The term “recovering alcoholic” is commonly bandied around to describe a person who has lived part of their lives dependent physically or psychologically on alcohol. These people have usually suffered harm as a result of their relationship with drink. They have lost families, friends, health and sometimes jobs and homes too. At the time of their addiction, they were completely unable to see that the intimate relationship they had with Alcohol was at the epicentre of their particular earthquake. The problem was that they could not see themselves as others saw them and their sense of reality was totally distorted by their world view. The term “recovering” is used because it is believed by many that once and alcoholic always an alcoholic and each day is a struggle to maintain themselves as clean.
I recently met a woman who described herself as a” recovering narcissist” since she saw the same struggles in her life as she tried to deal with how she had been in the past and was now and wanted to be in the future. We met at a conference where she presented a personal account of her struggle and talked afterwards. I have tried to encapsulate the essence of our talk here.
How did you discover that you were a narcissist?
I did well at school and college. My parents had set out high expectations for me early on and I had lived up to that goal. I was particularly close to my dad who was a driven sort of guy and who definitely had a “win-lose” approach to everything including child rearing. In work I quickly got promotion moving from Government policy making to consultancy, but my personal life was a shocking mess.
My looks and status helped me gain the initial attraction, that part was easy but sustaining a relationship seemed trickier. I needed attention and to be the focus of my guy’s life and if I wasn’t that would lead to rows and the inevitable break up. I always blamed them too and used the line with friends or family that I was too hot to handle. Later, as I became more successful I saw an attractive guy as an “accessory” to be changed for a newer model. It was only when I was in my mid-thirties and attending a lot of weddings and baby showers that I realised I was different to my colleagues. It seems corny now but I wanted to settle down too but I just couldn’t get there.
There was this one really, great guy who seemed a little more “zen” than the rest, a psychology major. I caught him reading “The Empathy Trap” by Dr Jane McGregor. He tried to talk to me about it, we rowed. He eventually left and I knew this time I had really let go of a good one. He left the book behind and I started reading. At first I threw it across the room into the corner behind the TV and it stayed there for weeks like a black dog haunting me. Eventually I picked it up and read and I saw myself in its pages, awful. I cried and for the first time it wasn’t self-pity but realising how I had hurt this guy and others before him. My lies to me stopped working and I was in pain.
What did you do about it?
I’d like to be able to say I rushed for the therapy but I didn’t, I got defensive at first. I worked harder and got more success but one day I was in the bathroom at work and overheard two women I thought liked me talking about this horrible b***h queen they worked with and gradually I realised they were talking about me! It was that which finally sent me to a group therapy, but even that was hard. Looking back on it now I realise that a room full of big egos is not always a helpful place and I chose to leave group therapy and went to a psychotherapist who worked “on me” for about a year. She looked at issues with attachment styles, parental expectations, perfectionism.
She gave me reading too. I found the stuff on transactional analysis particularly helpful and the idea of a “win/win” was a real paradigm shift for me. Some of our work covered pain too, including acknowledging the feelings of my inner child. A real mix and a helluva journey! We still meet irregularly, particularly if I feel challenged about my current state. I guess if we are talking the AA model then she is my “sponsor”. I have found the reading list she gave me particularly helpful since I am quite educated and analytical. I know that wouldn’t do for every narcissist out there.
You have referred to the Alcoholics Anonymous model and talk about yourself as being as a “recovering narcissist” why is that?
Well this is very much a personal view, but a personality disorder as narcissism is takes a lifetime to develop and so it takes equally long to recover. The problem is that we narcissists are inclined to be impulsive and demanding about ourselves too. It is very easy in therapy to start feeling a little better and want to move on. If therapy is being funded through some sort of public or insurance system there is also a motivation to “cure” quickly which is a mistake. To use a cancer analogy, which I believe is a good one for personality disorders since they are damaging and completely destructive, brief therapy can cut out the tumour but doesn’t deal with metastases. You can be in remission and it can come back. I believe the goals of therapy for NPD is to hunt down every last bit of its cancer and to be vigilant during remission.
I also use the term recovering because every day it is possible I could relapse into old patterns of behaving and thinking. I find that when I am tired, physically unwell or in pain (I recently injured my shoulder and it has been disturbing my sleep for example) the temptation is to retreat into what is easy and familiar narcissistic behaviour. I hear myself repeating my old scripts and falling into those patterns of thinking. Indeed, quite recently I behaved appallingly towards a team I am leading. On reflection, I realised what I had done. Next meeting, I bought croissants apologised and asked if we could start over. The old me would never have done that!
I hope one day soon I will be able to trust myself with a relationship, but being truly me with someone is difficult when I am still a work in progress and very much in recovery.
Narcissism is often described as having over valuation of the self as opposed to healthy positive self-regard. Do you think you have achieved healthy self-regard?
On a good day, absolutely! But some days are harder, but that’s life isn’t it ?