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Identity and Addiction

Self-identity as a possible pathway to recovery.

People going through life transitions, such as loss of home or family ties, and mental illnesses suffer a loss of identities. The change involves a sense of loss of continuity and confusion about one’s social role. For example, a depressed person does not believe he or she has the capability or control over her or his environment to reach goals. Overtime, they internalize the symptoms as a part of who they are. However, the presence of strong social support and friends can help to provide a positive sense of social identity (i.e., a sense of purpose and belonging).

In a similar vein, addiction represents an identity loss, and that overcoming such loss requires some form of identity reconstruction. Some addicts identify themselves as addicts (Pickard, 2018). The self-identification can explain in part why addicts use drugs despite negative consequences. For these individuals recovery requires forming a new identity involving study, work, or family roles to replace their former substance-using identity.

Identity change can be an important tool for behavior change. For example, breaking ties with one’s existing social group, and developing identification with non-using groups. Research suggests that the change from an addiction identity to a recovery identity is a critical ingredient in successful treatment (Dingle et al., 2015).

1. Self-labeling.

By self-labeling, a person identifies themselves as a member of a social group. The label represents the internalization of identity into one’s self-view. In essence, the identity (self-view) becomes an answer to the question “who am I.” This explains how addictive behavior can result in addictive identity. The behavior results in a self-fulfilling prophecy for the labeled individual.

According to identity theory, our social group memberships inform our self-concept of who we are. Social groups are typically defined by sets of beliefs and standards of behavior. A social group provides norms by which the members are expected conform. Initially, the behavior is deliberate and controlled, but over time it becomes more ingrained and automatic.

Drug use may represent an identity gain in so far as it brings meaning and belonging that is otherwise lacking in a person’s life. Drug user communities can offer individuals a sense of self-identity and belonging when they are otherwise socially isolated and ostracized. A sense of belonging in social networks provides self-esteem and self-worth.

2. Forming a new self-identity.

A recovery group can help recovering addicts to create and sustain a positive new self-identity. For instance, thinking of oneself as belonging to a recovery group may influence a person to persist with abstinence or distance themselves from substance-using networks. A study (Dingle et al., 2015) showed that among participants a stronger endorsement of the recovery identity relative to the addiction identity was related to higher levels of abstinence.

In sum, addicts may continue to use despite negative consequences in part because they self-identify as addicts. From a social identity perspective, interventions could be aimed at forming new identities (e.g., an ex-smoker) for individuals attempting to overcome problematic substance abuse. Thus, switching from addictive groups to groups supportive of recovery is a key part of a recovery journey.


Dingle GA, T. Cruwys, D. Frings (2015), Social identities as pathways into and out of addiction, Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1795.

Hanna Pickard, Hanna (2018), The Puzzle of Addiction in 2018 in The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy and Science of Addiction H. Pickard and S.H. Ahmed, eds.