Rethinking addiction

We mostly think of addictions in terms of alcohol or drugs but addictions or compulsive behaviours come in many forms. Even ordinary behaviours and ways of thinking can be addictive if done obsessively or compulsively. Think of overeating, overworking, and constantly worrying that the worst will happen.

We have been taught that we need to control our compulsions- that we shouldn’t drink so much, eat so much, spend so much; that we ought to think more positively, work harder and exercise more. Ironically, the need to control ourselves and ‘be better’ is a form of compulsive thinking in itself!

If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, it makes sense to shift our focus from seeking to control our compulsions, to understanding why they occur in the first place.

Compulsions can be thought of as powerful forces that began as survival strategies to manage feelings (especially uncomfortable ones) that were too much to handle or to make sense of when we were little. Because we depended on our caregivers, these feelings were necessary for us to communicate our needs, whether it was for food, rest, or to be comforted. As we got older, we began to encounter limitations (real or imagined) about our needs. Some of these limitations come from the society we live in for example waiting our turn in a queue or putting off making personal phone calls at work.  Other limitations come from the more personal environment we grew up in such as being told that only the weak feel sad. So, we learn to suppress our tears or that it’s selfish to put yourself first so we prioritise other people before ourselves. However, our needs and the feelings that come with it don’t disappear just because of these constraints. In fact, they remain within us until our needs have been met. You can imagine the pressure that builds up over time if these needs are ignored or suppressed. We end up feeling overwhelmed or desperate to seek the comfort that we have resisted ourselves by ignoring our needs. We end up seeking comfort through whatever is familiar and easiest to get our hands on- patterns of doing (bingeing on food, numbing our discomfort through drink) or thinking (worrying about other people’s problems, believing you can control every aspect of your life). The reliance we have on these familiar patterns to feel better so that we don’t have to face our ‘real’ needs is what we know as addiction- compulsions which we don’t have control over. In this way, we can understand our compulsions not as something to resist but as helpful signs telling us that we have been neglecting certain aspects of ourselves and our needs.

We may not be aware of it but we all have a story that comes with whatever our compulsions are in our lives. It’s the story of what we are most fearful of; whether it is the fear of being unworthy or unloved, of being left behind, insignificant, or being without support, of being in pain or deprived. Our compulsions help to keep whatever it is that we are most afraid of at bay. We are more familiar with compulsive habits such as drinking, eating, shopping, sex, procrastinating but there are certain ways of thinking that we can also be ‘addicted’ to:

BLAME: Believing that someone or something outside of yourself is the cause of whatever is happening to you
DENIAL: Being out of touch with your feelings, needs, or other information
FORGETFULNESS: Putting out of your mind, ceasing to notice
THE ZERO-SUM MODEL: Believing that there’s a limited amount of everything that’s desirable: love, money, men/women, happiness
PERFECTIONISM: Having an extreme need for external order to cover internal chaos
THE ILLUSION OF CONTROL/OBJECTIVITY: Fearing your needs and feelings, and creating an illusion that you can control yourself; separating yourself from your emotions, and believing that it is possible to be completely objective and unemotional
NEGATIVISM: Seeing life in terms of lack
DEPENDENCY: Believing that someone or something outside of you will take care of you because you can’t do it yourself
DEFENSIVENESS: Being unable to accept feedback and make positive adjustments
DUALISTIC THINKING: Believing that there are only two choices: One is right or good, the other is wrong or bad

We can think of our compulsions as a bit like our fingers covering our eyes when we feel scared. Each time we come close to confronting our biggest fear, we rely on our compulsions to escape from it. This is how our fears come to have so much power over us. We feed our fears through our compulsions to avoid, distract, numb, or ignore.

Taking the opportunity to understand the story behind your compulsions is a bit like removing your fingers from covering your eyes to see things for what it is- stories we were told about ourselves, much like the fables and stories we heard growing up.

We came to realise there really aren’t wolves dressed in grandma clothing or witches carrying poisoned apples because we learned to separate out the stories we heard with our experience of reality. In similar ways, we can also test out the stories you heard about your biggest fears with your experience of reality. We end up having to stop believing in those stories and trusting in ourselves and our experiences instead.

A good place to start is to begin noticing when your compulsions tend to appear and what it really is in response to. It may even be helpful to begin tracking your patterns of doing or thinking and log down when these types of thoughts seem to appear most often. Where were you, what were you doing, who were you with, and how were you feeling? Overtime, you may begin to notice a pattern. A good example tracking template can be found here that you can use as a tool.

Urge surfing is another tool that can be helpful. Like a wave, urges rise, peak and then crash. The next time you get caught in an urge to repeat your compulsions, get curious about it. Notice the urge and take the time to observe and note down what is happening and what happened in your day before. Not only will you will have more information about your compulsive behaviour or thinking than before, it also serves as a useful exercise to allow yourself a chance to ride the urge without necessarily giving in to it.  

So what compulsive patterns do you tend to fall back on in and what are these compulsions really in response to? Try to be curious and listen to what it is trying to tell you. It may give you all the information about what it is you truly need.