12/05/2013 09:13 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2014

Is Self-Interest Healthy or Narcissism?

Have you ever heard things like, "We're all a bit narcissistic, aren't we?" or "A little narcissism is healthy," or "Isn't everyone, at essence, a narcissist?" The realm of narcissism is so confusing that even normal people worry that they are narcissists. They aren't sure what is normal and healthy.

One of the most confusing concepts in the narcissism realm is how to understand "healthy narcissism." It can be a useful concept for the mental health professionals who truly understand what it means, but for most of us, it confuses things. It leads people to think that some narcissism is okay, while too much is not. But what is enough and what is too much?

I think the term "healthy narcissism" should be taken out of the conversation and just replaced with the term "normal." An emotionally normal person is not narcissistic or a narcissist. An emotionally normal person is "Self" aware -- aware that he is separate and distinct from others, and that others may have needs and wants that differ from his own. A normal person will consider the needs of others along with his own. There is a wide range within "normal" from immature, to repressed, to unskilled, to emotionally intelligent, emotionally skilled and self-responsible. It is normal and healthy to be aware of others and aware of self at the same time. Self-interest with empathy is normal. Some other words that fit in the realm of 'normal' are considerate, attuned, individuated, and having clear boundaries.

A narcissist is a person who lacks the ability to see things from another's point of view, and lacks awareness that any other person ought to be considered. Unfortunately for a narcissist, their early experiences did not allow them to safely develop a separate sense of "self" so they continue to be psychically enmeshed in the way a baby is merged with a caregiver. A narcissist's needs and wants are the only needs and wants; your role in relationship with a narcissist is to fulfill the narcissist's needs and wants. Not all narcissists are raging bullies or fame driven divas - some are subtle and socially adept. Whether you encounter narcissistic behavior in a mild form or severe form, it's all narcissism -- marked by an inability to consider another person's reality. Some narcissists may be more socially adept than others but there is no such thing as a little narcissism or a little narcissistic.

When you choose your self-interest over the preference of another person, it does not mean you are a narcissist. If you are a person capable of empathy, you are not obligated to do what the other person wants simply because you are aware of it. Time spent processing your emotions or being introspective (which sometimes gets called out as "navel gazing") does not mean you are a narcissist -- it means you are normal and engaging in taking care of yourself. Processing your emotions is not self-absorption -- it is emotionally healthy. Ultimately, the only person who can take care of you is you.

Your most basic job in life is to take care of yourself. If you are self-aware, self-interested, practice self-care, and at the same time are aware and considerate of others you are simply normal.