How to love yourself (without being a narcissist)

A psychology professor explains why "self-love" and narcissism are two very different things

Published February 13, 2020 5:59PM (EST)

Teenage boy resting his head against a reflective surface, looking to be in a sad or pensive mood. (Getty Images/Marcel ter Bekke)
Teenage boy resting his head against a reflective surface, looking to be in a sad or pensive mood. (Getty Images/Marcel ter Bekke)

Many people are aware of the idea that loving others starts with loving ourselves, but it's still common to worry that banishing self-doubt and rumination is dangerous: That it could turn us all into pompous narcissists.

As a psychology professor, let me reassure you: That's not going to happen.

I find that Valentine's Day, a holiday that revolves around romantic coupledom, is the perfect time to remind anyone who is dealing with depression, loneliness, anxiety, or other mental health issues, that the longest and most important relationship you'll ever have is with yourself.

It's not shallow or vain to love yourself. And there's a world of difference between a well-adjusted outlook and the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. Additionally, a mountain of research shows that narcissism and self-esteem have very different developmental pathways and outcomes.

Here are four factors that are unique to a narcissistic mindset, which clearly delineate how extreme selfishness differs from healthy self-love: 

1. Social comparison: Needing to be better than others, instead of believing everyone can be successful. Healthy self-love and self-esteem are based on believing that we have a number of positive qualities and that other people have these qualities too. Living in a world of winners and losers, narcissists often feel compelled to compare themselves to others and do everything necessary to make sure they come out on top. In relationships, it can be difficult for them to let their guard down and allow themselves to simply be with another person, instead of making everything into a contest to be the best. Healthy self-love allows us to be ourselves without needing to compete with or out-perform to prove ourselves.

2. Image-based mindset: Focusing on what their relationships look like to others instead of their actual quality. A narcissist focuses on playing the part of a devoted lover or a caring friend, but the actual quality of their relationships might be very different. Healthy self-love elevates itself beyond the Instagram photos when one is willing to risk looking like a fool to learn something important, reveal vulnerability or weaknesses to a partner, or show remorse by apologizing for hurtful words or deeds.

3. Narcissistic supply: Needing constant validation from others. Narcissists typically see others as sources of praise to feed their constant hunger for validation. They need others to publicly recognize their awesomeness. This one-sided arrangement can leave others feeling drained and used. A mark of healthy self-love is that we enter into relationships with an awareness of what we have to offer others in addition to what we want to get from others: It enables us to take pleasure in giving as well as receiving compliments and acts of kindness.

4. Empathy deficit: Difficulty managing emotions and inability to see other perspectives, especially when difficulties arise. Recent brain imaging studies suggest that narcissists' lack of empathy may be due to a dysfunction in the anterior insula, the part of the brain involved in self-focus. Narcissists, perhaps due to how their brains are wired, find it harder to consider other people and keep their anxieties in check, especially when difficulties arise. This may leave them with a compromised ability to recognize others' emotions. Healthy self-love makes it possible to acknowledge how we feel, and then turn our attention outward to others.

You can stop worrying that you are – or will become – a narcissist: Only about one percent of people meet the criteria for true pathological narcissism. Feelings of inadequacy are much more common.

Try holding a mirror up to yourself (literally) if you're not convinced. It's an effective way to gain a new perspective.    

In my research, I use mirrors to help people deepen self-awareness, explore feelings of vulnerability, and develop self-compassion – instead of using the mirror for self-admiration or self-criticism, you can use it to understand yourself. Other researchers have begun to use mirrors to help people manage their emotions. One preliminary study suggests that mirrors may be useful in helping chronic anxiety patients learn to calm themselves. There's also evidence that compassionate self-talk in the mirror really does work.

You can do it at home: Simply sit in front of a mirror and gaze softly. Be open to your thoughts and feelings as you look at yourself with no goal other than to be present with yourself in your life-long relationship.

When we are more aware of ourselves, we are less likely to project what's going on inside of us onto others, and we have more choices of how to respond to our feelings, and less reliance on others for affirmation.

By Tara Well

Tara Well, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College, where she researches motivation, perception, and cognition.


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Commentary Emotions Love Narcissism Psychology Self-care Self-love Valentines Day