What makes something an addiction?
For example, I’ve heard some commentators claim that conditions like sex addiction are a joke because all men are sex addicts at heart but just lack the means and opportunity. Other observers feel that the term “addiction” should only apply to alcohol and drugs and that the application of the term to phenomena such as shopping, gambling, sex, and food is overdone. One of the biggest complaints about modern psychology is its apparent need to label everything an addiction.
My take is the opposite. I think we don’t apply the label addiction to enough things. I do believe sex, shopping, gambling, and food addictions are real things, and I believe that the addiction model can be applied to a lot more areas too and that understanding the mechanisms and psychodynamics of addiction go a long way toward demystifying much of human behavior.
Returning to the sex addiction example: are all men sex addicts? They actually aren’t. Liking and wanting something a lot isn’t enough to make someone an addict.
So what does make someone an addict as opposed to, say, an avid enthusiast? There are three main components that warp an interest into an addiction.
- Compulsion. This means that the person’s use or indulgence in the object has a compulsive nature. It’s an urge that feels irresistible, often irrational and contrary to one’s conscious will, defies reason, and displays an extreme disregard for risk and consequences. For example I may like food and occasionally overeat, but if I am regularly binging to the point where I am almost vomiting or can’t move for hours afterward and have developed diabetes, that’s compulsive behavior. Another example: many men may like sex, but if a specific opportunity to engage in a quickie is so risky that it may destroy his family and career, he may pass up that opportunity. This ability to properly assess risk and responsibly decide to resist the impulse is a sign that his love of sex isn’t compulsive.
- Tolerance. This is when you have used and abused an object so much that you now need much stronger and more frequent doses of the object in order to feel relief. Instead of just needing the desired object to feel grandiose and high, you start needing the object just to feel normal. It becomes less about chasing a larger than life feeling and more about keeping emotional sensations of worthlessness at bay in order to just get through the day.
- Withdrawal. This is when you feel extreme emotional distress and intense cravings whenever deprived of the object. The longer one fails to procure the desired object, the more the feelings of worthlessness creep in and the more desperate one gets in what they’ll do to get their fix. To return to the sex addiction example, the reason most men aren’t sex addicts is because even though most men really like sex, they don’t feel despondent and wracked with self-loathing if they go out partying one night without getting laid.
I will tell you the easiest, fastest way to understand narcissists and other Cluster Bs like borderlines and histrionics. All you have to do is grasp the following sentence.
The types of things drug addicts and alcoholics are driven to do for their substance of choice (lie, steal, betray, etc.), are the exact things a narcissist will do to get narcissistic supply.
Then I discussed how different types of Cluster Bs have different preferred forms of narcissistic supply, just like most drug addicts have their preferred drug of choice:
I think Cluster Bs go from borderline to narcissistic to histrionic to sociopathic based on which type of narcissistic supply, if any, they are craving at any given time, for whatever reason. The preferred forms of narcissistic supply for each type is as follows:
- Histrionic Personality Disorder: Anything that makes them feel like the center of attention. Flattering attention (especially sexual), flirtation, conquests, sexual teasing and withholding, romance, bodybuilding, loud obnoxious vocal displays and bright sports attire while watching sports games, drooling and double takes from others when wearing sexy or slutty outfits, obsession with abs, plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures, demanding grooming (lots of “mani/pedis” and hair appointments) or physical regimen (like Gym, Tanning, Laundry), making lovers jealous, making scenes in public, bravado and machismo, being fought over
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Anything that makes them feel flawless and omnipotent. Admiration, being envied, being feared, being idolized, being asked for advice and treated like an expert, compliments, whether earned or unearned,
- Borderline Personality Disorder: Anything that makes them feel like they have a committed partner dedicated to taking care of them. The presence of their mate, any indication that will reinforce the feeling that their lovers are devoted and won’t abandon them, making lovers jump through hoops, grand gestures from lovers, anything that indicates their lover is well-trained, like passing “shit tests,” getting lovers to forgive them and stay with them when the relationship is looking rocky
As with any other addiction, it isn’t the fact that a person enjoys the object of addiction, in this case narcissistic supply, that makes them an addict. It’s the fact that they have a specific type of toxic relationship to their enjoyed object that involves cycles of increased compulsion, tolerance, and withdrawal that makes it an addiction.
Just about everyone enjoys food, sex, shopping, alcohol, and the feeling of being high. That doesn’t mean everyone is addicted to those things. Likewise, all the forms of narcissistic supply I listed above that histrionics, narcissists, and borderlines obsess over are things that all of us enjoy to a degree. Who doesn’t like flattering attention or feeling flawless and idolized or having a devoted mate who won’t abandon them? Yet most of us though don’t compulsively chase these things in irrational, self-sabotaging ways. Most of us haven’t habitually chased ego boosts and relationship commitments to the point where we have a high tolerance to them and need insane amounts just to feel normal. Most of us don’t feel waves of self-loathing, distress, and anxiety if we don’t receive ego boosts or aren’t in a romantic relationship.
I’d also like to offer another way to think about this. One way to look at it is the way I’ve already described. That narcissism is a form of addiction, where the drug being abused is narcissistic supply instead of a substance like alcohol or drugs. But another way to look at it is that drug addiction is a form of chemically-induced narcissism/emotional vampirism, and the drug addict is a narcissist who prefers his narcissistic supply in a chemical form and prefers his grandiosity feelings in the form of an alcohol or drug high. The Cluster B emotional vampire needs narcissistic supply in order to fight off shaky self-esteem and induce feelings his grandiosity. Likewise, the alcoholic or drug addict uses a chemical form of narcissistic supply to fight off self-esteem and chemically induce feelings of being high. A drug high is grandiosity that one induces and amplifies chemically.
So is narcissism a type of drug addiction where the drug in question is narcissistic supply and the “high” achieved is grandiosity or is drug addiction a form of narcissism where the narcissistic supply comes in the physical form of drugs and the grandiosity achieved is the drug high? Or put even more simply and directly: is narcissism an expression of addiction, is addiction an expression of narcissism, or are both addiction and narcissism expressions of some bigger disorder? It’s a subtle, maybe meaningless, distinction, but one that we’ll be exploring in future posts.