Addiction is hard to experience and hard for loved ones to watch, in large part because it changes people. The disorder can transform generous and empathetic loved ones into self-serving and entitled strangers, and if you’re the one suffering from addiction, you may sometimes feel as if you don’t even know yourself anymore.
What many don’t know is that some people who have substance use disorder are falling prey to what addiction expert Tom Cunningham calls King Baby Syndrome. King Baby Syndrome causes addicts to act out, complicates recovery and makes people more susceptible to addiction in the first place.
The ancient Greek myth of Narcissus tells the story of a young man named who was known for his beauty and pridefulness. After he scorned his admirer Echo so cruelly that she faded away out of despair, the gods decided to punish Narcissus and lured him to a spring to drink some water. Narcissus saw his reflection and immediately fell in love, not realising that he was looking at himself. Entranced, he couldn’t stop gazing at his reflection, but since his feelings could never be reciprocated, he died of heartbreak.
The story of Narcissus has been a touchstone in popular culture for over a millennium. Ovid popularised a version of the myth in 8 AD, Shakespeare frequently mentioned Narcissus in his poetry and the Romans depicted Narcissus in their art. But perhaps the most famous analysis of Narcissus came from famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who used the myth to illuminate his philosophies around the human psyche.
Freud argued that narcissism is useful when we are first born and must focus on our survival and development. As a normal result of learning about social conventions and rules of our society, children grow out of “primary narcissism,” as Freud called it, and adjust their expectations of themselves and others accordingly.
However, some adults never grow out of primary narcissism, and continue to exhibit the self-gratifying behaviours common in children throughout life. Freud referred to this type of person as “his majesty, the baby” in his seminal essay “On Narcissism,” which led to Cunningham’s popular King Baby Syndrome designation.
Researchers have identified two possible causes of narcissistic tendencies: childhood environment and genetics. If a child grew up in a hostile, abusive or unsafe environment, they’re more likely to exhibit King Baby Syndrome. The same is true for children who were excessively praised or who had parents who didn’t impose boundaries. More research is needed into how genetics could influence the development of narcissism, but a 2013 study showed that brain scans of narcissists showed less grey matter in the region of the brain that is associated with empathy. Dopamine deficiency could also play a part in narcissism – a lack of self-awareness is a symptom of low dopamine as well as a common trait of narcissists.
It’s important to distinguish between narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which is a condition recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Narcissism exists on a spectrum, and a healthy amount of narcissism in an individual is a good thing. Farther over on the spectrum, an overly confident person who exhibits excessively self-serving behaviours can be called a narcissist. However, for a clinical diagnosis of NPD, a patient must exhibit an extreme lack of object constancy and self-esteem disguised as overinflated self-confidence.
King Baby Syndrome certainly lies somewhere along that spectrum: many of the behaviours that identify His or Her “Majesty” are associated with narcissism, and the condition has even been called “Peter Pan Syndrome” after the childishness that characterises it.
So what exactly do Narcissus, Freud and King Baby Syndrome have to do with addiction? As it turns out, a lot. Tom Cunningham popularised the phrase King Baby Syndrome with the release of a pamphlet on the subject, published by Hazelden in 1986. He argued that people with substance use disorders are especially prone to the condition, and that King Baby Syndrome can cause addictions to be more intense and recovery more difficult.
Recognizing King Baby behaviours is important for those in recovery. Recovery is not about simply abstaining from your substance of choice, but also digging deeper to identify how you were drawn into an addiction in the first place. Learning about harmful thought patterns and behaviours helps recovering addicts to see their own behaviour more clearly and take steps to change it. Here are some common traits of King (and Queen) Babies:
Every King Baby is different, of course, but they all share a lack of personal responsibility and the childlike belief that the universe revolves around them. Lacking a solid sense of self, addicts who are King or Queen Babies will seek fulfilment from external sources, just as Narcissus did when he gazed at himself in the pond. Addiction is a way for the King Baby to mask the pain that is causing his behaviour.
It’s also important to note that King Babies aren’t bad people, but due to an untreated mental illness, history of trauma or brain chemistry imbalance, they have some learning to do about how to satisfy their needs without harming others. In his pamphlet, Cunningham uses the image of a frightened child hiding deep inside the addict suffering from King Baby Syndrome. The child is a representation of our trauma, and the King Baby will incessantly attempt to destroy the scared child by seeking approval, using substances or acquiring material things. However, the scared child is a void that cannot be filled with money or substance or any other external factor: only when the addict’s relationship with themselves is improved will they experience any sort of satisfaction.
You might be discouraged to recognise some of these behaviours in yourself, but identifying King Baby behaviour is the first step in changing it. An important part of recovery is becoming more aware of yourself and how your behaviour impacts those around you.
A big part of Cunningham’s solution was to put faith in a higher power, but even if you don’t subscribe to the Alcoholics Anonymous tenet of religion, he still had a few good recommendations for King and Queen Babies in recovery:
And most importantly, you should always seek the guidance of a therapist or medical professional to help you work through the issues that caused King Baby Syndrome in the first place. A therapist can also help you learn healthy coping skills and establish strong positive thought patterns to eradicate the control King Baby has over you.
At Siam Rehab, we believe that a person is more than just their addiction. To simply stop using a substance isn’t enough: for complete recovery, we employ a multifaceted approach that treats the whole person. We combine the 12 Steps with cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness meditation, yoga and physical fitness programs in order to heal the mind, body and spirit.
Contact us today to find out how we can help you.