Scientific studies plus anecdotal evidence collected in therapy sessions have helped uncover certain personality traits common to those who suffer from substance use disorders and other forms of addiction. Cause-and-effect relationships are not always clear, but it is safe to say these personality characteristics help support and reinforce addiction in numerous ways, both subtle and direct.
Exploring the Addiction-Personality Connection
The whole concept of the “addictive personality” is controversial. Critics charge it is too broad, overly simplistic and likely to obscure more than it explains.
As an alternative to this overarching category, some psychologists have shifted their focus to specific personality traits that may recur among people who’ve fallen victim to addiction (addictions of all types, not just to drugs and alcohol).
Studies have confirmed that such traits do in fact exist. These personality characteristics have predictive value for addiction, and when they are present they can complicate the recovery process as well.
The hazardous and potentially addictive personality traits identified include:
- Impulsivity, or a tendency to act without thinking
- Intolerance for delayed gratification
- Heightened response to stress
- Low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence
- Feeling “different,” i.e. socially alienated or isolated
- An attraction to nonconformity and a revulsion at its opposite
- Sensitivity to perceived disrespect or insult
- A low frustration threshold
While such traits are not found in all addicts, they are discovered frequently enough to suggest a real association does exist.
Do you recognize any of these traits in yourself? If so, it is important to understand how they can undermine your recovery from addiction.
If you’re a recovering addict, managing your life means learning to manage your instincts and reactions, which are forged in the cauldron of your personality. The personality traits that could steer you wrong cannot be suppressed, denied or wished away, but they don’t have to control your life, either.
Awareness, not willpower, is the key to overcoming the influence of self-destructive personality characteristics. If you understand your darker inclinations, you can develop strategies to prevent and subvert their dominance.
What follows are some suggestions for a plan of action that will reduce the role your ingrained personality traits play in your decision-making. Having such a plan is vital if you expect to win your battle with addiction.
Step #1: Dig deeper into your personality during therapy.
If you try to go it alone, you may struggle to identify the personality traits that make you susceptible to addiction. But if you broach the subject with your counselors during the rehab experience and in aftercare, they can help you plumb the depths of your own mind to uncover the truth about:
- A) Who you really are
- B) Why you’re the way you are
Just knowing that you’re impulsive, have low self-esteem, are easily stressed or have problems in social relationships will not be enough to keep you from returning to addiction, which has been your default strategy for coping. But once you become aware of your negative personality traits, the strength of their hold over you will begin to lessen, giving you an opening to attack them more aggressively.
Step #2: Keep a journal to chart your thoughts, feelings and responses.
With frankness and honesty, use your journal to track your thoughts, reactions and behavior in the days and weeks after you leave drug rehab. Write about your temptations and their triggers, and examine your thought processes and the emotional reactions you experienced during those events (this is especially important if you gave in to temptation and “fell off the wagon”).
The idea here is to identify the influence of your personality traits so you can learn to anticipate circumstances that might put your recovery from addiction at risk. If you can spot trouble coming, you’ll find it much easier to get out of its way.
Step #3: Experiment with practices that promote mindfulness.
Mindfulness is another name for expanded self-consciousness. Practices like meditation, yoga, self-hypnosis and progressive relaxation will put your mind in a calmer and quieter state, where you can stop reacting and start reflecting. Keep practicing and eventually you’ll be able to summon these states of mind on demand, giving you the ability to dispassionately observe your thoughts, feelings and desires as they appear in real time.
When you develop true self-awareness through mindfulness, you’ll gain the ability to manage your responses to your own thoughts and emotions. This will loosen the grip of your troublesome personality traits, making it harder for them to hide in the shadows of your subconscious.
Step #4: Find a psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, has a practical focus that sets it apart from other types of mental health intervention. With CBT, you’ll cultivate the ability to analyze your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes honestly and critically, as a prelude to learning coping strategies that can prevent you from surrendering to addiction.
CBT won’t attack your self-destructive personality characteristics head on, but it will help you sharpen your self-observation skills and expand your ability to make deliberate and conscious life choices.
Step #5: Cultivate hope and optimism.
All the good intentions in the world won’t matter if you don’t really believe you can control your own life. Self-improvement strategies will be futile unless they’re backed by a sincere conviction that change is possible and that you have the strength and wisdom to pull it off — which you absolutely do.
Cultivate a hopeful attitude and you’ll energize your efforts to conquer your self-destructive tendencies, dramatically increasing your odds of ultimate victory.
You Are More Than Your Personality
Overcoming addiction takes tireless effort and a determined attitude. But it also requires a high level of self-awareness to make sure you stop repeating past mistakes and don’t unintentionally sabotage your efforts to move forward.
We all have some personality traits that can be less than helpful as we strive for excellence. But they can’t destroy our efforts to regain our health, strength and freedom unless we let them.
So don’t let them.
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