Myth of the Addictive Personality

Eric Clapton - Addictive personality or just low self esteem?

The actor Colin Farrell says

“I definitely have an addictive personality”

– he succumbed not just to alcohol and drugs but to breakfast cereal Rice Krispies! He has been treated for his addictions at the Crossroads Center, a rehab clinic set up by rock guitarist Eric Clapton in Antigua.

Coincidentally, Clapton, is another celebrity who has admitted to an “addictive personality”.  He went through addictions to heroin, cocaine and alcohol. He was successfully treated for his drug addiction, but then fell into problems with alcohol.

Whilst the term “addictive personality” may be helpful to explain away an addiction, it doesn’t have any real meaning or basis in science. There is some evidence that there is a genetic predisposition to develop addictions and some personality disorders can make someone more prone to compulsive behavior.

The other problem with “addictive personality” is it suggests that someone has no control, no way of stopping the problem. It can put responsibility out of their hands. It was interesting to listen to British comedian Jim Davidson blame everyone but himself for what had gone wrong in his life – an addict to woman as well as alcohol.  As well as blaming his “addictive personality”, he blamed the press for the end of his fourth marriage following the publicizing of an affair:-

“The media did it. I wouldn’t have told her.”

Eric Clapton has referred to his very confused, tumultuous childhood – discovering his mother was actually his sister among other things. In his interview with David Frost he says:-

“…having discovered that I didn’t like who I was, that I had to go and, you know, bend myself to make myself attractive to other people. And I found that when I drank or took drugs or whatever or changed myself from the inside out that I felt I was more acceptable to other people.”

This sounds classically like someone trying to cope with low self esteem. I have no desire to dig into the pasts of Colin Farrell or Jim Davidson to see if they suffered low self esteem, but Elton John is another celebrity with well documented battles with drugs, alcohol and food.

Elton also says he has an “addictive personality”. But interestingly, Elton also talks about his harshly critical father:-

“I just thought I could never do anything right in my father’s eyes. From the word go, my earliest memory, we were awkward with each other and never knew how to communicate on a proper level as he did with his other children.

“He just intimidated me so much. I was afraid of him big-time. I used to think I could never do anything right. When he was around, I wasn’t even allowed to make a noise. I was even afraid of eating celery at the table.

“I know it knocked my self-esteem and I still suffer from that all the time. I still have terrible problems with the way I look, with my weight and stuff like that.”

Build your self esteem - but not with heroin

I‘m not going to suggest that everyone with an addiction problem has low self esteem. But having discussed the link between depression and low self esteem, I think the link with addictions is just as relevant.

Why do we engage in activities like drug taking, drinking alcohol, gambling, over indulging with food? The simple answer is to feel better, to escape the present. Whilst the longer term effects may be destructive, we learn to enjoy the short term boosts – or distractions from reality.

We cover up uncomfortable feelings with the addictive behavior and for a few brief moments, we might actually feel better. Instead, of staying with our uncomfortable feelings and dealing with them, addictive behaviors bypass what might be difficult and painful. This becomes an emotional rollercoaster.

There have been studies that back up this logical link.  A study at Florida State University found that low self-esteem and peer approval of drug use at age 11 predicted drug dependency at age 20. Professor John Taylor, one of those who carried out this 9 year study on 872 boys said:-

“Low self-esteem is kind of the spark plug for self-destructive behaviors, and drug use is one of these,” Taylor said. “It’s a fundamental need to have a good sense of self. Without it, people may become pathologically unhappy with themselves, and that can lead to some very serious problems.”

People who are unsure of themselves have trouble sustaining their relationships because their feelings get easily hurt. As I have discussed in the unhelpful thinking posts, its very easy to negatively interpret the actions or words of others.  Feeling insulted, hurt, embarrassed, and ashamed (probably without due cause) their reactions can stifle blossoming friendships.

Addiction is not always in pursuit of pleasure, it can be an attempt to drown the pain.  Being dissatisfied and  frustrated with who you  think you are and what you feel about yourself is a major problem with low self esteem. If someone starts using something as an alternative to that pain,  an individual with low self esteem doesn’t have the  will power to stand up to his or her addiction.

You can’t prove the addictive personality doesn’t exist (its very difficult to prove anything doesn’t exist!) and I’m sure that people will use it as a model to explain their addiction for years to come. But it doesn’t help deal with the addiction. Recognizing the link with low self esteem is a more useful model, not least because self esteem can be improved.

nassorn October 12, 2008 at 9:16 am

Very interesting posted.
It seem that low self esteem is related to behaviors that cause social problem widely.

Do you have any reseach on how to build up self esteem?

nassorns last blog post..What is your purpose in life.

Lance Nelson October 12, 2008 at 10:34 am

Very good post, after Piers Morgan’s interview with Jim Davidson I think he probably has been unfairly potrayed in the media. addictive personalities must encompass a huge numbers of people. Wonder if we should remove more the temptation of drugs/alcohol some more away from the young? Wonder how we were before these things were available.

Lance Nelsons last blog post..You Don’t have to be Rich to own Overseas Property

Seamus Anthony October 12, 2008 at 1:10 pm

While I certainly can’t dismiss what to me seems like a very real personal disposition to become easily addicted to both substances and behaviours, I can also easily agree that low self-esteem is likely to be at least a part of the issue. I used to hate parties because I was just so lacking in confidence – until I discovered alcohol. Fast forward twenty blurry, hyper-social years and I am now on the wagon, only to discover that despite my well practiced social bluff, I now routinely avoid social contact because I find it painful without the “social lubrication”. Anyway, great article 🙂

Bottlerocket October 12, 2008 at 5:35 pm

Great post. “Addictive Personality” is basically a description of what we see…some people do bad things in compulsive ways that defy easy explanation. However, we do know that some of these so called addictive behaviors stem from either excessive stimulus seeking tendencies…”I want to do it so bad, I just can help myself…” or excessive, fearful, stimulus avoiding tendencies…”I need to stop feeling bad, and this is the best way I can think of right now.” Ultimately, both groups need our help and compassion.

Amanda Ballenger, MA October 12, 2008 at 5:45 pm

@ Nassorn: “Do you have any reseach on how to build up self esteem?”

Unfortunately, a lot of research I’ve read in this area says that you can bolster false self-esteem, but that genuine self-esteem is something that the individual has to develop on his or her own. Perhaps cognitive-behavioral therapy might be useful in developing genuine self-esteem, but the typical, non-clinical interventions you come across (such as friends telling you how much you rock) only serve to increase artificial self-esteem.

The difference between genuine and artificial self-esteem is that genuine self-esteem is stable and improves emotional resiliency, while artificial self-esteem is fragile and tends to lead to hostility in response to perceived self-esteem threats. It’s the difference between honestly believing that you’re an OK person, and being narcissistic.

On that note, here are the citations for a few articles I found on the subject – you should be able to find them at your local college library (hopefully my text formatting will work out):

Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J, D., Krueger, J. I., Vohs, K. D., DuBois, D. L., & Tevendale, H. D. (2007). Issue 5: Applying Social Psychology: Are Self-Esteem Programs Misguided? [i]Taking sides: Clashing views in social psychology, 2nd ed.[/i] J. A. Nier, Ed. New York, NY, US: McGraw-Hill, 92-115.

Gailliot, M. T., & Baumeister, R. F. (2007). Self-esteem, belongingness, and worldview validation: Does belongingness exert a unique influence upon self-esteem? [i]Journal of Research in Personality, 41[/i](2), 327-345.

There’s a huge body of literature on this subject. If you go to your local college’s library and log into the PsychArticles or PsychINFO databases do a search for “self-esteem improvement” and “self-esteem improvement AND Baumeister” with Baumeister in the author field. You’ll find tons of relevant info. Many of the results will have linked full-text articles you can download/print.

Jimguru October 12, 2008 at 5:51 pm

A disease concept in addiction (including addictive personality ) predicts loss of control and passivity over addictions. Addicted people with self-efficacy and internal attribution are proven by research to have better outcomes than those believing they have a disease (e.g. AA ) or predisposition to addiction. Circumstances will have an effect but belief in self-efficacy will override them. Believe in yourself and keep learning from your mistakes to overcome addiction.

Joe Pike October 12, 2008 at 9:51 pm

“I have no desire to dig into the pasts of Colin Farrell or Jim Davidson to see if they suffered low self esteem”

That means, I did do the research, however it did not fit into my hypothesis.

Nassorn October 13, 2008 at 4:27 am

Amanda,

Thank you very much for your kindly respond with expand to value information.

I’ve ever been interviewed by graduate student for her thesis in social behaviors. With 2 hours personal interview with set of questions and recording our conversation, she let me know after submit her thesis that her professor evaluate that I am a kind of person who has high self esteem. I am a bit amazing.

Then I realized that because of self esteem in me, I can overcome most of hard times I faced in my life and now I live my life with happiness. More positive mind toward people and situations, less anger, more sharing, more smile, laughing like a child than I was at young.

That ‘s why I think building GENUINE self esteem should help release social problem.

Nassorns last blog post..What is your purpose in life.

David October 13, 2008 at 7:29 am

Joe – No, I really didn’t bother looking into the background of Colin Farrell nor Jim Davidson. Life’s too short! I included them simply to illustrate the widespread use of “addictive personality” as a label.

David October 13, 2008 at 7:41 am

Thank you all for your great comments.
Seamus – I can empathize, using alcohol to “enjoy” social occasions was a well established habit of mine. Whether its my age or the fact I seem to rarely find myself in social situations where alcohol is available, but seem to have moved on without consciously changing.

Seamus Anthony October 13, 2008 at 8:35 am

Try living in Australia – every day is a social situation where alcohol is available 😉

Glen October 13, 2008 at 9:20 am

Sigmund Freud noted that people who have reached a state of being “pathologically unhappy with themselves”, ultimately have a good reason to be. On the same note Mark Twain stated that “By trying we can easily learn to endure adversity. Another man’s, I mean.”, which in so far as I am able to see is how anybody who does not suffer from the affliction or compulsion of addiction is able to sit on the fence and make such cruel statements. If it doesn’t affect me it isn’t my problem, really isn’t adequate or fair to anyone except to note that indivisible thing we know to be ego.

Personality disorders can reach as far as obsessing over anything, chemical, material, spiritual, maternal, physical, meta-physical, emotional and more. With this in mind how can such a statement hold any basis for any more than chatter? Mindless or otherwise it is unfair and discouraging for any sentient being to be told that it is simply “all in your head”.

All that we are an will ever be is “in our heads and hearts”. To be heartless for the point of scratching ones head is little more than mindless masturbation.

Ned October 13, 2008 at 8:31 pm

“Whilst the term “addictive personality” may be helpful to explain away an addiction, it doesn’t have any real meaning or basis in science. There is some evidence that there is a genetic predisposition to develop addictions and some personality disorders can make someone more prone to compulsive behavior.”

The second sentence disproves the first. If there is evidence that a person has genetic predisposition to addiction, then we would say he has a addictive personality.

I don’t think you entirely comprehend the problem. It isn’t difficult to quit an addiction through one’s own will power. The difficulty is remaining sober despite one’s own best efforts. What is required is a personality change so significant that relapse becomes near impossible. You can’t change your personality until you understand that a change is required. Hence, the admission of having an addictive personality.

Do some people use that admission as an excuse to stay in addiction? Sure. Did they need an excuse? Not really. There is, however, a difference between a person who is drinking/using with or without that awareness. The latter has no way out: they are stuck in their predisposition. The former knows there is a way out, but chooses not to take it.

Neds last blog post..Change I Need

Helen October 14, 2008 at 2:12 am

I would be very interested in your take on a person (male) who freely admitted he saw himself as a victim due to abuse (physical) as a youth by a parent and the failure of 3 long term relationships whilst I was abused mentally, physically, and sexually as a child by a parent and had had two marriages end due to the controlling attitude of both husbands I still consider myself a survivor .We had a relationship but within that relationship he never once used my given name unless he was introducing me to someone. He broke it off 5 weeks after making a big deal out of committing to the relationship and while still in the relationship thought it was quite ok to spend the night at another woman’s house.
My take on it was that he was punishing women (I was not the 1st) for the other failures in his life and that if he called me by my name I became a real person with feelings that could be hurt, We met online and for weeks he called me by my screen name.At no time did he ever look at his own actions that caused or had effect on past relationships.

Amanda Ballenger, MA October 14, 2008 at 5:52 am

@ Glen:

Please correct me if my interpretation of your post is incorrect. You mention Sigmund Freud and Mark Twain, and use the term “on the fence” and say that their attitudes are “… how anybody who does not suffer from the affliction or compulsion of addiction is able…to make such cruel statements.”

Sigmund Freud was a profound addict. Regarding his own behavior using his own theory we can say that he was fixated in the oral and anal stage. He smoked 20 cigars a day for more than 50 years (and found it impossible to work without them). Ultimately he had to have his jaw removed due to cancer, but he still smoked! And he was compulsive (anal fixation) – he followed the same ritualized schedule pretty much every day.
[From Siegler, R., DeLoache, J., & Eisenberg, N. (2006). How children develop, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Worth Publishers, p. 339.]

“To cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did. I ought to know because I did it a thousand times.” ~ Mark Twain
Although Mark Twain took a rather cavalier attitude toward his addiction, he was in fact an addict. Who knows how he really felt about his niccotine addiction? He was a humorist, and tended to treat most subjects in a light-handed manner.

I agree that Freud and Twain’s comments are insensitive, and can be especially hurtful to someone coping with an addiction [I’m not making assumptions about you, Glen, I’m speaking generally here 🙂 ]. However, we cannot assume that just because someone speaks callously they do not understand what an addiction is like. In fact, to go back to Freud, it’s possible that the people who suffer the most are going to be the ones who also speak the cruelest words. Reaction formation, the defense mechanism in which anxiety-producing thoughts or feelings are replaced with their exact opposites, can often lead people who should actually be empathetic to turn into ripe bastards.

David October 14, 2008 at 7:24 am

Ned – my argument is that whilst there is a genetic disposition for, say, alcohol in the way that there is for schizophrenia or cancer, thats different to someone having personality traits that make them prone to developing any addiction. My other issue was the tendency for people to self diagnose “addictive personality” as a way of explaining away something that they perceive have no control over. I accept this argument isn’t watertight and that genetic factors may indeed lead to anxiety or depression, which could make someone more prone to using a potentially addictive behavior to self medicate.

maia berens October 14, 2008 at 11:01 pm

I would say that everyone with an “addictive personality” really does have low self-esteem. When a person regards themselves highly they only have desires to treat themselves well, they do what is healthy for them. There is a huge difference between an over inflated ego that develops when addictions are rampant and self esteem.

maia berenss last blog post..Why we all don’t have what we want

Tony October 15, 2008 at 7:27 pm

when someone has low self-esteem and self-worth they cope by getting instant fixes to make themselves feel good; whether its with drugs, alcohol, impulse shopping, gambling etc. This can be a vicious cycle as the feelings from these behaviors are fleeting and need to repeated. There is no true fulfillment there and will lead to depression. When someone says they have an addictive personality, they are shifting away their responsibility and to no longer be accountable for their behavior. This definitely doesn’t help to effectively deal with the addiction. By addressing the connection with low self esteem and addiction, then people can work to find a solution for the root cause.

Daitondimeny October 22, 2008 at 9:36 am

Personality disorders can reach as far as obsessing over anything, chemical, material, spiritual, maternal, physical, meta-physical, emotional and more. With this in mind how can such a statement hold any basis for any more than chatter? Mindless or otherwise it is unfair and discouraging for any sentient being to be told that it is simply “all in your head”.

Daitondimenys last blog post..Pet Groomers ? How To Build Your Business Online

Niccolo Svengali October 24, 2008 at 5:48 pm

I think we should look at the contents of our hearts dispassionately, and resolve to ignore the bad or evil parts. Just don’t give them your attention.

I certainaly wouldn’t recommend picking over your faults as you would at a scab. I think it just makes them worse.

If my problems can seem less after a good night’s sleep, a good meal and a brisk walk, it suggests I can overcome them easily.

RESIST the urge to indulge yourself. Get out of the house, and do works of charity for strangers.

Drug Rehab January 16, 2010 at 2:56 pm

A very well written and thought provoking post. I think that everyone has some form of addiction. The key thing is to avoid the bad addiction.

mark rieder January 17, 2010 at 5:53 pm

i find it strange to live in a world where it is ok to be addicted to dangerous life threatening behaviours such as mountain climbing, football, rockclimbing, car racing, surfing, bush walking, fishing, news reporting in war zones etc are these people suffering from low self esteem too and what gives these very same people the right to decide that smoking cannibis is dangerous. Most 2nd year biology students are taught that if you measure the concentration of any chemical in the human body that about 62% will have the concentration within “normal range” (1 standard deviation from the mean) therefor ~ 19% will have too much and ~19% will need an external supply to maintain normal metabolism. These people lack something in there life and are forced to self experiment and condemned because they make mistakes by the same people who do all the above behaviours. Explain please!

mark rieder January 17, 2010 at 11:53 pm

i find it strange to live in a world where it is ok to be addicted to dangerous life threatening behaviours such as mountain climbing, football, rockclimbing, car racing, surfing, bush walking, fishing, news reporting in war zones etc are these people suffering from low self esteem too and what gives these very same people the right to decide that smoking cannibis is dangerous. Most 2nd year biology students are taught that if you measure the concentration of any chemical in the human body that about 62% will have the concentration within “normal range” (1 standard deviation from the mean) therefor ~ 19% will have too much and ~19% will need an external supply to maintain normal metabolism. These people lack something in there life and are forced to self experiment and condemned because they make mistakes by the same people who do all the above behaviours. Explain please!

richard November 2, 2010 at 12:06 am

very very interesting post, has provided me a lot of information.

Aquarius December 17, 2010 at 5:30 am

I’m glad someone (mark r.) brought up the point that most of these ideas are relative and a result of societal influence. We as a society seem to add more and more things to the “addiction” list. I can imagine one day when any level of passion or dedication outside the normal will be called a personality fault of some sort. People seem to be deeply affected by globalization with the idea that all people are equal, which is true in some ways, but certainly not in the experiences of their lives. Can people not learn from mistakes and live an independent life without society analyzing their faults?

It always seems to come down to either competition or empathy in my perspective. Either people have an urge to put down the other person or relate to them even though it probably has nothing to do with their own life. Amazing that people believe they can interpret the complexities of the human mind in one fell swoop of categorization such as addictive behavior and low self esteem.

Science is the method of experimenting with hypotheses until a consensus of evidence agrees to something consistently that it may be called a theory, but never does it claim to be flawless and in fact some things may be outside the range of science (ie: life after death). I think the human mind will likely be the last thing science defines, if ever, and it certainly has not come to a consensus on human personality; although psychologists like to believe they “know” the explanations to human behavior. It’s one of the biggest moments in many people’s life to accept that they don’t know everything and never will….maybe it’s time to hold back convictions of how people should act and first propose hypotheses on our own lives rather than others…but I know that’s unlikely; just less arrogance, especially with regard to the lives of celebrities, would be nice.

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