Behavior Determines Identity

If an individual has an addiction identity, he tends to behave in the ways in keeping with his identity. He may continue to suffer the negative consequences of his addiction by alternating between periods of abstinence and periods of relapse. As long as he stubbornly refuses to change the false perceptions he has about himself, he continues to damage his health, relationships, and job. When a person develops an addiction identity he sometimes holds on to this identity despite all of the problems it causes. The best solution, therefore, is for people to realize the need for a strong new identity that enables them to change from addiction to self-control.

Names become important when we think about identity. The people in the Bible seemed to be more aware of the significance of identity than we are today. Parents named their children with names that had special meanings. Sometimes, people would be assigned names based on their behaviors or expected behaviors. For example, the Hebrew name translated Joshua in our English Bibles means salvation. The name also appears in the Greek New Testament and is translated Jesus in our English Bibles. Names in the Bible were important because they often conveyed something significant about the person who had the name.

When the angel of the Lord informed Joseph regarding the pregnancy of Mary, the angel said, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Later, Matthew tells us that people will call Jesus Immanuel, which means “God with us” (v. 23). Another example is the name of Abraham. God changed his name from Abram to Abraham because Abraham meant “father of many nations” (Genesis 17:4-5). This name change reflected the promise of God to Abraham that he would have many descendents. The name also gave him an identity that would remind him of this promise. All of these examples suggest that names can say something about expected or current behavior.

Today, we do not seem to be as concerned about names as the people were in the Bible, but we do like to label people, and by labeling people we reinforce negative stereotypes of personal behavior. This was brought to my attention when I visited a group therapy session for those who were supposed to be recovering addicts. Again and again I heard people repeat negative statements about themselves as if this is supposed to help them stay free from drugs. They would say, “My name is _______ and I am a drug addict/alcoholic.” Conversations in the group also focused on other negative aspects of their past lives, which all leads to a continuous reinforcement of an addiction identity among those who participate. If people are told again and again that they are defective, diseased, and cannot control their behaviors, then we should not be surprised when they behave according to their assigned label.

Behavior determines identity, and if people are no longer abusing drugs and alcohol they should adopt a new identity. In contrast, many self-help groups reinforce a lifelong addiction identity by reminding people of the addiction experience while accusing those who object to this negative self-labeling as being in denial. This kind of labeling is actually counterproductive to recovery. Labeling is reinforced by some treatment providers who medicalize behavior by calling it a disease (see chapter 4), which implies a passive approach to treatment as well as a sense of helplessness in addiction. Addiction is thought to be a lifelong disease for which there is no cure. The addict is encouraged to manage his disease by total abstinence, lifelong participation in AA, and acceptance of the Twelve Steps theory of addiction.

The Twelve Steps theory of addiction treatment misapplies a religious determinism to addiction behavior by implying that people cannot choose to behave differently. In contrast, biblical theology suggests the opposite, which is that behavior determines identity. For example, Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of God Could he say this if they had continued their past behaviors? No, because then they would be excluded from the kingdom of God. Drunkenness is described as one of the “acts of the sinful nature” (Galatians 5:19) and “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 21). Notice that the emphasis in Scripture is on acting and living as the basis of personal identity. (1 Corinthians 6:9), but then he says, “And that is what some of you were” (v. 11).

When I run addiction groups I never encourage people to repeat negative statements about themselves unless it describes current or planned behavior. If people are not now engaging in the behavior and have no plans to do so in the future, then it is better for them to state positive things about themselves. For example, one could say, “I once was addicted to alcohol, but now I am acting more responsibly.” Or, “I no longer see myself as a drug addict because I have other things in my life that I would rather do.” Addiction identity is a fundamental flaw of the Twelve Steps theory, disease model, and AA approach to addiction treatment. The self-help and therapy groups that engage in the long-term self-labeling process of addiction identity encourage a sense of powerlessness and helplessness regarding addiction.

Personal identity, or how people view themselves, is a crucial element in what is called natural recovery. Natural recovery occurs when people recover from long-term drug and alcohol abuse on their own and without outside intervention. Research by Granfield and Cloud (1996) suggests that negative self-labeling is a major obstacle to natural recovery. Granfield and Cloud interviewed a large number of these people and found that the defining characteristic of the natural recovery group was their refusal to adopt an addiction identity, “The fact that our respondents did not adopt addict identities is of great importance since it contradicts the common assumptions of treatment programs” (51). Another key aspect of natural recovery that researchers found is the rejection of powerlessness, “Consequently, these respondents found the suggestion that they were powerless incompatible with their own self-image” (53). What this research shows is the damaging impact the addiction label and identity can have on recovery.

J B Myers


Faith and Addiction

Elders and Deacons

Life Choices 

Leave a Reply