Is Narcissism Ever a Good Thing?
Something that confuses a lot of people is what narcissism actually is. Narcissism as a word just means self-love. When we say that someone is a narcissist, we mean that they are afflicted by malignant self-love or pathological self-love. Like many things in psychology, it's really a misnomer because though it says "self-love," the truth is that they do not love themselves at all, or anybody else. What they are truly afflicted with is pathological, obsessive self-focus. Malignant means dangerous, like a malignant tumor, and pathological means a compulsive or chronic condition, like a pathological liar. So when we say someone is pathologically narcissistic, we are saying that they are focused on themselves to the point that it is detrimental to their lives and well-being. As of course, we all can see. Narcissists hurt no one more than themselves.
Strictly speaking in psychological terms, narcissism refers to the failure to distinguish the self from external objects, which is something we can see in adult narcissists. That's why they take everything personally, and why they project their feelings onto other people and situations. Everything—everyone—is seen as an extension of themselves. That is why their self-hatred causes them to attack others. This makes no sense—Why would self-hatred cause a person to abuse other people?—until you realize that everything is seen as an extension of themselves. Then it makes a lot more sense—you're just a stand-in. This is why we say that other people are not seen as individuals but are simply mirrors narcissists see reflections of themselves in, and why we say that attacking you is really just the narcissist burning themselves in effigy. They are unable to understand that other people are separate from themselves.
But can narcissism ever be healthy? Can it ever be a good thing? Actually, yes. Loving yourself is not bad, and that is all the word "narcissism" means. You actually need some narcissism in order to be a balanced person. Healthy narcissism—which again, is just self-love—results in things like realistic self-esteem, self-preservation and standing up for yourself. Without healthy narcissism, people have no self-esteem or confidence. Healthy narcissism is the opposite of pathological or malignant narcissism.
Narcissism is a spectrum. It starts with healthy narcissism and progresses in severity and malignancy to pathological narcissism. With healthy narcissism, there is a balanced ego and a balanced self-esteem. There is not—as we see in the malignant narcissist—a total lack of self-esteem, which results in a phony "superhero good guy" character being constructed in its place. With healthy narcissism, there are balanced self-preservation instincts. There is not—as we see with people who are pathologically narcissistic—a hysterical, obsessive paranoia that the self will be injured coupled with a complete disregard for the actual safety of the self.
Both of these things, although they are diametrically opposed to each other, are a symptom of the same thing: obsessive, pathological focus on the self. It looks like a paradox, but in reality, these things are two sides of the same coin. On one hand, they are terrified that some slight or injury will occur to themselves (either mental, emotional, physical, whatever). On the other hand, they are unable to keep from indulging their impulses or denying themselves anything even when it is dangerous, so they engage in activities where they could be harmed. Balanced self-love or self-focus—also known as healthy narcissism—prevents this kind of thing.
With healthy self-love and self-focus, the self is perceived in context with the rest of the world. It is a balancing act where the person is adaptable and flexible; they understand that priorities and importance of things shifts and changes with the situation. There are times when it is correct and appropriate to assert yourself and your needs but there are also times when it is not appropriate to do this. If you are at a funeral for a family member, for example, it is not appropriate to begin fighting with a relative over an unresolved issue. If you are on vacation and your young child becomes ill, it is not appropriate to simply continue on with your plans, leaving your sick child alone in the hotel.
People with pathological self-focus, like malignant narcissists, are unable to understand this concept. Because their narcissism is pathological, it is rigid and inflexible. They cannot change with the situation. Their needs are always the most important, regardless of the importance or urgency of what else may be going on. This is the main reason they cannot maintain relationships. Most people don't want to be part of such an unfair situation.
Healthy self-love results in people saying, "Hey, this is dangerous" or "This is not OK, and I don't deserve to be treated like this." It enables people to accurately perceive what is going on around them and react appropriately. It enables them to take responsibility when they've done something wrong and feel pride when they've achieved success at something. Healthy self-love and self-focus results in an accurate and realistic reading of the self, which is necessary to function in the world. People with balanced self-esteem know what they are and what they aren't, they know what they can do and what they can't do. Their understanding of themselves is realistic and reasonable, as are their expectations of other people. They are an integrated, balanced person.
As we can see, narcissism in and of itself is not a bad thing. It is only when narcissism becomes unhealthy that it causes problems.