One of the most overused words I hear thrown around today — outshining even “existential” and “praxis”, perhaps. In many cases, though, as it was famously said: “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Those who favor hyperbole often label all sorts of people as narcissists, accurately or not. They’ll generally apply this term to anyone acting selfish, but at times anyone acting in their own interests — instead of the interests of the one doing the labeling (who’s the narcissist now?). A narcissist is someone who has a lot of self interest, sure. But it’s defined as having excessive self-interest – and that’s a very subjective thing.

There seems to be a general upward trend in the term’s use: per Google Trends, searches for “narcissist” have increased six-fold over the last ten years. The topic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (first codified in 1980) has increased three-fold in that same time period. “Narcissism” hasn’t become more popular at all.

Why could this be? Is it because “narcissist” and “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” are labels we can place on others, while “narcissism” is a concept we’d have to learn about and understand? Do we care less about what it is and more about its use as an insult? Has it become the default term for “you’re being selfish but selfish isn’t a strong enough word for what I’m feeling here”?

And what does this have to do with addiction and recovery?

If you’re reading this, posted on a recovery site, you’re probably familiar with addiction. As such, you likely understand that there’s a component of selfish behavior to it. Many of us reached the point at which whatever substance we abused — be it drugs, alcohol, food, or something else entirely — became primary in our lives. It didn’t matter what we had to do to consume it, it didn’t matter who we had to disappoint to further that consumption, and it didn’t matter who we had to betray to hide how seriously addicted we were.

There may be an argument for the use of addictive substances being inherently selfish; it can certainly make you exhibit selfish behaviors. This doesn’t make the addict, alcoholic, or over-eater a narcissist, though. Selfish behavior is a symptom of the disease. While it’s true that the substances we become addicted to often provided some form of pleasure to begin with, our inability to control our use — and how that affects our lives — is a hallmark of our illness.

They say that recovery is selfish. Sure, it’s self-serving. Sure, it’s self-improvement. And yes, we have to be selfish about it sometimes. It has to come first. If we aren’t working on our recovery, we can’t work on anything else. We’re no good to our friends, our families, our communities or our employers if we’re drinking or using — we’re only good to the substances we’re abusing.

None of this gives anyone license to label someone, addict or not, in recovery or not, a narcissist. It’s a fun word, I get it. It’s got some interesting etymology, it’s inspired by a mythological figure, it rhymes with a lot of stuff. But it doesn’t apply nearly as often as it’s used.

Beyond that, it’s important to note that many – most, even – of us feel a lot of things a narcissist doesn’t: regret, shame, remorse, guilt. Central to 12-step programs are the recognition of our faults, cataloging of our wrong-doings, and an attempt to make those things right. A narcissist wouldn’t even consider this; they wouldn’t understand why it was important, or if they did, they certainly wouldn’t care.

All of your exes aren’t narcissists. The guy who cut you off in traffic is not a narcissist. Your friend on Facebook that likes to post vacation photos is not a narcissist. And, to restate the point of this thing, addicts are not all narcissists.

I’m sure there are some addicts who are narcissists. It’s not as if actual narcissists try to avoid hedonistic (am I being hyperbolic now?) endeavors But remember: all squares are rectangles, not all rectangles are squares.

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