Are Addictive Personalities an Old Wives’ Tale?

Have you ever listed your personality as a risk factor on a medical form?

For that matter, ask yourself this: Where does your personality live?

Not philosophically – medically. Not your spirit, your soul, or your gut. 

Rather, what we consider our “personalities” really lives in the brain. The collection of all of the things that make up our consciousness is actually electricity, hormones, neurons, and other biological functions.

So why do we imagine that personalities can contain the propensity for addiction?

Especially when we know that addiction changes the brain. Through the lens of the addictive personality myth, which came first – the brain changes or the addiction? 

While we may consider the idea of an “addictive personality” to be a helpful shortcut to predict or explain addiction, it can actually cause quite a bit of harm.

In a lot of ways, this myth is fading into iniquity in the same way that other disorders which were once labeled character defects are losing their insulting edge. (Homosexuality, “hysteria” in women, autism and its symptoms, etc.)

But more than the insult, it’s the cognitive dissonance that begs our attention. If addiction is a predetermined result of a fundamental flaw in your make-up, how can you seek help for the addiction without seeking to change who you are?

You don’t have to. 

Let’s expose some of the harm this myth can cause…

How Addictive Personalities Hurt the Addicted

What are the traits of an “addictive personality”?

Well… they’re not great…

Impulsivity. Inability to adhere to commitments. Thrill-seeking and danger-hunting. Manipulative. Deceitful. Selfish. Easily distracted. Irresponsible. Unreliable. Obsessed with attention. 

Yikes.

Imagine you’ve developed an addiction – to a drug, an activity, or anything else. 

Was it because of the flaws in your personality? Did you create the flaws in your personality by having an addiction? And if this is what you’re really like, are you worth saving – is it worth it to eliminate addiction from your life?

Now, it’s important to note that the list of traits associated with addictive personalities didn’t materialize out of nothing. 

But we have to retriangulate our understanding by shifting the angle from which we’re looking. 

These traits are often prevalent in personality disorders – like antisocial or bipolar – which can raise the risk for addiction. 

So the relationship between those traits and addiction are less cause and effect…

And more indicative of deeper and more complex brain mechanisms at work ,which then increase the likelihood that you’ll cope with external forces or have lower regard for your own wellbeing.

If these traits don’t “predict” your propensity for addiction, what does?

A Better Marker For Addiction

Because we’re always evolving, we have to continue workshopping and updating our systems. The Alcoholics Anonymous model – which is partially responsible for the inaccurate list of traits the addicts exhibit – helped a lot of people at a time when nothing much else was. 

But now that we know that “addictive personalities” can perpetuate ideas like…

  • Not being able to change the course of your life no matter what you do because it’s in your nature
  • Assuming those traits are indelible parts of your personality just because you have an addiction, rather than expressions of addiction and personality disorders…
  • Believing your relationship to something isn’t addictive if you aren’t manipulative, dishonest, unreliable, etc.
  • Thinking you’re unable to overcome addiction because of an inherent weakness.

Instead, there are much better metrics by which we can become aware of addictions, or be careful of their development.

Better markers for addiction can be…

  • Genes: Genetics accounts for between 40 and 60% of your addiction risk – as in, if members of your family also have addictions. 
  • Childhood trauma: Neglect, abuse, narcissism, manipulation, and early care-taking are all common factors in later abuse development. Remember, many addictions begin recreationally, and at times when our brains aren’t fully developed (think teenage years.) A chaotic home life can advance a person’s trajectory into addiction.
  • Environmental factors: If addictions were featured regularly in the world around a person, then the barrier for entry becomes lower. You’ve seen people live through them, live with them, overcome them, succumb to them – and the world kept turning.

Signs of addiction aren’t as simple as “being selfish.”

Really, you should start to worry about your relationship to a substance or an activity if…

  • You don’t keep promises to yourself regarding your usage.
  • You can acknowledge the negative effects on your life and still effect no change.
  • Your tolerance has increased over time.
  • Your relationships and life-function are suffering because of it.
  • Your reaction to outreach is hostile or defensive.

But remember…

You can exhibit all of the traits of an “addictive personality” without being an addict…

And you can be an addict without exhibiting any of those traits. 

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