The Emotional Roots of Addiction

Addiction Tree

When our behaviors are driven by pain, shame, and secrets, those behaviors will tend to have an addictive quality.  The patterns that we see in regards to substance abuse are similar to patterns that develop with other forms of compulsive behaviors, from gambling to explosive anger to video games.  What I have seen in my clinical practice with thousands of patients over the years is that a substance (or relationship, or feeling) becomes addictive when we need increasing amounts of it in order to have the desired effect.  A lifestyle begins to develop around seeking, using, and recovering from the use of that medicating behavior.  Other important activities or relationships are given up, so that the addiction takes up more and more space.

There are similarities between the disease of addiction and other healthy behaviors that become part of our routine.  One good example is physical exercise.  When a person who exercises regularly stops doing so, they begin to feel withdrawal symptoms and their overall health declines.  Muscles atrophy.  And while it is possible to exercise compulsively (e.g., in certain cases of anorexia where exercise causes extreme weight loss and negative health consequences), for most of us, exercise is a “healthy addiction” that makes us feel better when we do it regularly.

One of the things that makes addiction so difficult to identify and treat is the fact that those caught in its grip tend to rationalize the addictive, maladaptive pattern.  When an entire lifestyle is built around the avoidance of certain intolerable realities, it’s easy to become blinded to the way that shame keeps us stuck.

In relationships, so often, couples begin to diagnose what’s wrong with one another.  Drug addiction, for instance, is a disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease.  Denial, projection, and blame-shifting are all part of the dance when addiction is involved.  Conflicts around drug use tend to turn into arguments about who’s right and who’s wrong, with the codependent spouse seeking to convince or persuade the addicted spouse of the reality of the addiction.  John Gottman has noted that this kind of interaction – the blame-defend cycle – is a key marker that leads to marital disintegration.  Couples divorce because of these kinds of irreconcilable differences.

The reason that we tend to stay engaged in these patterns is simple: they work!  Addictive behaviors provide temporary relief from the pain, or escape from the intolerable reality of shame and secrets.  The problem comes when the pain inevitably returns, often worse than before.  Putting off the work of growth and recovery will often make the pain more unbearable.  If the root cause of the dis-ease is not addressed, the symptoms will return and often become more extreme.  The addictive behaviors or attitudes might temporarily relieve or medicate the pain, but they cannot cure the dis-ease.

The root determines the fruit.  While those underlying causes might not be readily apparent, the core issues will continue to arise again and again until they are addressed.  Toxic relationships, chronic pain, and spiritual emptiness are at the root of many of the stuck places in our life.

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