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One way to make the necessary distinction in terminology between genuine self esteem and the narcissistic need for approval is as you’re suggesting - define narcissists as plagued with self doubt, not really ‘lovers of self’ as the conventional definition suggests; and those with genuine self esteem and self love as non narcissistic, also contrary to the common definition.

But I’ve heard another way I’m increasingly thinking might be better - easier to explain without challenging conventional definitions, and better explaining the ‘high level narcissists’ like Musk.

That alternative is to recognise that we all have varying degrees of narcissism, but it can be of a healthy or unhealthy variety. Under this mental model narcissism is defined as a sense of superiority over others - which can apply to different beasts ranging from Trump to Musk to Howard Roark. There’s two key questions that then distinguish the healthy from the unhealthy expression:

1. Is that sense of superiority based on real objective achievements, that you recognise surpass what others have done?

2. Do they need others to recognise that achievement (real or imagined), or do they still feel superior based on their own judgement, even if few or nobody else recognises it?

In the unhealthy expressions the answer to those two questions is predominantly no. In the healthy expressions it’s yes. In the mixed (high functioning) cases such as Musk its a bit of both, where their initial sense of superiority is usually based on real independent achievements, but then they’ve succumbed to weakness in placing too much emphasis on approval and recognition.

I think this model is more accurate in defining the high functioning cases such as Musk, or Gail Wyband. They’re not the opposite of Roark, in some respects they’re similar, but they’ve lost their way somewhat and become too dependent on others.

In a nutshell, the alternative way of framing it is to recognise that there are varying levels of narcissism in everyone (narcissism being a sense of superiority); and that high levels of narcissism can either be healthy, unhealthy, or a mixture of both depending on the two questions above.

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