Narcissism and Substance Abuse

Not everyone that has a substance abuse problem is addicted[1]. Casual drinking can gradually turn to alcoholism without anyone noticing, because as a society we encourage such indulgence as a form of self-medication. The use of illegal or illicit drugs is the secret salve for many individuals that are able to meet the impossible standards of their lives with some semblance of competence. We have created demands of people that only a few can fill without the use of substances. The people that do not need such substances to work long hours and drive through the competitive world of business successfully tend to be individuals that fall high on the end of the narcissism scale.[2] Those that do not fall high on this scale, often take substances in order to mask their failure to embrace narcissism on a genetic level and must settle for faking it in order to survive.

The connection between substance abuse and narcissism is rooted in the brain’s dopamine system.[3] This is the reward system of the brain connected to wanting something, pursuing it, and anticipating the reward for that thing. It is this system that is altered in addicts when they become preoccupied with drug seeking behavior. This is the obvious manifestation of substance abuse that leads individuals to rehab, but most people never reach this point of full-on addiction.

Alcohol and cocaine are two drugs in this narrative that have the greatest capacity to blunt the inhibitions that cause us to be less motivated to seek certain rewards and both are highly accessible. These drugs essentially provide a person who is otherwise less motivated to pursue a certain goal, the motivation and fearlessness to do so. This is very valuable in the world we have built in which feelings of fear, concern, apprehension, and compassion may motivate decisions that are not in keeping with profit, greed, or goal attainment. Natural narcissists thrive in such environments, while the rest of us need excessive amounts of caffeine, Ritalin, alcohol, and or cocaine to keep up.

It is interesting that pharmaceutical drugs like Xanax and Valium are considered “medicine” but are often interchangeable from both a chemical and effect standpoint with illicit drugs. These drugs are prescribed to help individuals cope with anxiety, insomnia, depression and remain productive while targeting the dopamine system in much the same way. These are publicly sanctioned measures to “treat” individuals who find themselves struggling to keep up with life’s demands. The failure here is that there is no questioning of the demands themselves but an adherence to the idea that failing to meet them is simply unacceptable. The narrative is that if one is not narcissistic enough to be greedy to the point where they feel comfortable investing the bulk of their energies into accumulation and reward, they are broken and need mending of some kind. In essence, it has become a character flaw not to be a narcissist.

The narcissists win. Its true. It hurts to be the loser in such circumstances, so we tend to find ourselves making choices at certain points in our lives to ensure that we are never the losers again. If the narcissist wins, then we must be like the narcissist to win too. But win what? We don’t ponder this question enough before we make the decision to become the winner—all we know is that winning is better than losing. We want what we see winners have and at a certain point we can find ourselves feeling entitled to it. This entitlement is indeed the psychological bane that creates the megalomaniacal narcissistic society we have built.

The words entitled and earned are progressing into having the same meaning, but they are not in fact the same at all. There is a sense that if one has worked hard and made the appropriate sacrifices, they are now entitled to have what winners have. This is not true. Most of the time, winners have what they have because of narcissism—not hard work or sacrifice. This is the gap in understanding that has created confusion between what is earned and what is entitled, because most of us prefer to earn things, while narcissists feel entitled. It is the narcissist that does not feel they must play by the rules or respect the needs of others. They are entitled to their earnings and should not be bothered to consider those that are less entitled. It’s a natural disposition that most of us must compromise on from an emotional and moral standpoint to accept. This compromise is greatly assisted by the use of substances and it is this underlying truth that is creating a very sick society.

This feeling of entitlement is so prevalent we don’t see it. Think of what occurs when people become fans of a specific sports team. They essentially embrace a sense of entitlement that their team should win regardless of any factors that may contradict this sentiment. When the team loses, fans will feel “robbed” somehow because at some point their strong desire for their team to win gave way to a sense of entitlement. This is an example of how we project these narcissistic tendencies in the outer world, but its these same tendencies turned inward that is responsible for our worst sicknesses.

We become fans of our own individual team when we have a healthy self-esteem. When we have a healthy self-esteem we want to earn our win. We don’t mind setbacks in such instances because we understand its part of the game. Healthy self-esteem allows us to lose with dignity and not feel “robbed” because we appreciate the journey and love ourselves regardless. When healthy self-esteem gives way to narcissism, we no longer have this perspective. Any loss is a robbery. We were entitled to the win. When this feeling turns inward it serves as an impetus to push forward and obtain what winners have, and one may get an overwhelming feeling that life simply isn’t worth living without the prize. The prize can be a job, a car, a house, but most commonly our greatest fears, insecurity, and sense of entitlement will boil down to a person.

In narcissism we see impressive people and achievements as extensions of ourselves and validations of our entitlement. The problem is when one has a conscience as well as a healthy self-esteem, there is an inherent lack of motivation to do what is required to obtain or keep such things (to a narcissist people are possessions). This makes the person with a conscience and a healthy self-esteem a loser that’s not fit to lead in this society— hence the need to compensate with substances. As we evolve in mind and spirit, this dynamic will no longer work for us and this may present in our lives as existential angst, an identity crisis, or depression.

It is difficult for most individuals to process this, but modern society has become one where having a healthy self-esteem is a detriment. Lacking the motivation to acquire more and live with a sense of entitlement ensures a modest life with little fanfare. By modern standards, this is a person who underachieves. This is the life that the narcissist dreads and why there is invariably an extremely controlling aspect to this pathology. Everything must result in a win or the narcissist’s life is worthless. This is the basis for addiction. At the onset of substance abuse there is a desire to keep up (socially, professionally, personally), but by the end when it is clear that the abuser is human and will never be perfect, all that is left is resignation.

Society often views drug addicts as losers, but I have come to see them more often as winners that just couldn’t accept second place. Our society is sick because narcissism is a sickness we have cultivated and spread. Our efforts at self-medication only increase our sickness. The cure lies in embracing altruism and regard for others as the primary standard to live by in place of the selfishness and greed that has become a signature of contemporary society today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Baum, D., 2016. Legalize it all. Harper’s magazine, 24.

[2] Rousseau, M.B. and Duchon, D., 2015. Organizational narcissism: Scale development and firm outcomes. Journal of Organizational Culture, Communications and Conflict, 19(1), p.159.

[3] Ashok, A.H., Mizuno, Y., Volkow, N.D. and Howes, O.D., 2017. Association of stimulant use with dopaminergic alterations in users of cocaine, amphetamine, or methamphetamine: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA psychiatry, 74(5), pp.511-519.

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