Dear Drama Observers,
How many times have we heard this story? A celebrity gets caught doing something despicable—a reputation-destroying deed. The public is shocked. Shortly thereafter, we hear that the celebrity has entered “rehab” and will be out of public view for awhile. They reemerge at some later point, having “recovered.” Their careers get back on track, and the despicable deed is largely forgotten.
The recovery is presumably real for some of these people but, in other cases, the only thing “rehabbed” is their reputation. Going into treatment, it turns out, was merely a shrewd business decision.
Rehab and recovery serve useful—and in some cases life-saving—purposes for the person who makes use of the process for the right reasons. But the Drama Person exploits the process for their own self-serving motivations. I’ll give you an example of narcissistic exploitation.
By all appearances, Jack (not his real name) was happily married with three children. He had a respectable career and he and his family were involved in a local church. In fact, he and his wife led one of the church’s small groups in their home.
Life was firing on all cylinders—until Jill (not her real name) found evidence of Jack’s kinky sexual fetish funded by a secret bank account Jill knew nothing about. This, she discovered, had been going on throughout their marriage of over a decade.
When confronted with her discovery, Jack was over-the-top remorseful. He cried, he apologized, he groveled, promised to change, and expressed relief that his “dirty little secret” was finally out in the open. Well, sort of. He also begged Jill to never reveal her discovery to anyone.
While Jill was sympathetic to Jack’s concern, she insisted that he seek counseling to address his issues and that refusing to do so would likely be a deal-breaker. Not wanting to lose his marriage, Jack agreed and began seeing a counselor. This counselor quickly labeled Jack’s problem as an addiction, and essential to an addict’s recovery is a 12-Step group. Jack agreed and began regular group attendance in addition to seeing his counselor on an individual basis.
Stories like this one can have hopeful outcomes for normally-wired people. But Jack’s problem had less to do with addiction and almost everything to do with narcissism. Jack had little capacity for humble self-discovery and was invested in one thing only: image repair. He desperately needed a clean, quick, and easy way to create the appearance of progress because he lacked the guts to root out the underlying causes of the problem and address them on that level.
Unwittingly, the group provided Jack exactly what he craved. While other group members were humble, transparent, and painfully self-disclosing, Jack engaged in a superficial mimicking of the correct behaviors and learned all the right things to say. And it worked. At each meeting, he received accolades for his “courage” and even earned chips for his attendance and abstinence. Praise to a narcissist is like food to a starving man. For Jack, the group had become an all-you-can-eat buffet where he regularly got his fill of ego strokes until he burped and headed for home.
Oh yeah, home… let me tell you about that. As concealed as Jack’s narcissism was in the group, it was on full display at home. Like a man living in a sewer who dons a suit found in a garbage can, he could look respectable from a distance, but his stench became detectable in up close contact. Here’s how Jack “smelled” to Jill at home:
- Jack tried every way he could to equalize the fault. “Sure, I did some bad things,” he told Jill repeatedly, “but it’s not like you’re perfect. It’s about time you turn the microscope on yourself.”
- Jack flipped the script in which he was now the group-attending, repentant “good guy” while Jill was the unforgiving and grudge-holding “bad guy.”
- Rather than making personal use of the helpful concepts learned in therapy, he weaponized them against Jill. He’d say things like, “Hey, I’m not responsible for your feelings;” “Only you can fix you;” or “I can only tend to what’s on my side of the street. You must tend to what’s on your side.”
- Jack accused Jill of the very things that were true of him. He would self-righteously scold her for being “secretive,” “controlling,” and “dishonest” and warned that her unwillingness to “address her issues” could likely end their marriage. “I just can’t continue to live like this,” Jack would often proclaim.
Of course, none of this was even remotely accurate but it made Jill feel like she was living in the Twilight Zone.
What first appeared to be a deep cleaning for Jack’s character turned out to be nothing more than a surface-level dusting. Sure, he looked better on the outside but nothing on the inside had changed. Not surprising, really, because image management is all that matters to a narcissist.
Jack’s behavior had been hidden and, when discovered, he simply developed a new form of hiding. He shrouded himself with the cloak of recovery and was now hiding in plain sight.
And if doing so cost him his family, then so be it.
Till next week.