Narcissism is a personality disorder that shares many common traits with addiction. There are two types of narcissism, both of which may lead to tendencies in people that can, in turn, encourage addictive behaviors.

Narcissism may leave people more prone to problematic substance use, including alcohol use disorder, as well as other forms of addiction, such as sex addiction and social media addiction.

This article looks at the links between narcissism and addiction and explains why people with narcissism may be more likely than other people to engage in addictive behaviors.

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The American Psychiatric Association describes narcissism as a personality disorder that produces a pattern of behavior involving a lack of empathy for others and a need for consistent and excessive validation. A person with narcissistic personality disorder may have an inflated or grandiose sense of self-importance or worth and experience feelings of entitlement.

Although there are many types of narcissistic personality disorders, they broadly fall into two groups: vulnerable narcissism and grandiose narcissism.

People with vulnerable narcissism tend to show avoidant, defensive, or hypersensitive behaviors, and they often experience feelings of rage at a perceived lack of esteem or respect. People with grandiose narcissism tend to have very high self-esteem, behave in a dominant way, and overestimate their own capabilities.

It is important to note, however, that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) does not distinguish between types of narcissism. Instead, it classes them as the same thing. The idea of vulnerable versus grandiose narcissism comes from the psychodynamic idea that people with narcissistic traits believe they need to be perfect to be okay.

As a result, these individuals require others to affirm their importance and value. Once they receive this affirmation, they experience grandiosity and may behave in an arrogant and entitled way. However, without affirmation, the same individual may feel depressed and ashamed. Therefore, the presence or absence of external validations of their value determines whether a person may have the traits of grandiose narcissism or vulnerable narcissism.

Both grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism show a strong link to substance use disorders. A 2019 article in Frontiers in Psychiatry looks at the relationship between the problematic use of substances and narcissism, concluding that self-esteem plays a major role.

Both fluctuating self-esteem and low self-esteem can lead to the use of alcohol, drugs, or other addictive behaviors as a method of validation, which is important to people with narcissism. The authors of the article also note that grandiose narcissism is a factor in several other forms of addiction, such as:

  • social media use
  • smartphone use
  • compulsive shopping
  • gambling
  • compulsive working

A 2019 study involving young adults with vulnerable narcissism found that the disorder can cause overwhelming feelings of shame in the individual. The person then seeks out alcohol or substances to mediate these feelings, leading to more feelings of shame, and so on. This creates a pattern of dependent behavior, which is extremely harmful.

There are widely accepted parallel traits between people with narcissistic tendencies and those who abuse drugs, including:

  • the inability to see the consequences of actions, known as invulnerability
  • a lack of empathy
  • feelings of superiority
  • problems with fluctuating or low self-esteem
  • defensive behaviors to deflect scrutiny

A 2020 review of research on narcissism and substance use disorders concludes that low self-esteem that requires external validation from others can increase the risk of substance use disorders. It also highlights that a lack of empathy toward others and feelings of invulnerability allow people to continue the problematic use of drugs, despite the obvious damage they cause to the individual and the people around them.

The authors of the review also suggest that people with narcissism may use drugs to achieve a state of superiority above others while also lessening feelings of inferiority, which fluctuating self-esteem can cause.

Both grandiose and vulnerable narcissism are strong predictors of alcohol-related problems, according to a 2018 study of 345 college students.

This study concluded that people with grandiose narcissism are more able to evaluate and recognize their problems with alcohol than people with vulnerable narcissism. People in the latter group are less able to recognize that they have a problem and are, therefore, less likely to be ready to change their behaviors.

A separate 2019 study into the drinking habits of hundreds of students found that devaluing others, a trait in narcissism, was more likely in people with problems controlling their drinking. It also found that rage over a sense of entitlement, which is common among people with narcissism, is associated with alcohol problems.

There is much research to suggest a strong link between narcissism and problematic sexual behavior, notably infidelity and sexual assault. The same factors that drive the problematic use of alcohol and drugs can also drive sex addiction. These include fluctuating or low self-esteem, the devaluing of others, and a sense of invulnerability.

People with narcissistic personality disorders may wish to control their sexual partner’s behavior for their own satisfaction, and they may have an inflated sense of sexual entitlement.

A 2014 study into narcissism and the use of internet pornography found a direct correlation between hours spent viewing pornographic material and the extent of narcissism. It also found that people who watch internet pornography are more likely to have narcissism than people who do not.

A 2014 study looking at infidelity also found that people with narcissism were more likely to be unfaithful during a relationship. A 2015 study of college sexual assaults revealed that perpetrators scored highly on a narcissistic personality scale after completing a questionnaire.

Learn more about compulsive sexual behavior.

Although it is a relatively new phenomenon, social media addiction has been around since the advent of sharing pictures and status updates online.

A 2018 meta-analysis looked at the results of 62 studies and found that grandiose narcissism has a moderate association with increased social network use. It found that individuals with grandiose narcissism have more friends and followers, post more often, and spend more time on social media than other people. They also post more selfies.

A further review in 2020 found that narcissism may play a role in addiction to social media.

In 2021, a study involving 115 participants found that people with characteristics of vulnerable narcissism were more likely to:

  • have concerns about the numbers of likes and comments
  • be sensitive to negative remarks
  • experience feelings of jealousy
  • spend more time online than people with grandiose narcissism

People with narcissism and those with an addiction share similar character traits. These include a lack of empathy and a willingness to put themselves at risk in the pursuit of feeling superior. Research also supports the idea that people with narcissism are more likely to develop impulsive and abusive behaviors when using alcohol, drugs, sex, or even social media, leading to an increased risk of addiction.

Although experts believe that genetic factors can make people up to 50% more inclined toward alcohol use disorder, addiction has many possible causes. These include environmental factors, social factors, and emotional factors.

It is important to note that people with an addiction do not always show signs of a narcissistic personality disorder and that people with narcissism do not always develop an addiction.

People who are experiencing problems with alcohol, drugs, or sex should contact a doctor or mental health professional. A doctor can offer help and treatment to those dealing with addiction, which may involve suggesting lifestyle changes or rehabilitation clinics.

Learn more about treatment for addiction.

A mental health professional can talk through the symptoms of a narcissistic personality disorder and rule out other behavioral disorders. They may ask the person to fill out a questionnaire about their behaviors.

Talk therapy can be an effective treatment for people with narcissistic personality disorder. It can help them learn ways to develop empathy for others, assess their capabilities realistically, and improve their ability to regulate their emotions.

Learn more about talk therapy.

People with narcissistic personality disorders share similar traits with addicts, and both types of narcissistic personality disorder may lead to addiction.

Many people with narcissism may also have an addiction to alcohol, sex, drugs, or social media. However, not everyone with narcissism has an addiction and vice versa.

People who think that they may have an addiction or a personality disorder should consult a doctor or mental health professional for advice and treatment.