Narcissistic Needs and Self-Esteem: Why Narcissism Isn’t All Bad

Parent helps grinning child walking on park benches balance“You’re such a narcissist!”

If you’ve ever caught yourself saying that to someone you love, you know it’s never a compliment. “Narcissist” can be an all-purpose put-down that calls someone out for being egocentric and grandiose, demanding praise and adulation, and being unable to appreciate the needs or emotions of others; it’s hard to see how anyone with these qualities could ever get along in a friendship or romantic relationship. And yet, according to the American Psychiatric Association, between half a percent and 1% of the American population—which is to say, up to 3.2 million people—currently meet criteria for narcissistic personality (NPD).

Under everyday circumstances, narcissistic behavior can destroy relationships, ruin marriages, and interfere with professional advancement. But the same traits we see in people with NPD may also be present, individually and more subtly, in many people—maybe even in everyone. That’s because narcissistic qualities might well be a necessary component of human development.

Sigmund Freud himself argued, in an essay called On Narcissism, that an infant’s primal urge to survive exceeds its sense of other people’s independent existence, and therefore comprises a kind of “primary narcissism”—a limited, self-centered outlook on the world, into which other personalities have yet to intrude. From six months to about 6 years old, most children go through a stage like this, which could be seen as a way station on the road to developing an independent self. According to Freud, the pathological narcissism that sometimes develops later in life (which he referred to as “secondary narcissism”) results from a distorted exaggeration of healthy narcissism.

Later psychoanalytic theorists elaborated on, and sometimes disagreed with, Freud’s theory. Karen Horney didn’t see primary narcissism as a phase everyone goes through; instead, she believed narcissistic traits arose from a mismatch between the individual and caregivers. To Horney, parents who treat their child as if the child is deeply undervalued—or overvalued—may be nudging that child toward developing a narcissistic personality. By contrast, Heinz Kohut saw the grandiosity of pathological narcissism as something that arose from a child’s larger-than-life idealization of the parents. Kohut believed this grandiosity, later in life, would typically shrink to the size of healthy self-esteem. A third clinical theorist, Otto Kernberg, also focused on parents and their contribution to narcissistic pathology: he believed children develop self-esteem when they have become accustomed to being praised and validated by caregivers. A child then develops positive internal representations of the parents and, at the same time, a stable and positive internal self-concept.

Regardless of whether you’re a follower of Freud or Kernberg, it’s probably not difficult to see how everyone needs to be affirmed by their significant others. It’s probably no less easy to see how acknowledging sufficient narcissistic validation in childhood is essential to developing healthy self-esteem. Unfortunately for popular understanding, this all gets lost when “narcissist” is used as a casual insult.

All these post-Freudian thinkers focused, at least in part, on the parent-child relationship as necessary to building self-esteem. Chief among the responsibilities our parents hold may be narcissistic validation or affirmation, which could be defined as the experience of having your whole self, and your feelings, treated as real and important by someone you care about. Validation is what we internalize as we grow up, so we can develop the ability to value ourselves. Like many things, narcissistic validation is beneficial—and necessary—in moderation. We need it most when we’re children; it’s our parents’ job to notice how we’re feeling (i.e., hungry, tired, or unhappy) and to respond appropriately (with food, the nap-time ritual, or just a hug). If a child is not well validated by the parents—and thus comes to believe their feelings are not important or will always be ignored by significant others—the child may learn to compensate and adapt by developing a psychological shell of brittle, exaggerated narcissism.

As we mature, the validation we seek continues to provide crucial interpersonal feedback, informing the way we make friends, fall in love, and come to know ourselves. We surround ourselves with people who value our good qualities, which can create a positive feedback loop. This feedback—this prosocial, mutually beneficial style of narcissistic behavior—comes into play when parents become their “best selves” when raising their children, or when people who crave others’ attention are able to reward that attention with cheer, kindness, or good humor, cementing friendships. Usually, the development of realistic and positive self-regard, along with an affirming self-concept strong enough to temper negative feedback, works to stabilize self-esteem in most adults. Truly mature self-esteem consists in the ability to self-validate, to regulate self-concept without depending on others’ praise, and to accept criticism without becoming defensive.

Regardless of whether you’re a follower of Freud or Kernberg, it’s probably not difficult to see how everyone needs to be affirmed by their significant others. It’s probably no less easy to see how acknowledging sufficient narcissistic validation in childhood is essential to developing healthy self-esteem. Unfortunately for popular understanding, this all gets lost when “narcissist” is used as a casual insult.

There is no question narcissistic behavior can be problematic. At the extreme end of the narcissism continuum, it can enable and perpetuate abuse. But perhaps more widespread knowledge and insight into the narcissistic needs of children and adults can help turn the label “narcissist” into something a bit more complex. We might even begin to see other people’s basic narcissistic demands as the reasonable human needs they often are.

References:

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., Text Revision). Washington, DC: APA.
  2. Freud, S. (1991). On Narcissism. In Sandler, J., Person, E. S., & Fonagy, P. (Eds.), Freud’s “On Narcissism:” An Introduction (IPA Contemporary Freud: Turning Points & Critical Issues). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  3. Horney, K. (1950, reprinted 1991). Neurosis and human growth (2nd edition). New York: W.W. Norton
  4. Kernberg, O. F. (1985). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  5. Kohut, H. (1971). The analysis of the self: A systematic approach to the psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personality disorders. New York: International Universities Press.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Loren Soeiro, Ph.D. ABPP, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 5 comments
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  • Logan

    Logan

    June 12th, 2017 at 11:20 AM

    Aren’t there those times when you have to put your own needs before anything else? I don’t think that this is always being selfish, but that rather it shows that you are taking care with your own self too.

  • Tanner

    Tanner

    June 12th, 2017 at 1:57 PM

    Having been caught in the web of one’s lies and untruths before that is not the type of person that I wish to ever be with again. How could I ever trust that someone would have my best interests at heart when I know that all they are really ever looking out for is themselves?
    We come to love those who both give and receive freely, not those who only want to do the receiving and never any of the giving.
    My thoughts are if you find yourself in a relationship with someone like that then there is no time quite like the present for getting right back out of that.

  • shelby

    shelby

    June 13th, 2017 at 3:05 PM

    You can be all about taking care of your own needs, but when taking care of those needs then starts to hurt another person then this is where the line has to somehow be drawn.

    Hurting another person just to get your own needs met isn’t something that will ever be acceptable. You have to devise ways to do that in which you benefit other people too along with the good things that you are doing for yourself. This is possible, but you just have to be willing to not only be looking out for you and you alone.

  • Violet

    Violet

    June 14th, 2017 at 7:24 AM

    It has to be something that is simply hard wired into some people, how they need that constant affirmation from others that they are good enough, or really that they are even better than that.
    I don’t know if it’s in the way that they are raised or just the way that they are naturally.

  • dim

    dim

    July 9th, 2018 at 2:10 PM

    Nice article. It takes true mutual respect that only mature adults can offer each other to allow a person afflicted with childhood trauma to begin to heal. Where both parties know what they are up against and believe their love for each other is valuable enough to take on the challenges.

    Unhealthy people attract other unhealthy people. I think it’s wiser to heal yourself instead of presume your experiences are all solely the other person’s “fault” and your answer is diagnosing them and fancying yourself someone who is on “the other side” where all the healthy people are. Statistics say you aren’t.

    Until people wise up, people will bounce from one failed relationship to another, or find themselves embroiled in a very abusive long term relationship, etc.

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