“I have an addictive personality.”
I have heard that statement many times in my work as an addiction therapist. The term can be thrown around as if it is a diagnosis. People use the term to explain the complex reasons and often painful reasons why they use substances, engage in harmful behaviors and experience repetitive relationship woes.
The term is used to explain away so much of our behavior that it made me wonder whether or not there really is an addictive personality.
The “addictive personality” is seen as a bad one: weak, unreliable, selfish, and out of control. The temperament from which it springs is seen as defective, unable to resist temptation. Maia Szalavitz
Is there really an addictive personality?
Asking questions can be dangerous because they can make us reexamine our assumptions. Drugs and alcohol are addictive, but most people who use drugs will not experience an addiction, so how is it possible that there is one type of addictive personality? Maybe it is time to rethink our assumptions about addiction and personal factors? The answers may point to a different way to look at addiction and the many paths to recovery.
Personality types are well researched and reasonably established. The most common personality frameworks include the Meyers-Briggs and the Big Five personality traits. Neither framework mentions that one of the personality types is the addictive personality. In fact, neither does science.
Evidence points to multiple factors that make up a person’s disposition to addiction rather than an addictive personality. The factors include personal, environmental and developmental characteristics. Addiction is not the result of an addictive personality or a character disorder.
Four factors that add to a person’s vulnerability to addiction
1.Social factors – the availability and acceptability of a substance or behavior. This can include substance use, or what is termed a process addiction, where the addiction is not to a substance, but to a process of behaviors that a person will engage in repeatedly (ie: shopping, gambling, sex, exercise or internet use).
Alcohol is the most commonly available substance, and because it is legal and readily available in most countries it is also the most commonly abused substance. Substance abuse is often more about availability rather than personality.
Other forms of addiction may be surprising and they may include the use smartphones/social media/internet, caffeine and chocolate, plastic surgery and sun tanning. Not all experts agree that each of the behaviors listed can be addicting, but most experts lean towards addiction being a process rather than limited to a substance. This is because the brain will respond to compulsive internet use in very similar ways to compulsive use of cocaine or another substance.
2.Personal factors – Certain personal factors can increase a person’s vulnerability to substance use or other addictive behaviors. Personal factors include:
- Family and early environment – family instability, abuse, deprivation: abandonment or neglect, history of family substance use.
- Pre-natal environment – prenatal exposure as a result of maternal substance use.
- Gender – males can be more sensation seeking, may gravitate to disinhibition, and they may feel pressure to conform to societal messages that men need to use more heavily as a way to display their ‘maleness.’
- Deviance – addiction can be a form of rebellion, independence or a pattern of delinquent behavior. This can be one of the reasons that so many adolescents are drawn to substance use.
3.Mood and mental health – a difficulty with self-regulation of moods may make a person more likely to abuse substances. Substance use may be a form of self-medication, or relief from overwhelming moods such as anxiety or deep sadness.
- A feeling of powerlessness – a personal experience of feeling powerless, or having no control may drive a person towards substances or addictive behaviors as a way of acting to end their helplessness.
- Impulsivity – acting without thought of long-term consequences.
- Extremes of personality –
It is extremes of personality and temperament—some of which are associated with talents, not deficits—that elevates risk.Giftedness and high IQ, for instance, are linked with higher rates of illegal drug use than having average intelligence. Maia Szalavitz
4.Learning – addiction is both a learned behavior and a way of compensating for what we have not yet learned. This can include social skill deficits, mood regulation, making sense of ourselves and our strengths, and finding healthy ways to respond to setbacks and failure.
Indeed, research shows that as a behavior is learned and becomes more automatic, it engages different parts of the (brain). As a behavior moves from being a conscious choice to a habit, brain activity changes… Maia Szalavitz
So what can you do if you have an increased vulnerability to addiction?
The answer to this question is as unique as you are. Attending a program or seeking therapy may be your path. If you are dealing with a significant problem, I suggest talking to your doctor on another health professional. Seek out a specialist in addiction as they have the best experience and training to support you in your recovery.
I have two recent articles that will support you in your research and recovery.
The first is a review of how we think about addiction, The 10 Principles That Will Change How You See Recovery.
The second article is a fresh look at the 12 Step program and how there is a “Step Zero” that we often miss in our recoveries: Zero is the First Step in Your Recovery and Healing.
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Keep it Real
Photo by David Long