If there’s one word that most women I know are profoundly allergic to, it’s “selfish.” The accusation—whether implied or hurled, from an inner voice or spoken aloud—rarely lands softly or is met with indifference.
Femininity and selflessness are so deeply ingrained as twin ideals that even the most “woke” woman feels vaguely guilty when she chooses to do something purely for herself—whether it’s lying in bed an extra few minutes instead of preparing the family’s breakfast, reaping the psychological rewards of wasting time, or refusing to do housework at the office, where women’s work is too often called “help.”
It wasn’t always this way. There was actually a brief window, not so very long ago, in which we may have been able to claim a healthy modicum of self-love without facing criticism. If we had followed that trajectory, women may not have to learn the hard way that what we often think of “selfishness” is a necessary part of life, and even of motherhood.
Alas, as Elizabeth Lunbeck, a History of Science professor at Harvard University, notes in The Americanization of Narcissism, that is not the course that this concept followed. And it’s no coincidence that the shift in the way we thought of selfishness and narcissism coincides with the rise of the women’s movement. Let me explain.
The “normal narcissism” we’ve forgotten
In the 1970s, a positive take on measured narcissism captured the public imagination. It came from a leading American psychoanalyst named Heinz Kohut—the man who gave the world self-psychology theory, which included narcissistic personality disorders. Less well-known is the fact that Kohut also talked up “normal narcissism” as a positive, even life-sustaining aspect of human nature, as Lunbeck explains in her 2014 book. To Kohut, narcissism was “the wellspring of human ambition and creativity, value and ideals, empathy and fellow feeling,” she writes.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t Kohut’s version of narcissism that won out. Another American psychoanalyst, Otto Kernberg, proposed a theory on narcissism that emphasized its destructive dimensions. This definition resonated with the conservative critics of the changing times and a simplified version of Kernberg’s argument persisted.
It’s worth noting that Kernberg also proposed ideas about normal narcissism, and neither psychoanalyst was interested in diagnosing the culture of an entire society, but that’s what happened anyway. Ideas from psychoanalysis were being hijacked for all sorts of agendas, and ugly and pathological self-centeredness became the predominant theme in strikes against young Americans and the counterculture everywhere. In a landmark book, The Culture of Narcissism, published in 1979, the historian and social critic Christopher Lasch cemented this connection; he was also a prominent voice from the left who sounded the alarm on what he saw as the disintegrating family unit.
You can see where this is going.
The “selfish feminist” is conjured up
In a review of Lunbeck’s book for Boston Review, Vivian Gornick, a writer and feminist, spells out the connection between the debate over narcissism in the 1970s and what became the key smear against women who sought equality. At the time, she says, women and gays “had become aware of the second-class citizenship that characterized their lives and were now finding the courage to speak out, to insist that their irreducible humanity be recognized before the law and in social custom.”
This newfound courage could have been seen as a model for “good” narcissism, Gornick writes. After all, the movement “contained large and powerful insights that were striking chords in countless young people struggling to lead serious lives; insights from which, historically speaking, there would be no turning back.”
But instead critics dismissed it as “foolish and half-baked.” Those who who felt that a woman’s place is in the home saw only social chaos, seeded by an “unheard of, never-before-seen selfishness,” Gornick writes.
The new campaign against narcissism dovetailed nicely with the conjuring up of a new phantom: the “selfish feminist” who cares little for the needs of her spouse or children, doesn’t give a hoot about the social fabric of a community, and is single-mindedly focused on her own comfort, autonomy, and career advancement.
Unfortunately, she has not been banished to the past. The “selfish feminist” is still invoked by traditionalists and, to some degree, the disillusioned left. She also lingers as that inner voice—in women’s guilt and self-castigation around selfishness today.
Our chance to get it right
Here’s the good news: the more expansive definition of narcissism —one that sees the trait as beneficial and necessary in moderation—is being reclaimed in the 21st century. Although there hasn’t always been a consensus on narcissism, psychologists and psychiatrists are increasingly coming to see narcissism itself as a continuum, says psychologist Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad—and Surprising Good—About Feeling Special, published in 2015.
Malkin, a former lecturer at Harvard Medical School, says that we all have narcissistic tendencies that can be roughly measured on a scale of 1 to 10, with the most problematic cases at either end of the spectrum. The 9s and 10s are the most problematically manipulative narcissists, and the 0s to 1s are Echoists, named for Echo, the nymph who essentially erases herself in the Greek myth about Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. (In that rather grim story, Echo, cursed with having no voice of her own and being only able repeat what other people say, follows Narcissus into a deep forest and eventually declares her love for him, but is rejected. In response, she hides, stops eating or drinking, and allows her body to slowly die, while her echoing voice lives on. Narcissus soon suffers his own curse, one that causes him to fall in love with his own reflection in a spring of water. Distraught, he one day dives into the water looking for his doppelgänger love, and is never seen again.)
Extreme narcissists are addicted to or dependent on the feeling of being special as a form of self-soothing—often as a result of deep insecurity. Extreme Echoists aren’t necessarily any better: They have never been able to see themselves as special enough to matter. “If we lack that,” Malkin tells Quartz. “We end up a living life by the rule, ‘the less space I take up, the better.’” Ideally, a person should aim to have a healthy dose of narcissism to stay driven, and an equal measure of humility to stay connected to the needs of others.
Malkin’s book describes all the admirable qualities of moderate narcissism: It enables drive and motivation, for example, and it’s connected to resilience following trauma. Extreme Echoism, on the flip side, is linked to higher rates of depression.
“In most cultures around the world, women are socialized to defer their needs to others, and in some ways it’s synonymous with the role of being a mother,” says Malkin. “But the reality is, if you’re not making room in your life as a woman and a mother, you’re not going to be able to be as present for your kids.”
Self-centeredness is not a static trait, he explains in the book. It rises and falls with time and life’s circumstances. When we’re asking for a promotion at work, for instance, narcissism naturally spikes. Caring for a newborn, on the other hand, sends a woman sliding down the scale out of necessity.
Although mothers, in particular, may appreciate Malkin’s arguments for being self-centered at times (and he believes the skill can be learned), his message also applies more universally: Avoiding selfishness altogether misses an opportunity to know oneself better. It may also lead to curbed creative ambitions: It takes some degree of narcissism to feel a person has a voice and something to say, as Lunbeck also points out.
For women (and men) who eschew all selfishness, there’s clearly a penalty. And allowing for some selfishness also delivers clear benefits, Lunbeck says:
“When people feel important enough to pay special attention to their deepest desires and needs—and honestly share them—those who care about them learn something new. They finally get to meet the person they love, a truly thrilling moment for all involved.”
In this light, indulging your inner narcissist looks like the least selfish move.