The Healthy Side of Narcissism (Part One)

Although narcissism is generally seen as a negative trait, healthy narcissism is critical to child development. It’s how your confidence and self-esteem take shape. According to Freud and other psychoanalysts, all children possess a sense of omnipotence and grandiosity as they enter the world, where they strive to receive the gleam in the eye of their caregiver. In recovery, it’s essential to find that gleam of appreciation and approval from caring friends and confidants, rather than countless sex partners or people who are emotionally unavailable.

Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut, two renowned psychoanalysts, believe pathological narcissism arises from inconsistent childhood interactions that lacked empathy. Freud called these emotional wounds “narcissistic injuries,” and they result in a walling off from or lashing out at others. As adults, narcissists lack empathy and as a result maintain few, if any, meaningful intimate relationships. Their childhood wounds also result in narcissistic rage—withdrawal, irritability, and occasionally violent outbursts. They can be expressed outwardly (like at service workers) but often get internalized.

The human need for attunement, mirroring, and connection from birth means that in order to thrive, as infants we need a primary caregiver who has a capacity for unconditional love, empathy, and a here-and-now presence. This is what’s referred to as a secure attachment. There are always gaps in that availability, though. So while narcissism originates as a desire for closeness, it evolves into an affliction that causes emotional destruction.

In committed relationships, you might attract partners with codependent tendencies who act selflessly and enjoy taking care of others. As a result, you feel attended to, and your partner feels valued while experiencing a sense of purpose. Since you may use grandiosity, self-centeredness, and arrogance as a protective wall, you are the distancer in the relationship, while your partner falls into the pursuer role. In order to move beyond narcissism, you’ll need to pursue your partner more.

Ideally, your relationship will become more balanced and satisfying when you lean into the love and initiate intimate moments more often. The pursuer-distancer roles can change over time, so your partner may need to give you space or provide loving detachment while you learn to lean into the relationship safely and gradually.

Sexual compulsion is avoidant, distancing, and narcissistic by nature, so it takes extraordinary patience and perseverance from both parties to balance your roles. The pace may feel glacial at times, but if both of you are truly invested in learning about yourselves and each other, it’s possible. By utilizing couples therapy or the twelve-step fellowship of Recovering Couples Anonymous, you’ll have support to do this intimate work together.

Being of Service. One of the themes of twelve-step programs is service to others. Why do you suppose that is? It boils down to other-centeredness—the ability to get out of your head through a focus on bettering the world. The addictive, compulsive mind is a dangerous place to stay for too long. It grabs your attention, yet recovery requires a willingness to give your mind something else to do.

The lingering effects of narcissism as a tool against suffering, and compulsive sex as a shield against hurt, are powerful. It’s essential, then, to feel safe with others in order to lower your defenses. Offering people help is a sure-fire way to get there. This might sound counterintuitive to a narcissist, but initiating contact and stepping toward others is a path to connection. If you aspire to live a life of serenity, hold the intention for love in your heart at all times. This awareness will support your well-being if practiced on a consistent basis. When you move beyond your obsessive mind and put yourself in other people’s shoes, empathy expands, while self-centeredness dissolves. As a result, your innate generosity of spirit reveals itself and becomes a habit of the heart. These spiritual principles may seem foreign to you, but they are practiced throughout the world.

On a practical level, there are plenty of ways to be of service both in and out of twelve-step rooms. All of your relationships, both personal and professional, are opportunities for other-centeredness. For instance, I used to have associates in my practice who taught me all the time about humility, innocence, and curiosity. I did my best to offer them the same nurturing support that was given to me at the beginning of my career.

Being of service is a surefire way to have meaningful contact with others. Because narcissism is profoundly lonely, it requires courage to break out of the isolation and create real connection. Imagine a castle with a piranha-filled moat and a closed drawbridge blocking visitors. Your narcissism built this fortress with a clear purpose—to keep out intruders who might be a threat. Isn’t it time to take the risk and open your heart to others?

A painful dilemma ensues when you finally long for true connection, yet fear letting others in. Most of us suffer from this tension—desiring closeness but not knowing how to move safely toward it. Your narcissistic wounds have caused isolation and withdrawal, and if you continue to manage these uncomfortable feelings with compulsive sex, you will perpetuate your obsessive-compulsive tendencies. True connection is the remedy, no matter how risky it seems.

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