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Self-Centeredness & Addiction | Connecting The Dots

Self-centeredness has long been said to be a characteristic of people who have addictions. And, people with addictions often acknowledge that in their recovery stories. Speakers in 12 Step meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA)frequently tell stories of their own self-centeredness in active addiction. Self-centeredness also rears its head during the recovery process early on, too. It is thought of as an early warning sign of getting off track in recovery efforts.

Understanding Self-Centeredness

You may hear other terms used when people speak about self-centeredness such as self-serving, self-absorption, egocentric and selfish. Essentially, all refer to a pervasive focus upon self and one’s own needs, wishes and desires. This intense self-focus leaves the rest of us without much consideration except with regard to how we can meet the needs, wishes and desires of the self-centered person. This is the foundation upon which a loved one’s feeling of being used and abused is built. In the self-centeredness of addiction, there is no mutual support as you would find in a healthy relationship. For example, loved ones are emotionally abandoned as the addiction demands more and more focus because of obsession and compulsion. That abandonment can occur in many other realms, too, including any aspect of contribution to the relationship, or the family, through participation in daily activities, financial support, shared work, etc.

Self-Centeredness and Dual Disorders

Not every self-centered person has an alcohol or drug problem. In fact, there are many possible origins of extreme self-focus. Some people have psychological conditions that are characterized by intense self-preoccupation. A few of these are:

Narcissistic Personality Disorder—this disorder involves complex and fixed patterns of thought, belief and behavior that are used to cope with life, interpret events and interact with others. Among the core symptoms are an excessive need for the admiration of others, a disregard for the feelings of others, and extreme sensitivity to criticism or perceived criticism. Also, people with this disorder feel themselves to be ‘grander’ than others (grandiosity) and to, therefore, be entitled to special regard or privileges. Their interactions with others are self-serving and in any relationship, things are always ‘about me’ in the eyes of someone with this disorder.

Antisocial Personality Disorder—this disorder also involves complex patterns that are persistent. Unlike Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder is characterized by violating the rights of others and criminal behavior. Self-centeredness is evident in behavior that is gratifying no matter the harm to others. For example, lying, manipulating, and deceiving others for pleasure or gain is common.

Other conditions such as depression and anxiety can cause extreme self-focus. Depression, for example, can cause withdrawal and isolation. A person can become so preoccupied with their own thoughts and feelings that it is difficult to think of anything except one’s own troubles. Similarly, some forms of anxiety are so intense that an excessive self-focus can appear selfish and self-absorbed to loved ones.

There are many more ways in which self-centeredness plays a role in the symptomatology of psychological conditions, and there are other conditions in which an intense self-focus is found. Also, while people with these conditions may not have a substance problem, many people with addictions do have co-occurring mental health problems. When people have both an addiction and another such condition, they are said to have co-occurring disorders, dual disorders, or dual diagnosis issues. When this is the case, people need to have simultaneous treatment for each of the dual disorders in order to have the best chance of recovery.

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Costs of Self-Centeredness

There are many costs of an excessive self-focus, and these pertain to the person who has self-centeredness as well as to those involved with the self-centered individual through relationships and even simply associations. The costs occur internally as well as in dysfunctional behavior and effects upon joint ventures and activities.

Some of the costs to the person with extreme self-focus are:

  • Difficult family relationships that may involve conflict, emotional estrangement, power and control dynamics, and/or abuse
  • Difficult work relationships in which there is little teamwork, but a tendency to set one’s self apart, or above and beyond coworkers
  • Loneliness, alienation, and social isolation due to feeling others are less than, or due to rejection by others
  • Failed relationships in which the needs, rights, desires, goals, opinions, feelings, etc. of others are disregarded, violated or discounted
  • Chaotic and disruptive reactions when one feels slighted, disrespected, disregarded or criticized
  • Inability to put aside self-centeredness in order to pursue a mutually supportive and intimate relationship
  • Self-sabotage of one’s own goals and ambitions due to becoming distracted by being at odds with others
  • Feeling entitled to special privileges and special regard, but feeling hurt that those are not given

Some of the negative impact experienced by family members and other associates of someone with extreme self-focus are:

  • Feeling dismissed, discounted, disregarded, belittled
  • Being ‘used and abused’ by excessive demands of the person with an excessive self-focus
  • Feeling that nothing is ever enough to please or satisfy the person with self-centeredness
  • Being vulnerable to manipulation, deceit, and boundary violations if there is something to be gained by the person with extreme self-focus
  • Being unable to trust that the self-centered person will have your best interest at heart in critical times
  • Internalizing messages such as you are not good enough and feeling badly about yourself, believing you are less than the self-preoccupied person because you are treated that way

Self-Centeredness and Addiction

The addictive process is a progressive and insidious one. It grows in strength, and more negative consequences evolve as an addiction goes untreated. There is really no timeline for the development of symptoms. Some people experience multiple negative consequences early in the addictive process, and others manage to postpone those till later. However, negative consequences are inevitable if an addictive process goes unchecked. While there are many symptoms and consequences of addiction, self-centeredness is one of the most common that is evident in social settings as well as in relationships of all types.

Addiction always involves obsession and compulsion. These are two sides of the same coin. Obsession is the fixed thinking that is preoccupied with using the substance(s) of addiction. As addiction progresses so does the obsessive thinking. Being preoccupied with using, the addicted person retreats farther away from mutually beneficial relationships and interactions. He or she becomes more and more self-absorbed into obsessing about use.

Compulsion is the behavioral equivalent of obsession. Compulsive behavior seeks to fulfill the obsession by actively using. Consequently, the mental obsession is acted out with using behavior. Together, obsession and compulsion related to drug use essentially create a self-contained and highly self-absorbed world for the person who is addicted. From the outside looking in, someone with an addiction appears only interested in meeting their own needs for the substance. There seems little empathy, compassion or willingness to engage in mutually beneficial relationships for any substantial amount of time. In a word, the addicted person appears, and is, self-centered.

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Overcoming Self-Centeredness

If a person’s self-centeredness is the result of an addiction, addiction treatment, and ensuing recovery efforts such as the 12 Steps (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc.), can help resolve it. People can overcome the dysfunctional interactional patterns that sabotage them socially, occupationally or in the family, for example, as a natural part of their addiction treatment and recovery processes. This is greatly helped along by withdrawal and detox which are the first inroads to alleviating the obsessive focus upon substances and the compulsive need to use substances. After abstinence is achieved, therapy helps identify the distorted thinking patterns that supported an addicted life and to replace those thought distortions with healthier and more realistic habits and patterns. Some of the thought distortions prevalent in self-centeredness are:

  • I am entitled to do and say whatever I want.
  • Others don’t understand how important, smart, gifted, exceptional… I am.
  • People should treat me with admiration at all times.
  • I am always right.
  • I am special and should be treated as such.
  • My needs, desires, wishes, goals, ambitions, feelings, views… are more important than anyone else’s.
  • I do not have to follow rules or obey laws.

Treatment and recovery can restore a sense of mutual support and mutual respect in relationships when such thinking distortions as those above are replaced with thoughts of empathy, compassion, and the desire to be authentically intimate.

When self-centeredness is part of another mental health condition, therapy also can help identify dysfunctional patterns of thinking and behavior that cause negative consequences and that work at odds with a person’s needs and overall desires in life. With practice, self-centeredness can be self-monitored and new, healthier strategies put into place.

Getting the Right Help

Getting the right help for an addiction or for co-occurring disorders is essential. The treatment program you choose should be able to specifically target the problems you have. When looking at treatment options, it is important to realize that not all programs are the same. They vary in philosophy and strategies, for example, as well as in the specialties of care the staff can provide. There are, for instance, faith-based programs, programs that are gender specific, programs equipped to treat co-occurring disorders and holistic non-12 Step programs, just to name a few of the options out there. As you, or a loved one, explore options, it is important, too, that you are clear about such problems as extreme self-focus and any other mental health concerns. This helps treatment staff best understand what treatment approach is needed and to best make recommendations.

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