Addiction: Identity and Connection Influence Relapse Rates
The words you use to describe your recovery can influence relapse.
Posted Mar 11, 2014
The band, The Who, tell the story of a man who spends “Eleven hours in the Tin Pan” before deciding “there’s got to be another way.” And then the chorus asks the question “Who are you?” You know the song. And unfortunately, many of us know exactly what it’s like to be in the Tin Pan. We know what it’s like to look out at the world and wonder if there’s another way; we know what it’s like to look in the mirror and wonder, “Who am I?”
A study published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors shows that how you answer this question can influence your chance of staying sober. These questions we ask ourselves – Who am I? Is there another way? Where do I belong? – are more than the cliché questions of people at the bottom of the Tin Pan; the answers to these questions can be the start of a path to recovery.
The idea comes from social psychology: just as a person becomes part of a group, the group becomes part of the person. It may seem obvious, but the idea has profound consequences. For example, the Nobel-winning economist George Akerlof shows that the best businesses don’t only hire the most talented people, but then they use organizational culture to shape new identities – the identity of “employee”. And this identity makes employees act accordingly: with loyalty and commitment. Again, the individual influences the group and the group influences the individual.
The same is true in groups that allow people to feel included in a community of recovery.
The goal of the current study was to discover exactly how to leverage this idea of identity within a group to empower people in their recovery – to show the “underlying social processes that may lead to success (or failure) when individuals are in recovery from addiction.”
To answer this question, the researchers from London South Bank University explored the addiction-related identities of 61 people in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings: how strongly did they consider themselves “addicts” and how strongly did they identify as “addicts in recovery”? Not only that, but the study asked how much differencethese people saw between the two identities.
Here’s the interesting part: In terms of relapse rates, it didn’t matter much how people saw their own identity – people who identified as “addicts” had similar relapse rates to those who saw themselves as “recovering addicts”. But there was a huge difference in relapse rates based on how much difference people saw between these two identities – when people preferred the identity of “recovering addict” over the identity of “addict,” relapse rates were much lower. Not only that, but people who preferred the “recovering addict” identity had fewer cravings and felt they had more personal control of their addictive behaviors.
Then the researchers did it again, this time with smokers and ex-smokers, and they added the idea of social connectedness. Again they found that people who saw the identity of “ex-smoker” as far more desirable than the identity of “smoker” were less likely to crave and relapse, and more likely to feel in control of their behaviors. But this time the study was more than personal, more than limited to individual evaluations – this time, the researchers saw that the more smokers felt connected to their support community, the better was their ability to quit. Again, your emotional connection to a recovery community can help you grow the desire for and the identity of recovery inside yourself.
The researchers say it a bit differently, writing that, “These results suggest that developing a social identity as a ‘recovering addict’ or an ‘ex-smoker’ and subsequently highlighting the difference between such identities may be a useful strategy for reducing relapse amongst people with problems associated with addictive behaviors.”
Like the song, once you’ve had enough hours in the Tin Pan and you finally start asking the heart-wrenching and potentially life-changing question Who am I? know that your answer matters. Are you a recovering addict or are you still an addict? How extreme do you consider the difference between the two? And then how deeply can you connect with a community that helps you grow a new identity, be it 12-step or any community of concerned and compassionate people who share your experience? With belief and connection, the authors write that, “Group membership can introduce a new social identity associated with recovery.”
Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also coauthor with Constance Scharff of the book Ending Addiction for Good.