John smokes pot every night to relax. Jenny starts eating compulsively the moment she comes home from work. Every time Linda enters a drug store, she steals something, whether or not she needs it. Rather than spending weekends at home with his family, Bob drives to the nearby casino and spends his hard-earned salary playing blackjack.
What do these people have in common? They may have addictive personalities that make them more vulnerable to self-destructive, compulsive behaviors.
People become addicted to all sorts of things, from drugs, alcohol, shoplifting, and gambling, to video games, pornography, and even chocolate. Do they all have certain personality traits or experiences that make them more susceptible to addiction? Some experts say yes, but some say addiction is far too complicated to generalize a single set of characteristics that lead to these destructive behaviors.
Addictive Personality Traits
Human beings are a diverse group. While some people lose control around alcohol, others can drink recreationally a couple nights a week without developing any form of dependency. Different drugs fulfill different needs for different people. As such, it is impossible to create a comprehensive definition of an addictive personality that covers all the varieties of people and addictions.
However, different types of addicts do share some common traits. Although the concept is highly debated in medical and psychology circles, some experts believe addictive personality encompasses a distinct set of psychological traits that predispose particular individuals to addictions. Addictive personality factors may include:
Antisocial personality – People who alienate themselves socially and value nonconformity with the goals or beliefs of society may be more likely to struggle with addiction. Feelings of isolation and lack of intimacy may encourage people to turn to drugs or alcohol as a substitute for their lack of personal relationships or to feel at ease in social situations.
Low distress tolerance – Poor stress management skills or a lack of coping skills may make people more likely to turn to drugs, alcohol, or other addictions to manage their emotions.
Difficulty delaying gratification – Addictive personalities have difficulty planning and achieving long-term goals because they are focused on the short term. They may exhibit impulsive behavior or a disposition toward sensation seeking, and often see drugs or alcohol as a “quick fix” to solve life’s problems.
Compulsive behavior – People with addictive personalities struggle to enjoy drugs, alcohol, or other pleasurable activities in moderation. Instead, they see things as black or white and take an all-or-nothing approach to life. They are either perfect, or a failure; completely in control, or utterly powerless. People who feel compelled to engage in harmful behaviors over and over again, or feel powerless to stop, may have a propensity toward addiction.
Substituting vices – People with addictive personalities tend to switch to other enjoyable activities when deprived of the opportunity to participate in the original addiction. This is why members of Alcoholics Anonymous often take up smoking, and people who recently quit smoking chew gum incessantly. They also may have a tendency toward multiple vices, such as an overeater who self-medicates with drugs to numb the shame and disappointment, or a workaholic who turns to alcohol to relax at night.
Insecurity – Compulsive behaviors often mask insecurity or a fear of failure. People who have difficulty making commitments or fostering trusting relationships, or who constantly seek the approval of others may be prone to using an addiction to gain a sense of belonging or self-confidence.
Depression – Individuals who experience anxiety or depression are more likely to develop addictions as a way of managing their painful emotions. They have trouble coping so they turn to drugs, alcohol, or other pleasurable activities to avoid facing the real issues.
In addition, abuse or trauma in childhood, profound inconsistencies in parenting, or deprivation or overindulgence early in life may be indicators of addiction. People who are receiving treatment for other mental health conditions, such as depression, attention deficit disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, may be at a greater risk for problems with addiction.
Making Healthy Choices
According to Dr. Lee Jampolsky, author of Healing the Addictive Personality, we all have the propensity to engage in behaviors that help us avoid pain and suffering, and most of us have, at some point, looked outside of ourselves to find happiness. We all fall somewhere on the continuum of addictive personality and are prone to addiction, some more than others, so we must constantly assess our thought processes and work to adopt a better way of life.
Lawrence J. Hatterer, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Cornell University Medical College wrote in his book The Pleasure Addicts that “Addictive behavior has invaded every aspect of American life today. We all feel the cloud of concern about becoming addictive – preoccupation with weight, smoking, drinking too much, or being caught in an excess of spending, acquiring, gambling, sex or work.”
Now that we know what the addictive personality looks like, what do we know about the “non-addict” profile? According to Dr. Robert B. Millman, director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Service at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic at the New York Hospital, non-addicts are “those people who have strong families, often with religious backgrounds and who have good social relations.” With these healthy traits in mind, one area in which those with addictive personalities can improve is in cultivating strong bonds with family and friends.
Addiction is a product of the complex interplay between social, psychological, and physiological factors that scientists are constantly striving to better understand. If we can identify the personality factors, we can devise better treatment and interventions to break the patterns of addiction.
If you recognize the signs of an addictive personality in yourself, you are not alone. But an addictive personality doesn’t mean you’re destined to develop a problem with addiction. By becoming aware of your personal tendencies and the dangers of addiction, people with these personality traits can take affirmative steps to make healthier life choices.