The news and the internet are full of the sad tales of those who’s addiction has caused irreparable damage to their lives, bodies and even the people who love them. The David “The Hoff “Hasselhoff’s You Tube medley are infamous. The most moving and painful to watch is the 28 second video of his teenage daughter trying to persuade him to stop drinking for fear of losing his job, while the Hoff half-naked drunkenly wobbles backwards and forwards whilst eating a burger off the floor.
Almost everyone will know someone who has been held in the clutches of addiction be it nicotine, alcohol, drugs or gambling and watched as their lives are leeched away by the very thing they crave. Roy F. Baumeister and Kathleen D. Vohs suggested in their review article, that Narcissism too was an addiction. They argued that:
“Narcissism can be considered a pattern of addiction. That is, narcissism may not be a lifelong personality trait in the usual sense but rather a pattern of yielding to inner urges in a way that proves costly and self-destructive—not unlike other, more familiar addictions”
Thinking About Addiction
When we think about addictions the overriding central problem is the sense of waste it causes- wasted lives, wasted money and at the very least wasted time – time they could usefully spend doing something more worthwhile with their lives. For those who love them it is painful to watch by helplessly as a person who vows to do better next time, lives their own hellish Groundhog Day.
Narcissistic traits can be like an addiction.
According to Peel(1989) an addiction manifests itself in the following way:
“The person makes the acquaintance of something that offers intense satisfaction or pleasure. As a result, craving for such satisfactions becomes strong. Eventually it can come to dominate other motivations and reduce rational behavior. If the drug is not provided, severe distress ensues, known as withdrawal. Repeated administrations of the same dose however yield diminishing levels of satisfaction, a pattern known as tolerance, and so the person may seek ever-greater dosages.”
For narcissists, the drug of need is attention and adulation from others. A narcissist needs their hit of approval, admiration and envy like a drunk need the 37% solution. It is known as the “narcissistic supply” and like a drug addict, their whole day can become focussed on how to get more of it, forgetting other normal social activities and the reciprocal nature of relationships needed to maintain them. “The Hit” or the high, is the attention they received from their grandiose claims, their gestures.
As the addition progresses, the need is satisfied in more indiscriminate ways so a need for love may become manifest in unfaithfulness; a desire for achievement may become a lie which grows out of all proportion to the origins.
And like the addict, a sense of shame or denial are intertwined to create a fractured self which is in conflict between “no I haven’t got a problem” and “I am a worm and not good enough” preventing a search for help or an admission which could see help delivered to them. Addictions are notoriously hard to treat which is why some 20% of the adult population of Western Europe and North America have a smoking habit in the face of the facts about its link to early death. Narcissism is hard to treat too, because like other addicts, denial is its strength.
Why do we “hate” narcissists?
Being an “aholic” anything means giving way to cravings, whether it is drink, chocolate or something worse. As a society and perhaps as individuals we both envy and condemn people who “give in to” cravings. Indeed, advertising of chocolate as “sinful” has been a staple of the advertising industry for years.
Likewise, most of us need to be likes or esteemed by others but for a narcissist this need is more it is a craving. As Baumeister and Vohs suggest:
“ …narcissists simply yield to the same cravings that other people have, just as alcohol or drug addicts yield to the desires for physical pleasure that most people have. The greater tendency to yield may well have to do with some predisposition, such as if these pleasures are more satisfying to potential addicts than to other people, or if alternative satisfactions are weaker. Indeed, it seems likely that the widespread dislike of narcissists is tinged with disapproval, which is again similar to how people regard addicts.”
So, we all want admiration and praise bus demure at the means by which narcissists achieve what we want. Spending much of our lives with the notion that “pride comes before a fall” and watching narcissists take it all and yes, sometimes they fall. When they take it we disapprove, when they fall, we shame them.
Addicts usually build a tolerance of their drug of choice, meaning they need more of the substance to achieve the same euphoria or hit. It may be similar for Narcissists too. They build their need for adulation and recognition to a pitch and then crash in a repeating cycle which requires them to be seen as better, bigger, smarter or stronger than before. As with any addict, this becomes unsustainable, not perhaps with the body, but certainly with the psyche.
Withdrawal of the supply
They call it doing cold turkey and it is why so many addicts fail to complete a rehab programme. The withdrawal from a drug of choice is physically painful. Even gambling which does not involve putting substances into the body, still causes changes in brain chemistry.
Take away the narcissistic supply and the narcissist will feel the pain of its withdrawal and do anything to see it returned. They will at the very least become aggressive and lash out at those who should either be providing the supply: a wife, colleague or even a newspaper!
Does it change how we view narcissists if we see them as addict? That rather depends on your views of addiction doesn’t it?
- Baumeister, Roy F. and Kathleen D. Vohs (2001), “Narcissism as Addiction to Esteem, “ Psychological Inquiry, 12 (October), 206-209.
Peele, S. (1989). The diseasing of America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.