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The Relationship Between Addiction and Personality

Do personality traits cause addiction, or does addiction distort personality?

Key points

  • When alcohol or other drugs alter the brain, they exaggerate and distort a individual's basic personality.
  • Common effects of addiction on personality are self-centeredness, irresponsibility, and blaming people, places, and things for their suffering.
  • Family members and friends also commonly harden their hearts out of frustration with a loved one's self-destructive behavior.
  • Recovery reveals the degree to which addiction, or being in a close relationship with an addict, has altered someone's personality.

This is a complex issue, and we need to begin by stating one fact and then asking the question correctly. The necessary fact is that alcohol and/or other drugs can cause addiction. Without exposure to one of these drugs, chemical dependence and its alteration of the brain would not happen. Then, the correct question to ask is, "How much do personality traits contribute to alcohol and other drug addiction, and how much does addiction contribute to personality traits commonly seen in alcoholism and drug addiction?"

There is more than enough evidence that people with a propensity for high risk-taking develop addiction more often than individuals with average risk tolerance. High risk-taking is a part of some people's basic temperament, and it leads to pushing all kinds of limits. Too frequently, this means exceeding the limits of their brain to use addictive substances without being changed.

However, once addiction occurs and the brain's reward circuitry is hijacked by alcohol and/or other drugs, many people's personalities are seriously altered. Common changes include increased self-centeredness, irresponsibility, and a tendency to blame external factors for one's failures and suffering. While these traits often exist prior to becoming addicted, as they do to some degree in all of us, they become greatly exaggerated during addiction. The cause of this exaggeration lies in how addictive substances change the brain. When people's motivation to drink or use drugs becomes too high a priority in their reward center, traits stereotypically seen in addiction develop to deny and protect the alcohol and/or drug use.

A brain hijacked by addictive chemicals loses perspective.

Family and friends who encourage temperance and sobriety are seen as attacking rather than caring. Many who are addicted focus on complaints about their use as efforts to take away their right to use, their right to make their own choices, and a lack of caring for their suffering.

And indeed, this is often true. The frustration and impotence of watching a loved one's self-destructive behavior do often lead family and friends to react with anger, disgust, and rejection. These reactions, although understandable and even normal, are nonetheless destructive for everyone. They diminish family and friends' integrity while only feeding into the addicted individual's sense of being unfairly misunderstood.

This entire drama is disturbingly illustrated in a short novel I recently read: Saul Bellow's Seize the Day. The story traces one consequential day in the life of its protagonist, Wilhelm. Seemingly a free spirit when younger, Wilhelm consistently made life choices he knew and was warned were bad decisions.

As a result, by his 40s, he had accumulated a series of failures as an actor, husband, father, son, salesman, and investor. He had trusted too many people he knew were unworthy of trust, and they had easily taken advantage of him. His pride and sense of being treated unfairly kept him unemployed. He was separated from a wife who demanded that he make more money. His father, a successful retired physician, refused to bail him out financially for fear of feeding into his son's dependence. And there was Wilhelm's daily use of stimulants, which he carried around in his coat pocket and took "as needed," and sedatives to sleep and calm down. Although his father continually brought attention to his son's drug use, Wilhelm ignored its impact.

The interactions between father and son are excruciating. Wilhelm wants two things: financial help and unconditional love, or at least respect. But it is never clear whether receiving love without financial help would be enough. Money had become the currency of love for him. His angry father completely withheld any encouragement or compassion for his son's misery. Until Wilhelm took responsibility for his failures and changed his behavior, his father felt no love for him.

Wilhelm was crushed. Despite taking full blame for his failures and self-destruction, he felt it was impossible to change. Every effort to change was thwarted by an uncaring world. He risked the last of his money with a crooked investor and lost everything.

Wilhelm wondered why his father didn't see how confused and disabled he had become and held a grievance against him for this. At a deep level, he wanted unconditional love and acceptance but was unwilling to accept how his own behavior had alienated people to the point where they withheld their acceptance. Everyone had reached a point of stasis where they were unwilling to change until the other changed first.

It is painfully easy to see that Wilhelm's personality made him prone to addiction, and addiction further exaggerated personality traits that family members had to protect themselves against. Without recovery from his addiction, Wilhelm had no chance of gaining sufficient insight to move beyond wallowing in self-pitying pathos and into real change. When people suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction do successfully enter a program of recovery, the change in their personality reveals the degree to which addictive substances have distorted and exaggerated their basic character. And without the recovery offered to family members by Al-Anon, Wilhelm's father and wife would be unlikely to gain the ability to detach with love from Wilhelm's disease. Whether receiving this love would have helped Wilhelm change would have been up to that mysterious element in alcoholics and drug addicts that eventually can click to make recovery a priority.

I should be quick to acknowledge how difficult it is to empathize with the pain felt by those who are victims of their own self-defeating behavior. But no matter how frustrated we may be by a family member's addiction, finding the capacity to empathize with the addict's suffering while still protecting ourselves from its impacts is a healthier way of life than hardening our hearts to them. Misery and suffering are just as real when they are self-imposed as when they result from outside forces.

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