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.

Practicing Self-Compassion

Our emotions and thoughts can sometimes take over our minds in ways that are not helpful for us, and that can make us feel uncomfortable or distressed. Responding to situations and ourselves in kind and compassionate ways can allow us to feel safe and create a space to respond to our needs. Self-compassion can enable us to let go of self-criticism, and to respond to our critical thoughts in a supportive and caring manner. 

Next time you notice distressing thoughts and emotions arising in your mind, you may try the following to help yourself through in a self-compassionate way. Think of what you can say to yourself that is kind and soothing. Or, think of what you would say to a good friend when they are in distress and try applying that to yourself. Or, consider what a good friend might say to you during difficult times. For example, try these statements: “It’s okay for me to feel this way,” “I know this is difficult, but it will pass,” ; “I know it is scary, but I am here to keep you safe.” 

Don’t forget that you can comfort yourself physically, too. You might gently rub your chest or hold your hand. You may go for a nice walk, take a long bath, and change into comfortable clothes. It’s essential to stay kind and gentle towards yourself.

Dr. Khuraman Mamedova, C.Psych. is a psychologist in supervised practice at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (Toronto). She works with adults in psychotherapy, to support them to overcome difficulties related to mood and anxiety disorders, psychosis, trauma-related experiences, and relationships. She has completed research on the relationship between clients and therapists in psychotherapy.

The Power of Mindful Compassion: What It Is, Why It Can Influence Mental Health, and How to Begin Cultivating It In Four Steps

by: Kamala Pilgrim, Ph.D.,C. Psych (Interim Autonomous Practice)

Mindful compassion is a concept that has garnered increasing attention in the scientific community especially over the last two decades. It is taken from the Eastern spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism and in recent years, research demonstrating the benefits of the practice for mental health have fuelled efforts to discover the mechanisms through which it exerts positive outcomes.

The practice can be broken down into two integral components: Mindfulness and compassion.

Mindfulness is defined as an openness to and acceptance of all that is occurring in the present moment, without judgment or over-identification with our experience including our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, urges, and actions (Gilbert & Choden, 2014; Kabatt-Zinn, 2012; Neff, 2011).

Compassion has been described as the ability to adopt a supportive attitude toward ourselves. It also involves taking courageous, wise, and healthy action to promote care for ourselves and/or of others.

Why mindfulness and compassion combined are important?

The practice of mindfulness stabilizes the mind so that we can step back and bring awareness to patterns that are not serving us well. Compassion fosters the kindness and understanding needed to sustain and commit to really seeing what is happening and to take committed action (Gilbert & Choden, 2014).

Through the practice of mindful compassion we strive to recognize our common humanity by accepting that we all make mistakes, stumble, fall, get up again, and sometimes triumph; we start to see that we are all average in many ways and unique in others (Neff, 2011). We stop dwelling on labelling ourselves as sometimes bad and on other occasions, good; we make efforts to embrace the full range of what it means to be a human and approach ourselves as we would a close friend, child, or other family member we love. 

This attitude is not carried out in a “fluffy” or self-indulgent way; rather when we observe our thoughts, emotions, behaviours, motivations, and intentions in a caring framework, we paradoxically become more open to doing something differently; we become willing to make necessary changes because we clearly see how we may be perpetuating our own pain and/or that of others.

Mindful compassion does not make us a pushover either; in fact, fully observing what is happening in our lives aids us in understanding how the behaviours of others may be impacting us in harmful ways and can help us in making the decisions necessary to foster growth and healing for ourselves, and perhaps for the other as well. There are times when mindful compassion can help you respond quickly and efficiently to ensure your safety as you develop a deeper ability to observe everything going on in the environment for what it is and not for what you may want it to be. 

By considering everything we observe in ourselves as different aspects of what it means to be a human being we can become less self-critical with time. We can understand that there are basic needs that underlie our initial or habitual reactions and we can strive to take action to attain what we’re really looking for at our core.

To summarize, I like to envision mindful compassion in the following way, based on Buddhist and Hindu perspectives:

The mind is like the seed of a lotus flower buried deep in the shallow, warm, and still waters of a pond.

Our basic emotions such as, rage, lust, despair, and fear, as well as our drives for freedom, dominance, protection, belonging, and connection, are akin to the mud that covers the seed of the mind. 

Compassion is the sunlight the seed absorbs; the resulting roots are the elements of mindfulness that create a firm foundation of non-judgemental awareness, settling deep into the earth so that the stem can navigate up and through the dark environment to the surface where the lotus of greater wisdom and clarity can manifest.

Here are four ways you can begin to shine the warm, rejuvenating sunlight of mindful compassion in your own life:

1. Discover patterns

Start to bring some gentle awareness to the automatic thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, urges, and behaviours you have in response to various situations such as:

  • When you look in the mirror?
  • When you experience a setback?
  • When you say something you didn’t mean?
  • When you make a mistake?
  • When you argue with someone close to you?

Simply practice noticing without judging. 

2. Practice expansion and self-soothing speech 

When you observe a painful thought or feeling, practice pausing before reacting as you normally might. Notice where you experience any disturbing emotions in your body. If you are anxious or afraid you may notice a tightness in your chest and/or butterflies in your stomach. When you are angry you may feel your jaw clenching. Breathe into and around the region(s) to give the feeling more space. As you do this, say something nurturing to yourself such as:

  • “I know this is hard for you right now.”
  • “This feeling is distressing but it will pass in time; may I give myself the understanding I need right now, may I take good care of myself in this moment.”

3. Understand your needs

Sometimes we assume that our knee jerk reactions are true reflections of what we actually require.  Mindful compassion can help you pause with these initial experiences long enough to discover what underlies them. For example:

  • Arriving home from work you may suddenly feel overwhelmed with a feeling of sadness and anger when you see the kitchen sink filled up with the morning’s breakfast dishes. You may notice yourself begin to criticize yourself or others for not cleaning up immediately after eating. If you practice taking a moment to pause before reacting, to observe these feelings from a non-judgemental, loving and supportive frame of mind and heart space, you may discover that you are actually exhausted and just need to take a few minutes to relax on your own before interacting with others or starting in on your evening routine.

Though you won’t always be able to get exactly what you need in the timing or in the form you would like, you can still respond to yourself kindly, see if you can take small steps toward providing yourself with what you really need, and/or consider asking someone to help you. Sometimes just taking these few brief moments to recognize and validate your feelings is enough. 

4. Set aside time for a loving kindness meditation

Find a few minutes in your daily schedule to try the following:

  • Sit in a comfortable, but alert position
  • Close your eyes
  • Notice the rise and fall of your belly, diaphragm, and chest as you breathe in and out naturally several times without trying to control your respiration in any way
  • Visualize someone you love, respect, and care for
  • Imagine sending them your love and appreciation
  • Next, see yourself in your minds’ eye and practice surrounding yourself with the same feelings

This is by no means an exhaustive list about how to foster mindful compassion; There are many contextual factors, including our societal and cultural perspectives and early life experiences which strongly shape our sense of self, our perceptions of others, our views of and how we operate within the world, which each in turn affect our capacities for mindful compassion and our mental health and well-being overall. 

Mental health professionals at CFIR can help you learn about and practice mindful compassion. Please don’t hesitate to contact us to inquire more and to begin or continue on your journey toward making yourself and your mental health a priority. 

For more information please see the following sources:

Gilbert, P. & Choden. (2014). Mindful Compassion: How the science of compassion can help you understand your emotions, live in the present, and connect deeply with others. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2012). Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the present moment – and your life. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: William Morrow.

What Are Self, Mid-Life and Existential Crises?

by: Dr. Lila Z. Hakim, C.Psych. & Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych.

Many of us will experience a self or existential crisis during our lifetime. These crises are usually precipitated by life transitions. Life transitions that can trigger a crisis include: aging, changes in relationship status (i.e., marriage, separation and divorce), betrayals and loss of loved ones (e.g., death of parent, partner or child), changes in our identity (e.g., children leaving home, loss of youth, and perceived attractiveness), and recognition of our own mortality and the end of our life. Such moments may spawn a search for meaning, purpose, and connection to others and the world around us, or result in a downward spiral and deepening crisis involving hopelessness, despair and anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
Some individuals struggling with such crises have spent numerous years disconnected from their own selves by virtue of not pursuing their authentic feelings, needs, and desires in the world. Instead, these individuals may have surrendered to the expectations and demands of others. Recognition of the freedom to create one’s entire world may be daunting for some individuals in these circumstances, but is key to the recovery from such a crisis. 
Some individuals experience a mid-life crisis brought upon by specific concerns about mid-life transitions and an impending sense that a decline is imminent. Mid-life can involve a reframing of life and deep reflection on life in terms of years left to live. With parents passing away, children moving out of the family home, and dissatisfaction with self (i.e., physical and bodily changes related to aging, dissatisfaction with relationship, career and accomplishments), some individuals will experience despair and hopelessness. A crisis can ensue upon realization of the passing of time with very few opportunities to change life’s course. This realization may precipitate intense emotions, a desperate search and effort to change one’s life. Seeking out younger partners, drastic changes to physical appearance, or career may ensue.
The Self-Growth and Self-Esteem Service at CFIR supports clients to deal with particular life issues that involve one’s questioning of the purpose, meaning, and value of one’s life, and difficult feelings associated with being alone and isolated. Such moments can leave us questioning past and current decisions related to our choices in occupation, residence, and relationship partners.
Read more about our Self-Growth & Self-Esteem Treatment Service.


Self-Esteem: The Impact of Low or Overly High Self-Esteem in Our Lives

by: Dr. Aleks Milosevic, C. Psych.

Our deepest sense of our own worth or value is an important part of our self-esteem. Having a positive sense of self-esteem involves being able to hold a solid sense of being a good person, making life decisions that are respectful toward ourselves, and having a sense of worth and competency. Our early childhood experience in our family of origin has a significant impact on how our self-esteem develops. Peer relations and then relationship partners also have an impact on our self-concept. Our relationships to others will play a role in how we view ourselves, the confidence we have in our selves, and our deepest sense that we are good and competent individuals; in short, we are more likely to have a good sense of our own value and worth. This good sense of our own value and worth affects how we talk to ourselves, the choices and decisions we make for ourselves in everyday life, and how we will experience and manage our relationships with others. Healthy self-esteem adds to our sense of resilience.

Individuals with low self-esteem often struggle to come in touch, or maintain, a sense of being a good and competent person. Typically, individuals with low self-esteem experienced challenging early life environments that may have involved harsh criticalness about appearance, intelligence, or clothing by family members or peers, bullying and teasing, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and neglect, obstacles that blocked achievement, or mistreatment based on social identity (e.g., gender, sexuality, race) or on a learning or physical disability. As a result of these experiences, one might be more self-critical, preoccupied by doubt and uncertainty, overly driven by perfectionistic standards and ideals, have less belief in one’s ability to achieve or accomplish, or experience an increased sense of anxiety, loneliness, and shame that block them from building relationships with others.

When we did not develop a positive sense of self-esteem, we are less able to tolerate challenging life moments and sudden life changes, to cope with adversity and perceived failure, or to deal with work and relationship issues. Lower self-esteem diminishes our ability to deal with these moments. Life challenges and financial, relationship, and career difficulties or failures can also have an impact on our self-esteem.

Some individuals have overly-inflated self-esteem or fluctuating self-esteem. In cases of overly-inflated self-esteem, an individual may be compensating for low self-esteem. Typically, this includes over-working, or over-achieving at the expense of mental, physical health, and relationships. They may also overestimate what they are able to achieve or accomplish, and set unrealistic goals with the intention of improving their sense of value and worth. Sometimes individuals oscillate between periods marked by anxiety and depression as they shift from experiencing low to overly high self-esteem.  

There are many dimensions to self-esteem. Psychologists and clinicians at CFIR in our Self-Growth & Self-Esteem Service are skilled in being able to understand how your self-esteem developed, and the necessary steps to foster a positive and healthy sense of self-esteem in the ‘here and now’.

Read more about our Self-Growth & Self-Esteem Treatment Service.