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Book Review: Rethinking Narcissism

While developing an awareness-raising campaign for the identification and treatment of psychological abuse for the nonprofit I work with, I delved deep into researching personality traits and disorders that contribute to the dynamic of psychological abuse. I was reading all the literature I could get my hands on. Some of it was aimed at mental health professionals. Some were heartwrenching personal accounts of those who have been to narcissist hell and back. While there is no shortage of books on narcissism, very few of them are suited for the narcissists themselves. Even fewer of them offer hope.

Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad — and Surprising Good — About Feeling Special can be recommended to those who deal with narcissists and those think they are narcissists and wonder if there is hope. It handles the topic compassionately and empathetically without sacrificing realism.

Craig Malkin, a Harvard psychologist, starts the book by taking us along on a journey back to ancient Greece. He recounts the legend of Narcissus, the prototypical narcissist, and Echo, the quintessential self-abnegator. Dr. Malkin’s semantic approach makes all the difference. In rebranding narcissism as “feeling special,” he depathologizes it and opens the doors for discussing how narcissism can both be healthy and necessary in moderation. He coined the term “Echoists,” named after the self-effacing Echo of the legend, to describe those who think too little of themselves.

In doing so, the legend of Echo and Narcissus became a cautionary tale. Envisioning narcissism on a spectrum that we can slide up or down rather than a fixed personality trait offers hope for all. This, I believe, is the most helpful stance for mental health professionals seeking to counsel patients on dealing with painful self-involvement, both their own and their loved ones.

Dr. Malkin’s contention is that unhealthy self-involvement manifests in two distinct pathologies: too much of it (the affliction of narcissists), and too little of it (the bane of Echoists.) Between Echoists and narcissists lies healthy narcissism. The author frequently points out that gently moving along the spectrum, without sliding all the way to becoming a self-negating Echoist, is important. His message offers hope and direction for people at both ends of the spectrum should they want to change.

The nuanced narcissism test included in the book solves the age-old problem of pathologizing the overly self-involved while not pointing out to the overly self-effacing that their behavior opens doors for their victimization. This stance is the empowering way out of abusive relationships. Often I hear women in our support groups say that they are acting the way they are because they are “kind.” I hear these women say that it’s their responsibility to “suck it up” and “take one for the team.” Demonizing narcissists comforts their victims but does not help them out of trouble.

The part that follows delves into the roots and making of narcissists and Echoists and their operant beliefs — “don’t be ordinary” and “don’t dream big,” respectively. It also presents an in-depth discussion of the dynamics of relationships among people with varying degrees of narcissism.

Part III has plenty of information on, and analysis of, the warning signs of unhealthy narcissism. Two chapters are dedicated to describing interventions aimed at dealing with narcissists, and the rationale behind them. Both chapters are in the same vein: what to do to empower oneself, how much to try and then how to identify when it’s time to call it quits. Dr. Malkin’s advice is helpful, sensitive, and professional. The author rightly emphasized the importance of feeling emotional and psychological safety before attempting to engage the narcissist in a change conversation.

My only concern is that the caveats and warnings he provides are laid out inadequately. This important information is placed amid the regular paragraph text and can easily be glossed over. Many people scan material looking for “the answers” through reading subtitles and first sentences of paragraphs, and so they might not notice the prerequisites for attempts at repair.

I hope that the emphasis on feeling psychological safety will be displayed prominently in future editions, either through placing them in a box, quote caption, or even just through an alternate formatting form. Perhaps I am overly worried and patronizing of readers, but when it comes to victims withstanding abuse thinking they can change their abuser’s behavior, I would rather err on the side of caution.

Part IV is chock-full of practical tips and hope-inspiring messages. Its theme is “promoting healthy narcissism.” The recommended parenting practices are both comprehensive and firmly rooted in theory. One of the true gems of the book that will prove useful to every mental health clinician is the chapter on the healthy use of social media. The author offers an overview of the most recent studies of the interplay between social media and narcissism and tips on how to use social media to promote emotional well-being.

Among all the books that have been published on the topic in the past 10 years, Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad — and Surprising Good — About Feeling Special stands out as a definite must-read.

Book Review: Rethinking Narcissism

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Amira Aly, MD

APA Reference
Aly, A. (2016). Book Review: Rethinking Narcissism. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 May 2016
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 May 2016
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