We all know the icon of the narcissist gazing in the mirror. Narcissists seem to love themselves extremely, to the exclusion of others. Mirrors reflect back how we feel about ourselves. Looking at our own image may be a source of delight, or it may trigger critical, unloving thoughts about ourselves.

How can we love ourselves in a way that feels good and enhances the quality of our lives, but isn’t narcissistic?

Research finds four consistent differences between healthy self-love and narcissistic love. Here are four key questions to help you understand the difference.

1. Is there a need to leverage one’s own awesomeness against others?

Healthy self-love and self-esteem are based on believing that we have a number of positive qualities and that other people have such qualities, too. If we’re not self-loving or secure, we often seek to compare ourselves with others—believing if we are better at a skill—simply “the best,” or “the fairest on them all”—we’ll feel better about ourselves. Needing other people to be less so that we can be more is a common trait of narcissism, and it’s not a very accurate way of perceiving other people. Research shows that most people generally rate themselves above average on key characteristics, although it’s statistically impossible for everyone to be above average.

2. Is there more concern with looking good than performing well?

A narcissist focuses on playing the part of a caring friend, a devoted lover, or a good employee more than on actually performing the role with skill and competency. They’re much more concerned with how they look playing the role than with the actual quality of their performance, or how others are affected by their behavior. People with a high degree of self-love derive it from doing a good job and taking responsibility for their part in things. Narcissists, however, don’t have much incentive to do a thorough job or take responsibility when things go wrong.

3. Is there a focus on external validation?

Narcissists need others to validate their awesomeness. They need constant affirmation from others because they haven’t internalized a sense of worthiness, self-compassion, or genuine high self-regard. They may do all kinds of crazy things to win praise and recognition. Narcissists also tend to measure their worthiness based on status symbols like jewelry, clothes, attractive romantic partners, etc. People with healthy self-love are guided by their own internal values and act in ways that are consistent with those values and which sustain their good feelings about themselves.

4. Do emotions and attitudes seem “black and white?”

Research finds that narcissists tend to either love or hate things and don’t tolerate the grey areas. People with healthy self-love have developed more ability to tolerate uncertainty and subtler emotions. Healthy self-love is related to the ability to experience one’s own vulnerability, which can be threatening to narcissists. When we begin to feel our vulnerability, we naturally start to feel more self-compassion, and this leads us to feel more connected to others. If we can’t tolerate our own uncomfortable feelings, we’re more likely to project them onto others, which can create conflict, isolation, and self-disillusionment

Try this: In my work on mirror meditation, I’ve discovered that the mirror can also be used as a tool for deeper self-awareness. Instead of using your mirror for self-admiration or self-criticism, you can use it to understand yourself. When we are more aware of ourselves, we are less likely to project what’s going on inside of us onto others, we have more choices of how to respond to our feelings, and we have less reliance on others for affirmation.

Sit in front of the mirror for five minutes without distractions, and notice any tendencies to self-criticize, or entertain yourself to fill a void. Simply sit and be open to your thoughts and feelings as you look at yourself with no goal other than to be present with yourself. (Feel free to post your experience, or any questions and comments, on the Mirror Meditation Facebook page.)

Who Sees You Accurately?

Have your ever had someone give you a complement – it sounds nice and you appreciate being noticed, but something about it just doesn’t quite land? The person clearly wants to see the good in you, but their impression of you is a bit off. Sometimes acc …

read more

Are You Objectifying Yourself?

I am facilitating a guided self-reflection session. My client is sitting in front of the mirror in a comfortable meditation posture. She is still, gazing into her own eyes. And, she feels nothing. She doesn’t like her hair and she makes a few other, da …

read more

What Are You Looking At?

“What are you looking at?” is not only a famous line from the movies, it’s also an important question to ask yourself. Sensitive souls know that everything we see affects us deeply. Research in neuroscience is continuously gathering more evidence to su …

read more

See Yourself for the First Time

As we begin our session, I tell her “Wiggle your toes, feel your feet solidly on the floor, and your butt firmly in the chair.” We are preparing for a wild ride – not in an all-terrain vehicle or a rollercoaster. We’re beginning a 50-minute session of …

read more

Why Mirrors?

Mirrors have always been a part of my life. When I was a little girl, mirrors were a source of amusement and delight. As I grew older, the mirror became an exacting critic for me to appease as I compared my image with those of women in fashion magazine …

read more

How to Stop Criticizing your Appearance

Research finds that eight in 10 women are dissatisfied with their reflection in the mirror.  It’s not surprising. Media images of women retouched to perfection create standards of beauty that are nearly impossible to attain. The pressure to be thin, yo …

read more

The Naked Truth

When I meet people at parties and they ask me what I do, I tell them “I’m a mirror-gazing expert”. If they don’t immediately turn away, I explain a little more: “Mirror Meditation is a daily practice that involves gazing at your reflection in the mirro …

read more