Twelve-step sponsors and narcissism

NPD's in AA

December 3, 2021

By Andy F

Categories: problems other then alcoholism

What is NPD? (Narcissistic Personality Disorder)

The American Psychiatric Association published a reference manual listing identifiable personality disorders. It is called The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (The DSM 5)

The pathology of each personality disorder is described in detail. They are listed as specific traits. These are known as diagnostic criteria. Before an accurate diagnosis, at least five of the nine identifying behaviors must be present.

The Diagnostic Criteria for NPD

A narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder characterized by a life-long pattern of exaggerated feelings of self-importance. Present also is an excessive craving for admiration and a diminished ability to empathize with others’ feelings. 

These personality traits are often overcompensation for a fragile ego. NPDs also suffer from intolerance to criticism. At their core, there is a weak sense of self.

Narcissistic personality disorder differs from self-confidence, which is associated with a strong sense of self.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5, 2013) describes NPD as possessing at least five of the following nine criteria.

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance.
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  • Believing that they are “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  • Requiring excessive admiration.
  • A sense of entitlement (unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with their expectations).
  • They are interpersonally exploitative (taking advantage of others to achieve their own ends).
  • Lacking empathy (unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others).
  • Often being envious of others or believing that others are envious of them.
  • Showing arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes. (Wikipedia)

Associated features

To the extent that people are pathologically narcissistic, the person with NPD can be a self-absorbed control freak. They like to pass blame by psychological projection onto the people they become involved with.

They are intolerant of contradictory views and opinions. Narcissists are usually apathetic towards other people’s emotional, mental, and psychological needs. They are indifferent to the negative effects of their behaviors.

Typically, they insist that people should see them as an ideal person. To protect their fragile self-concept, narcissists use psychosocial strategies.

They tend to devalue, derogate, insult, and blame other people. They are prone to anger and hostility towards people’s responses when challenged with their anti-social conduct. 

Narcissistic personalities are more likely to respond with anger or aggressiveness when presented with rejection. They are sensitive to perceived criticism or defeat.

People with NPD are prone to feelings of shame, humiliation, and worthlessness over minor personal slights. They usually mask such feelings from people with feigned humility.

When challenged or exposed, they can respond with outbursts of defiance or rage. They may also seek revenge when questioned or confronted. 

The merging of the inflated self-concept and the actual self is evident in the grandiosity component of narcissistic personality disorder. (Paraphrased from Wikipedia)

The similarities between narcissism and alcoholism

Here is a must-read article for AA members. It is by Alexander Burgemeester, the founder and creator of The Narcissistic Life website. The article explains the similarities and differences between alcoholics and people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It is reprinted here with permission.

I encourage you to read the article as it may help you to recognize a narcissist before you ask them for sponsorship.

Narcissism and Alcoholism

Sometimes, alcoholism is co-diagnosed with NPD. That does not mean that all alcoholics are narcissists, although they certainly may have some narcissistic traits.

Until the issue of alcohol addiction gets resolved, it may not be clear whether the alcohol was causing NPD traits or whether the person is indeed a narcissist.

Narcissism or untreated alcoholism?

“The selfishness of the alcoholic and the narcissist is observed in their lack of awareness or caring about the needs of those around them. They come first; everyone else’s needs come second or not at all. They both have overwhelming, overpowering needs- whether for their next drink, drug, food, or sexual encounter.

A person with alcoholic selfishness is very much like a narcissist. Addiction produces a kind of narcissism. It preoccupies and takes over the person’s body, mind, and soul. It is all-consuming. Living with alcoholic selfishness is like living with narcissism because no matter what you do or how hard you try, you will always come second”.

Reprinted with permission of Alexander Buremeester

Narcissism and Sponsorship in AA

Sponsorship in AA is a role of authority. With this authority also comes power. The sponsor uses their knowledge and experience of the AA’s program. The role of a sponsor is to support the newcomer in their recovery. Of course, the sponsor must be in a fit psychological and spiritual condition.

Experienced sponsors view their role as one of service. They devote their time and energy to guide sponsees to achieve healing through the twelve steps. For the recovery process to succeed, honesty and humility must be present. This “helping” relationship benefits both the sponsor and the sponsee.  

Asking for help from an alcoholic with NPD

Newcomers to AA can sometimes be vulnerable and lost. They frequently need the help that is freely available in the fellowship. There is often a sense of hopelessness when alcoholics first get sober. They are desperate to stop drinking and get well.

In terms of treating the illness, hopelessness is the necessary condition that facilitates recovery. In AA, hopelessness is not necccessarily viewed as a liability by an expereinced sponsor. Paradoxically, it’s the exact ingredient that will help the alcoholic get well.

“The more hopeless he feels, the better. He will be more likely to follow your suggestions.”

BB p.94  

The downside of the Gift Of Desperation (GOD)

The Twelve stsps are probably the most effective treatment in existence for alcoholism. It offers a holistic approach to recovery: mind, body, and spirit. When a newcomer initially gets sober, they are frequently desperate to do wnatever it takes to get well. In AA, this is sometimes called the Gift Of Desperartion. This desperation is a prerequiste to get well. They dont waste time, get a sponsor and start taking suggestions. There is, however, a downside to being a vulnerable newcomer.

In their desperartion and enthuisiam to get well, they often grasp for help from the first sober alcoholic they meet at an AA meeting. If the person has been sober for a long time, this is usually a good enough reason to ask for sponsorship. Moreover, if the newcomer hears impressive sharing at meetings, they assume the person is well. This can be a grave mistake. Impressive sharing, or ‘power sharing’ as I have heard it described, is not neccessarily and indication of good recovery.

Sometimes, it can be the very bait used by a malignant narcissist to lure in a vulnerable alcoholic who is new to the fellowship. The unsuspecting newcomer asks for help and is sometimes drawn into the darkness of The NPD’s self-serving agendas. The result can sometimes be the polar opposite of the healing offered through the twelve steps.

Narcissistic “Gaslighting”

In my experience, being exposed to a sponsor with narcissistic traits has been a powerful learning curve. Leaving a sponsor with NPD is not always as simple as it sounds. To not lose the narcissistic supply, they continue to use and manipulate you by using your honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness against you

They are just as addicted to taking your energy as they were to alcohol. They will continue to inflate their egos at the expense of the sometimes vulnerable newcomer. Narcissists use a well-known strategy called gaslighting.It is to prevent you from discovering who they are and undermining your grip on reality.

*Gaslighting is a colloquialism loosely defined as “making someone question their own reality.”

The term may also describe a person (“gaslighter”) who effectively puts forth a false narrative. It leads another person or a group of people to doubt their own perceptions and become disoriented or distressed.

This dynamic is generally only possible when the audience is vulnerable, such as in unequal power relationships. This is also true when the audience fears the loss of challenging the false narrative.

(Paraphrased from Wikipedia)

Dr. Silkowrth: The doctor’s opinion

The first chapter of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is called The doctor’s opinion. Dr. Silkworth worked for many years with alcoholics. He makes an astonishing observation about the pathology of the alcoholic illness:

“They cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false.”

BB P. XXV111

The good doctor presents this as part of the alcoholic’s distorted perception of reality. Can you imagine the damage caused when a vulnerable newcomer falls into the hands of a sponsor with NPD?

Gaslighting may condemn the vulnerable newcomer to begin questioning their sanity. They may believe everything the sponsor tells them is the truth. This hypnotic trance inflicted by a sponsor with narcissism may continue until the sponsee gets significantly harmed. 

Breaking the influence of a narcissist

Let’s make no mistake. Alcoholics with coexisting NPD are sick and dangerous people. It can be very damaging to ask one to be your sponsor. The sponsee eventually realizes that they have been tricked and used. Some people may even to seek outside professional help. They may neeed to be professionaly de-programed as victims of narcissits are sometimes left feeling traumatized.

Once again, returning to the statement made by Dr. Silkworth in the doctor’s opinion. Recovery from the effects of working with a narcissistic sponsor may involve separating ‘the false’ from ‘the true’! (BB P. XXV111) Narcissistic Gaslighting may leave a sponsee even more bewildered. They may walk away from a narcissist believing ‘the false‘ and doubting ‘the true.‘ (BB p. XXVIII)

Narcissists in AA that create splinter groups

Many organizations worldwide are involved in facilitating personal growth and spiritual development. On the whole, these organizations offer encouragement, support, and direction. They exist to help people find healing and meaning in their lives.

These are often perfect hunting grounds for narcissists. It is by setting themselves up as leaders that they are most able to obtain their narcissistic supply. People who come to these organizations are searching for hope and happiness. They will do anything to improve their lives thus making them especially vulnerable to narcissistic predators. Twelve-step programs are no exception.

Across the world, splinter groups form in 12-step fellowships. They offer a fundamentalist and rigid interpretation of the twelve steps. This requires the newcomers’ unconditional surrender. Then, total compliance with the direction provided and expected.

Narcissists do not always infiltrate fundamentalist groups, but some do. One or more charismatic leaders create them. These groups have all the hallmarks of a cult. They do not offer genuine spiritual growth. Nor do they facilitate spiritual healing.

In conclusion

This blog aims to increase the awareness of newcomers who arrive in AA. The hope is that they will understand that when asking for help, a healthy and informed choice is essential.

As mentioned, newly sober alcoholics are often desperate. They can be reckless, impatient, and impulsive when asking for help. It is my hope that newcomers develop enough awareness to avoid them.

When looking for a sponsor, the most desirable qualities to have, are patience, a healthy intuition, discernment, and good judgment.

“Our next problem will be to discover the person we are to confide in. Here, we ought to take much care, remembering that prudence is a virtue which carries a high rating.”

(12&12 ps. 60/61

In fellowship

Andy F

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