The Grief of Self-Growth and Healthy Narcissism

We all know self-growth is good. But we rarely talk about the grief that comes with growth. As our perceptions shift, we experience grief because the person we used to be missed so much of what the new person we have become is now aware of.

Almost 20 years ago, when I was a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, I was in a supervision group with a woman named Renee. Renee died a few years after we were both licensed. She was in her 40’s.

I didn’t know Renee well. I had been focused on learning and developing my skillset, and so I saw Renee as just another person in our group. Part of the problem was that this particular supervision group was based more on competition than support and cooperation. It supported each of our narcissisms — certainly mine. I was doing my best to be a shiny and talented new therapist.

At that time, I needed to see myself, and I needed to be seen far more than I was able to recognize and validate others. I was hungry for approval and recognition.


I had grown up in a family where life revolved around my father’s needs. He was the hungry one who demanded he be catered to. He had needed to find his specialness because he not only wasn’t affirmed as a child, but he had suffered a lot of harsh punishment growing up.

His needs hijacked the needs of the rest of us. As a result, my siblings and I were starving emotionally. We were not seen as the wonderful little growing beings that we were. Instead, we were hinderances and bothers. That environment sets up a need (certainly in me) to be seen, and for my own specialness to be recognized. My unmet narcissistic need became an undercurrent in my striving, and it blocked me from fully appreciating the beauty of others.

In a child, narcissism is supported by understanding that children need to say, “This is mine,” and behave as if the world revolves around them. Supporting this allows that child to grow up into an adult who enjoys themselves and their impact on the planet. As an adult, healthy narcissism means we can acknowledge and enjoy our creativity, our talents, and accomplishments. And at the same time, we have a concern and interest in others. There is a balance. 

When this narcissism has not been supported as a child, we can grow up with a hunger to be seen and recognized, coupled with a sense of low self-esteem. While narcissism is healthy in a child and deserves to be supported, it is far less healthy in an adult when it is a hunger rather than a recognition of our self-worth and enjoyment of our abilities.

That hunger blocks our ability to take in others. It is similar to when a person, instead of listening to the person they are conversing with, is planning what they will be saying next. The focus is not on the connection between the two people but rather, on the self.

My grief erupted around Renee’s death. As I watched a tribute to her, I cried. She had a beautiful spirt. I could feel it in the pictures of her. I hadn’t fully seen her spirit when I knew her. I hadn’t been able to recognize who she was. I was so used to striving and attempting to fill my own needs, that I missed what was beautiful in her. 

There is always grief when we pass through a gate of consciousness and see what we missed by being more closed previously. This is part of growing and seeing new perspectives and vistas — and understanding the limits of the previous stage of consciousness. 

There are so many beautiful people. It is not so much about knowing them all and maintaining relationships but rather about recognizing their beauty. That is what I am grieving. I have missed appreciating so much beauty.  

With Renee, it was not that I wanted to spend more time with her, it was just that I wished I had been more able to honor her beingness — her spirit, that I could have more fully recognized her value when I had contact with her. 

I am grateful that the gates of consciousness have opened. I have so much more appreciation for others now. And I am so much less hungry to be seen. I am grateful for my grief, for it alerts me to my shift in consciousness and my growth. I can not only see but feel how much I have matured.

© Jennifer Lehr, LMFT  2019

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