The “self,” that sense of “I,” can be elusive and misleading. The composite of who we think we are is constantly changing. There are any number of competing priorities that arise in our consciousness at any given moment, yet there is a necessary sense of history, personality, and adaptive style that endures. The sense of self can harden and can perpetuate the myth that we are somehow unified and solid inside our constantly shifting persona. Paradoxically, the more secure our sense of self is, the easier it is to see the illusion of self and have success in transcending it.
Addiction is notorious for disrupting self structures. Even in the case of someone who had a relatively secure development of self prior to addiction, the addictive process will invariably erode this secure self. The progression of any addiction involves increasing self-centeredness and a growing inability to delay gratification and tolerate frustration along with a deterioration of character development.
During active substance use, exaggeration of previous temperament styles will be present, and as a result of ongoing addiction, character development will be arrested, often leading to narcissism. Narcissism includes the exaggeration of one’s self-importance and a lack of empathy with others. This self-centered and typically defensive posture is inherent in the progressive nature of addiction. If the addict has pre-existing narcissistic deficits, these deficits will be exaggerated in the addiction. If not, the active addiction will lead to the creation of them in the addict, because addiction turns the self against itself.
The narcissism that accompanies addiction in any case has a narrative associated with it. The way we talk to ourselves is critical in determining our moods and behaviors. Addiction supports being reactive rather than reflective and operating on “automatic pilot,” which only perpetuates the habitual nature of the damaging choices chronically made in active addiction. In recovery there are opportunities to examine the way we talk to ourselves and get some distance from and restructure this inner dialogue.
Personalities are complex and unique. They are affected by our active addiction, during which our most dysfunctional personality styles are exaggerated or distorted. Although there is no addictive personality, the effects of the disease of addiction on our personalities influence our personalities even into our sobriety. Problems handling stress and rejection can be more present in addicts even in solid recovery. The good news is that in sobriety, we can be present enough to know what our unique vulnerabilities are and that even small changes can lead to bigger ones over time. In many ways we are who we think we are, and we behave accordingly. If we can observe and understand our thinking and behavior, we can change. In the next blog, I will outline way we can use personality inventories to better understand our unique personalities and work on character development with some precision.
Adapted from Positive Sobriety (2012), by Daniel H. Angres, MD.