Is there an “Addictive Personality”…?

Among counseling students and faculty, there is a fun exercise that consists of naming the diagnostic categories for the characters from “Winnie-the-Pooh.”

Tigger has ADHD, Eeyore has dysthymic disorder, and Piglet has generalized anxiety disorder. But Winnie-the-Pooh himself seems to have all the hallmarks of an addictive personality. He just needs a “little something” (or, in the original books, “A little smackerel of something,” which is even more of a drug-like reference) in order to make him feel; better. And his nightmares are of creatures who steal his honey, that is, cut off his supply of his drug of choice.

Over the years, many writers have surmised that there is a basic personality style that predisposes a person to alcohol or drug problems. Freud talked about “oral fixation,” presumably from being yanked away from the breast too soon and developing an attachment for the bottle as compensation. Alcoholics Anonymous contributed to that with its talk of “defects of character.” Even my Adlerian mentor, Harold Mosak, described a type of personality that was “the getter,” someone who looks at life in terms of what it offers the person rather than what the person can offer to others. Many Adlerian writers followed this lead and saw the person who developed drug or alcohol problems as someone who was geared toward feeling good and seeking pleasure no matter what the cost.

But obviously, many different types of personalities can develop addictions. So there is not one type. Many people start to overuse alcohol or drugs in order to relieve anxiety, or cover up deep feelings of inadequacy. Others drink or use drugs because they are chasing a thrill or love to be in the middle of all the action. So maybe the so-called “Addictive personality” is the result of drinking or drug use, rather than the cause. A classic “chicken-and-egg” question.

One model of personality that I re-visited this week was one I learned more than forty years ago in my undergraduate Personality Theories class at Benedictine University.(St. Procopius College, at the time). My instructor was Dr. Jim Choca, who had worked with Theodore Millon at the University of Illinois. Dr.Millon was a giant in the field of personality theory, and his ideas were influential in the DSM-III and DSM-IV with their “Axis “” to describe the personality type, style, or disorder that could underlie any number of clinical symptoms like depression.

Millon used an evolutionary approach to personality. He said that our personality is our way of handling stress and coping with life. When the personality does not do a good enough job of helping us cope, symptoms develop. he compared the personality to the immune system, in that it helps protect us from external stressors and challenges that the environment throws at us. (Actually, Adlerians would say that it is more like the equivalent of all of our systems, since it helps us deal with the everyday tasks of life as well as threats and stressors).

My conclusion is that there is no one “addictive personality,” but that different personality characteristics can contribute to addiction and relapse in distinctive ways. Therefore, a good assessment that includes personality factors (life style convictions) is extremely helpful in understanding the challenges and strengths of an individual as they work to overcome addictive behavior. In addition to using some or all of the components of the Adlerian Life Style assessment (family constellation and early recollections), I often use the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory (MCMI-IV) to help shed light on the personality patterns that underlie the individual’s addiction.

 
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