Are narcissism and addiction two sides of the same coin? A quick answer of “Yes, of course they are,” seems tempting but doesn’t do justice to the question. Realistically any attempt to reduce either of these complicated conditions is likely to fall short. Instead we can ask a couple of core questions to better understand the variables involved. What are some of the traits that both narcissism and addictive disorders share, and what popular misconceptions do people often hold about both? Let’s take a look at the issue and see if we can begin to come up with a serviceable answer.
In a historical context the Greek myth of Narcissus ends with the beautiful young man lost to the world, content to forever gaze at his own reflection in a pool of water. Real-life narcissists, however, desperately need other people to validate their own worth. As a result the importance of narcissism is not so much about “being liked,” it’s much more about being admired. As an added component the narcissist tends to view other people not as individuals in their own right, but more akin to extensions of him or herself. Therefore a narcissist often prefers to surround themselves with people who behave in such a way as to meet and satisfy their own needs or in order to enhance their own particular vision of themselves. If they act separately, have too many of their own points of view or their own opinions they threaten the narcissist’s equilibrium. Those feeding into the pattern of the narcissist are termed the Supply and are, consciously or not, used to maintain the sense of importance central to the condition. They provide the narcissist with an agenda that includes timetables, predetermined goals, and real or imagined achievements. As a consequence the narcissist feels that they are in control – alert, excited, and vital to the flow of the world around them. They do not regard their condition as actually being more dependent on the opinions of their audience than most normal people. The narcissist firmly believes that they are in charge of this addictive relationship with others, and that they can quit at will, any time they want to.
In what ways are these traits similar to those of the alcoholic or addict? Obviously the attribute of denial, hinted at above, seems to be central to the addictive experience as well. Too often the addict becomes the last to acknowledge their own disease while their family and friends suffer by the wayside. Just as the narcissist has an unhealthy relationship with their own self-image the addict has as destructive relationship with their substance of choice, always seeking the perfect chemically attained feeling to solve the problems of life. The addict is always absorbed with getting their next ‘fix’; that’s how they maintain a balance, albeit in a way that’s detrimental to themselves and those around them. Both the addict and the narcissist are similar in this core way: the basic craving for their own satisfaction over the concerns of others comes first. Outsiders watching the struggles of either group feel the same sense of helplessness – why can’t their friend or loved one simply change the behaviors that are damaging the lives of those around them? For addicts the deficiency often appears to be willpower, if only they could summon enough of this elusive trait, they could ‘pull themselves up’ by the bootstraps and resurrect the sort of life they want. Unfortunately the medical field and the experience of millions of alcoholics and addicts all disprove this hypothesis. Today the generally accepted theory of addiction is the disease model, with all forms described as systemic impairment of brain functions in regards to reward, motivation, memory, and efficiency.
It is the diagnosis of addiction as a disease, with symptoms that are diagnosable and worsen over time which separates the addict from the narcissist once and for all. Although there may be areas in common such as denial and faulty relationships with others, the key difference comes in the fact that narcissism remains only a compulsive and perceptive disorder, not an all-encompassing disease like addiction. Despite this basic variation in the two afflictions the methods of treatment can be similar for both, in that therapy and the 12 step approach favored for addicts can also be useful for those whose lives are damaged due to their narcissistic behaviors. Whether or not the narcissist is using drugs or alcohol the efforts promoted by 12 step groups include service for others and the necessity of getting out of one’s old patterns or ways of thinking. For anyone suffering from narcissism this process of changing priorities and perceptions can be the initial ingredient to achieve a more healthy life. While addiction and narcissism may be different at their root the similarities in effects and ultimate solution point out that comparison between the two yields some very instructive insights.