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The Importance of Healthy Narcissism: The Relationship Between Self-Esteem and Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression

Blog 3 in a 3 Part Series on the Developmental Roots of Anxiety and Depression: Linking Narcissism to Depression and Anxiety

Healthy narcissism is important for us to achieve our goals and cope with the inevitable disappointments and failures we all face in our lives. The word “narcissism” usually conjures up negative images of a very entitled, attention-seeking, arrogant individual. Narcissism, however, can come in both healthy and unhealthy forms. It can even be considered synonymous with self-esteem and we know that healthy self-esteem is critical to your wellbeing and optimal functioning.

We are all born with an innate sense of the potency and vigour we possess to develop our own self through self-expression, the pursuit and fulfillment of our authentic needs, and setting and achieving our goals to thrive. We all need a healthy investment in our own self – to feel that we are significant, valuable, worthwhile, and deserving enough to take and receive what we need for our self. We must love our self enough to pursue our own self-interests and entitlements while maintaining our relationships with others. Without healthy narcissism, we may not feel potent or strong enough, or we may not have enough vigour and vitality to meet our needs and pursue our goals. We are not able to feel excited, proud, and joyful in our achievements, nor fulfilled and satisfied in the pursuit of our self and relational needs. We may not feel sufficiently entitled to assert our self with others. We may not feel worthy enough to pursue our fair share of the rewards of our work, or to request that our needs be met in our relationships.

Healthy self-esteem involves a sense of feeling competent and capable enough to achieve realistic life goals. Feelings of competency and ability come from our hard-earned efforts along with our innate sense of talents and intelligences. The more we are able to learn, achieve, and overcome life obstacles, the more confident and competent we feel as we deepen our sense that we can manage our lives effectively. Self-esteem also means developing a positive self-image that is congruent with the skills, talents, intelligences, and competencies that we possess, along with an acknowledgment of the realistic goals and achievements we have attained for ourselves. On the other hand, having an overly-inflated self-image – seeing ourselves as much greater than others see us or significantly overestimating what is possible for us – becomes problematic. Narcissism can become unhealthy when you come to believe that you deserve or are entitled to more, when in fact there is nothing real (i.e., achievements, goal-attainment, talents, skills, intelligences, contributions) to back up that entitlement.

With healthy narcissism, an increased sense of competency bolsters our capacity to face life challenges and enhance our resilience. Anxiety and depression are less likely when we have a realistic and positive self-image and we pursue realistic goals with the deep belief that “I can do it.” Healthy narcissism is important particularly in contexts in which we are facing adversity and require the stamina, resilience, and self-trust required to overcome life obstacles. We can tolerate adversity and failure much more when we have the self-esteem for it. At the same time, this healthy narcissism involves pursuing our self, but not at the expense of injuring others. Our capacity for empathy limits our narcissism within healthy ranges as our awareness of others’ feelings, needs, and rights puts a natural boundary on our ability to take excessively from others (i.e., their attention, admiration, recognition, and material items like money, property, etc.).

Some individuals go on to develop unhealthy self-esteem as a result of their early interactions with others. They will seek more than their fair share of rewards, recognition, and attention from others in their work and relationships without putting forward enough effort to justify it, or by inflating their sense of self-importance and significance. Unhealthy narcissism can develop out of different kinds of conditions. One of these conditions is when a child is overpraised and admired for something they did not initiate and something they did not put much effort into doing, such that they begin to expect or demand the same praise on an ongoing basis. Another condition is when a child is shamed, abandoned, rejected, and punished with great suffering and feelings of powerlessness that then result in fantasies and pursuit of greatness and fulfilment of self-impulses, desires, and needs at the expense of others. Unhealthy narcissists, or those with fragile self-esteem, are externally dependent on others to boost their self-esteem and good feelings about themselves. They can become anxious, aggressive, and depressed (i.e., hopeless, despairing) when the outside world does not validate them as competent or as great as they see themselves. Depression and anxiety ensue in those with poor self-esteem, as they lack the internal resilience and self-esteem to address their life problems.

Clinicians at CFIR can help individuals whose self-esteem is too externally dependent on others.  Psychodynamic and attachment-based treatments are provided to help you deal with the original suffering underlying unhealthy narcissism and to help you develop better internal self-esteem. We can help you develop more internal self-esteem while enhancing your connectedness with others. We can also help you build a greater sense of healthy confidence in your self by setting out and pursuing realistic life goals.

Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. is CEO and co-founder of the CFIR. He has published book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of attachment, attachment injuries in couples, and attachment and sexuality. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa in Interpersonal Relationships, Family Psychology, and Human Sexual Behaviour. He has a thriving clinical practice in which he treats individuals suffering from complex attachment-related trauma, difficult family of origin issues that have affected self and relationship development, depression and anxiety, personality disorders, sex and sexuality related issues, and couple relationships. At CFIR, he also supports the professional development of counsellors, psychotherapists, and supervised practice psychologists by providing clinical supervision.