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5 Things You Didn't Know About Healthy Narcissism

04/08/2014 07:45 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2014

Yes, narcissism can be healthy. Most people assume the reverse--that narcissism is an execrable trait and that it's associated with pathology. This is hardly surprising. Narcissism has been demonized in the press and popular media since the 1970s, when it first became a common term in public debate. Then, as now, the young were cast as excessively narcissistic--self-centered and self-absorbed, and valuing immediate gratification over restraint and hard work. Depending on your vantage, Me Decade Boomers ("the worst generation") and today's Millennials ("the most narcissistic generation ever") are equally at fault for everything from the decline of the work ethic to the rise of plastic surgery. Christopher Lasch, in his 1978 bestselling book, The Culture of Narcissism, blamed narcissism for just about everything that was wrong with the culture. A phalanx of latter-day Lasches is hard at work recycling his charge in updated form for our own time--no need to buy a book now, just google it.

Are things both the same and ever so much worse now than they were in the 1970s? Psychoanalysts writing in that decade brought the concept of "healthy narcissism" into public view, arguing that narcissism could be descriptive not only of pathology but also of normality. Narcissism was necessary to sustain life, they argued, and it was the foundation for creativity, ambition, values, and ideals. It was not, as Lasch claimed, antithetical to fellow feeling and social life. Rather, in reasonable proportions, it lay at the foundation of both. Narcissism could be a good thing.

The public eagerly embraced the notion of narcissism as pathological while overlooking its positive dimensions. Today, the question of whether narcissism is all bad and whether it is on the rise is again on the table. Some psychologists argue that it is, others that it isn't. Can narcissism be a good thing? Freud published his essay "On Narcissism" in 1914, so this is the year we celebrate narcissism's centennial. Below I look at 5 of the most common misperceptions about narcissism--it's time to get the concept right.

1. Narcissism is by definition bad. No--even Freud, who was neither an optimist nor a positive psychologist, recognized narcissism's upside. He argued it was necessary to sustain life, and that it was found in everyone. And he admired narcissistic people, "personalities" who were primed for leadership and able to effect change. In the 1970s, when clinicians were delineating the narcissistic personality disorder, it was clear that being a narcissist was problematic--mostly for those around him or her. But narcissism was increasingly seen as a neutral quantity of self-feeling--or self-esteem--that everyone had to regulate in order to feel good. This was a normal, not a pathological process. Without narcissism, you couldn't survive; with a healthy measure of it, you could thrive.

2. Healthy narcissism is a creation of the Me Decade. Plausible but misleadingly so. Healthy narcissism was popularized within and beyond psychoanalysis in the 1970s, but it was first named in 1930s Vienna, hardly the site of Me Decade excess. Clinicians used the term healthy narcissism then to refer to normal, even desirable, aspects of being in the world: general well-being, self-assurance, self-assertion, satisfaction with who one was. They also argued that it fueled fantasies of love, greatness, and ambition. But, unlike today's naysayers, they argued that these fantasies were normal, the foundation of actual accomplishment in the world. Healthy narcissism is a bit player in the public debate about narcissism today, which is focused almost entirely on narcissism's pathologies.

3. Narcissists love themselves too much. Psychoanalysts argued that the reverse was true--narcissists, as one put it three decades ago, "love themselves as badly as they love others." Self-hate was more the problem than excessive self-love. Yet, the association of narcissism--indeed, the default popular definition of narcissism--with unseemly amounts of self-love can be found all over the internet. To be sure, the mythological figure of Narcissus, whose name psychoanalysts appropriated, fell to his death while transfixed by his own image. By the 1970s, however, self-love had been transformed into a positive good, and many psychoanalysts were guided by the idea that, as a popular axiom put it, "you have to love yourself before you can love anyone else."

4. A high score on the popular narcissism personality test means you're a narcissist. Worried? Take the "Am I a Narcissist" test, any number of websites advise. Variations on psychologists' "Narcissistic Personality Inventory" (NPI) are easy to find, and easy to score. Thousands of college students have taken it, and the results are marshaled to document the precipitous rise in narcissism among the young. There are several problems here. For one, the test was designed to measure narcissistic traits in the general population, not to diagnose narcissistic personality disorder, but in practice it is often used to do so. And two, the test includes items indicative of healthy narcissism alongside such malignant traits as entitlement and manipulativeness, but in determining your score simply adds responses together. Thus, high scores might indicate that you feel good about yourself, are happy, and have healthy self-esteem--healthily narcissistic dispositions that are problematic only to the cultural scolds.

5. Narcissism makes people unlikeable and disagreeable, and no one wants to hire them or hang out with them. Actually, psychologists find that in general we find narcissists more likeable, attractive, and exciting than non-narcissists, and that we are drawn to their "sexy" charisma and confidence. In addition, narcissists can succeed in corporate settings, as long as they stay on narcissism's healthy side. Boards want self-confident, assertive, and creative leaders--all traits fueled by healthy narcissism. The trick is to stay on the healthy side, to not give into the grandiosity and recklessness that can go with pathological narcissism. Among students of management, the question now is not if narcissism is optimal but, rather, how much of it does the leader ideally need.

Elizabeth Lunbeck is the author of The Americanization of Narcissism (Harvard University Press, $35.00).