When left unaddressed, terminal uniqueness can impede the recovery process.

There are many obstacles to recovery. Several of these obstacles involve psychological hindrances, such as shame, guilt or denial. It’s easy for people with a substance use disorder to feel alone and isolated. While a person is dealing with these negative feelings, the only way out is to gain clarity about his or her addiction. This clarity is made almost impossible by one barrier to recovery called “terminal uniqueness.”

What Is Terminal Uniqueness?

Terminal uniqueness is the belief that the situation a person is facing is somehow fundamentally different from the situations others have experienced. In other words, people with this condition believe that no one else has ever encountered what they are facing and therefore, no one can understand what they’re going through. Terminal uniqueness is often related to personal exceptionalism or the belief that a person is unusual, extraordinary or not like other people in some way.

Signs and Symptoms of Terminal Uniqueness

Certain phrases or defeatist statements — such as “that won’t work for me” — are indicative of terminal uniqueness. Overgeneralizing or continually using the words “no one” in explanations (e.g., “no one understands me,” “no one knows how I feel,” “no one is this bad off,” etc.) can also be signs of this psychological phenomenon.

Other symptoms of terminal uniqueness include:

  • Constant comparison to others in recovery
  • Need to prove that others are different from the person
  • Manipulative personality
  • Attention hoarding behaviors
  • The belief that his or her way of dealing with the situation is the only right way

Personal Exceptionalism and Narcissism

Personal exceptionalism closely mirrors narcissism. Narcissistic people exaggerate their self-importance. There are varying levels of narcissism. Some people exhibit only minor characteristics of an inflated self-image, while others suffer from ego so overstated that their behaviors rise to the level of a diagnosable condition called narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Men are more likely to suffer from NPD than women.

People with NPD tend to:

  • Believe they are superior to others
  • Lack empathy for others
  • Exhibit arrogant behaviors
  • Have frequent fantasies of power or success
  • Require constant attention or admiration
  • Expect specialized treatment
  • Believe others cannot understand them
  • Take advantage of others to get what they want
  • Feel jealous
  • Act defensively

How Can Terminal Uniqueness Hinder Recovery?

Terminal uniqueness is a way of thinking that can interfere with successful recovery and lead to relapse and overdose, which may be fatal. The condition allows people to defy facts and rationalize their behaviors because they believe their case is special.

Individuals with terminal uniqueness also tend to overlook moral considerations, which furthers their justification of their addiction despite the detrimental effects it has on themselves and others.

A person wishing to recover and lead a life of sobriety needs clarity. Since terminal uniqueness involves a skewed perception of reality, the person suffering from the condition is unlikely to realize the extent and destruction of their addition.

Human connection is also necessary as a part of recovery, but people with terminal uniqueness tend to isolate themselves from others. It makes sense that if someone believes that cannot be helped, they will not ask for help. This isolation reinforces their belief that they are misunderstood or different from everyone else.

Additional dangers of terminal uniqueness include:

  • False sense of security
  • Unrealized consequences of addiction
  • Me-versus-them attitude and behaviors
  • The belief that a person is worse or better than everyone else
  • Blockade to effective communication and connection
  • Unwillingness to seek help or trust in the recovery process

Overcoming Terminal Uniqueness

Becoming part of a group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or other similar recovery programs can help people suffering from terminal uniqueness. Group settings can be empowering, provide much-needed comfort and camaraderie and encourage individuals who usually wouldn’t ask for help and make use of available resources. Spending time with other people going through similar struggles also can help a person with terminal uniqueness focus on their commonalities with others rather than their differences. They may even begin to see things from other people’s perspectives.

Psychotherapy in Recovery

Sobriety is a crucial part of recovery, but it doesn’t automatically eliminate the problems, stresses or behaviors that led to drug or alcohol use. Psychotherapy is intended to help patients become more aware of the thoughts and actions that lead to addiction and the factors that may motivate them.

Often, terminal uniqueness is also addressed as a barrier to recovery. People with substance use disorders need to know they are not necessarily “special” to the extent that their natural individuality applies to their ability — or inability — to recover. Psychotherapy can also get to the root of a person’s true uniqueness as it pertains to their circumstances. In other words, rather than merely treating the substance use, psychotherapy can treat the person, based on their history, traumatic experiences, needs and fears.

The first step to recovery is finding high-quality treatment. If you or a loved one live with addiction and are ready to seek professional help, reach out to The Recovery Village today. Representatives are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to answer your questions and help you begin the treatment process.

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Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more

Garrett, Floyd P. “Obstacles to Recovery From Addiction.” Psychiatry and Wellness, 2012. Accessed February 18, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.