Is Self-Love Healthy or Narcissistic?
Four key questions from research can help you decide.
Posted Feb 10, 2017
We all know the icon of the narcissist gazing in the mirror. Narcissists seem to love themselves extremely, to the exclusion of others. Mirrors reflect back how we feel about ourselves. Looking at our own image may be a source of delight, or it may trigger critical, unloving thoughts about ourselves.
How can we love ourselves in a way that feels good and enhances the quality of our lives, but isn’t narcissistic?
Research finds four consistent differences between healthy self-love and narcissistic love. Here are four key questions to help you understand the difference.
1. Is there a need to leverage one’s own awesomeness against others?
Healthy self-love and self-esteem are based on believing that we have a number of positive qualities and that other people have such qualities, too. If we’re not self-loving or secure, we often seek to compare ourselves with others—believing if we are better at a skill—simply “the best,” or “the fairest on them all"—we'll feel better about ourselves. Needing other people to be less so that we can be more is a common trait of narcissism, and it’s not a very accurate way of perceiving other people. Research shows that most people generally rate themselves above average on key characteristics, although it’s statistically impossible for everyone to be above average.
2. Is there more concern with looking good than performing well?
A narcissist focuses on playing the part of a caring friend, a devoted lover, or a good employee more than on actually performing the role with skill and competency. They’re much more concerned with how they look playing the role than with the actual quality of their performance, or how others are affected by their behavior. People with a high degree of self-love derive it from doing a good job and taking responsibility for their part in things. Narcissists, however, don’t have much incentive to do a thorough job or take responsibility when things go wrong.
3. Is there a focus on external validation?
Narcissists need others to validate their awesomeness. They need constant affirmation from others because they haven’t internalized a sense of worthiness, self-compassion, or genuine high self-regard. They may do all kinds of crazy things to win praise and recognition. Narcissists also tend to measure their worthiness based on status symbols like jewelry, clothes, attractive romantic partners, etc. People with healthy self-love are guided by their own internal values and act in ways that are consistent with those values and which sustain their good feelings about themselves.
4. Do emotions and attitudes seem “black and white?”
Research finds that narcissists tend to either love or hate things and don’t tolerate the grey areas. People with healthy self-love have developed more ability to tolerate uncertainty and subtler emotions. Healthy self-love is related to the ability to experience one’s own vulnerability, which can be threatening to narcissists. When we begin to feel our vulnerability, we naturally start to feel more self-compassion, and this leads us to feel more connected to others. If we can’t tolerate our own uncomfortable feelings, we’re more likely to project them onto others, which can create conflict, isolation, and self-disillusionment
Try this: In my work on mirror meditation, I’ve discovered that the mirror can also be used as a tool for deeper self-awareness. Instead of using your mirror for self-admiration or self-criticism, you can use it to understand yourself. When we are more aware of ourselves, we are less likely to project what’s going on inside of us onto others, we have more choices of how to respond to our feelings, and we have less reliance on others for affirmation.
Sit in front of the mirror for five minutes without distractions, and notice any tendencies to self-criticize, or entertain yourself to fill a void. Simply sit and be open to your thoughts and feelings as you look at yourself with no goal other than to be present with yourself. (Feel free to post your experience, or any questions and comments, on the Mirror Meditation Facebook page.)
Copyright Tara Well, 2017, all rights reserved.
Brown, Brené (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Avery.
Brummelman, E. et al. (2016). Separating Narcissism from Self-Esteem. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 8-13.
Krizan, Z. & Bushman, B.J. (2011). Better than my loved ones: Social comparison tendencies among narcissists. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 212-216.
Neff, Kristin (2011). Self-Compassion. Harper-Collins
Well, T., et al. (2016). The Benefits of Mirror Meditation. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association Convention in Denver.