Narcissism: Developing a Healthy Self
The word psychoanalytic term "Narcissism" has become integrated into popular language, and typically has a negative connotation. "So-and-so is such a Narcissist!". When someone says that, I think we all generally know what they mean: the narcissist is a person who only thinks about themselves, who is "grandiose"--thinking and acting like they are all-knowing and all-powerful and simply better than everyone else in the world and who lacks empathy for others. And it's true that there are people in the world who have a pathological kind of narcissism. And these people can be hurtful--at the extreme end of the spectrum, they can even be violent and dangerous.
But what gets missed here is that narcissism is a spectrum, and that we all have narcissistic--or self--needs. When we focus on the popular meaning for the word, it creates a barrier of shame around narcissism for us all. And when we can't talk about things, they can cause alot of suffering. So let's talk about!
Our Earliest Narcissistic Needs
As an infant, our entire sense of who we are is wrapped up in others--whether or not they meet our physical needs, and whether or not we are experienced with joy (more often than not). When these things happen, we feel good about ourselves, good about others. We turn into confident toddlers and can trust the world enough to take all the big risks we need to take, from taking our first few steps to going to school.
Have you ever experienced a toddler who is over the moon proud of the *big poop* they made on the potty? Have you ever been part of an impromptu audience for an elementary school age child's "play" that they created? Ever wondered why middle school and high school age kids are fascinated with selfies and posting themselves on YouTube and other social media? Can you remember being a teenager, that feeling of invincibility--and all the less than stellar choices that come along with it? This is "grandiosity", and it's a completely normal and necessary part of human development. We need those experiences of grandiosity because they help us to feel strong and capable, to take the big leaps life presents, and it often elicits a sparkle of pride in the caregivers' eyes, which the child really needs in order to become themselves.
Then Life Happens
As we get older though, we realize more and more that this experience of grandiosity is an illusion. "You mean I'm not a superhero?", one child asked, confused and astonished, after having fallen out of a tree and broke an arm. Glimpses of reality start to seep in, and become more and more clear as we reach adulthood. We are not as powerful as we once thought. And those glimpses of reality can feel very scary.
The good news is that when we have adults in our lives who can offer the gleam of pride, the sense of joy about our selves, and can be strong enough to contain our worries about taking life's leaps, we generally end up feeling confident about who we are becoming (for the most part) and are more likely to take healthy risks to become even more "who we are".
But when we can't experience our grandiosity as kids--when we're not the gleam in our parents' eyes, when our efforts at building ourselves up are dismissed or shut down, when we are faced with the disillusionment of our grandiosity too early or too quickly, we can be left feeling the opposite of grandiose--small and powerless. And that leaves our selves on shaky ground. Which is scary. And anxiety-provoking. And vulnerable.
Again, It's a Spectrum
Most people seeking therapy aren't coming in with pathological Narcissism as in the popular term. After all, those folks typically can't find anything at all they'd like to change about themselves--its everyone else who needs to change! But lots of people do come to therapy with wounds deep in their selves. A powerful feeling vulnerability to shame, anger, anxiety and depression. People often recognize those emotional symptoms, and may also be aware of struggling in relationships, feeling like something is "wrong" with them or feeling "not good enough". These are often surface experiences leading to deeply held narcissistic wounds that grew out of self needs that weren't able to be met. And lots of people struggle with them. Because life is complex, no parent is perfect, and children don't come with instruction manuals.
So the good news is that if we talk about our narcissistic wounds, and we realize just how common they are, the less they will become irritated and infected by shame. And, with the support of healthy relationships, from family to friends, to a therapist who "gets it", you can begin to heal the wounds you might not have realized that you've even had! And as they begin to heal, and your sense of self becomes stronger, more confident, those symptoms of anxiety, depression, anger will loosen their grip.
And you'll find the freedom to become you. Who you were always meant to be.