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The upside to narcissism: How to reap the benefits without being a jerk

According to new research, there are upsides to narcissism — a term which, for all intents and purposes here, is referring to the disorder rather than a conceited person. Turns out that some narcissistic personality traits can alleviate stress and increase mental resilience. While it’s fun to analyze a research like this — which reveals some unexpected benefits of narcissism — and come to a subversive conclusion such as “It’s good to be narcissistic,” I encourage you to process it more holistically.

“I’m skeptical of these pilot studies because there is such a wide variety of external factors and individual traits that contribute to a person's happiness and mental toughness,” says Laura Lee Townsend, a California-based therapist. She has a point — despite some of the reductive headlines about the study, researchers aren’t likely telling us that narcissism is good, they’re just pointing out that some of the characteristics of narcissism can be beneficial, while others can be total trash.

Psychologists consider narcissism to be part of the “dark tetrad” of traits that also includes sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism — all of these traits together can indicate a personality disorder. To be perfectly transparent, some of us are very drawn to the idea of a person flawed by a personality disorder, a lot of therapists and scientists think that all of these so-called dark, personality traits such as narcissism tend to get over-simplified.

The problem with buying into narcissistic personality disorder as a monolith is that it puts the blame on the person, Townsend tells Mic. “I'm much more interested in a client's unique story: What happiness means to them, and what's getting in their way to experiencing it? In other words, no one’s personality is all good or all bad, even when it comes to the dark tetrad.”

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It is indeed becoming more evident that narcissism exists on a spectrum. The aforementioned narcissism studies — authored by Kostas Papageorgiou, a lecturer in the school of psychology at Queen's University Belfast in the United Kingdom — describe the two poles of narcissism as “grandiose” and “vulnerable.” “Vulnerable narcissists are likely to be more defensive and view the behavior of others as hostile, whereas grandiose narcissists usually have an overinflated sense of importance and a preoccupation with status and power," he told Medical News Today. But both of those sound kind of bad, though or at least like they make for a not-so-fun personality, right?

Papageorgiou explained why these traits aren’t necessarily negative. "Grandiose narcissism correlates with very positive components of mental toughness, such as confidence and goal orientation, protecting against symptoms of depression and perceived stress," he told Medical News. He went on to discuss how a mentally thick-skinned person may be able to embrace challenges instead of cowering away from them. So, yes, certain narcissistic personality traits are great.

There’s good reason to highlight the more positive parts of narcissism, while keeping the destructive ones in mind and at bay.

But of course, others are. Smme narcissistic traits go far beyond feelin’ yourself way too much; they can include an inflated sense of self-importance, resulting in social isolation and the inability to express even the mildest of criticism. Yikes.

Full disclosure: I have been called a narcissist and I feel kind of “I’m rubber and you’re glue” about it. When it happened, I felt like I was trying to define healthy boundaries with someone who was resisting them. Maybe I was a little grandiose about it? It’s definitely possible. But my general attitude is: If wanting to have my own big life is dark, I don’t want to be light. This new grey territory that psychological science is exploring shows that there is no simple black box to place narcissism in, regardless of the connotations our culture has put on it.

There’s good reason to highlight the more positive parts of narcissism, while keeping the destructive ones in mind and at bay. Papageorgoiu believes that his research is for the good of all, and that studying narcissism could help reduce the stigma that people with the “dark” traits face. We could, indeed, benefit from cultivating the positive aspects and reducing the negative.

In other words, we need to understand the things about narcissism that can help us deal with stress and depression in potentially innovative ways. This could, theoretically, help us choose and embrace only the healthy parts of narcissism.