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.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Neill Neill, psychologist, author and columnist, maintains an active practice with a focus on healthy relationships and life after addictions. He is the author of Living with a Functioning Alcoholic - A Woman’s Survival Guide. From time to time life presents us all with issues. To find out what insights and guidance Neill shares about your particular questions, go to