Those who suffer from substance use disorder often experience any number of cross-addictions. Many will find themselves addicted to multiple substances at once. Others may struggle to regulate behaviors such as eating, gambling, shopping, or sex. These latter cases, whether considered “addictions” in the traditional sense or not, often give rise to the concept of the addictive personality.
We even see the addictive personality manifest in recovery. Someone gives up drugs and alcohol, only to replace these compulsions by obsessively focusing on other behaviors. Seemingly healthy pursuits such as exercise and career quickly spiral out of control. The consequences will not immediately seem as bad as those previously suffered when engaging in substance abuse; however, they will eventually take their toll. Misery ensues, and relapse may quickly follow.
Before continuing, we must make a quick caveat: the addictive personality is not a strictly definable archetype. The all-too-common stereotype of the “typical junkie” is not one we wish to perpetuate here. We have seen other articles on this topic list among their proposed personality traits such stigmatized generalizations as anger control issues, lack of hygiene, paranoid delusions and a penchant for criminal behavior. While many substance users may identify with these traits, they do not apply to all.
Even two of the three traits selected for inclusion in this discussion do not apply to all addicts and alcoholics. Among the roughly 10-15% of Americans believed to exhibit addictive personalities, you will find no shortage of diversity. Yet while an addictive personality does not exist in any strict archetypal sense, some traits do prove more common than others. Before addressing these, however, it may help to examine how a wide range of factors can result in the same disease.
How the Addictive Personality Develops
It has long been accepted that our genes play a role in the development of addiction. Those who purchase DNA tests through the Human Genome Project can even determine whether they are at risk. And a 2009 study indicates that our genes even determine risk factors for specific substances such as alcohol or cigarettes. Experts suggest genetic factors may influence our likelihood of developing substance use disorders by about 50%, give or take. Of course, while certainly significant, this percentage still indicates that other factors must play a role as well.
One significant factor is environment. Some may turn to addiction in order to numb the pain of adverse childhood experiences or other major traumas. Our social network also plays a significant factor. Those who associate with heavy drinkers or drug users obviously stand a higher chance of developing addictive traits. After all, even those with genetic predispositions cannot develop chemical dependency without first encountering exposure to the substance in question.
A wide range of other factors may play a role. Injuries and chronic pain naturally increase the risk of opioid addiction. Mental and emotional disorders such as depression, anxiety or PTSD may lead to self-medication. But while many factors may result in addiction, none of these answers the broader question of the addictive personality. Because while there are generally accepted diagnostic standards for addiction, the addictive personality is a different story. It even says as much on WebMD. According to Dr. Michael Weaver of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston:
“Addictive personality is not an actual psychiatric diagnosis. Personalities are very complex, and while there’s not one specific type that’s more prone to addiction than others, there are several factors that can combine to make you more likely to become addicted.”
The lack of clear diagnosis makes it easier for people to co-opt the term for whimsical purposes. Some use the concept of the addictive personality to explain behaviors such as a mild tendency toward clingy romantic attachments, or even a weakness for freemium mobile games. When used in jest, the term seems to inadvertently class debilitating substance addictions in the same category as far more innocuous proclivities. This sometimes frustrates addicts and alcoholics who feel that others are making light of their struggles.
But maybe we shouldn’t rush to judgment. Substance users are not the only human beings with a void to fill. Just as those with genetic predispositions do not always develop substance use disorders, perhaps those who attribute seemingly frivolous behaviors to an addictive personality are actually touching upon a greater truth than we realize. Anyone who believes they might have an addictive personality, whether manifested in a love for alcohol or simply the inability to go more than two hours without using Snapchat, should keep an eye out for any combination of the following traits.
Trait #1: Recklessly Bold and Impulsive
The first addictive personality trait revolves around the search for new thrills and sensations. To these individuals, being human is boring—literally anybody can do it. Plagued by an itch that the mundanities of everyday life cannot scratch, sensation-seekers endlessly quest for new experiences. In some cases, this stems from a high dopamine tolerance resulting in anhedonia—the inability to feel pleasure. A 1999 study shows that such individuals, with high susceptibility to boredom, will often find themselves at much greater risk of developing addictive behaviors.
Not all fun-seekers suffer from anhedonia. Sometimes, those who exhibit this addictive personality trait simply lack impulse control. Strong levels of disinhibition result in the unrelenting need to seek excitement. The impulsive substance user is the person who stays out late to party the night before an early workday or a college exam. Those who exhibit this trait rarely take time to think about the potential consequences, leading to missed obligations when the urge to use hits them at precisely the wrong time.
As tolerance increases, the thrill-seeker will require more of their chosen substance. Many will constantly chase their first high, experiencing increased frustration as they fail to recapture that initial sensation. Early sobriety proves challenging for them, as the tedium of life in an unaltered state feels nearly overwhelming.
Those who become addicted to the lifestyle more than the drugs themselves will often fit into this category. They are most at risk of violating the law, engaging in risky sexual behaviors, or just generally finding themselves in dangerous situations. Anyone exhibiting this trait must factor boredom into their relapse prevention plan if they wish to maintain their recovery successfully.
Trait #2: Disconnected from the World
On the other side of the scale from the thrill-seekers, many addicts suffer from a strong external locus of control. This means they often lack feelings of autonomy, feeling like victims of the world rather than participants in it. Many who exhibit this addictive personality trait may also suffer depression, anxiety, loneliness and a heightened sense of stress. Unlike sensation-seekers, who often exhibit qualities of rebelliousness and nonconformity, the detached addict very much wants to join the crowd. They simply don’t know how. Quite often, they’ll tell you that substance abuse is the only thing that makes them feel capable of socializing.
Detachment does not always lead to explicitly negative emotions. Sometimes, it results in sheer apathy. They may recognize that substance abuse has caused them harm, yet find it difficult to care. It can be hard to tell in some cases whether this is true apathy, or simply extreme depression manifesting itself through intentional self-destruction.
Either way, those who exhibit this particular addictive personality trait often feel incapable of change. They engage in psychological “splitting,” amplifying their negative beliefs and disregarding the positive ones. This is not to say that they do not recognize their positive qualities, simply that they do not value them. Any strengths they may possess seem meaningless in the light of their weaknesses. They believe that, were their strengths of real value, their negative attributes would simply vanish.
In Willpower’s Not Enough: Recovering from Addictions of Every Kind, authors Arnold Washton and Donna Boundy define this type of all-or-nothing self-concept as the “addictive belief system.” One may harbor perfectionist ideals, which only serve to enhance their innate sense of self-doubt. This unfortunate combination results in a maladaptive, defeatist attitude that worsens as the addict resigns themselves to a life of substance abuse.
Trait #3: Severe Lack of Self-Regulation
While the above two traits seem almost direct opposites, Scientific American notes they generally share a third trait in common: the inability to self-regulate.
Since we discussed impulsive behavior above, we should briefly address the difference between the two. An addict or alcoholic might not always be impulsive, in the sense that many can put off using when the situation absolutely calls for it. But once they begin, most find it difficult to stop. Rare is the alcoholic who lacks the impulse control to put off drinking, yet maintains the self-regulation to pour one glass of wine before neatly tucking the bottle back in the cellar.
One reason for this shared trait of the addictive personality is that, while the traits above differ greatly in terms of thoughts and behaviors, both still give way to the same cycle. Whether seeking thrills or a respite from detachment, the user eventually experiences a rise in tolerance. They must use more to get the same feelings that drew them to substance use in the first place. And since drugs and alcohol lower inhibitions, they will not easily locate their “off” switch—even if some part of them realizes they’re overdoing it.
A 1983 New York Times article notes a study by Dr. Charles P. O’Brien, which covered a wide array of chronic behaviors ranging from substance abuse to binge-watching television:
“Dr. O’Brien said that people in all these addictions progressively needed greater quantities of stimulation to satisfy their needs and developed symptoms of withdrawal when deprived of the addictive activity. He also noted that addicts to one activity would often switch to another when deprived of opportunity to participate in the original addiction.”
This underscores the common nature of this addictive personality trait. It also highlights the futility of attempting to recover from addiction while leaving this trait unresolved.
Recovering from the Addictive Personality
While poor self-regulation certainly appears to be the most common of the addictive personality traits discussed, even this does not necessarily apply to all. Some addicts or alcoholics will maintain a certain level of consistency in the amount they use every time. But this does not mean they aren’t still using for the purposes of seeking outside sensations or overcoming a feeling of disconnection. Furthermore, many other traits not discussed here may factor into the addictive personality. Nonetheless, these three form some of the most commonplace and easily identifiable characteristics seen in chronic substance users.
Those who suffer from the above addictive personality traits will not immediately overcome these core attributes simply by ceasing to use their substance of choice. But the more work we do in overcoming our addictive personality, the more easily we may set aside our addiction and embrace a more balanced lifestyle. The road to recovery is paved with opportunities for self-discovery and radical change.
At Amethyst, we help clients overcome their addictive personality through a mix of goal-oriented behavioral therapy, education, and holistic tools that assist in the development of inner peace. To learn more about our approach to overcoming the above traits, contact us today for information on our many program features.