We are all getting pretty good a spotting unhealthy narcissism.  This is the narcissism that is often characteristic of sex addicts and that represents a kind of façade or false self.  The person is grandiose and self absorbed but underneath they feel unworthy and are deeply insecure.

The thing that distinguishes unhealthy narcissism is the lack of an underlying sense of self worth.  The person has a brittle narcissistic defense system which crumbles when the person gets negative feedback or when they are shown up or thwarted.  When the bubble bursts in this way, the narcissistic addict responds either with rage or with an orgy of self hatred, which can even turn suicidal.

The sex addict with a narcissistic defense system feels “I have to be the greatest or it’s all over.”  They are either feeling contempt for everyone else or they are feeling contempt for themselves.  These are two sides of the same coin.

What is healthy narcissism?

Healthy narcissism is not the same as self-esteem.  As I have argued previously, the concept of self-esteem involves judging ourselves, usually from the perspective of what others might think, and often from outward traits and accomplishments.  Self esteem, like unhealthy narcissism, is either high or low.

  • Healthy narcissism has no opposite.  It is an abiding feeling of inherent worthiness and value.  You may succeed or fail, you may do something you regret, and you may even decide to work on your issues and change, but you still feel OK about being you.
  • You feel good in your body and enjoy using your body for activity and pleasure.  You can even enjoy looking good, dressing and decorating your body and can do so without judging yourself or feeling self-conscious.
  • You have the ability to protect yourself from that which is harmful or dangerous to you.  You have an essential sense of your own emotional and physical integrity.  This in turn is a feeling of empowerment and safety in relating to people.
  • You are OK with your successes.  You are neither ashamed of them nor do you let them define you.  You don’t limit yourself from doing as well as you can do and reaching the heights that you can reach in terms of fulfilling your destiny, making money or whatever to try to do.  You don’t feel guilty about getting ahead.

Couples confronting sex addiction need healthy narcissism

Both partners in a couple need be narcissistic in a healthy way.  Particularly when confronting sex addiction, both partners will need to regain their sense of their own value and their own right to feel safe and empowered.  Regaining a basic sense of self worth supports the couple’s recovery.

  • Shame is a key feature of sex addiction for both partners and overcoming shame will involve feeling that although something you did was wrong or something that happened was wrong, you are not wrong.  You are worthwhile and not deserving of shame.
  • Couples in recovery need to learn to maintain boundaries that may never have been there to begin with.  Healthy narcissism means protecting yourself , feeling that you have the right to ask for what you want, and being assertive instead of aggressive.
  • Overcoming sexual addiction means learning to enjoy yourself physically to the fullest.  Caring for your body, enjoying your body and enjoying your sexuality will be growing over time in recovery for both partners.

Sex addicts in recovery will be engaging the world in a more confident way as their negative core beliefs about themselves subside.  This may take many forms but will often involve feeling entitled to fulfill your potential, feeling confident in situations that used to intimidate you and feeling important, not because you are superior but just because you are you.  Oh alright, you can go ahead and pat yourself on the back for all that great progress you’ve made!

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  1. very informative. I plan to use this site as much as possible

  2. This topic, unhealthy narcissism has really resonated with me after reading what you had to say about it.

    I can very much relate to “I have to be the greatest or it’s all over”

    My unhealthy narcissism in retrospect seemed even more problematic for me when speaking to a group a sex attics at a 12 step recovery meeting maybe because that setting calls for authenticity.

    I think it is difficult for someone with a narcissistic defense system to be authentic. I realized that I could risk being authentic if I could be interesting or humorous.

    It’s a way to sugar coat an unlovable me which I think is what a narcissistic defense system is all about.

    Thanks for this Linda, it’s really an eye opener.

  3. thank you.. i like this website so much

  4. “Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a cluster B personality disorder defined as comprising a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.” Excerpt from the DSM-5 description.

    What you’re calling “healthy narcissism” isn’t narcissism. It may look like narcissism compared to low self esteem, but lack of empathy, constant need for admiration and a belief that one’s self is superior to others isn’t healthy. What you’re describing is a sense of worthiness and a belief in ourselves as people worthy of love. I’d call that self-esteem (which OP disagreed with) or healthy pride.

    Narcissism is a diagnosis with symptoms and a definition. I realize this is an older piece, but as our understanding of narcissism has progressed over the past decade, it might be worth reviewing this piece to see if you’d like to update it.

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