Everyone has a little narcissism in them, that’s healthy. Loving yourself, for most people, is responsibly taking care of yourself emotionally, mentally and physically; that is normal. Most of us know “The Golden Rule” which basically states, “Do unto others as you would have then do unto you”. If you relate that to loving, then in order to love others as ourselves, you must first love yourself. Loving yourself or “Self-love” is warm and compassionate, affirming to yourself, and helps you maintain appropriate self-esteem. Loving yourself, or self-love, is an emotionally healthy, positive practice that leads to the ability to love others.
That is, unless you love yourself too intensely, as narcissists do. Like the character in the story of Narcissus, they are so enamored of themselves that narcissists do not have the ability to love others. In fact, they tend to disregard others with the exception of those people that fawn over them or provide another source of satisfying the narcissists’ needs.
The narcissists’ self-love is shallow and superficial. It is completely dependent upon the praise and admiration from others. Narcissists need that praise and admiration so they spend a lot of time and energy projecting a positive appearance and positive qualities to ensure they receive it. They spend more time than what is considered usual for grooming, purchasing the latest fashions, and can often be seen preening in public.
A significant difference between a narcissist and someone who has self-love is their ability to tell reality from fantasy. Narcissists are often not grounded in reality and they are oblivious to their imperfections or weaknesses. They embellish their strengths and have an inflated sense of worth and self-importance. Their view of themselves is rarely established with real achievements or merit.
People with self-love, on the other hand, can distinguish between what they really are and what they fantasize or dream of becoming. They know their limits and their strengths, admit their weaknesses, and have a realistic sense of their achievements. This is in contrast to the narcissist who lives in a world of daydreaming, pretending, and delusions of grandeur.
Another important difference is the ability to empathize with others; the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. A person with self-love has the ability to read and react to other people’s emotions. They can understand other people’s emotions and relate to those feelings. A person with self-love can bond with others using their emotions whether it is empathy, sympathy or joy.
A narcissist is not capable of empathizing with anyone. If they have been taught, they might say the correct words if there is a benefit to him or her to do so but there is no genuine emotion involved. More typically, the narcissist is completely unaware that the situation even calls for fake sympathy or understanding. He or she cannot read others people’s emotions so their reactions can seem cold and insensitive. Because they can’t understand or relate to others feelings, they have difficulty bonding with others and many will find their relationships unfulfilling. They are unable to love other people in any sort of mature fashion.
Self-love is a precursor necessary for the development of mature love. You cannot love someone else if you don’t first love yourself. Having said that, it bears repeating- unless you love yourself too much i.e., so self absorbed that it reaches the point of not being able to love others.
From the Huffington Post (2012):
The distinction between self-esteem and narcissism is of great significance on a personal and societal level. Self-esteem differs from narcissism in that it represents an attitude built on accomplishments we’ve mastered, values we’ve adhered to, and care we’ve shown toward others. Narcissism, conversely, is often based on a fear of failure or weakness, a focus on one’s self, an unhealthy drive to be seen as the best, and a deep-seated insecurity and underlying feeling of inadequacy….. Narcissism encourages envy and hostile rivalries, where self-esteem supports compassion and cooperation. Narcissism favors dominance, where self-esteem acknowledges equality. Narcissism involves arrogance, where self-esteem reflects humility. Narcissism is affronted by criticism, where self-esteem is enhanced by feedback. Narcissism makes it necessary to pull down others in order to stand above them. Self-esteem leads to perceiving every human being as a person of value in a world of meaning.
People with a healthy self-love have good self-esteem; they are confident and generally feel good about themselves. They value other people as much as they value themselves. Narcissism crosses the line of healthy confidence and self-esteem into the pathological area where they think so highly of their own selves that they put themselves on a pedestal. They believe they are superior to others and need to belittle or devalue “inferior” people in order to feel better about themselves. Self-love says, “I’m good” while narcissism says, “I’m better”. Self-love says, “I think I might be the best” and narcissism says, “I know I am the best”.
Underneath the boasting, superior attitude and conceit, narcissists actually have fragile self-esteem. As mentioned previously, their self-esteem comes from other people not from within. They are dependent on other people to reassure them with praise and adulation; they aren’t able to feel self worth on their own. It has to come from others and by surrounding themselves with the best of everything so that their world reassures them and gives the appearance of success and confidence. Their fragile self-esteem is also what causes them to overreact to even the mildest slight perceived slight as if it were a personal attack. Their feelings are easily hurt and they are quick to feel rejected. If and when they aren’t treated as special as they think they deserve, it is not unusual for them to become highly impatient or even fly into a rage.
In summary, there are several significant ways that loving yourself (or “self-love”) differs from narcissism. They include the intensity of self-love, the ability to distinguish reality from fantasy, self-esteem and the ability to have empathy with others. Healthy self-love is the first step toward developing the ability to love others, an ability the narcissist is unable to achieve