Is Narcissism an Addiction?

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

Narcissism, a term rooted in Greek mythology and popularized by Sigmund Freud, refers to a personality trait characterized by a heightened sense of self-importance, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others.

While everyone exhibits some degree of narcissism, extreme levels of narcissistic behavior can lead to the development of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), a mental health condition associated with a range of personal and interpersonal problems.

Recently, researchers have begun to explore the concept of narcissism as an addiction, with narcissists driven by a compulsive need for admiration and esteem. This article investigates the connection between narcissism and addictive behavior by examining the hallmarks of addiction and how they manifest in narcissistic individuals.

Understanding Addiction

Addiction is typically defined as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive substance use or engagement in behaviors despite harmful consequences (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

The hallmarks of addiction include cravings, withdrawal, and tolerance (Peele, 1989). Cravings refer to the intense desire for the addictive substance or experience, while withdrawal is the distress experienced when the substance or behavior is not provided. Tolerance develops when an individual requires increasing amounts of the substance or behavior to achieve the same level of satisfaction.

Addiction often involves a short-term escape from painful emotions at the expense of long-term well-being, with individuals prioritizing immediate emotional needs over healthier coping mechanisms and interpersonal connections (Sussman, 2017).

Narcissism as an Addiction

The concept of narcissism as an addiction stems from the observation that narcissists are highly motivated to gain the admiration of others and that their attempts to do so often prove self-defeating and harmful to relationships (Morf & Rhodewalt, 2001).

Narcissistic individuals may exhibit a pattern of addiction characterized by periods of relative normality punctuated by phases of self-aggrandizing inflation, possibly leading to destructive consequences that may occasionally cause the person to revert to a more normal, balanced view of self (Baumeister & Vohs, 2001).

To better understand the connection between narcissism and addiction, it is helpful to compare the hallmarks of addiction—cravings, withdrawal, and tolerance—to the experiences of narcissistic individuals.

Cravings for Approval and Esteem

Cravings for approval from others may be a relatively common psychological trait, and indeed, the desire to be well-regarded by others appears universal (Baumeister & Vohs, 2001).

Narcissists seem especially susceptible to these cravings, as Morf and Rhodewalt’s (2001) analysis emphasizes. The greater tendency to yield to these cravings may be due to predispositions, such as if these pleasures are more satisfying to potential addicts than to others or if alternative satisfactions are weaker (Baumeister & Vohs, 2001).

Withdrawal and the Need for Admiration

Narcissistic individuals may experience withdrawal-like symptoms when they do not receive the admiration they crave. In a study by Twenge and Campbell (2003), narcissists reported higher levels of anger, anxiety, and depression when they did not receive the admiration they sought, suggesting that a lack of admiration may cause distress similar to withdrawal symptoms in addiction.

Tolerance and the Constant Pursuit of Self-aggrandizement

Narcissists may also develop tolerance to admiration, requiring increasing amounts of praise and recognition to maintain their inflated sense of self-worth. This pursuit of self-aggrandizement can lead to a cycle of escalating demands for admiration and esteem, further straining relationships and causing narcissists to engage in more extreme behaviors to achieve the same level of satisfaction (Baumeister & Vohs, 2001).

The Role of Cognitive Distortions in Narcissistic Addiction

Cognitive distortions, or biased ways of thinking, play a crucial role in maintaining narcissistic addiction. Narcissists use cognitive distortions to inflate their sense of self and maintain their satisfaction even without explicit confirmation from others (Morf & Rhodewalt, 2001).

This allows them to derive satisfaction through an intrapsychic rather than an interpersonal route, bypassing the need for constant admiration from others. However, these cognitive distortions may also entail believing (somewhat falsely) that others accept the narcissist’s superiority, further blurring the lines between the belief in their superior self and the perception of admiration from others (Baumeister & Vohs, 2001).

Short-Term Emotional Escape vs. Long-Term Consequences

The pursuit of narcissistic gratification often involves a short-term escape from painful emotions, such as feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, or vulnerability (Sussman, 2017). By seeking admiration and inflating their sense of self, narcissists may temporarily alleviate these negative emotions, similar to how addicts use substances or engage in behaviors to numb their pain.

However, this short-term emotional escape comes with long-term costs, such as damaged relationships, self-destructive behavior, and a reliance on distorted perceptions to maintain their inflated self-image (Baumeister & Vohs, 2001). By prioritizing immediate emotional needs over long-term well-being and healthy interpersonal connections, narcissists may inadvertently perpetuate their psychological distress and further entrench their addiction to esteem.

The Myth of Narcissus

The myth of Narcissus, a Greek mythological character, is often used as a metaphor to describe the concept of excessive self-love or vanity. The story of Narcissus provides a framework for understanding addiction, as it highlights the consequences of obsession, self-absorption, and the inability to break free from a destructive pattern.

In the myth, Narcissus was a young and exceptionally beautiful hunter who was admired by many but loved only himself. One day, while resting by a pool of water, he caught sight of his reflection and became so entranced by his own beauty that he was unable to look away. Narcissus spent the rest of his life gazing at his reflection, ultimately dying by the water’s edge, unable to break free from his self-imposed obsession.

Obsession: Just as Narcissus becomes obsessed with his reflection, addicts often become obsessed with their substance or behavior of choice. This obsession consumes their thoughts, time, and energy, preventing them from engaging in other activities or relationships.

Self-absorption: Narcissus’s fixation on his own beauty demonstrates a heightened level of self-absorption, similar to how addicts may become increasingly focused on themselves and their needs, often at the expense of others. This self-absorption can lead to social isolation and the breakdown of interpersonal relationships.

Inability to break free: Despite the negative consequences of his actions, Narcissus is unable to break free from his obsession with his reflection. Similarly, addicts often struggle to break free from their addiction, even when they are aware of the harmful effects it has on their lives and relationships.

Destructive behavior: Narcissus’s obsession ultimately leads to his demise, as he wastes away by the pool, unable to leave his reflection behind. This parallels the destructive nature of addiction, which can have severe physical, mental, and emotional consequences, as well as negatively impact an individual’s personal and professional life.

External triggers: In the myth, the pool of water acts as a trigger for Narcissus’s obsession. Addicts often have external triggers that can cause cravings or relapses, such as specific locations, people, or situations associated with their addiction.

In summary, the myth of Narcissus has many of the features of addiction, highlighting the destructive nature of obsession, self-absorption, and the inability to break free from harmful patterns.

Conclusion

In summary, the connection between narcissism and addiction is supported by several parallels between the experiences of narcissistic individuals and the hallmarks of addiction.

Narcissists exhibit cravings for approval and esteem, experience withdrawal-like symptoms when deprived of admiration, and develop tolerance, requiring increasing amounts of praise to maintain their self-worth. Cognitive distortions and the pursuit of short-term emotional escape further contribute to the development and maintenance of narcissistic addiction.

Recognizing narcissism as an addiction may have important implications for treatment and intervention strategies, as it suggests that addressing the underlying emotional needs and cognitive distortions driving narcissistic behavior may be essential for promoting lasting change.

Further research on the topic is necessary to better understand the complex interplay between narcissism and addiction, as well as to develop targeted interventions to help those struggling with this potentially debilitating pattern of behavior.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing.

Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Narcissism as addiction to esteem. Psychological Inquiry, 12(4), 206-210.

Morf, C. C., & Rhodewalt, F. (2001). Unraveling the paradoxes of narcissism: A dynamic self-regulatory processing model. Psychological Inquiry, 12(4), 177-196.

Peele, S. (1989). Diseasing of America: Addiction treatment out of control. Lexington Books.

Sussman, S. (2017). Process addictions: A review of nonsubstance-related addictions. In V. R. Preedy (Ed.), Neuropathology of drug addictions and substance misuse (Vol. 3, pp. 989-1000). Academic Press.

Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2003). “Isn’t it fun to get the respect that we’re going to deserve?” Narcissism, social rejection, and aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(2), 261-272.

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