“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.”
~ Dr. Michael Weaver, MD, Medical Director, Center for Neurobehavioral Research on Addiction, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
The term “addictive personality” gets thrown around a lot –usually as a half-joking excuse from someone who overindulges in a relatively harmless behavior – binge-watching shows on Netflix or staying up late playing the newest smartphone game, for example.
But would it surprise you to know that for millions of Americans, their addictive personalities directly contribute to their ongoing struggles with problematic compulsive behaviors, including:
- Illicit drug abuse
- Prescription medication misuse
- Disordered eating
- Obsessive tanning
- Sexual or Pornography addiction
- Internet or Video game addiction
And many, many, others…
Let’s take a closer look at this overused, yet poorly-understood psychological term—what it is, how it affects you, and most importantly, how to live a manageable life if you have one.
First Things First – What Is an “Addictive Personality”?
“If we can better identify the personality factors, they can help us devise better treatment and can open up new strategies to intervene and break the patterns of addiction.”
~ Dr. Alan R. Lang, Department of Psychology, Florida State University
It may surprise you to learn that there is no actual medical diagnosis describing a specific personality type that is at greater risk of addiction. However, many experts believe that there is a set of personality traits that can predispose an individual to various addictions, including legitimate medical conditions such as Substance Use Disorder (SUD).
In simplest terms, an addictive personality is a combination of traits that help explain why some people can avoid getting hooked, while others completely lose control and suffer through unmanageable lives ruled by compulsive substance use and behaviors.
The Four A’s of Addictive Personalities
Almost everyone plays the “IF” game – “If I do/get/achieve THIS, then I will finally feel THAT.” But people with addictive personalities have a seemingly-endless list of if/then scenarios:
- “If I get this promotion/make more money, then I will finally be happy.”
- “If I buy this new car/house, I will be satisfied.”
- “If my spouse/partner/child does THIS, I will feel loved.
- “If I get drunk or high, I won’t feel so angry/sad/scared.”
Among certain people with compulsive personalities, this not-quite-a-game manifests as a constant obsession with the “Four A’s”:
- Achievement (Goals)—The satisfaction quickly fades.
- Acquisition (Things)—The shine of new things soon dulls.
- Approval (Love)—Conditional love is never enough.
- Accomplishment (Building)—Progress for its own sake is empty.
The theme is consistent—looking outward rarely brings inward satisfaction.
The Factors That Shape Addictive Personalities
Research has identified several significant personality factors, including:
- Impulsiveness—The tendency to act without regard to consequences.
- Sensation seeking—A willingness to constantly take risks for the sake of new experiences and feelings. This includes substance use, as well as unconventional lifestyle choices and associations.
- Noncompliance—A lack of identification with accepted social norms and values.
- Tolerance for deviance—Accepting of the rejection and violation of society’s expectations, customs, and laws.
- Social alienation—Weak or even nonexistent connections to others.
- Increased stress
- Poor coping skills
Types of Addictive Personalities
Interestingly, some studies point to three seemingly-distinct personality pathways that can lead to addiction:
- Boldness/Impulsivity/Sensation Seeking: Found most often among males. People with these traits find it hard to control their behaviors.
- Anxiety/Sadness/Inhibition: Found most often among females. People with these traits tend to self-medicate with intoxicants to cope with painful emotions or memories.
- A Combination of the other two—Individuals may be reckless and impulsive, yet at the same time, fearful of their established routines. Out of anxiety, they may meticulously plan many aspects of their lives, but show a paradoxical lack of restraint in other areas.
But in actuality, there may not be much of a paradox at all. Each personality pathway to addiction is possibly a manifestation of the same underlying issue – a problem with self-regulation.
On one hand, this problem may manifest as an inability to resist strong impulses—drug or alcohol cravings, for example.
But on the other hand, it may also present as a difficulty in processing negative emotions such as fear or sadness, leading to self-medication.
This helps explain why seemingly-opposite character traits are evident during the development of a SUD—disinhibition and recklessness AND obsession and compulsion.
Can an Addictive Personality Ever be a Good Thing?
Surprisingly, certain addictive personality traits can contribute to being a good leader. While at first glance, this might seem contradictory, the truth is that many pioneering leaders are also risk-takers who are never satisfied with the status quo.
There is a long list of people who were innovators and leaders in their chosen fields, even while they battled addictive disorders:
- Buzz Aldrin (alcohol)—astronaut, 2nd man to walk on the moon
- Marion Barry (crack cocaine)—Mayor of the District of Columbia
- Lenny Bruce (heroin)—groundbreaking comedian
- George W. Bush (alcohol)—43rd US President
- Ray Charles (heroin)—singer/songwriter and musician known as “The Genius”
- Kurt Cobain (heroin)—musician, pioneer of the “grunge” movement
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge (opium)—English poet
- Sir Anthony Eden (amphetamines) – British Prime Minister
- F. Scott Fitzgerald (alcohol) – one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century
- Brett Favre (alcohol and painkillers) – NFL Hall of Fame quarterback
- Mark Foley (alcohol)—US Representative
- Betty Ford (alcohol and painkillers) – US First Lady
- Judy Garland (barbiturates and morphine) – iconic American entertainer
- Sir John Paul Getty Jr. (heroin)—billionaire philanthropist
- Dwight Gooden (alcohol and cocaine)—Triple Crown-winning baseball pitcher
- Ulysses S. Grant (alcohol) – 18th US president
- Michael Jackson (painkillers)—global entertainment icon dubbed the “King of Pop”
- Stephen King (marijuana, tranquilizers, cocaine, and alcohol)—best-selling author
- John F. Kennedy (amphetamines) – 35th US president
- Ted Kennedy (alcohol)—US Senator who served 47 years
- Ray Kroc (alcohol)—businessman behind the McDonald’s chain
- Pat O’Brian (alcohol and cocaine), sportscaster and TV personality
- Franklin Pierce (alcohol) – 14th US president
- Jackson Pollock (alcohol) – influential abstract expressions painter
- Oliver Stone (cocaine)—Academy Award-winning director
- Al Unser Jr. (alcohol)—Indianapolis 500-winning race car driver
- Martin Van Buren (alcohol)—8th US President, nicknamed “Blue Whiskey Van”
- Hank Williams (alcohol and painkillers) – the “King of Country Music”
- Robin Williams (alcohol and cocaine)—actor and comedian
- Tiger Woods (painkillers)—record-setting professional golfer
The Biology of Addictive Personalities
There is a biological reason for this concurrence.
As any gambling addict can tell you, the pleasure circuits of the brain can be activated by high-risk, high-reward opportunities – even if the risk does not pay off in the end. This is why compulsive gamblers are attracted to the activity, rather than their winnings – the draw of the next card, the spin of the roulette wheel, the placing of the bet, etc.
Leaders and innovators parlay their need for sensation-seeking into new creations, better opportunities, higher personal standards, and advancements of their personal goals.
But most people with addiction-driven personalities are instead controlled by their compulsions. Any positives they realize are outweighed by the mounting negative consequences of their substance abuse and/or dysfunctional behaviors.
In fact, a person with a gambling problem can win a large jackpot, and instead of enjoying their good fortune, they turn around and bet it all again.
Because the risky activity IS part of the reward.
The human brain is hardwired to activate pleasure pathways when unpredictable rewards are presented, and a surge of dopamine is triggered. Dopamine is the body’s “feel-good” neurotransmitter, associated with reward, pleasure, learning, and motivation.
In short, a person performs some “positive” activity – sex or eating, for example – and are subsequently rewarded with pleasurable sensations. Over time, they learn to associate the action with the reward and are motivated – consciously and unconsciously – to repeat the action.
This helps explain why some addictive personalities are driven to succeed.
The Difference for Addicts
But there are two key considerations when it comes to people with SUDs.
FIRST, alcohol and psychoactive drugs don’t just prompt a release of dopamine – they trigger a MASSIVE surge of intense pleasure. There is a measurable comparison. For example, researchers at UCLA determined that orgasm releases 200 units of dopamine.
But among addictive substances, the dopamine spike can be much, much higher:
- Morphine – 100-150 units
- Alcohol – 100-200 units
- Nicotine – 100-225 units
- Cocaine – 100-350 units
- Methamphetamine – up to 1250 units
Dr. Richard Rawson, Ph.D., an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, describes it perfectly, saying:
“This produces an extreme peak of euphoria that people describe as something like they’ve never experienced, and they probably never have experienced before because the brain really isn’t made to do this. And that’s why people will be attracted to it and want to take it over and over and over again.”
SECOND, the latest evidence indicates that while addicts may want these pleasurable sensations more than other people, they actually enjoy them less, because of a blunted response to reward.
The artificially-elevated dopamine levels resulting from chronic substance abuse eventually impairs the body’s reward system. A habitual user will develop a tolerance to their drug of choice, meaning they will need ever-increasing amounts in order to experience the same pleasurable effects.
But over time and with chronic abuse, natural dopamine production slows or even stops completely. This means that an addicted person will be unable to experience pleasure – or even feel normal – unless they are under the effects of the drug.
This disruption of the reward system is what drives addiction, causes drug cravings, and triggers withdrawal symptoms.
Addictive Thinking and the Addictive Personality
One of the first things a person new to recovery learns is that there is no cure for addiction. It is important to keep this in mind when dealing with the effect of personality factors.
Of special relevance, while it is possible to break free from the physical compulsion to use substances, it is much harder to break free from the psychological need. And it takes an even greater effort to adopt lifestyle changes that support long-term sobriety – not just new ways of doing things, but also new ways of feeling and thinking about them.
Craig Nakken, author of Addictive Thinking and the Addictive Personality, writes, “The Addict side of the personality is very important for recovering addicts to understand because it will stay with them for life. On some level, the Addict will always be searching for an object or some type of event with which to form an addictive relationship. On some level, this personality will always want to give the person the illusion that there is an object or event that can nurture him or her.”
Addiction has sometimes been referred to as a disease of dissatisfaction, because the person is always searching for what’s NEXT – the next drunk, the next high, the next sexual encounter, the next bet – in the hopes that they will finally find satisfaction.
How an Addictive Personality Can Disrupt Your Life
But addiction doesn’t work that way.
In fact, because it is a progressive disease that always worsens without direct intervention, addiction isn’t even satisfied when it takes everything you have – your job, your home, your relationships, and ultimately, your life.
As evidence of this, researchers at the Medical University of Vienna were able to contact addictive cravings within the brain even after death.
But even before a SUD is fully developed, a person with addictive traits can still have their life disrupted:
- Impulsivity can lead to risky behaviors and negative consequences.
- Constant sensation-seeking can lead to boredom, dissatisfaction, and a need to repeatedly and dangerously “push the envelope” in order to receive (temporary) gratification.
- Noncompliance with accepted rules and values results in personal, professional, and legal difficulties.
- A tolerance for deviance can lead to unhealthy associations and relationships.
- Social alienation causes loneliness and depression.
- Increased stress without a healthy outlet can severely impact physical and mental health.
- A lack of healthy coping skills directly influences other, less healthy choices.
Getting Help for An Addictive Personality
It is important to understand that the treatment for an addiction differs from that receive for an addictive personality, although they are related.
The best addiction treatment programs are abstinence-based. It is understood that an addicted person’s brain has been so profoundly and permanently changed that they are forever vulnerable to intoxicating substances – for the rest of their life. For that reason, the use of alcohol or ANY psychoactive substance is considered contrary to successful recovery.
However, recovery from an addictive personality focuses on moderation, rather than excess, with a goal of achieving a balance between healthy desire and obsession. Behavioral therapy is a commonly-employed strategy that can help the person develop new behaviors and thought patterns.
Significantly, one of the best ways to support continued recovery and prevent relapse is to focus on both maintaining abstinence AND working on problematic addictive personality traits.
Here’s the bottom line – while the BAD news is an addictive personality does put a person at higher risk of problematic substance use, the GOOD news is that with timely intervention and evidence-based treatment, those traits can be modified to support a return to sobriety.