How do most people in recovery label themselves? Do they call themselves an “alcoholic” or a “recovering alcoholic?” A “smoker or an “ex-smoker”? A new study shows that how people in treatment self-identify and respond to these labels can significantly impact that person’s success.
Identifying ourselves as part of a larger group can be beneficial, such as identifying with others in their chosen career field, with those of like faith, fellow alumni or countrymen. This sense of community grounds us and meets a need for belonging. But it also affects decisions that we make. A study of stroke survivors, for example, found that those who identified with other stroke survivors by attending group meetings fared better emotionally compared to survivors who did not take part in a support group. But what about the recovering alcoholic or drug addict? Would their emotional health and life trajectory be enhanced by identifying themselves as recovering alcoholics?
Researchers from London South Bank University decided to study whether identifying oneself as a recovering alcoholic would have similar positive benefits to identification with other social groups. To find out, they surveyed women and men taking part in Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Men and women in the study were asked to self-identify as either alcoholic or recovering alcoholic. The same question was put to those with past addiction.
The investigators further asked participants how strongly they viewed their participation in the group as part of their identity. They were asked to rank their agreement with identifying statements on a scale of one to seven. Researchers next evaluated the participants’ sense of empowerment by asking them to rank statements about their ability to remain sober or manage their addiction.
What they found was that persons who saw themselves most strongly as recovering also demonstrated the highest degrees of self-efficacy. This had a positive snowball effect insofar as those who revealed stronger self-efficacy also reported more months of sobriety. And the higher their recovering identity, the less likely they were to have experienced relapse during the past two years.
Because there are still a certain number of people who react to the term recovering alcoholic (or addict) with condescension, people may choose to own the self-identifying term in private but not out in public. Until the stigma is completely removed in the mind of the public, a person – even an empowered person – may not own it at work or in social settings. Yet, as this study demonstrates, how we define ourselves to ourselves can have a powerful effect. In this case, the person who sees themselves as recovering tends to live up to the label.