "good enough"—not perfect, but good enough. In other words, we have dreams, ideals, hopes, aspirations and the gusto to go after them because we essentially believe we can and we deserve it as much as anyone else. It takes a fair amount of narcissism to believe that we could do something big, however we each define that: to start a new company, be the first in your family to go to college, have a family, win a race, climb a mountain.
When this development doesn't go well, it can go bad in one of two ways. On the one hand, we can underestimate the power and control we have. We feel victimized. We can't dream and strive and go after the promotion or date or vacation we want. We are essentially depleted inside. This may be accompanied by feelings of emptiness, depression, hopelessness or low self esteem.
On the other hand, we can overestimate our control and power. We can feel overly responsible and impacted by things that happen in our world, as if we are responsible for everything! This can especially impact our ease in relationships—if you feel responsible for another person's every feeling, that's a huge burden—one you'd probably strive to avoid. Or, we can feel we're better than others, overestimate our talents, underestimate our need for others. We can feel invincible, entitled or like we need a lot of attention. Or, further down the scale of narcissism, we can completely lose our sense of empathy for others or our ability to see others as individuals in their own rights. Yes, these are the characteristics of a diagnosable "narcissistic personality disorder."
While most of us do not fall into that category, we all have something to learn from thinking about where we fall along this spectrum. Do you have too little narcissism? Too little sense of power, too few dreams, too little hope, a sense of victimization? Or, do you have too much? Do you tend to perceive things in regards to how they effect you without considering others? Do you feel either overly responsible or overconfident and often surprised when things don't go your way or your dreams don't become a reality? Do you feel inhibited getting close to others because it feels vaguely threatening or overwhelming?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you likely oscillate between the two poles. Narcissism is essential to who we are and how we survive in a big world. It's necessary, yet dangerous if out of hand or imbalanced. Want to know more? Need help talking to someone who is out balance in this regard? Feeling confused about your own sense of self? Don't hesitate to reach out for help. This is a normal part of life, and so gratifying when we make positive changes. When our sense of self is healthy and in balance we feel more sturdy in the world, more able to handle the inevitable ups and downs of life like a ship that is study at sea. We feel more secure in our relationships, and we feel less threatened by conflict, by intimacy or by loss. If you are thinking about your own narcissitic development, or notice any of these signs, therapy can help you discern in which ways you might be out of balance, and resume your line of growth to where you can reach your maximum potential.
Please, feel free to schedule a consultation if you are curious to learn more!