Book - 20 Shades of Narcissism
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Philosophy and Happiness
Site by David Thomas PhD
Can Narcissists Be Emotionally Healthy?
If someone behaves badly, tells a lie, for example, most people would think that at some level they know that they have behaved badly. But does this same logic apply to narcissists? Does a narcissist know that some people see him (or her) as arrogant? Research by Erika Carlson, Simine Vazire, and Thomas Oltmanns sheds light on some of the psychological mechanisms underlying narcissism.1
Over three studies, Carlson et al. examined what narcissists understood about how others perceived them. Their finding were surprising; narcissists understand that others see them less positively than they see themselves; that is, their meta-perceptions are less biased than are their self-perceptions. They have some insight into the fact that they make positive first impressions that deteriorate over time, and they have insight into their narcissistic personality; for example, they often describe themselves as arrogant.
Roy Lubit described two different types of narcissist: the healthy variety and the destructive variety. Healthy narcissism is based on comparatively secure self-esteem that can survive daily frustrations and stress. The failure to attain desired goals, receiving criticism, and seeing the success of others may cause the healthy narcissist disappointment, but it does not unduly threaten his (or her) self-image.2
Although both healthy and destructive narcissism provide outward self-confidence, Lubit believes that they are very different phenomena. The grandiosity of the destructive narcissist may appear to be due to a high level of self-confidence, but it is not. It is a reaction to a fragile self-esteem. The grandiosity is, in effect, an attempt to control the situation and avoid any threat to the destructive narcissist's self-esteem.
As he lacks healthy, stable self-esteem, the destructive narcissist tends to devalue and envy others and develop a grandiose self-image. In stress situations, where he feels threatened, his fragile self-esteem will suffer a serious reduction, and he will respond with verbal or physical aggression, or both. All destructive narcissists are both envious and paranoid. Whilst the relatively solid self-esteem of the healthy narcissist will normally support concern for the rights and well-being of others, the destructive narcissist does not respect others' rights and is frequently arrogant, devaluing, and exploitative in his interactions with others. The healthy narcissist may enjoy power, wealth, and admiration but is not obsessed with them, unlike the destructive narcissist, who obsessively manipulates others in the quest for power, wealth, and admiration.
Whilst both healthy and destructive narcissism are very different phenomena, it depends to a large degree upon the situation. Even a healthy narcissist will respond with verbal or physical aggression, or both, when he finds himself in a stressful situation whereby he feels that his ego is threatened. Although the healthy narcissist is not obsessed with power, wealth, and admiration, threats to his ego in very stressful circumstances still result in a swift response.
The fundamental characteristics of all narcissists are envy, paranoia, and indifference to the feelings of others; that is, they lack empathy. If a person has these three characteristics, then he (or she) is clearly narcissistic, and consequently is not emotionally healthy. It can be argued, therefore, that there is no such thing as a 'healthy narcissist'; it is a contradiction of terms, and although Carlson et al. have identified that narcissists have some insight into their own behaviour, it does not really help to answer the question, 'Can narcissists be emotionally healthy?' Knowing that they are behaving in an arrogant manner in some ways makes them emotionally less healthy; yes they have insight, but they continue their behaviour nonetheless!
When asked how many business leaders are well-adjusted individuals, Manfred Kets de Vries replied, 'You can argue that 20 per cent of the general population is relatively healthy; 20 per cent is relatively sick; and the other 60 per cent, who all suffer from "neurotic misery", are somewhere in the middle. That applies to most people I meet.'3 The implication is that Kets de Vries believes that those who suffer from neurotic misery vary along a continuum from relatively healthy at one end to relatively sick at the other. The healthy narcissist may, therefore, be near the relatively healthy end of the continuum, and the destructive narcissist may be near or at the relatively sick end.
Thus there are varying degrees of narcissism. To say that a narcissist is emotionally healthy cannot really be justified as the narcissist has emotional issues by definition. His emotional state is fragile, and it is just a question of how fragile, and it is the situation he finds himself in that will determine to what degree his behaviour will be destructive.1. Carlson, Erika N., Vazire, Simine, Oltmanns, Thomas F, (2011), "You Probably Think This Paper's About You: Narcissists' Perceptions of Their Personality and Reputation", Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, Vol. 101, Issue 1, pp. 185-201.
2. Lubit, Roy, (2002), "The long-term organizational impact of destructively narcissistic managers", Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 16, No. 1.
3. Kets de Vries, M. (2003), The dark side of leadership, Business Strategy Review, Autumn 2003, Vol. 14, Iss. 3, p. 26.
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