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An “Addictive Personality”- The Alcoholic’s Convenient Myth


People addicted to alcohol drink compulsively and often claim to have an addictive personality. It is a convenient myth.

I heard of a dentist who approached his dental work with compulsive attention to detail. His crowns had to fit perfectly. He was fanatical about bite adjustment and his workspace cleanliness was impeccable—all things I like to see in a dentist, because I do not like pain… or recalls.

Unfortunately, when his compulsive cleanliness extended to his front office and the waiting room, he could not keep his staff. His marriages didn’t last, because he imposed his compulsive orderliness on his family.

Compulsively doing things is a way of handling underlying fear. In other words, a compulsion is a fear-based urge. It is an ego defense mechanism just like rationalization and denial. We all have some degree of compulsive tendencies.

At one end of the continuum are compulsions that are innocuous, or even, on the surface, positive. For example, punctuality is generally a good habit. However, if being a minute late for any appointment makes you anxious, being on time is probably a compulsion for you.

At the other end of the continuum is the person with the psychiatric condition, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Recall the Jack Nicholson movie, “As Good As It Gets.” A very small percentage of people ever qualify for that diagnosis.

The dentist I mentioned above illustrates how compulsive tendencies can be both beneficial and harmful. However, he would not come even close to meeting the criteria for OCD.

Compulsive behavior can take many forms: compulsive drinking, TV watching, coffee drinking, chocolate eating, working, exercise, gardening or sex. Some of these compulsions are reframed as addictions, making the person an alcohol addict (alcoholic), chocolate addict (chocoholic), work addict (workaholic) or sex addict (sexaholic).

Alcoholism is compulsive seeking and consuming alcohol. If the functioning alcoholic stops drinking, the compulsion often shifts to something else. The stories of the amount of coffee consumed at AA meetings are legend. That and other observations about compulsive drinkers have led to the term “Addictive Personality.” Functioning alcoholics now add “addictive personality” to their litany of excuses for continuing to abuse alcohol.

In fact, unless your compulsion happens to be drinking, no one would think you had an addictive personality. Since the use of the term, “addictive personality,” is dependent on the object of the compulsion, not on the process, it explains nothing.

However, since you can shift compulsiveness from one object to another, like from alcohol to coffee, and can harness it for beneficial purposes such as dentistry, why couldn’t you redirect the power of the compulsion to drink?

The compulsion to drink might be harnessed, for example, to pursue compulsively a new hobby or new business. If you could harness the compulsiveness of alcoholism for volunteer work, for example, think of what good could come as you phased out the addiction.

Could a harmful compulsion be redirected to self-improvement? I have seen it happen.

The shift from a bad compulsion to a better one, of course, is not an end in itself. However, it could be an important step in leaving a bad compulsion in the past, doing something positive, and in ultimately achieving a more balanced life.

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5 comments to An “Addictive Personality”- The Alcoholic’s Convenient Myth

  • mark

    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!

  • Dr. Neill Neill

    Nothings fair.

    We always have a choice: We can use what others do and say to help us decide what to do or not to do to live a more fulfilling life; OR we can use their words and actions to justify what we have already chosen to do.

  • Hey I think this is great information and thanks for sharing this into your website. It is great to find great information like this on the web not like all the crap in other sites hehe :p. Once again congratulations and thanks!thanks a lot!. btw how did you manage from spam? your web looks very clean…

  • Bob M

    Dr. Neil,

    Good article, good insight. Perhaps the following will lend credence to your theory. My partner is a 100% functioning alcoholic. She’s also a workaholic,a “tasker”,a body in perpetual motion, outgoing,obsessive, brilliant, mind like a steel trap, over achiever,successful, controller, denigrater, belittler, fault finder, blame placer.

    I feel like she has a compulsive control disorder and a need to dominate that’s driven by fear and anger. The drinking is like a tension release to her,like she has exhausted herself mentally and physically.

    She drinks a bottle of wine each night, sometimes has vodka drinks with that. A couple of times a week while drinking her speech is slurry, her balance is off, she does not “focus”. If for some reason she gets angry while drinking, you better get a helmet and a flak jacket on because all h*ll is going to brake loose. Yet she ALWAYS can get up, go to work (she’s obsessive about being early)and is a highly paid health care professional with a stellar reputation.

    So, what do I do with this ? She is wearing me out with her complusive behaviour and I’m tired of feeling “beat up”, of feeling like I can never redeem myself in her eyes or be an equal partner. The ironic thing is that she can “dish it out” but she ” can’t take it”. She can verbally beat the tar out of you but if you make the slightest critical comment back, she just goes to peices…or gets screaming mad.

    I feel ok about myself, I just can’t seem to get her to feel that way about me. Any suggested reading material ?

    Thanks for your time.

  • Rick H

    Great insight and spot on. I live with a complusive over achiever and drinker. If they’re not being compulsive about one thing, then they’re being compulsive another. It like they drink out of exhaustion.

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