The relationship between addiction and narcissism

The word “narcissist” gets a lot of air time in today’s selfie-driven, influencer-obsessed culture. And, while there are many people, addicts included, who exhibit narcissistic personality traits, it’s important to draw the distinction between a person with narcissistic tendencies and a person with full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). In fact, a very small percentage of people have true NPD. Those who exhibit 5 or more of the following traits with no desire to change are often associated with the disorder: 

  • Possessing an overinflated sense of self-importance
  • Having constant thoughts of being more successful, powerful, loved, smart, or attractive than others
  • Needing constant or excessive admiration 
  • Delusions of superiority and the desire or need to only associate with high-status people
  • Maintaining a sense of entitlement
  • Possessing a willingness to take advantage of others in order to get what they want or achieve goals
  • Lacking consideration or even understanding of other people’s needs and feelings
  • Behaving in arrogant, conceited, boastful, and pretentious ways

Please keep in mind, however, that this list is hardly comprehensive, and NPD is difficult to diagnose. Someone who’s clinically narcissistic (with NPD) is very mentally ill, so educate yourself before jumping on the “he—or she—is a narcissist,” bandwagon. 

What about Addiction and NPD?

Addiction and NPD are frequently discussed in pairs, and while the two can certainly exist comorbidly, they don’t need to go hand in hand. Both involve an individual seeking something external to fill a void. For the narcissist, that external ‘something’ comes from people’s validation. For the addict, on the other hand, it comes directly from a substance or a compulsive behavior. Most of the time, addicts are just addicts with some narcissistic personality traits. Additionally, clinical narcissists (people with NPD) can just be narcissists and not addicts. 

What happens very frequently to those with NPD, however, is that when they don’t get the praise they need, they act out in other ways. This often means seeking out drugs or alcohol to deal with emotional stress. Furthermore, because alcohol and drug use are generally only temporary solutions, the person with NPD keeps drinking or using, thereby kickstarting the cycle of addiction. What makes this scenario even more dangerous for those with NPD is that they’re already, in a sense, ‘addicted’ to denying that they have faults. Admitting they don’t have a handle on things can be a real threat to their already sensitive egos. For this reason, it can be much harder for NPD individuals to break the addiction cycle than it can be for those without it. 

Addicts often display narcissistic traits, but this doesn’t mean they have NPD

Also worth noting is that many, if not most, addicts display narcissistic traits and they frequently act in ways that could be construed as such. For example, they’re often willing to lie, cheat, or exploit others to get drunk or high, but this doesn’t automatically make them clinical narcissists. Sure, it might make them jerks, but the vast majority of legitimate addicts who possess a true willingness to seek help and a strong desire to recover probably don’t have NPD. If they did, they either wouldn’t seek help to begin with or they’d be very slack with their recovery program, nor would they show any real initiative to work it thoroughly. 

If an addict in your life is in recovery and STILL shows the following signs, pay attention

If you suspect that an addict in your life, currently in recovery, may also have NPD, ask yourself the following questions

  • Does this person separate themselves from the group after having been in recovery for a while (i.e., “I’m different and I can work my program differently, too,” or, “I’ve made better progress than other people in this program,” etc.)?
  • Does this person still seem to possess a sense of entitlement, impaired empathy, or an unwillingness to help others even after spending some time in recovery?
  • Does this person’s emotional sharing feel empty (i.e., filled with 12-step jargon) with no genuine remorse or sadness for the pain they’ve caused?
  • Does this person feel that others couldn’t possibly relate to their own treatment experience because he or she is different?
  • If the individual is someone you’re close to, do you still feel distant even though they’ve been in recovery for a while?

Treatment options for NPD and addiction

If you can answer yes to any of these, narcissism could be the primary issue and this person may be using programs like AA or NA (12 step recovery, etc.) as a new way to self-soothe. Leaning on a recovery group like this could just be another means of seeking validation, mutual care, and comfort, thus helping them to feel special in a new way. If such is the case, they’ll still be unable to provide emotional care or experience intimacy with others. 

When it comes to addiction and NPD existing comorbidly, the best treatment option is to address both simultaneously. This gives the individual a much better chance of maintaining long-term sobriety. Only focusing on one at a time, however, can significantly increase the likelihood of a relapse if underlying issues are not addressed. 

Therapy and recovery programs can be powerful tools when dealing with issues like narcissism and addiction. Please keep in mind, however, that true NPD is a serious mental disorder that’s very difficult to diagnose as well as to cure, while people with addiction can and do recover often with the proper treatment. Calling an addict a narcissist is a serious accusation that has the potential to affect his or her recovery. Do your homework so you can learn more about NPD and addiction, but just be mindful of how you utilize this information. 

Kembali Recovery Center can help

If you or someone you love is struggling, Kembali Recovery Center can help with addiction recovery in addition to providing you with the right resources to treat outside issues. Contact us today to speak with one of our counselors. Remember, you never have to do this alone.  

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