Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Self Love or Narcissism?


                                                    Self Love or Narcissism?


What is a narcissist? Should you love yourself? Many people find this topic quite confusing and anxiety-provoking. Of course the Stress Monster loves your confusion and, as usual, I'm here to defeat the monster.


As people are multi-dimensional, you'll need to look at several characteristics to understand the difference between self-love and narcissism: types of self-love; compassion for others; consistency of public versus private identity. Once you understand these differences, you will realize that you should love yourself but beware of loving a narcissist.


Let's start with self-love. I do advocate the type of self-love which is positive, warm and caring, appreciating and affirming of yourself, supporting and maintaining appropriate self-esteem. Too often in my psychology practice I see individuals unable to maintain adequate self love, suffering from low self-esteem or even self loathing related to depression or anger turned inward. Some people suffer from a misguided need to act in a self-effacing way out of fear of being called braggarts or "stuck up." Others think they should not love themselves, confusing self-care with selfishness. As you will see, these are quite different. Self-care is a basic necessity; you need to have internal resources in order to be altruistic toward others. Selfish people promote their own welfare and are indifferent or even hostile toward others.


Self-love and compassion are linked. The "Golden Rule" is one of our highest ethical and spiritual values. If we are to love others as ourselves, this means that we must first love ourselves! You cannot take care of others adequately unless you can also take care of yourself. That said, compassion and altruism are fundamental positive values leading to inner peace and happiness. We are all a part of humanity. All religions and spiritual practices emphasize the need to care for others in a compassionate manner.


The third differentiating characteristic is consistency of public and private appearances. Honest people will be consistent in speech and behavior, whether or not they are trying to impress others. They value speaking their truth and avoid misrepresentations, lies or falsehoods.


A self loving, compassionate and honest person will likely be a happy, fulfilled person.  But what about a narcissist? Although the word means self love, this personality type is very different from the self loving person on all three dimensions.


The narcissist's so-called self-love tends to be shallow and superficial and dependent upon receiving admiration from others. While this is very true, you wouldn't know this upon first impression. Narcissists are usually rated as attractive, intelligent, likable, charming and entertaining. The narcissist rates him or herself this way and others support this impression. Because narcissists need reinforcement from others, they make sure they project these admirable qualities. You will find many narcissists in influential leadership or political positions. They spend a great deal of time grooming themselves, purchasing stylish apparel, even preening in public. However, as you spend more time with the narcissist, you will notice that their apparent self-love is shallow rather than deep. You will notice they tend to be egocentric and self absorbed, hypersensitive, insecure and defensive about potential criticism.


You will find yourself drawn into the narcissists’ charm as they radiate positive qualities. But beware!  Narcissists need to be "top dog," in a power position, meaning that ultimately the narcissist attempts to control others to ensure support for their overblown self-importance. The narcissist's charm turns into vanity and grandiosity, manipulation and exploitation of others. Do narcissists care about others? No. Narcissists care about themselves and maintaining their advantage over others, lacking empathy for others. Narcissists are often very judgmental, criticizing and putting down other people while they praise and call positive attention to themselves. Narcissists often seek sexualized attention from others and may pursue short-term hookups or affairs when they do marry.


What about honesty and consistency? Only if they feel the need to project these qualities to maintain their edge over others. Narcissists have a public and a private face. They will conspicuously display positive characteristics in public and profess admirable virtues. However, in private, narcissists will display their true character.


Are narcissists happy? Their emotional states are highly variable and inconsistent. They seem happy when they are being admired and when their needs are being satisfied. When narcissists are not in control and are not being admired by others, they will be deflated and insecure and will be driven to restore their power position. When narcissists feel they are not being given their due, they may become more manipulative and aggressive. Narcissists will often seek out new acquaintances or partners to obtain the admiration they crave.


Narcissistic behavior can be understood on a continuum when more extensive and serious narcissistic behavior becomes chronic.  A narcissistic personality disorder develops when enduring patterns of narcissistic thinking and behavior are exhibited in a wide range of personal and social contexts, becoming inflexible and maladaptive. The narcissist's personality will appear “entitled” and dishonest, more aggressive and predatory toward others. Even more extreme narcissists may become cruel and hurtful, enjoying harming others for their own benefit. These individuals may be diagnosed as sociopathic or psychopathic.


A word of caution. Extroverted personalities may display the kinds of positive outgoing and admiration-seeking behaviors as do narcissists. These individuals may or may not be narcissistic; you would have to determine whether they display characteristics of the narcissistic personality other than extroversion.


Should you love a narcissist? You may wish to consult the cover story in Psychology Today magazine, August 2011, which analyzes narcissism and includes a section on proceeding with caution with the narcissist as a romantic partner.


Obviously my article profiles a character type; individual narcissists will not necessarily display all these characteristics.  Therapists are generally very knowledgeable about narcissists and will be able to assist you with this issue.  As I said, do love yourself but beware of loving a narcissist!