The Difference Between Narcissism and Healthy Self-Attention — and a Meditation and Writing Prompt


by Nadia Colburn, Ph.D.

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you are interested in looking inward. But how do we make time for this, especially in our busy world? And how can we justify this attention?

I remember being at a New Year’s Eve party maybe fifteen years ago. Most of us were in our early thirties and beginning to solidify our adult lives.

We were going around in a circle, saying what we wanted to focus on for the year, and one friend said, “This year I’m going to focus on myself more.”

He meant his statement as a joke. After all, he was a struggling to be in a serious relationship, and part of that struggle was to listen better, to not always put himself first. He thought it was funny to suggest that he’d be more narcissistic.

But I wondered whether, in fact, if my friend really did need was more attention to himself, just in a healthier way.

We live in a culture that often cannot distinguish between healthy and unhealthy self-attention. A narcissist focuses on his outward needs, appearances and gratifications. Blocked from his own inner life, a narcissist doesn’t recognize the inner lives of others. This is dangerous for the narcissist and everyone else (and yes, this is relevant to contemporary politics.)

Healthy self-attention, by contrast, is being able to be with oneself, with whatever arises, with curiosity and compassion. This attention actually makes us more available for others, more present in our lives, and more able to be our best selves.

But because many of us associate self-attention with narcissism, we don’t know how to focus on ourselves in healthy ways, and so we miss out on a chance to really know ourselves and to wake up to the great miracle of who we are in the world.

In fact, many of our blocks — in life, in our creativity, in our relationships and at work — come from the ways in which we cannot fully be with ourselves. And many of the imbalances in our culture come from our inherited discomfort with ourselves.

What would happen if you took more time to get more comfortable with yourself, to sit, to listen, to tune into your creativity, to attend to your body, to move, to relax, to wake up? What would it be like if you could justify taking the time and energy to do that? Even if you’re a regular meditator, are there parts of your being that you’re overlooking?

This short meditation and writing prompt that invites you to come into your light and tap into your creativity — and bring healthy, restorative attention to yourself:


Nadia Colburn brings together mind, body, and spirit through online and in-person classes, and through meditation, yoga and writing retreats. She is a published writer with a Ph.D. in English from Columbia and B.A. in from Harvard. Nadia will be offering the weekend retreat, Living From Your Center: Integrating Mind, Body and Spirit, at Copper Beech Institute August 18–20, 2017. You can learn more about Nadia at

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