If you’re not a bit of an egotistical narcissist there’s something wrong with you. You might not think of yourself as one but all healthy people are. Unhealthy people pretend they’re egoless or beat themselves up so mercilessly that their compensatory egotism goes totally out of control finding ulterior ways to act up.
We’re often told you can’t love others if you don’t love yourself. Whether that’s true, you can’t get through the day without a bit of self-love. Self-love is confidence. It’s hard to get by without it.
The term narcissism is typically defined as unhealthy egotism. Here I’m using it more broadly, a love, even an infatuation with ourselves that all of us have and must sustain, yet a trait that must be managed to get the most of out of it without doing harm.
From this perspective, narcissism isn’t some rare disease that afflicts the spiritually deficient, it’s something all of us have to cultivate but also manage, to prevent it from causing ourselves and others harm.
Indeed, to pretend otherwise, that you are an egoless exception, is one of the shortest paths to harmful narcissism. Many harmful narcissists pretend they’re humble.
Selfish self-regard has an illustrious pedigree going all the way back to the origins of life. All organisms are self-ish. To be alive is to strive to regenerate yourself day after day in the face of all sorts of threats to life and limb. Self-preservation is self-ish. We exercise our self-ishness through cooperation and competition. Healthy self-ishness attends to the difference between right and wrong cooperation and competition. Cooperate with the wrong things and you die; fight the wrong things and you die. Adaptive traits are traits that serve the organism.
To be absolutely selfless is to surrender to death. Even those who sacrifice themselves for a bigger cause do so because they identify with the cause. They want to be selfless heroes for something grander that their self is part of.
Here are seven tips for managing your narcissism to best effect:
- Exercise your narcissism through fantasy: You probably do this already, perhaps without noticing. Do you identify with heroes in movies? Have you ever enjoyed a sexual fantasy? Does flattery boost your mojo? Have you ever joined or wanted to join a clique, a mutual admiration society or an exciting social movement? Do you root for your team in spectator sports? Do you belong to a faith that you think has answered life’s great questions? Do you like a glass of wine or some other intoxicant that makes you feel grand? If so, congratulations: you’re human, and you’re engaged in one of the safest forms or narcissism, harmless self-aggrandizing fun. And be careful, taken to excess you may start to believe you’re master of the universe, like know-it-alls, trolls, and cult members,
- Get good at distinguishing fantasy from reality: The better you get at making the distinction, the more you can indulge in fantasy without causing harm to yourself and others.
- Be careful what your narcissism gets you into: Many of us regret decisions we’ve made under the heady influence of a big mojo boost, for example falling in love and marrying someone physically hot, but incompatible for the long haul, taking a bad job because we were flattered that they wanted us, being taken in by con artists, or joining a movement that, in retrospect was not as good for us as we thought. If you’ve done any of that you’ve been Shanghaied, a nautical term for an unscrupulous way captains one recruited sailors, getting them drunk on alcohol and flattery. The sailors would wake up the next day off to sea, sometimes for months with no escape.
- It’s not just brainwashing it’s a vulnerable ego: Enthusiastic cult members are not just brainwashing victims. Their unhealthy narcissism is getting stroked by the cult’s mutual admiration society. When ex-cult members claim that they were brainwashed, that too is unhealthy narcissism, taking a different form that leaves them exposed to further brainwashing, perhaps by a counter-cult (Elsewhere I describe this as “I once was lost but now I’m blind” syndrome.) If you feel like you’ve been brainwashed by a cult or even by an ex, face it: Your ego probably got something out of it. You surrendered your mind because it felt worth it. Think a little about what you got out of the brainwashing and you’ll be less vulnerable next time someone tries to flatter you into submission.
- Two to tangle narcissism: Just because your ex seems narcissistic in retrospect, it doesn’t mean you weren’t. Partnerships are motivated by a tangle of impulses, among them the romantic search for a mutual admiration society of two. The honeymoon period is evidence of it, two people crazy about each other, boosting each other through ever-escalating romantic flattery. Sure, after a breakup you can spot the way your partner over-indulged in self-aggrandizement, but that doesn’t necessarily let you off the hook. Sustained partnerships sometimes sustain the mutual admiration effect to some degree, but often matures instead into realistic appreciation and collaboration. If you had a breakup that didn’t, maybe it’s because both of you expected the mutual admiration to last longer. And maybe it’s not that your ex was an unhealthy narcissist but that you were, making the assumption that proof of caring about other people is demonstrated only by your partner caring only or most for you. An ex who left to care elsewhere may or may not have been an unhealthy narcissist.
- Learn to hold praise and blame lightly: The modest superstar often knows to say that their talent is not them but what channels through them. They don’t take all of their successes personally, thereby deflecting some of the adulation so it doesn’t cause unhealthy narcissism. That’s a healthy way to handle not just mojo’s ups, but its downs as well. Not absorbing all of the praise means you don’t have to absorb all of the blame. That attitude helps you when you have to eat humble pie and learn from it. Life is a lottery, chance playing an enormous role in what we’re dealt by both nature and nurture. Narcissism gets people in trouble when they start to think they can do no wrong, that they are ordained by the Gods to be invincible. People who think they can do no wrong usually do a lot of it.
- We all need encouragement: Flatter and be flattered. It’s fine when well managed. Take in some flattery, give out some too. But alternate and translate: When someone says “You’re wonderful,” translate it is as a subjective review of what you happened to channel – “I liked that” instead of as a universal objective analysis of your personal eternal worth. And do the reverse too. When someone says “I liked that” harvest a little personal mojo from it. You need it. We all need it. In healthy moderation.