In this final post in the series, 10 Things I Hate About Your Addiction, we take a look at narcissism. As a reminder, this is not an “us versus them,” series. Rather, the goal is to validate what many are seeing in their relationship with a sex addict (or someone with a pattern of problematic sexual behavior) – and help them consider ways to protect themselves, and support the healing of those in recovery.
Levels of Narcissism
The term “narcissist” is bandied about very freely these days. One reason may be the media’s love of demeaning labels. Another may be the reality that this particular form of “uber” pride and self-centredness is truly on the rise.
That said I've heard multiple sex addiction specialists say that narcissistic personality disorder is very rare in sex addicts. But then, I've heard multiple therapists who specialize in working with narcissists (e.g., Wendy Behray, Dr Ramani) say that many narcissists have porn or sex addiction. So who is right? One possible answer is that those men and women who come to (and stick with) sex addiction therapy are less likely to be "diagnosable level" narcissists.
According to the DSM —the manual used by psychologists and psychiatrists to make diagnoses — a narcissist (with diagnosable "narcissistic personality disorder") exhibits at least five of the following symptoms:
- A grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents and expects to be recognized as superior)
- A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love
- A belief that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- A need for excessive admiration
- A sense of entitlement – unreasonable expectations of especially favourable treatment (e.g., totally above the law) or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- Interpersonally exploitative behaviour – someone who takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- A lack of empathy – a person who is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- Envy of others, or a belief that others are envious of him or her
- A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes
In The Narcissist You Know, Dr. Joseph Burgo states that narcissistic personality disorder is hard to diagnose. The reason: many narcissists have learned to disguise their socially unacceptable traits in order to control the impression they make and to better manipulate people. On a casual level, they appear quite charming.
Burgo believes that at least 5% of the population could rightly be labelled “extreme narcissists.” He says that while this group falls short of the “personality disorder” diagnosis, they also differ from those I described last week as struggling with pride. “Extreme narcissists,” he states, “are not just vain and irritating, they are dangerous.”
Knowing Your Narcissist
The main psychological traits of the extreme narcissist, Burgo says, can be summarized as: “an inflated sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy for other people.” These characteristics “bring pain and turmoil to their friends, family members and acquaintances.”
Burgo recognizes that there are a number of types of narcissist. He lists these as:
- The bullying narcissist
- The narcissistic parent
- The grandiose narcissist
- The know-it-all narcissist
- The self-righteous (I’m right, you’re wrong) narcissist
- The vindictive narcissist and
- The addicted narcissist
Regarding this last group, Burgo states that the narcissist’s “drug” – be it porn, narcotics, prescription painkillers or even plastic surgery – is more important to the person than relationships.
Other models talk more about "overt" and "covert" narcissists. The covert narcissist is more likely to appear passive, and self-pitying rather than agressive and gradiose. However, those passive behaviours can quickly turn "passive agressive" and such narcissists still regularly display entitlement thinking as well as a host of cognitive distortions (e.g., minimize, rationalize, justify, blame...)
Specific behaviors we might see in either the overt or covert narcissist sex addict could be:
- Extreme vanity and delusions of superiority and sexual desirability
- Controlling of spouse/children/others (emotionally, financially, spiritually)
- Has rotating favorites (plays people off each other in the family, community, etc.)
- Is very easily offended
- Needs to be the center of attention or is hostile toward the group
- Lavishes sympathy on those facing misfortune, but clearly jealous of the same people when they experience success
- Is emotionally manipulative
- Is self-deceived about their sin– and determined to deceive others in the same way
Regarding this last point, narcissist sex addicts frequently strive to “re-write” their story in a way that puts them in the best light. In doing so they often outright lie to themselves, us and others… using gaslighting techniques if need be.
Living with Narcissism (or not)
Burgo says the extreme narcissist is “in flight from himself and most of what he says and does is an effort to disprove what he unconsciously fears is true—that he is small, defective and without value.”
Thus, whether it’s pride, self-centredness, extreme naricissism or narcissistic personality disorder our husband is displaying, he’s trying to feel good about himself and prove he has value. Sadly, he’s often doing this in ways that make it very difficult to empathize with him. He may even consistently behave in a cruel and abusive manner, or in ways that cross boundaries. When this is the case, we should re-evaluate, with support, our options with regards to the relationship.
There are many good Christian resources for the wife trying to determine if some form of narcissism or extreme self-centredness is the "problem behind the problem" in her marriage. These include: Self-Centred Spouse, The Pandora Problem, and Help, I live with a Narcissist. Tips I've picked up from these resources include, among other things, using good boundaries, wise confrontation, and staying away from traditional marriage counselling until there's been some healing in the person with the narcisisstic traits. And what would healing look like? Growth in patience, humility and accountability... in other words, loving others as well as himself.
At the end of the day pretty much every human being on the planet is struggling with narcissistic traits, and we can all improve. It starts with being humble enough to consider that we may have a weakness in this area. There are many types of therapy which can help those struggling: and with DBT I've even seen those at thse diagnosable level make noticeable positive progress.
With God there is always hope.