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  • Marty Lythgoe

Addiction and Personality

Updated: Sep 11, 2018


The belief that personality plays a role in addiction – that it may even be the major or sole cause – has a long tradition. In the nineteenth century, alcoholics were thought to suffer from “degeneracy”, an inherited trait that encompassed criminality, feeblemindedness, sexual promiscuity, along with drug and drinking excesses. In the twentieth century one of the prominent psychoanalytic views was that alcoholics and addicts have a dependent personality. We struggle to answer the question of whether people’s personalities predispose them to become addicted or whether the personality traits observed in addicts are the result and not the cause of their addiction.


One widely accepted psychological test, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), has shown some success in identifying alcoholics on what are called the MAC scale and the PD or Psychopathic Deviate Scale. High scorers on the MAC Scale seem to be bold, uninhibited, self-confident and sociable people who also show rebellious urges and resentment of authorities. The PD scale, in addition to the above, describes an emotional shallowness and inability to create intimate relationships. In one study done in 1986, boys who subsequently become alcoholic are characterized by their superficial relationships throughout life.

Craig Nakken, MSW, a psychotherapist and addiction counselor in private practice in Minnesota, defines addiction as “a pathological or abnormal love and trust relationship with an object and/or event.” He goes on to explain that addicts try to get their emotional and intimacy needs met through their relationship with this object or event rather than through natural forms of relationship – family and friends, oneself, spirituality and community. As an alcoholic, for example, develops a primary relationship with alcohol, he gradually turns away from natural forms of relationship. He experiences inner conflict and feelings of guilt and shame. This is observed as increased isolation as he turns more and more to the object of his addiction, alcohol, and the pleasure or relief it brings. He is beginning to experience a betrayal of self, caused by a growing conflict between his natural self and his addictive self.


The “Catch-22″ for the addict is that the source of his emotional stability also becomes the source of his unmanageability.

It is important to understand that over time addicts become as dependent on the aspects of their addictive personality as they are on the object of their addiction. These aspects of the addictive personality are the defenses by which the addict self fights to stay alive and maintain control. Those of us involved with addicts observe such aspects as rationalization, projection, “all-or-nothing” thinking, conflict minimization, justification, impulsiveness and many others.


Did these personality traits precede addiction and actually predispose the addict to be susceptible to addiction? Or are they the results of not only the brain changes caused by drug use but also the addictive process? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

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