If you live with a recovering, narcissistic addict, recognize the damage the relationship has caused you.
By Rokelle Lerner
We know that the first step toward recovery is sobriety. Without this, nothing can happen, and we stay sick and delusional. But recovery also means finding a way of living that works spiritually, physically, mentally and emotionally. Sadly, many can stop using drugs or alcohol but are still left with behaviors that don’t disappear with treatment or sobriety.
Selfishness and self-indulgence are two such behaviors, nurtured in some addicts from years of avoidance and self-medication. Narcissistic tendencies—an individual’s compulsive need to be worshipped—are also prevalent. It should be no surprise that up to half of individuals with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are substance abusers. Those with NPD share the deep well of shame with those who are addicted, keeping their shameful real selves hidden.
What is a Narcissist?
It is important to note that everyone is a bit narcissistic. Only a caring, empathic therapist can make a formal diagnosis of NPD, which is developed from an upbringing of trauma and neglect. Those with narcissistic personality traits do not necessarily have NPD. The difference has to do with an individual’s degree of internal shame. For example, with narcissistic traits one can feel remorse and empathy while those with NPD cannot.
Narcissists can be among the most charming and seductive personalities on the face of the earth. They are charming because they need you; they crave what you can give them, which is an endless supply of acknowledgement. They’re spoiled and wounded children, desperately in need of someone to be in awe of their image. But contrary to common belief, the narcissist isn’t someone who feels superior.
The narcissist has little or no sense of self. These men or women are desperate for praise. Like a plague that defies cure, narcissists spend their lives trying to overcome or eradicate the pervasive shame they feel. In fact, most of their abhorrent behaviors stem from their desire to rid themselves of shame through anger, bullying or entitlement.
This often means transferring the shame to someone close to him or her—an employee, coworker or more commonly, a child or a partner. Tragically, the defenses of entitlement, grandiosity, unrealistic expectations and contempt make it impossible for the narcissist to have life-giving relationships with others.
Narcissism often stems from the childhood trauma of not being seen, heard or comforted. Research tells us that this disorder begins at around 12 to 18 months; sometimes the best way to deal with a narcissist is to think of a 2-year old. For all their charm, babies and toddlers are unable to see the world from anyone else’s perspective apart from their own. Don’t get what you want? Then throw your rattle out of the crib. As we get older, through the influence of parents and others, most of us lose that self-indulgent streak. We learn that there are consequences to our actions and that we must take into account the needs of others if we are to find fulfillment and happiness.
But for those who grew up in alcoholic, mentally ill or abusive families, unconscious wounds from childhood compel them to act in ways that are sometimes unconscionable, damaging and ultimately tragic.
Whether it’s a diagnosis of NPD or a narcissistic personality style, it’s painful to witness how these individuals transfer their shame to those that are closest to them. This shame is often projected through rage, utter neglect or unrealistic demands. In the end, narcissists need to own you. You are required to be their faithful worshiper who never criticizes and never disagrees. If they do something wrong, you must approve; if they detest someone, you must detest them as well. Your identity ceases to exist, and you become a mere projection of their image.
Narcissism and Addiction
Narcissists are set up for addictive behavior as their true self goes into hiding at an early age in order to survive. Emerging in its place is a false self that writes checks of bravado and grandiosity from an empty bank account. Narcissists come to believe that they are their false self, but nothing can stop their shame from bleeding into their reality. Eventually, the disparity between the false self and the internal, shame ful self will knock them off their pedestal.
Sooner or later narcissists will experience a grandiosity gap between their fantastically inflated and unlimited self-image and their actual limited and shameful reality. Jealousy, a failed business proposition, a relationship disappointment or even a facial expression can trigger them into this abyss. With the discovery of mind-altering substances, the painful cracks between the shame and the false self are filled—if only momentarily—to create a smooth, shiny surface: a mirror! And just like the olden tale of Narcissus and Echo, an addict becomes transfixed on that silvery mirror that conveys the reflection in which they desperately want to believe. Slowly, day-by-day their true selves wither away and die.
So it makes perfect sense why a narcissist would turn to alcohol and drugs for comfort. Shame and addiction are natural partners, and shame is at the root of compulsive behavior. The more internal shame a person feels, the more likely he or she will be attracted to anything that promises relief from pain and emptiness.
Cracking the Mirror
For someone living with a narcissistic addict, the devastation caused by addiction coupled with narcissistic traits may feel insurmountable. In fact, narcissistic characteristics are so much a part of the disease of addiction that a diagnosis of narcissism often goes unrecognized by counselors. In order for sobriety and recovery to occur, a treatment counselor must develop a relationship with and confront the shameful true self, much to the chagrin of the narcissistic patient. Any ripples in the addict’s mirror will fracture the reflection and the narcissist’s strong defense mechanism. The narcissist will initially attack, avoid or ignore interventions that threaten this false self; yet, this is precisely the type of therapeutic relationship that is required to begin the path of healing for the narcissistic addict.
As is true for every addict, recovery requires that they undertake a fearless inventory of how their behaviors have affected others. Only then does recovery begin and their relationships begin to thrive. For those living with the recovering, narcissistic addict, it is important that you recognize the damage the relationship has caused you and establish the you that was lost in the process through your own recovery.