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The Gift of Healthy Narcissism

London's Science Museum Exhibition
London's Science Museum Exhibition
Laura Spinney

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. ~e.e. cummings

Healthy narcissism forms constant, realistic self-interest, mature goals and principles, and an ability to form deep relationships. Freud contended in his paper ‘On Narcissism’ that primary narcissism is an essential part of normal development and is critical to one’s survival. Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, who introduced the term Narcissistic Personality Disorder, spoke of the child’s normal narcissistic entitlement as the foundation for a healthy emerging mature self.

In order to possess healthy narcissism you needed to be seen for whom you really were, to be understood, to express your feelings and needs, to be taken seriously, and to have your feelings and needs respected by your mother and father. If these narcissistic needs were adequately fulfilled, the developmental childhood stages of autonomy, initiative, competence, identity and intimacy would be satisfied and healthy self-esteem would result.

A foundation of healthy narcissism requires parents to provide the following:

* React calmly and reassuringly to any of my aggressive impulses

* Support my attempts to become separate and autonomous instead of being threatened by them

* Allow me to experience and express my natural feelings and urges such as rage, fear, jealousy and defiance

* Allow me to develop and follow my natural curiosity safely during each developmental stage, rather than overprotecting me or requiring me to do things to please them

* Be available both physically and emotionally when I needed them

* Permit me to express conflicting or ambivalent feelings and treat those feelings seriously and with respect

* See and treat me as separate from them, as someone with my own needs, wishes, fears, dreams, and accomplishments.

If you didn’t get this kind of support, it is likely that you have “narcissistic wounds” with defenses around them to protect against any further wounding. When the authentic self is rejected by one’s parents a false self adapts by becoming what others need him/her to be. Development is impaired by parental contempt and humiliation. It is a set up for sadomasohism and objectification. The traumatized child grows up with no sense of who s/he really is and becomes co-dependent; a psychological condition caused by child abuse. Recovery pioneer Pia Mellody conveys that co-dependency, “renders one unable to experience appropriate levels of self esteem, set functional boundaries with others, and own one’s reality. There is difficulty taking care of dependency issues around needing and wanting, and difficulty expressing your reality.”

Essentially, you can’t define appropriate boundaries and limits when healthy narcissism is lacking. As Dr. Robert Firestone wrote, “Personal power is based on strength, confidence, and competence that individuals gradually acquire in the course of their development. It is self-assertion, and a natural, healthy striving for love, satisfaction and meaning in one's interpersonal world.” As survivors of child abuse attempt to negotiate adult relationships, the psychological defenses formed in childhood become increasingly maladaptive. The survivor’s intimate relationships are driven by the hunger for protection and care and are haunted by the fear of abandonment or exploitation. The survivor develops a pattern of intense, unstable relationships, repeatedly enacting dramas of rescue, injustice, and betrayal. The desperate longing for nurturance makes it difficult to establish safe and appropriate boundaries with others. Hence, the survivor is at further risk of repeated victimization in adult life.

Breaking free of these deeply entrenched interpersonal patterns fueled by narcissistic wounds is a courageous and harrowing process. Self-reclamation may involve excruciating revisiting of painful injustices perpetrated by ones caregivers. It may involve owning how these insidious betrayals and losses contributed to years of self-sabotage, through people pleasing, absent boundaries, destructive selflessness and bargaining with abuse. Yet even those with years of extensive recovery find that when they grapple with family and significant others who are riddled by traits of destructive narcissism, disempowering regressions may occur. They strangely lose sight of their basic interpersonal rights. They get caught up in the dictates of the dysfunctional familial dynamics and their prescribed role. The survivor is trapped by the implicit threat that to defy the family credo would result in severe repercussions. She has to be willing to risk character assassination, abandonment, and outright aggression if she is to recover the Self she was robbed of.

Author Patricia Evans wrote in 'The Verbally Abusive Relationship', that we are all deserving of the following basic rights in relationships:

The right to emotional support

The right to be heard by the other and to respond

The right to have your own point of view, even if this differs from your partner's

The right to have your feelings and experiences acknowledged as real

The right to live free from accusation and blame

The right to live free from criticism and judgment

The right to live free from emotional and physical threat

The right to live free from angry outbursts and rage

The right to be respectfully asked, rather than ordered

The basic right to be treated with respect and to have the freedom to say no to things you don't want to do, are obvious for those with healthy narcissism. For survivors of abuse, the gift of safely and fully being one’s authentic unique self, is a struggle that is unquestionably worth fighting for. The battle to reclaim one's birthright of mature, balanced self love means confronting the source of one's oppression. Driven to actualize her potentials, the survivor understands that although the sacrifice may be steep, the price of not being true to oneself is far greater.