A blog by Rokelle Lerner, Senior Clinical Advisor Crossroads Centre Antigua. Author of: The Object of My Affection is in My Reflection: Coping with Narcissists
In 1958, Bill Wilson in the newsletter, The Grapevine said, “the first job in recovery is sobriety, the second is emotional recovery.” We all know that sobriety is the first step but recovery is quite different. Recovery means finding a way of living that works: physically, emotionally and spiritually. Sadly, many can get sober, but are still left with behaviors that don’t disappear with treatment or sobriety.
Throughout my career, I’ve encountered addicts who have been through treatment and still exhibit self indulgent, narcissistic behaviors. In fact, a majority of individuals with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), perhaps up to 50 percent, are substance abusers. (Wallach, 1993) Their relationships are painful and the people around them suffer constant anxiety, terror and pain well beyond their loved one’s sobriety. These characteristics are such a part of the disease of addiction that a diagnosis of narcissism often goes unrecognized by counselors.
The Narcissistic Addict
The best way to describe a narcissistic addict is through metaphor: Lewis Carroll’s fable for children, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, tells of a young woman who swallows a magic pill and drops down a rabbit hole into a strange and wondrous land. If we link that tale to the myth of Narcissus, who is captivated by his own self-image, we have a description of the narcissistic addict: a man or woman who is both narcissistically disordered and lost in a version of wonderland. For some men and women, addiction is characterized by an insatiable desire to recover an infantile state of gratification, which certainly can’t be filled in reality—only in “wonderland.” (Joslin, 2008)
The narcissist’s false self is so grandiose and ego so cruel and shaming that the disparity
between the false self and the internal, shameful self will eventually knock them off their pedestal. Whether a failed relationship or a deprecating comment at work, sooner or later a narcissist will experience a “grandiosity gap” between their fantastically inflated and unlimited self-image and their actual limited and shameful reality. It makes perfect sense why a narcissist would turn to alcohol, drugs, or compulsive behavior for comfort. Since the core emotion of a narcissist is shame, they are at high risk for addiction to substances ranging from sex to drugs to alcohol. The more internal shame a person feels, the more likely he will be attracted to anything that promises relief from pain and emptiness.
In order for sobriety and recovery to occur, the treatment counselor must develop a relationship with the shameful true self, much to the chagrin of the narcissistic patient. The addiction counselor is unconsciously threatened to avoid making waves in the “pool.” Any ripples will fracture the reflection and the narcissistic addict’s sense of self. Any interventions will be attacked, or ignored. Yet this is precisely the type of therapeutic relationship that is required to begin the path of healing.
So you see, narcissism isn’t really about individuals who feel superior. The truth is that a genuine narcissist has little sense of self. Narcissists don’t necessarily think they’re better than other people; they just don’t think of people at all. They behave as if the world exists primarily for their gratification, and people exist only as pawns that allow them to direct their self-centered drama. They’re desperate for praise because it’s the closest they’ll ever get to unconditional love. For instance, we’re all aware of the term “King Baby.” Although the image conjured up by this phrase is someone who’s arrogant, snobbish, demanding, and aloof, the truth is these are the very men (and women) who feel painfully inferior. In fact, the more a person displays this “kingly” behavior, the more second-rate they feel. These addicts/alcoholics are hiding tremendous shame with their pride.
An addict has difficulty coping with the normal frustrations of life. The “king,” however, because of his feeling of omnipotence and impatience, is constantly creating unnecessary roadblocks by storming ahead despite the cost. The narcissistic alcoholic shouldn’t have to be bothered with recovery and may see the fellowship as trivial and boring; that is, unless he’s in charge.
A Twelve Step Program might appeal to the narcissist if he can appear as the ‘guru’. If the admiration and attention run out in one group, he can always find another across town. Sadly, the narcissist has little staying power for sobriety and expects quick results. Since recovery is one day at a time, and the surrender to the notion of powerlessness is tantamount to recovery, the prognosis is questionable, but not hopeless. There’s always the chance that he’ll pick up a sponsor who has some good recovery from addiction as well as narcissistic traits. Bob Brissette in his lecture at Hazelden in 1971, gave the following description of “King Baby”: “Like babies, alcoholics assume that the world is our little private oyster. We tyrannize our homes, wives and our children: we demand meals to be served before there has been an opportunity to prepare them. Then we throw tantrums if everything isn’t done thoroughly. We demand that food be of our choice, not the family’s choice. We demand our TV program be tuned in, not the family’s program. And we deserve this, we tell ourselves—didn’t we work hard all day down at the office?
What if we did have five coffee breaks, a three-martini lunch that lasted ‘til 2:45, and a couple of long, warm counseling sessions with that pretty girl employee who told us how kind and understanding we were. He’s adept at twisting knives, cutting people up, humiliating them and making them frightened, insecure about their jobs. He does this because it makes him feel better: it makes him feel more powerful.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that king baby has a female counterpart called the “Queen.” Although we rarely speak about this, some women possess these characteristics in spades. We all know those females that sweep into the room a half hour late and demand that everyone must drop what they’re doing and notice her. Her great need is to be the constant center of attention wherever she is. Frequently, she speaks and laughs in a loud voice and assumes that what she has to say is absolutely fascinating—but it isn’t. If the queen feels like granting you a sexual favor, you are expected to be grateful to her to your death for having had the privilege of romancing her. She demands absolute respect from her family and children. She whines and whimpers when all of her demands are not met promptly.
The victims of narcissistic women are frequently the ones over which she has the most power—her family. Criticizing, verbally abusing, and sometimes physically assaulting, she can’t allow them to be too successful or too happy. Ironically, the more she loves them, the more she reduces them to nothing. The queen is in deadly competition with her daughters. When they get to be teenagers and mom is starting to sag a little, an ugly, hateful battle develops between the queen and her children. Like the king, she sees other people as things, not as human beings or equals. In fact, many fairy tales are replete with strands of narcissistic women who must destroy their female daughters or stepdaughters. From the stories of Snow White to Cinderella, these tales are filled with young women who must flee their narcissistic guardians only to enter into questionable relationships with flawed dwarves (Sleepy, Bashful, Dopey, and so forth) or supposed princes as a means of escape. To the queen, people are objects to be terrorized, bullied, and manipulated into loving, serving, and being loyal to her.
Before I go further, I must point out that there’s a difference between narcissistic personality traits and a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. The difference has to do with an individual’s degree of internal shame. In addition, there’s a difference between “covert” and “overt” narcissists. We are familiar with the overt narcissistic characteristics of grandiosity and bullying; however the covert narcissist leads with a superficial façade of modesty and shyness. If you peel away that veneer you will find similar characteristics of envy, ruthless ambition and pomposity. Covert narcissists prefer to “hitch their tail to a rising star” and often appear long suffering and victims.
Whether a diagnosis of NPD or a narcissistic personality style, covert or overt, these men and women spend their lives trying to overcome or eradicate the pervasive infection of shame that they feel. In fact, most of their abhorrent behaviors derive from their desire to rid themselves of shame. Unfortunately, this means transferring the shame to someone close to them: an employee, coworker, or more commonly, a child or a spouse/partner.
The characteristics of entitlement, grandiosity, martyrdom, and even joyful cruelty make it literally impossible to have life-giving connections with others. Yet, narcissists can be among the most charming and seductive personalities on the face of the earth! For someone living with a narcissistic addict or alcoholic, the devastation caused by addiction coupled with narcissistic traits feels insurmountable.
When the children and spouses of narcissists become aware of the dynamics of this devastating disorder, they experience both pain and relief. At last, someone recognizes what living in hell has been like. Many have a sense that they’ve been in prison, and it can take them a lifetime to comprehend how their captivity could have been so dangerous and yet so compelling. Many men and women feel depleted just trying to survive another day with a narcissist. Unfortunately, this demands so much energy and we become so other-directed that one loses their identity and their passion. As evolved, strong, or mature as we think we are, no one is immune to ongoing abuse from a partner with an emotional disability like narcissism. In my book, there are suggestions and guidelines to help those who are longing to come back to life again with a sense of peace and personal freedom.
For those whose lives have been impacted by a narcissist addict, it’s important to remember the behaviors I’ve discussed here are related directly to childhood trauma. They are survival mechanisms that were formed in sadistic environments among other narcissists who learned the same survival skills in their childhoods. These defense mechanisms are passed down through the generations and systematically choke the life out of children. Narcissistic parents beget narcissistic children. And even though we don’t know exactly how addiction occurs, narcissists are set up for addictive behavior as their true self goes into hiding at an early age in order to please a parent figure and to survive. Emerging in its place is a false self that writes checks of bravado and grandiosity from an empty bank account.
There is hope for the narcissistic addict if they can acknowledge that as a child they felt neither seen nor heard. Recognizing this truth takes much courage. Then, they must face their lack of self-esteem, and the damage they caused others. Then comes the long and painstaking work of building genuine, non-defensive self in the context of an empathic, caring therapy relationship.
Rokelle will be in London from October the 19th to October the 27th hosting a series of workshops. Please click here to find out more.
To find out more about Rokelle and all the brilliant work she has done, and is currently doing, head over to her website.
Senior Clinical Advisor / Conseillère Clinique Principale, Crossroads Antigua
Rokelle Lerner is a pioneer in the development cutting edge treatment for children and adult children of alcoholics and a renowned author and lecturer in the field of...