“I have heard that alcoholism can look just like narcissism when a person is abusing, but when the person sobers up the narcissism goes away. What is the difference between narcissism (NPD) and alcoholic selfishness?”
NPD, or narcissistic personality disorder, is a condition where the narcissism is an integral part of the person’s personality. Therefore, drunk or sober, the person will display excessive self-absorption, an over-inflated sense of self, and feel that he deserves special treatment. He will show no empathy for others and will always put his needs above the needs or concerns of everyone else. Always. A person with NPD will exhibit these same characteristics even after years of not drinking. Abstinence does not make them disappear.
Alcoholic selfishness has many of the same characteristics while a person is using. Many alcoholics demand to be the center of attention, put their needs above their families’, and they strongly deny that their behavior is a problem. The use of many drugs, including alcohol, does indeed produce feelings of over-inflated sense of self. That is one of the reasons they use- it makes them feel more confident. However, when the addiction to alcohol is resolved, the individual will no longer exhibit those characteristics because the traits of narcissism aren’t a part of his typical personality.
Sometimes alcoholism is co-diagnosed with NPD. That does not mean that all alcoholics are narcissists, although they certainly may have some narcissistic traits. Until the issue of alcohol addiction is resolved, it may not be clear whether the alcohol was causing NPD traits or whether the person is indeed a narcissist.
All narcissists are selfish; not all selfish people are narcissists
There is a big difference between “general” selfish behavior and narcissistic behavior. Selfishness, or sometimes it is just thoughtlessness, will cause the person doing it to feel concern or dismay when you bring it to their attention. They usually will apologize, but most important- they can stop (they may not stop, but they can stop). They will accept responsibility or at least acknowledge the behavior. All of this, of course, is assuming the behavior is being talked about in a rational manner…it is not likely to happen in the middle of a screaming match.
A person with NPD, on the other hand, will:
- Never acknowledge the behavior
- Never take responsibility for the behavior
- More than likely blame YOU for the behavior (or claim you made them do it, or that you are the one who is acting selfish)
- Not be able to stop the selfish behaviors—ever
- Use “gaslighting” which goes far above blame and denial. Gaslighting is considered by some to be a form of ‘brainwashing’; it is when an abuser tries to convince the victim that they are crazy or imagining it (the abuse or selfish behavior) or that somehow they are defective for thinking it. It can be used to make the victim more pliable, more easily controlled, or more emotional so that they are more dependent.
Why Living with Alcoholism Feels Like Living with Narcissism
The person with a narcissistic personality does not view people as individuals with their own needs and wishes; they are simply extensions of him. A narcissist gathers around him people who behave in such a way as to meet his needs (such as for admiration or power) or that enhance his vision of himself. For instance, they belong to the best country club or attend his university of choice, etc. If family members or his “in crowd” begin to act separately or have too many opinions of their own, his equilibrium becomes threatened.
Living with an alcoholic is highly similar to this. The alcoholic or addict is continuously seeking his next “fix”- the fix is how they maintain their equilibrium. Obtaining his next fix is a priority and this need of his comes before anybody else’s needs. Just like the narcissist who lives for his next fix. They are both self-absorbed and both only concerned with their own priorities. The selfishness of the alcoholic and the narcissist are observed in their lack of awareness, or even lack of caring, about the needs of those around them. They come first; everyone else’s needs come second or not at all. They both have overwhelming, overpowering needs-whether it is for their next drink or for their next drug, food or sexual encounter.
A person with alcoholic selfishness is very much like a narcissist. Addiction produces a kind of narcissism. The addiction is preoccupying and it takes over the person’s body, mind and soul. It is all-consuming. Living with alcoholic selfishness is a lot like living with narcissism because no matter what you do or how hard you try, you will always come second.